Threaded between tragedies

August 24…just as we were commencing the ascent of the mountain, several Indians made their appearance, about fifty yards from the trail. The leader and chief was an old man, with a deeply-furrowed face. I rode towards him, holding out my hand in token of friendship. He motioned me not to advance further, but to pass on and leave him, as he desired to have no communication with us. I insisted upon the reason of this unfriendly demonstration; assuring him, as well as I could by signs, that we desired to be at peace, and to do them no harm. His response was, if I understood it, that we, the whites, had slaughtered his men, taken his women and children into captivity, and driven him out of his country. I endeavored to assure him that we were not of those who had done him and his tribe these wrongs, and held out my hand a second time, and moved to approach him. With great energy of gesticulation, and the strongest signs of excited aversion and dread, he again motioned us not to come nearer to him, but to pass on and leave him. The other Indians, some six or eight in number, took no part in the dialogue, but were standing in a line, several yards from their chief, with their bows and arrows in their hands. Finding that it would be useless, perhaps dangerous, to press our friendship further, we continued our march. I have but little doubt, that these Indians are the remnant of some tribe that has been wantonly destroyed in some of the bloody Indian slaughters which have occurred in California.

Fremont CA Map

August 25…Crossing the stream, we traveled in a south course, over low hills and a rolling or undulating country, heavily timbered principally with the yellow-pine, with some few firs and cedars…About one o’clock, P. M., we descended a steep declivity, and struck a stream, which I at first conjectured might be one of the tributaries of the Sacramento; but after an examination of its current, I discovered that it ran the wrong way, and was compelled, reluctantly, to believe that we had not yet reached the summit of the Sierra Nevada…About two o’clock, P. M., we suddenly and unexpectedly came in sight of a small lake, some four or five miles in length, and about two miles in breadth…On every side, except this outlet from it, the lake is surrounded by mountains of great elevation, heavily and darkly timbered with pines, firs, and cedars. The sheet of water just noticed, is the head of Truckee river, and is called by the emigrants who first discovered and named it, Truckee Lake.

Just before we struck the shore of the lake at its lower or eastern end, we came to a tolerably well-constructed log-house, with one room, which evidently had been erected and occupied by civilized men. The floor inside of this house was covered with feathers, and strewn around it on the outside, were pieces of ragged cloth, torn newspapers, and manuscript letters, the writing in most of which was nearly obliterated…Nothing can exceed the almost awful profoundness of the solitude by which we are surrounded.

August 26…We did not leave our encampment until the sun, rising above the lofty mountains to the east, dispensed its warm and cheerful rays through the openings of the magnificent forest, by which we had been sheltered for the night. It is quite impossible to convey by language an adequate conception of the symmetrical beauty and stateliness of the forest trees surrounding the lake, and covering the sides of the adjacent mountains. A skillful artist with his pencil and his brush, alone, can do justice to this contrast of Alpine and Elysian scenery. The sublime altitude of the mountains, their granite and barren heads piercing the sky; the umbrageous foliage of the tall pines and cedars, deepening in verdure and density as the forest approaches the more gentle and grassy slopes along the banks of the lake, the limpid and tranquil surface of which daguerreotypes distinctly every object, from the moss-covered rocks laved by its waves to the bald and inaccessible summits of the Sierra—these scenic objects, with the fresh incense of the forest, and the fragrant odor of the wild rose, constituted a landscape that…melted the sensibilities, blunted as they were by long exposure and privation, and brought back to our memories the endearments of home and the pleasures of civilization. The trail leaves the shore of the lake on the right hand, ascending over some rocky hills, and after crossing some difficult ravines and swampy ground densely timbered, we reached the base of the crest of the Sierra Nevada. To mount this was our next great difficulty. Standing at the bottom and looking upwards at the perpendicular, and in some places, impending granite cliffs, the observer, without any further knowledge on the subject, would doubt if man or beast had ever made good a passage over them.

The year of these events was 1846, the passage taken from Edwin Bryant’s 1848 terrific book What I Saw in California. The “Truckee Lake”, and River, had been named just two years earlier, by the first emigrant party to cross at that point, who built the cabin to escape some severe snows. It’s also interesting that Bryant, who was clearly very aware geographically, apparently had no idea that just about 10 miles away was another much larger lake, one that was the true head of the Truckee River, discovered by John Fremont just two years earlier, that would have dropped his jaw a couple more notches: Lake Tahoe.

Somebody’s likely deduced just which Native American slaughter is referred to in the first paragraph, but I don’t know. But all Americans know the story of the tragedy that occurred at that exact cabin (and elsewhere), beginning October 31 1846, just over two months after Bryant’s small party passed through without incident.


Have at it

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s