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United States History/Nevada History for CH 203: Primary Source (California Trail Diary)

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

Primary Source (California Trail Diary)

Thomas Turnbull, Travels from the United States Across the Plains to California (1852/1914)

Thomas Turnbull, Travels from the United States Across the Plains to California, Madison, WI, 1914.

Thomas Turnbull (1812-1869) was born in England, emigrated to the US with his family as a child, and settled in Glencoe, Wisconsin. When he heard about the California Gold Rush, he was 37. It took him a while, but in 1851 he decided to “Go West,” and in 1852, he went to Council Bluffs Iowa and took a wagon train west on the California Trail. Along the way, he kept a diary in a little leather-bound book. His intent was that “someway” he would use the diary as the notes for an adventure book about his travels. What he left behind was something much more valuable.

Turnbull’s account is excellent. He left the Midwest in 1852—the peak year for trail traffic—so his account gives us a clear view of the trail after it was well developed with published guidebooks, two-way traffic and a series of trading posts and profiteers along the way. And as Turnbull’s diary makes clear, there were many hucksters tempting people to pay them for “shortcuts,” or swindling them by selling supplies at exorbitant prices. Turnbull’s diary is also unusual in that he took a little-used branch of the Mormon Trail in the middle of his journey, and this is one of the few diary accounts of that stretch of trail. Another key factor is that Turnbull wrote his original 97-page diary on the journey, then set it aside and never worked on it again. When his family turned it over to the Wisconsin Historical Society half a century later, it remained unaltered. So, we have a pure primary source here: Turnbull always wanted to go back and expand and “clean up” his diary, but never had the time.  We are lucky he was so busy. The result is an immediate, unfiltered account of what he experienced in 1852, with no later events altering the perspective. It is extremely rare to find such a primary source in its unaltered state, so this is well worth reading.

For Nevadans, Turnbull’s account of the journey along the Humboldt River and through the Carson Sink, along the Carson River, and into Carson City are especially interesting, but his book covers his travels all across what we think of as “The United States.” His title tells a different story though: of leaving the United States and heading across foreign lands to a foreign country called California. That in itself is a reminder that he and people of his time experienced a different world, and thought about it differently.

You can find the entire book for free here:


Discussion Questions

As you read, think about the following question:

1. What is the significance of the book’s title? What does it tell us about Turnbull’s worldview, and about the extent of the United States in 1852? How did people see The West in those days, just based on this title?

2. How does Turnbull describe “The United States”? What is life like there, and why is he leaving it?

3. How much does Turnbull already know about the trail and its conditions before leaving Council Bluffs? What are his sources of information? How does this compare with what a traveler ten years earlier might have known? Why?

4. What are the early phases of the journey life? What obstacles and hardships do they encounter, and how much trouble do they have making it to the Platte River (present-day Casper, Wyoming)?

5. How does Turnbull view “others”: Mormons, Native Americans, African Americans, and other people who are not of his group? What does this tell us about his attitudes and beliefs?

6. How does Turnbull describe Utah, especially the climate and terrain? How does he view it compared to places further east?

7. How does Turnbull describe Nevada especially the climate and terrain? How does he view it compared to places further east?

8. What is the Humboldt River like according to Turnbull? What specific attributes does it have that he considers significant? How many of those are positive and how many negative? Why?

9. What interactions with native groups does Turnbull have in Nevada? How do they turn our (for both sides), and what underlying conflicts or conditions create the encounters and the outcomes?

10. What is life along the trail like? What aspects are positive and which are negative? Which is more preponderant?

11. What are food and drink supplies like? How do the emigrants fare and how do they replenish their supplies?

12. How bad is disease along the trail? Why?

13. What are the other dangers that Turnbull recounts? Which is the worst according to him and why? Which would you consider the worst and why? If you and Turnbull disagree, why might that be?

14. What is the crossing of the Sierra Nevada like? How does it compare with your crossings on roughly the same route today? What accounts for the difference?

15. What is California like? What does Turnbull like or not like, and why does he eventually go home?

16. What aspects of Turnbull’s views or opinions struck you as problematic and why? What does this tell us about the changing nature of the American Experience?

17. Ultimately, how would you sum up the thesis of this book in one sentence?

18. Overall, how valuable a historical source do you consider this diary, and why?

Primary Sources (More California Trail Diaries!)


Reading an entire book, researching an introduction, and preparing detailed, source-specific questions is a time-consuming task. So, I wanted to do this for one very important key work on the California Trail, then provide you with links to many more diaries that you could research if you wanted to. Like everything else in this project, the specific example provided above can be applied (by instructors or students) to any of the following excellent sources. As a faculty member, reading and researching one or more of these texts can be incredibly enriching, particularly because you can actually go and visit the sites named in them, and even retrace the route if you wish. For students, having to choose, read, and analyze one of these sources (or parts of one) is an excellent way to learn more about Nevada, the United States, and the very idea of writing about a travel experience from a limited cultural perspective. It is a powerful experience that can help students be better thinkers and citizens for the rest of their lives.

I have organized these chronologically in order of when the original author made the crossing, not by publication date, which varies widely.

David Leeper, The Argonauts of ’49: Some Recollections of the Plains and the Diggings (1894) 168 pages.

Oliver Maxwell, Overland in 49 (1896) 148 pages.

William Lewis Manly, Death Valley in ’49 (1894) 

This source is interesting mainly because Manly’s party took the southern route through Nevada and had the misfortune of ending up in Death Valley.

George Keller, A Trip Across the Plains and Life in California (1851) 58 pages.

William Maxwell, Crossing the Plains Days of ’57: A Narrative of of Early Emigrant Travel to California by the Ox-Team Method (1915) 205 pages. This is an especially interesting source because most of the book covers time spent in Nevada. The long gap between the events and publication mean it is not as fresh a source as Turnbull, but those interested in the emigrant experience in Nevada will find it full of interesting information.