The desert west

As covered-wagon emigrants crossed today’s Idaho, they found the romance of the road wearing as thin as the soles of their trail- torn shoes. The pioneers’ initial energy and excitement curdled into fatigue and crankiness after three or more months on the road. Nightly fireside dances got left behind back down the trail, next to Grandpa’s clock, Mother’s good china, and heaps of souring bacon. High- jinks and horse races grew rare, quarrels more frequent. Journal-keepers, when they mustered the energy to write at all generally ]otted terse complaints Congrm about fellow travelers, Indians, heat, exhaustion, dust, mosquitoes, aches and pains, and the “stink” of the never-ending sagebrush.

It seems the nearer we approach Oregon the worse roads we have, and a worse more rough looking country.




—Amelia Hadley, 1851 Oregon emigration

Felt today like giving up in despair, the intolerable heat and dust, together with fatigue makes me almost sick at heart.




—Esther Belle Hanna, 1852 California emigration

[Men] are by turns, or all together, cross, peevish, sullen, boisterous, giddy, profane, dirty, vulgar, ragged, mustachioed, bewhiskered, idle, petulant, quarrelsome, unfaithful, disobedient, refractory, careless, contrary, stubborn, hungry and without the fear of God and hardly of man before their eyes.




—Israel Shipman Pelton Lord, 1849 California gold rush

Most emigrants reached this part of the overland trail in late July or August, when the heat of the day presses down like a heavy quilt, burdening the body and muddying the mind. Some of the strongest oxen, too, were weakening and failing, having faithfully pulled heavy wagons nearly 1,300 miles over mountains and plains. But even as energy and enthusiasm ebbed, travelers knew that they were beginning the most difficult part of their overland journey. They wer entering the heart of the Desert West: a land of volcanic barrens, sagebrush steppe, salt-crisped deserts, and mountain ranges like rows of teeth. Idaho’s part of the Desert West is known as the Snake Country.