Death or the diggins

. . .The [California] road bids farewell to the Snake River and strikes off to the left. Here also ‘The Oregon Trail’ strikes off to the right 65> leaves us alone in our glory, with no other goal before us but Death or the Diggins. —Dr. Wakeman Bryarly, 1849 California gold rush Back at the Raft River Parting of the Ways, those who favored California turned southwest up the broad Raft River Valley. The trail soon swings west at Cassia Creek and begins climbing toward a pass between two mountain ranges. On the Cassia Creek bottoms, about 30 miles from the Parting of the Ways, the Hudspeth Cutoff from Sheep Rock rejoins the California road. The Hudspeth Cutoff is a difficult, 110-mile alternate opened by Forty-niners in a hurry to reach the California gold fields but in the end it snips fewer than 25 miles from the primary route through Fort Hall. The route saved miles, but not time. Trains that split at the Hudspeth junction, with one group taking the cutoff and the other following the Raft River, typically rolled into the City of Rocks at the same time. Still, many travelers thought the more direct route was Worth the demand on their oxen, and so the Hudspeth Cutoff captured much of the California traffic through the coming years. As emigrant traffic and Indian troubles in the area grew, though, the cutoff proved no safer and no faster than the old Fort Hall route. In July 1859, a month I befom the Miltimore killings at

American Falls, attackers ambushed two small wagon trains on the Hudspeth Cutoff. They killed six emigrants and wounded seven others. As in the later attacks, survivors reported that “white Indians” as well as Bannocks and Shoshones were involved.

The merged California traffic snaked up Cassia Creek and turned south toward the magnificent City of Rocks, a well-watered, sage- scented valley trimmed with wondrous rock formations that thrilled the emigrants and lit their imaginations. Many likened the place to a “silent city” of pyramids, cathedrals, and castles.

Here all the language that I Command. will not describe the Scenery around our encampment it is rich beyond anything I have [ever] beheld. . ..If a mountain distroying Angel had been dispatched here with power to distoy and Scater the elements of the Mountains. He could not hae done more than has been done here




—Richard M. May, 1848 California emigration

We were so spellbound with the beauty and strangeness of it all that no thought of Indians entered our heads.




—Helen Carpenter, 1857 California emigration

Pyramid Circle, Twin Sisters, Napoleon’s Castle, City Hotel—these were among the granite monoliths that emigrants merrily explored and named as they continued down the California Road through the City of Rocks. Today the valley is still a popular attraction, City of Rocks National Reserve, where visitors can explore the countryside, retrace wagon ruts through the sagebrush, and photograph emigrant names painted with axle grease onto rock “registers.”

But the Northern Shoshones, too, have always valued the area. Here is the northernmost occurrence of the pinyon pine, which yields the nutritious pine nuts that were a staple of their diet. Here they hunted game, harvested wild plant foods, and grazed their horse herds. Most importantly, here was their home, and in this country of scarce resources, intruders were not welcome.

Wise travelers did not linger at the City of Rocks, but continued steadily southwest toward Pinnacle Pass. There the road threads a narrow, wagon-wide gap between two granite pinnacles, forcing traffic to roll through in single file. Just ahead, another trail alternate brought more merging wagons from the southeast. That road, Hensley’s Salt Lake Cutoff, was used by travelers who had split off

the main trail back at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, to re-supply or lay over at the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City. Now traffic from the Raft River Road of the California Trail, the Hudspeth Cutoff, and the Salt Lake Cutoff all merged into a river of wagons and pack trains through Shoshone country to Granite Pass. From there they would nick the northwestern corner of today’s Utah, skid down to Goose Creek in present-day Nevada, and begin the greatest ordeal of their overland journey

For them, the worst was truly yet to come.