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United States History/Nevada History for CH 203: Early US Exploration of and Emigration Through and to Nevada (1840+)

An examination of resources associated with the United States and Nevada Constitutions, The Declaration of Independence and associated documents, as well as Nevada history resources

Early US Exploration of and Emigration Through and to Nevada (1840+)

Nevada—and especially Northern Nevada—has been called The Crossroads of the West. More accurately, it is a part of the West that for many years, people wanted to get through to get to other places, especially California and Oregon. The first people here were Native Americans, and they loved the land and adapted to it. However, by the 1820s, American fur trappers were starting to explore the west looking for beavers to trap for their fur. Surprisingly to many modern Nevadans, there were a lot of beaver in Nevada, especially along the Humboldt River, and American trappers moved along the river valleys, trapping beaver, trading with Native groups, and as a side effect, mapping the first routes across the desert. When American settlers started to head to California in small numbers in the early 1840s, they necessarily crossed Nevada, continuing along the same trails Native Americans had used for thousands of years, and which American fur trappers had only recently discovered. The traffic grew from a trickle to a  torrent, followed by the Pony Express, Transcontinental Telegraph, Transcontinental Railroad, and then highways, airways, and pipelines. The discovery of silver as well as gold, copper, and iron led large numbers of people to come to Nevada to settle down…at least as long as there was ore to be mined. In 1900, Tonopah was Nevada’s second largest city, with Virginia City close behind. Las Vegas hardly registered on the map. But those boom towns went bust, and even before Las Vegas grew to prominence, Reno stayed big (at least for Nevada) and got bigger. Why did Reno thrive while boomtowns like Goldfield, Tonopah, and Virginia City went bust? In large part it was because of the geography of Northern Nevada. The following contextual materials could apply just as easily to Unit 4 as to Unit 3, and you should feel free to use them in either context.

Northern Nevada has been a crossroads for revolutionary changes in transportation and communication for over 150 years. In particular, the area’s unique geographical location has made it a key point in every transcontinental crossing: early exploration parties, wagon trains, the Pony Express, the Transcontinental Telegraph Line, the Transcontinental Railway, the Lincoln Highway, the Victory Highway, the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, US 40, and I-80 all passed through Reno or Carson City, and the area still plays a major role in logistics, distribution, transportation, tourism, and communication. The area known as “Donner Pass” (actually several passes, valleys, and saddles) is a prime example. It’s a natural route over the mountains, and once over, the Truckee River Canyon (or the older Henness Pass/Dog Valley route) is a natural pathway east, and that route takes traffic straight into the Truckee Meadows: a natural place for a city, with its abundant water, flat space, and easy exits in all four compass directions.

If you take a look at any of a number of key locations between Reno and Sacramento, you will see that there is a natural bottleneck and causes a tremendous amount of infrastructure to move very close together, and this is something that even modern air travel hasn’t totally changed: sit anywhere in West Reno between the top of Peavine Mountain and the Mt. Rose Wilderness and you will see a tremendous amount of light aircraft traffic making use of the lower mountains and the easy navigational aids of the railroad and I-80 to move between Reno and Truckee, Sacramento, and the Bay Area. Small planes, helicopters, military aircraft, and even commercial jets use this route extensively, but on the ground, things get even more interesting. For example, take a look at the 1920s-vintage ruins of a Transcontinental Air Mail System beacon on a steep hill overlooking Mogul (see the source in Unit 4 for more detailed information). All that is left is a 57-foot long concrete arrow in the desert, pointing from the Truckee River Canyon toward Reno Airport. Its purpose was to guide air mail pilots in the days before radio beacons, radar, and GPS. As an exercise (and because you can actually walk to this one on public land close to town, click the link below, then center the arrow in the screen and scroll until the map scale is 500 feet.'36.1%22N+119%C2%B055'20.7%22W/@39.510007,-119.922069,216m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x0:0x0!8m2!3d39.510018!4d-119.922404?hl=en

You will notice a few things. First, the opening in the mountains that the air mail route went through is very narrow: perhaps a mile or two wide depending on how you measure. The actual “flat” portion of that is much narrower still: maybe a quarter mile at best. For most of human history, all east-west traffic in this part of the world had to pass through there. Even today, a tremendous proportion of it does, despite our powerful machines and technology. Within less than half a mile of that arrow you will find:

The Truckee River

The Steamboat Ditch, which waters agricultural land south of Reno.

The Transcontinental Railroad

Interstate Highway 80

US Route 40

The Victory Highway

The Lincoln Highway

The California Trail

Crucial Long-Distance High Voltage Power Lines

Crucial Underground Telephone and Internet Cables

The Underground Pipeline that carries all gasoline and oil to Reno from the Bay Area.

It’s no accident that the arrow is near all that, just as it’s no accident that the concentration of vital infrastructure gets even tighter and narrower at Donner Pass. We live in an area that is vital to the infrastructure, economy, and security of the entire United States, because geography has dictated that traffic passes through here at a much higher rate than anywhere else along the north/south axis of our country. It is true now, and it has been true for centuries. The result is that not only is this an area full of opportunity for transportation, warehousing, manufacturing, mining, engineering, and logistics: it is also an area rich in the history of those things, and the various activities that support them.

For example, scroll back down until the map scale is 200 feet. Move the airmail arrow until it is near the top of the screen and centered. You will see below it about 1200 feet the “Hole in the Wall”: the place where the Steamboat Ditch suddenly starts as if from nowhere and belches water out of the mountain on its way to South Reno. Today, hikers, joggers, bike riders, and dog walkers like to use this as a turnaround point. But look 700 feet west and you will see where the Steamboat Ditch goes into the mountain in a long tunnel cut straight through after the original ditch (built by hand by Chinese laborers in the 1870s) collapsed into the Truckee River in a landslide as it made its way north around the hill (and around the airmail arrow).

Now center the arrow again and look closely. You can see the line of the old hand-built ditch going straight north from the current tunnel entrance and curving around the airmail arrow less than 200 feet to the west, suddenly ending at about the 11:00 position from the arrow. If you look from I-80 in Mogul, you can see the massive slide that brought the ditch down. You can also see it directly north of the arrow in the satellite view. Look about 250 feet east, and you can see the old ditch start up again, then snake way around the hill until it rejoins the existing ditch at….Hole in the Wall! The eastern portion of the old ditch is now a jogging/bike trail, while the eastern half is rarely used and overgrown (it’s hard to get to unless you come across private property from Mogul bushwhack up from the river like I did, or try to cross the loose, shifting soil of the landslide). But, 150 years ago, hundreds of Chinese immigrant laborers cut that ditch painstakingly by hand, and for many years it was the route that brought precious water to the farms and ranches that fed Reno, Carson, and Virginia City.

One more thing: scroll in as much as you can and then look about 400 feet west of the arrow. You will see a large tan area bounded on the left by a stream with lots of green foliage. In the middle of the tan, you will see a group of white rocks that look just a little too regular to be natural. You are right. They are old blocks of granite, quarried and left on site, and cut using a drill and wedge technique from the early 1800s. It isn’t certain, but they are probably left over from quarrying operations for the Transcontinental Railroad, since the technique matches that time period, and they are close to the route. There is also a small and long-abandoned irrigation ditch about 30 feet to the east of the quarry. If you scroll out, you can see that it runs from the Steamboat Ditch along the green, brown, and tan sections of the meadow, then splits into a T and goes down to an area of low land near the river. Ironically, once the ditch was built, it was easier and cheaper to divert water from the Truckee River about five miles upstream, run it through a series of flumes and ditches, then dig another ditch down the mountain and run the water onto fields next to the river than it was to just pull the water from the river and move it uphill a hundred feet! If you go to the site, you will find the old ditch, complete with old bits of lumber and a small concrete culvert to allow foot and small vehicle traffic to cross. It may have been part of Sal Carcione’s Carson Ranch, which occupied this area, or it could be older. I bring this up because this is all history literally under our noses, and there is always more of it to uncover, and more to discover about it. Units 3 and 4 of this project will look at Northern Nevada less as a crossroads and more as a conduit for all sorts of human activity. There is history literally under our feet and in front of our eyes every day as we go about our lives. Taking a college class that covers Nevada history and culture is a great opportunity to learn more about it, and even to explore it in person.


The Leftover Granite After Drill and Wedge Cutting Removed the Rest of the Formation

This site is remote and hard to reach, but literally only 1000 feet from I-80: remote in an area that has seen a tremendous amount of human activity to build infrastructure so others can live or move through the desert. Most of the original granite formation was removed as rectangular stone building blocks. Only the squared-off base of the formation remains, along with the rejected, broken blocks left behind. There is no historical marker or any explanation of the site but this.


Nevada History Sources: The Westward Movement


The California Trail in Nevada

Thomas Cardoza

Basic Background

The Oregon Trail and the California Trail were actually a huge network of interconnecting trains that led from St. Louis Missouri to the west coast. The two trails were one for about the first half of the journey. At Fort Hall, Idaho, the Oregon Trail continued NW toward Fort Vancouver (now Portland), and the California Trail branched off to the southwest into the Utah Territory (now Utah and Nevada). There were many variations, shortcuts, longcuts, and alternate routes as people tried to find the best route in an era without GPS, satellite photos, or even maps of the Great Basin, so you can find many alternative routes scattered across Nevada. However, the main route headed for the natural wells at the source of the Humboldt River, now the site of Wells, Nevada. Sources of water for people and water and grass for draft animals were vital for any successful  crossing of the desert, so the Humboldt Wells naturally drew emigrants to them. The California Trail then followed the course of the Humboldt River across the desert until the river came to an end in the Humboldt Sink, south of present-day Lovelock.

From there, emigrants had to cross the burning and desolate Forty Mile Desert where many of them died. Their route parallels the route of modern day I-80. Those that survived struck the Truckee River near modern Wadsworth, and followed that river all the way to the green paradise of the Truckee Meadows, where they could feed and water their cattle on the abundance of water flowing down from the Sierra Nevada and the grass that it nourished. More ominously, they could look up at the sheer mountain wall that lay between them and their destination in California. (And yes, the Truckee Meadows later became the sites of Reno and Sparks, Nevada.)

Before the 1820s, the route through Nevada to California was only known to Native Americans, who lived in the Great Basin in small numbers. From the 1820s until 1840,  American fur trappers explored the far west, including the river that rose mysteriously out of the desert at Humboldt Wells and then vanished again just as mysteriously about 300 miles southwest in the Humboldt Sink. The trappers caught beavers for their pelts, but they also noted that the Humboldt could provide food and water for a traveler across most of the desert. Water routes were always very important prior to the creation of modern internal combustion transport like trucks, automobiles, and airplanes. Even the railroads tended to follow water routes because those had a gentle grade and a supply of water to keep steam engines running.

In 1841, the first emigrant party of American settlers took the Humboldt River Route. The Bartleston-Bidwell party was originally supposed to be 500 people who pledged in 1840 to make the long, dangerous trek through unmapped territory. By the time it set out, there were about 50 people actually going. The group split in two at Fort Hall, 34 people took the California Trail (really still only an idea, not an actual trail), while the rest headed for Oregon. Since there was no clearly marked trail, the group got lost, missed the Humboldt Wells, and wandered in the desert. Eventually they all abandoned their wagons, and soon after found the Humboldt River by luck. They continued all the way to California, where Bidwell became a Big Deal: working for John Sutter, buying up land cheap, founding the city of Chico, and becoming a general in the California militia. He also ran for governor of California and president of the United States on a Temperance Party ticket. He also built a fabulous house in Chico now known as Bidwell Mansion, right next to CSU, Chico. It is now a public park and a favorite spot for wedding photographers, big events, and sitting around sipping the locally made and now-famous Sierra Nevada Pal Ale. That’s a bit ironic for the home of a guy who ran for president on a campaign of banning all alcohol!

Daniel Jenks’ Drawing of a Wagon Encampment Near Today’s Wells, Nevada, 1859

This is a crayon, ink, pencil, and watercolor drawing. It is somewhat primitive but it captures the look and feel of 1850s emigrant wagon trains very well. Note that everyone looks happy. That’s because they have made it through some terrible deserts and have found a source of water and food. Everything looks good at this point! It will get much, much worse before long. 

The Bartleston-Bidwell Party was a huge success. Though they had to abandon their wagons, they still made it to California, and no one died. Word got back and throughout the 1840s and 1850s, more people followed. A key event was in 1843-44 when Captain John Fremont led a US Army expedition to explore the far west and determine if there were practicable routes for emigrants to reach California. In effect, Fremont’s mission was to lay the groundwork for a possible American invasion of Mexico’s province of Alta California, which is exactly what happened in 1846. It was Fremont who “discovered” Pyramid Lake (the Paiute had known about if for thousands of years) and after extensive exploration, it was Fremont who realized that the Great Basin was in fact a great basin: a closed hydrologic system in which no rivers ran to the sea, but instead turned inland and drained into the desert. That was valuable information: part of his mission was to find a river that flowed from the area of the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pacific. There was no such river, and Fremont’s discovery of this fact allowed Americans to instead focus on piecing together a river route from the rivers that made only part of the journey. Fremont eventually made a winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada in heavy snow, something that a highly disciplined military unit could do with difficulty, but which civilians laden with belongings could not, as the Donner Party later found out. Even so, Fremont had to abandon his one piece of artillery somewhere near Coleville, California. Eventually, volunteer historians and archaeologists searched for and found enough parts of the cannon to positively identify the spot in Deep Creek, a tributary of the Walker River. (Warning: they have NOT found the 500 pounds of high explosive ammunition Fremont also dumped there, and while the gunpowder is over 175 years old, there is still some danger. If you go there, be aware of the risks, and be careful!)


Fremont’s Legacy: The Great Basin, A Westward Route, and a Lost Cannon

One of Fremont’s biggest legacies was the understanding and naming of The Great Basin. Someone would have figured it out eventually, but Fremont was the first white American to ride around the edges of the Great Basin and put two and two together. He also discredited the idea of the mythical “San Buena Ventura River” that somehow flowed from the Rockies west to the Pacific Ocean, but he also mapped routes across the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada, and marked the routes of rivers with the help of his expedition’s cartographer. After 1844, American knowledge of the geography and ethnography of the Great Basin might have still been limited, but it was vastly superior to what they had in 1844. Also by 1844, there was a very rough but at least visible wagon route to the Humboldt Wells and then along the river through the desert, slowly roughed out over the previous three years by emigrants, even though Fremont’s route did not go that way. There is a copy below of the map his expedition made, showing how Fremont and his troop rode completely around the Great Basin, but not into its center, leaving the Humboldt River route of the California Trail still officially unmapped. There is a larger, zoomable version of this image available on the TMCC Library Website. (link) Note that the  center text across the giant blank space reads: “THE GREAT BASIN, diameter of 11˚ of latitude, 10˚of longitude: elevation above the sea between 4 and 5,000 feet: surrounded by lofty mountains; contents nearly unknown but believed to be filled with rivers and lakes that have no communication with the sea, deserts and oases that have never been explored, and savage tribes, which no traveler has seen or described.”


The Fremont/Preuss Map of the Far West from the 1845 Expedition


Fremont wrote about the area in 1848 in his official report to Congress:

“The Great Basin--a term [first coinage] which I apply to the intermediate region between the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevada, containing many lakes, with their own system of rivers and creeks, and which have no connection with the ocean. Between these mountains are the arid plains which receive and deserve the name of desert. Such is the general structure of the interior of the Great Basin, more Asiatic than American in its character, and much resembling, the elevated region between the Caspian sea and northern Persia. The rim of this Basin is massive ranges of mountains, of which the Sierra Nevada on the west, and the Wahsatch and Timpanogos chains on the east, are the most conspicuous. On the north, it is separated from the waters of the Columbia by a branch of the Rocky mountains, and from the gulf of California, on the south, by a bed of mountainous ranges, of which the existence has been only recently determined.”

Ultimately, Fremont’s map helped the massive westward movement that took off especially after the discovery of gold in California in 1848.

Fremont’s lost cannon eventually spawned another movement. Among Fremont’s equipment was a single artillery piece, actually a howitzer, and more specifically a US M1935 Mountain Howitzer, a copy of a French artillery piece designed for mountain warfare in Algeria. Fremont’s unit dragged the howitzer along with great difficulty until they camped at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, on the site of today’s Walker Burger. The next day, January 29, 1844, they finally faced an impossible challenge:

29 January, 1844: "We followed a trail down a hollow where the Indians had descended...we reached a little affluent to the river at the bottom...The principal stream  still running through an impracticable canon [canyon], we ascended a very steep hill, which proved afterwards the last and fatal obstacle to our little howitzer, which was finally abandoned at this place."

The “principal stream” was the Walker River, where it flows today alongside US 395. Without modern earthmoving equipment, moving anything on wheels through that canyon would be impossible. The “little affluent” he refers to is Deep Creek, where researchers discovered bits of the cannon over a two-decade period. You can see the parts of the howitzer on display at the Bridgeport Ranger District Station of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, 75694 US-395, Bridgeport, CA 93517, just south of Bridgeport: 118 miles south of TMCC’s main campus.

Things got really interesting though in 1969, when football fans decided to build a replica of Fremont’s cannon as the largest and heaviest college football trophy in America. The idea was that it would be the prize in the annual UNR/UNLV football game. A $10,00o replica was built and donated for the 1970 game (fifty years ago as of this writing!) UNLV won the 1970 game, and is currently in possession of the cannon, but UNR has the record for the longest number of consecutive wins (8). Each year, the winner brings the cannon home, and paints it in their school colors: Red for UNLV and Blue for UNR. There is a rich history to the rivalry, but also a richer and deeper history behind it, including the long-lost howitzer in Deep Canyon.

Growth of the California Trail: The Donner Party

 The trail continued to see increased use from 1844 to 1846. The first party to make it all the way to California with its wagons crossed in 1844. The Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party of 1844 pioneered the route through present day Reno and up the Truckee River Canyon via 27 river crossings! Again, before modern equipment made road building easier, dragging wagons up the Truckee River Canyon was excruciating work. In 1845, mountain man Caleb Greenwood blazed a trail that avoided the Truckee River Canyon by crossing the river at present-day Verdi, Nevada and following a canyon north up the route of the South Branch of Dog Creek, then over a pass and down a steep slope to the Dog Valley Meadow with its lush grass and good water from Dog Creek. This is where things get interesting, because you can follow that route fairly closely by car or bike today, and you can follow it exactly on foot if you don’t mind some stiff hiking (see “Following the California Trail” below. The route then went west up Dog Creek and over a second pass, then right through modern day Stampede and Boca Reservoirs until it rejoined the Truckee River at the site of modern-day Truckee. By 1846, there was a well-established route, but also several alternates, including the bogus and infamous Hastings Cutoff.  The Hastings cutoff was a supposed shortcut that left the trail at Fort Bridger, went south around the Great Salt Lake and headed south, going through some of the worst deserts in the world, then going the long way around the Ruby Mountains (through Ruby Valley) and rejoining the main trail just west of modern Elko. Hastings wanted to flood California with American settlers, then effectively take it away from Mexico by sheer numbers (which is pretty much what happened). He wanted to establish an independent Republic of California with himself in charge (which didn’t happen). He also promoted the “shortcut” that became known as The Hastings Cutoff. The problem was, he had never seen it or traveled it, so his description of this miracle route was pure fantasy. The reality was that it was longer by 150 miles, it lacked water, and there was no established road, so pioneers had to literally build a road as they went, slowing them down. In 1846, the Donner Party, on Hastings’ advice, took the Hastings Cutoff, wasted about a month fighting through the trackless desert, then arrived in the Truckee Meadows in the fall, just as the snow was about to hit the Sierra Nevada. The native Washoe people begged the Donner Party not to head into the mountains, offering them a safe place to stay in the valley instead. The Americans were contemptuous of the Native Americans though and headed into Dog Valley, then on to present-day Truckee. By then, it was October 29, and winter snow had already fallen on the pass (now Donner Pass). It turns out that the Washoe, who had lived in the are for thousands of years, knew a lot more about the weather and travel in the high mountains than a bunch of east coast white people. Who knew?

Heavy snow fell, and the party could not go back and could not go forward. So, they were trapped at what is now Donner Memorial State Park. The snow fell heavily and there was soon 22 feet of it. The party split up and built cabins, and half of them died over the winter. There had already been violence and probably murder along the way across the Great Basin, so there were clearly failures in leadership from the beginning, and a lack of group cohesion leading to mistrust and selfishness: fatal factors in a disaster. There were several relief efforts launched from Sutter’s Fort, but by the time rescuers arrived, the group had been engaged in a survival free-for-all for four months, and the last relief party did not make it until April: six months after the initial disaster, and just a few days after George Donner died.. There were accusations that some of the survivors had eaten the dead, and these tales of cannibalism continue to haunt the history of the Donner Party.

Tree stumps taller than a man, in a forest clearing

An 1866 Photo Taken at the Site of the Donner Party Camp

Twenty years after the fact, the height of the stumps shows how high the snow was when the desperate families began chopping down trees to build shelters for the winter.


The Donner Party’s Route to California

The Hastings Cutoff is marked in Orange, the main Oregon Trail in Purple, and the main California Trail in Green. The route via the Hastings Cutoff slowed the party by a month, making the crucial difference between getting over the Sierra Nevada before the snow and getting trapped with massive loss of life.

The accusations of cannibalism proved controversial. Some Donner Party members vehemently denied it, but quite a few readily admitted to eating their dead companions: enough that it seems highly likely that the survivors made it by eating other humans. Moreover, Patrick Breen’s diary, kept during the disaster, explicitly references cannibalism (original errors left in the text):

Thursd. 25th froze hard last night fine & sunshiny to day wind W. Mrs Murphy says the wolves are about to dig up the dead bodies at her shanty, the nights are too cold to watch them, we hear them howl -- -- Frid 26th froze hard last night to day clear & warm Wind S: E: blowing briskly Marthas jaw swelled with the toothache: hungry times in camp, plenty hides but the folks will not eat them we eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I dont that she has done so yet, it is distressing. The Donnors told the California folks that they commence to eat the dead people 4 days ago, if they did not succeed that day or next in finding their cattle then under ten or twelve feet of snow & did not know the spot or near it, I suppose they have done so ere this time.

Breen’s diary is in the UC Berkeley Special Collections department, and you can read it there by appointment, or view digital scans (complete with bloodstains and other damage) here: