Sketch of Hardships Endured by Those Who Crossed
The Plains in '46
Written for the Review by David Campbell of Porterville, Cal. [Note: Reprinted in the August 11,
12, and 13th. issues of the Porterville Recorder, 1910, from which this was copied.]
[The editor of the Recorder precedes the sketch with this statement:
By the courtesy of David Campbell the Recorder is able to reproduce a "sketch of the
hardships endured by those who crossed the plains in '46" which appeared in the Weekly
Review (Porterville) in July 1899. Mr. Campbell, who is past eighty-five years of age and who
is said to be the oldest pioneer in California, wrote the sketch for the Review, that paper
being edited by the late Rev. G. Eckles, father of Mrs. F. E. Bearss. The sketch appeared serially
in the Review. Mr. Campbell was able to bring the worn old papers to the office in person. His
mental faculties are still unimpaired.]
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There were 250 wagons in rendezvous at Independence, Mo., ready to start for California
on April 1, 1846.
In order to guard against Indian raids we organized, divided, into companies of twenty-five to thirty wagons, each company electing its own captain. We then elected Col. William
Russell of Kentucky as commander.
We left Independence April 2, 1846. The order given was to start with 250 wagons.
Each captain had to furnish four men from his company to stand guard at night, the company that
was in the rear at night having to take the lead the next morning, but we soon found this plan
would not do, for it made it too late getting into camp. So we concluded that it would be best for
each company to be independent and yet keep as near together as possible. Each wagon had
from two to three yoke of oxen. In a short time the most of the companies divided up--some of
the men wanted to rush through while others favored the more sensible plan of traveling without
too much haste. The party which hurried on soon found that their cattle could not stand it, for by
the time they had reached the Platte River their cattle were tender-footed and gave out. The
company that I was in made it a rule that if they could find a suitable place to camp they would
always lay over one day in every week in order to rest up and do their washing. We aimed to
travel twelve miles each day stopping when a good camping place was found.
We had to burn "buffalo chips" instead of wood. There were a great many buffaloes on
the plains at that time. They run in bands and we would hardly ever be out of sight of a band of
from 100 to 1000 of these magnificent animals. It was fine sport shooting them as they ran.
There were four of us who had nothing else to do but hunt, viz: Green Patterson, John Foster,
David Wray and myself, and we were very successful in killing the buffalo. The way we managed
to get them was to station three men out to one side and not let the buffalo see them--this was
easy to do as the country was rolling--and then one would go around and start them in the
direction of the men laying in wait and as they passed the men would select a fine one and shoot
him. If the animal was only crippled he would turn and make for the smoke of the gun; in that
case all we had to do was to jump to one side and put in another shot. I have put in as many
as five shots that way before succeeding in killing some of them. There would be from five to
ten killed each day. We had all the buffalo and antelope we wanted. The buffalo is very clumsy
and runs like a cow. A horse will run on to one very quickly. When one of them starts to run he
will go one way and you can't turn him, but have to get out of the way We had to be on our
guard to keep them from stampeding our stock.
By the time the companies that were trying to rush through had reached Fort Laramie
their stock gave out, but they found traders there, so they traded their oxen off for others, and
before we got to Fort Hall they were in the rear.
We were out of buffalo range when we struck the Rocky Mountains, but we found
plenty of mountain sheep, or goats some people call them. They were fine eating. They, too,
went in bands ranging from 1000 to 3000 inhabited the roughest places in the mountains, going
with ease over places where a man could not walk. They had very large horns which seemed to be
quite useful to them at times and especially so when they jumped from one cliff to another, for
they would always light on their heads. One time I was slipping around a cliff of rocks and I came
upon a band of kids under a large shelving rock, the band numbering at least 200, and it was fine
sport picking them up and watching them run in every direction.
There were a great many wolves in the Rocky Mountains at that time. They were very
large and white; they would come around our camp at night and bark
We had a great many large streams to cross, but fortunately the rivers were all very low
that year and the streams between Independence and Sutter's Fort were all forded without getting
anything in the wagons wet and that without having to prop up the wagon beds.
We traveled up Sweet River for two days; the beaver dams were thick on the river and the
mountains on each side of it were capped with snow. This brought us up to the Devil's Gate,
where we laid over one day to view the grand scenery. The river made a short turn here and left
the valley and came rushing down a narrow pass some 500 feet, with solid rock on both sides, the
channel being about fifty feet wide. This brought us on the waters of the Pacific slope. Bear
River was also a beautiful stream and was full of large mountain trout. When we reached the
Steam Boat Spring we laid over a day to fish and enjoy the grandeur that surrounded us. The
water in the spring was boiling and threw up steam some twenty feet high and would cook a piece
of meat in just a few minutes. It was close to the river bank and the mountains came up close to
the spring and the rocks for a mile around looked as if they had been thrown out of a burning pit.
They looked like burned cinders. Some of the company thought that was surely the Devil's
regions. It was indeed a grand sight to see.
When we arrived at Fort Hall we found about 500 Indians of the Flathead tribe who had
come in to trade. They had buffalo hides and deer skins and would pay any price for beads and
tobacco. We bought some buffalo robes and I bought a horse for five pounds of tobacco and a
pound of beads. I afterwards sold this horse to the Government for $50.00. We found this
tribe of Indians very friendly.
After we left Fort Hall the mountain fever began to rage among the members of the party
and as there was no doctor in any of the companies a great many of the people died. So, by the
time we arrived at Goose Creek, where the Oregon road turned off, about fifty wagons concluded
they would go to Oregon, as they had so many deaths in their families.
The Donner party concluded they would take another road, which was called the
Hastings cut off, by the way of Fort Bridger. This road proved to be a longer and worse road.
The two roads came together again at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Donner
party were to put up a notice when they got there, but the company I was in got there two weeks
before they did. For some reason they got to quarreling and their captain killed a member of the
company and they gave him twelve hours in which to leave the party. William McCutchen and
Mr. Eddy left the company with him overtaking our party forty miles from Sutter's Fort. The
remainder of the Donner party got to the foot of the mountain, but the storm came on and they
could not get any farther. The families of the three men named above were with the Donner party
and they were all saved. William McCutchen and the captain that was run off were members of
the second party which went to their rescue in the spring. They made an attempt to go to them in
the winter, but they could not get their Indian pilot to go through with them, so it was abandoned
for the time.
Our company had a good road most of the way considering the fact that it was a
mountain road and had never been worked. Those who came to California bore to the south and
came into what is known as the "1000 Spring Valley," a level valley and surrounded by
mountains. There were large holes of water every few rods all over the valley, the water being as
clear as crystal. They were from five to ten feet across and the water was about one toot below
the surface of the ground and they never run over. The ground would shake when a person
walked over it. We could not see the bottom of them. I tried to touch bottom with a ten foot
pole, but couldn't do it.
We had to guard our stock to keep them from getting into these holes. There were a few
willows growing in this valley.
Just after leaving 1000 Spring Valley we struck the head of the Humboldt River. Here we
came in contact with hostile Indians, the first we encountered on the trip. We traveled down the
river for several days. There were thick willows and good grass all the way down, but the water
was bad. We had only one rain on us during the whole trip across the plains.
When we buried our dead we had to bury them in the corral and let the stock tramp
everything down so the Indians would not find the place, for they would dig it up for the cloth
the body was wrapped in. Three of our men were killed by the Indians. They used poisoned
arrows and when shot by one of them the poison would go all through one's system. The
Indians would hide in the willows, and shoot arrows in our stock. We had to corral our stock
every night and guard them while they were feeding. When we got to the "sinks" of this river we
found that we had a desert of thirty-five miles to cross without water or grass. We started in the
evening and traveled all night, reaching the Truckee River the next evening. This is a beautiful
river and there was plenty of grass for the stock. We traveled down this river for two days and
crossed and recrossed it twenty-five times. We then left the river and bore to the west. This
brought us into the mountains where we found we had a very rough country to travel over. When
we came to the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains it looked as though we could not get farther,
but as we had no time to lose we double teamed and took one wagon at a time up to the summit.
It was so rocky that we had to work our way around the rocks, and only got a short distance in
two days travel. We had a rocky road to travel over after we got up the mountain, but it was not
very steep until we got to Boca Creek where we had to chain a tree to the wagons in order to get
down the hill safely. This was the steepest hill we had on the whole trip. After we got down to
the creek we had to stop and grade a road to get up the hill. There were two companies and it
took us three days to complete the grade. This brought us to a dividing ridge which we followed
down to the North Fork of the American River, a distance of fifty miles. By this time a good
many of the company were out of flour, so they started myself and another man to Johnson's place
to get flour. We got 100 pounds and started back to the company.
The captain of the Donner party and Mr Eddy, the man who left with him when he was
driven off, overtook us about thirty miles from Johnson's and told us what had happened, and that
he had been driven off and were fearful lest the party would never get through as the road was so
Our company reached Johnson's place all right and in good spirits. We laid over there
two days. While there we heard that the American fleet had landed and hoisted the American flag
over the capitol and also at Los Angeles.
From here we started for Sutter's Fort, a distance of fifty miles. There was no road but it
was a level country. When we reached Sutter's Fort we laid over there several days, bringing the
time up to the 10th of October, making a six months journey from Independence, Missouri
The first American child born in California was born the next day after we arrived at
Sutters Fort. They named the child John Sutter Whisman. He is now living in Oregon.
Sutter had two flour mills running to supply the immigrants with flour. This flour was
coarse and had not been bolted. The mills were built in cheap style. They used two stones with a
lever attached and a squaw would turn the lever around. We got fine beef. They were only
worth what the hide and tallow would bring. A large beef was valued at five dollars. After being
here five days the immigrants divided up, some going to Napa County and others going to Santa
Clara County. Just before we all separated Lieut. Blackburn came up from Monterey as a
recruiting officer for Col. Fremont to enlist men to join his regiment going to Lower California,
where the American flag had been pulled down and the Spanish flag hoisted instead. All of the
men who could go enlisted and their families were ordered to go to Santa Clara Mission, where
they could be guarded and have houses to live in. Col. Fremont commissioned Capt. Arom to
raise a company and guard the women and children. The Government gave to each woman and
child a soldier's ration.
The most of the men that Blackburn enlisted went down with him to Monterey. I could
not get ready to go with him and so he arranged for me to be at San Jose by November 1st, to
meet Capt. Buress, who was getting horses for Col. Fremont. He had 500 horses and saddles.
There were fifty men in the company to guard and drive the horses. When we got to the Salinas
plains the Spanish were hidden in the brush and had cut off our advance guard, and commenced
shooting at us. They got behind trees the best they could in order to protect themselves. There
were six advance guards; one was killed and two were wounded. There were two hundred of
the Spaniards. Capt. Buress went to the rescue as soon as possible. He gave orders for twenty
men to run the horses to Gomez' corral and to guard them there. This was a distance of two
miles. Capt. Buress gave orders to the thirty remaining men to examine their guns and then
follow him. The Spaniards left our guard and formed in line and when we got within about three
hundred yards of them they fired on us. The Captain then ordered his men to dismount and fire
and then ordered them to remount and charge, and when the charge was made the Spanish
scattered in every direction. During this charge Captain Buress' horse ran away with him,
taking him right among the Spanish and they speared him to death. Our loss was only five, the
Spaniards lost eighteen and we held the ground. They were allowed to bury their own dead the
Col. Fremont dispatched Lieut. Blackburn to San Jose with a cannon and ten men. I
was in this party and when we got to San Jose I had to be left there under Capt. Webber on
account of sickness in our family. This is how I happened to get into the Santa Clara battle,
January, 1847. There were twenty~five Spaniards raised against the American flag and they
hoisted their own flag. They were in rendezvous near what we call Half Moon Bay. They were
commanded by Schanres, who had been paroled. Captain Webber found where they had been
encamped and they only had sixty men in their company. He notified Lieut. Maddix, who had a
company of fifty rangers, to be at a certain place on a certain day. He also notified Captain
Mardson, who was captain of the marines at Urbano, which is now called Presidio. He came up
with a cannon and one hundred men on foot. Mardson ranked in office, so both of the other men
had to submit to his orders.
By this time the Spaniards had moved camp to within three miles of Santa Clara Mission
where the women and children were living. They were guarded by Capt. Arom. He could not
leave his post so he put up breastworks to keep them from getting to the houses and for his men
to fight behind. The Spaniards were camped in full view of the Mission. The people at the
Mission expected every hour to be attacked, but they were there three days when our soldiers
came upon them. Captain Webber came up on the north of them and Capt. Maddix on the
south and got between them and the Mission. Mardson was behind them with his marines and
cannon. The Spaniards advanced toward the Mission across a mud slough which was a half mile
wide. When Mardson got into that they commenced firing at him, and he could not use the
cannon on account of the mud, and as the Spaniards would not get within 300 yards of his men
they could not hit a man. Capt. Webber and Lieut. Maddix charged on them but the Spaniards
kept too far away and they could not do them much damage. They killed three Spaniards and
wounded several. One American was shot in the leg. The fight lasted three hours, and at night
the Spaniards retreated to their camp. The next morning they sent in a flag of truce. Capt.
Mardson was the highest in rank so he had to treat with them. They parleyed for three days
trying to come to terms. They had run all of the horses off which they had taken from the
Americans and had hidden all of their good guns, then they were willing to come to terms, but
they had to stack all of their arms and give up all of the horses they had taken. They were to drive
everything in and let the Americans take their pick. They had over fifty head. The Americans
gave up all of theirs. Capt. Webber hired a Spanish cart to haul our saddles and blankets to ran
Jose. We never left the barracks any more until we were discharged, which was one month later.
Now as to the hardships the pioneer had to encounter ill California in 1846. During the
war everything an American owned had to be guarded, as the Spaniards would steal anything they
could get hold of, and it was dangerous for a man to go out alone.
The emigrants put in a crop of wheat on the Mission land. While putting in the crop it was
necessary for four or five men to go together and have one stand guard. Peace was declared in
1847, but it did not make matters any better. We were under a military government and Spanish
law in force but it did not amount to much. Everything was tried before the Alcade. (sic)
The governor appointed him and whatever he said had to be done. In one Instance the Priest
complained to the Alcade (sic) that the Americans were tresspassing (sic) on the Mission land,
which was five miles square, and he wanted them driven off. The Alcade ('sic) ordered them off
but they refused to go and the Alcade (sic) then called on the governor for assistance and he sent
soldiers, who drove the men off; when the soldiers were gone, however, they went back. This
was government land.
In 1847 there were two Americans shot and one lost and dragged to death. I saw an
American taken up before the Alcade (sic) and tried for stealing. The Alcalde ordered him tied to
a post and given thirty lashes and sold for thirty days to the highest bidder, the latter part of the
penalty being imposed for the purpose of getting money to pay the costs. It was a great day of
rejoicing when in 1350 we were admitted into the Union and to be governed by our own laws.
In 1848 the first gold was discovered by Mr. Marshall where Captain Sutter was
building a saw mill. They did not know whether it was gold or not, but thought it was something
very valuable, so they sent o man in poste haste down to Monterey with it to Governor Mason
to find out what it was. He told him it was gold, and he showed the sample in San Jose as he
passed through and said the ground was full of it. That started the rush and the news flew fast all
over the world. The San Joaquin River was so high we could not get within three miles of it, so
we had to go by way of Benicia and cross the Bay on an old flat boat which was worked by oars.
This boat could make but one trip a day on account of the tide being up and down, so those
wishing to cross had to wait for their turn. When I reached there I was told I would have to wait
three weeks before my urn would come. There were two other men with me and they were old
sea captains and understood all about a boat, so we got a skiff there and put our saddles and
camping outfit in the skiff, then tied two of our horses to it and the other two we held close to
the boat and one of us rowed the boat across the Bay, a distance of three-quarters of a mile. We
kept the horses heads out of the water and they floated over all right. This was the first time
horses were ever swam across the Bay at Benecia. We then started for the Fort, crossing the
Sacramento on a boat, and went to Morman Island on the American River. We found about fifty
men at work with rockers.
We had with us a hand-saw, draw-knife, hatchet, pick and shovel; this was our complete
outfit. We got a hollow log, cut it off about four feet long and made us a rocker and went to
work on the island. One of the men did the rocking, another threw in the gravel and the third man
poured in water to wash the gravel . In this way we made one and a third ounces each day as
long as we stayed in the mines. The weather got so hot we concluded we would go back to San
Jose and complete the saw mill I was building when the mining fever broke out. This was the first
saw mill built in Santa Clara County. When we had finished the mill we went back to the mines.
The first of September we went to the place which is now called Placerville. The gold here was
very coarse. The only tools we used in getting It out were a pick, spoon, butcher knife and pan. I
stayed there three weeks and averaged fifty dollars per day for that time
One of our party was taken sick with the mountain fever, so I had to put him into a wagon and
take him to San Jose, and when I got there I concluded to go to work In my saw mill instead of
going back to the mines. I commenced making lumber and sold it at $50.00 per thousand. I kept
raising on the price, and in 1849 it went up to $300.00 per thousand at the mill and everything
else was high in proportion. Flour sold at $30.00 per barrel. In 1849 everything was booming in
There were only five houses in San Francisco n 1847; the customs house, post-office,
Leigdoff's store and a tavern kept by Mr. Bennett. There was not a wharf in the place until the
fall of 1847. Mr. Clark, a man who crossed the plains with me put up the first wharf, running it
out from Clark's Point which was named for him. The first town lots were laid off in 1847.
They made the streets only eighty feet wide, but in 1850 they found the streets were too narrow,
so they moved the buildings back twenty feet on the main streets. One can hardly believe that
there could be such a change made in fifty-two years. San Jose was an old Spanish town. In
the fall of 1847 the Alcalde issued a proclamation calling all the citizens together who were
living on the town land, to survey off the town into lots and to release the remainder of the land
that belonged to the town under the Spanish law. So they found there were forty families entitled
to land. They surveyed it off in five acre tracts and gave each one a lease for ninety-nine years.
This is called the San Jose forty thieves, but being done under the Spanish law the title is good. I
helped to survey the town in 1847. The main street is one hundred feet wide and the others are
eighty feet. At this time there were no Americans living in San Jose except a few who had been
there for twenty years and had Spanish families. The Alcalde was a shrewd Englishman and was
appointed by the governor.
I understand there is a dispute in regard to the first sermon that was preached in
California. History gives it as being in 1847, by Rev. Mr. Roberts, who was on his way to
Oregon as a missionary. He preached a sermon at that time in San Francisco. But in December,
1846, there was a local Methodist preacher, who crossed the plains with us, preached a funeral
sermon over the remains of the daughter of Captain Arom, who died just before Christmas.
There were about fifty people present at this funeral. I was present and heard this sermon in 1846.
The minister's name was Heacock. The sermon was preached in old Santa Clara Mission.
(Signed) David Campbell
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The preceding is an exact copy, including misspellings of the copy of the Porterville Recorder
newspaper articles August 11, 12, & 13, 1910. Misspellings are noted. Please note that David
Campbell was some 75 years old when this was written. David Campbell was the son of
William Campbell and his second wife Agnes Hancock. William Campbell travelled to
California with his second wife, Agnes and his children including David. His daughters by his
first wife, Sally McNary, followed in 1852. They were Margaret Jane Campbell who married
James Washington Finley, and Anne Laurette Campbell who married Ira Joseph Lovell.
William Campbell was the founder of Campbell, California which is near San Jose.
Cynthiana Finley Elliott, Great-Great Granddaughter of William Campbell arid Sally McNary
March 12, 1992