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Jews in the Wild West

Chapter 36.

Incidents of Travel and Adventure in the Far West

Peg-leg Smith—Gold Explorers—Enter upon the Desert—Road strewn with Dead Oxen—Poisoned Atmosphere—Deserted Wagons and Horses—Howling Wilderness—Excessive Heat—Bitter Springs—Polluted by Dead Animals—Bunch Grass—Reflections—Mohahve River—Deserts Surmounted—Horses give Out—On Foot—Dig for Water in the Sand—Pleasant Weather—Snowy Mountains—Crossing of the Mohahve River—Agave Americana—Cajon pass Sierra Nevada—Descent into the Valley of San Bernandino—Arrival at San Bernandino—Variations of the Compass.

WHILE encamped on this spot we met a party of gold explorers from Los Angeles. They had been down on the Colorado, looking for gold, but had been unsuccessful. They were under the command of a man with one leg, known as "Peg-leg Smith," a celebrated mountaineer.

He told me he had been several times across the continent, and had been in this part of the world for some years.

He says he crossed the Rocky Mountains in 1824—30 years ago. He is a weather-beaten old chap, and tells some improbable tales. They are on their way back, and will travel with us; they comprise ten men, all mounted on mules.

To-day two more of our horses gave out; one of them belongs to the wagon which contained my baggage. Mr. Peg-leg Smith tells me these are called Kingstone Springs. I made drawings of the mountains which are near them; they are curiously formed land marks, and may be useful to future travellers. We have another terrible Jornada to pass, a distance of fifty miles. I hardly think we shall get over it without leaving some of our animals.

At 3 o'clock we started; our course was south west, over a new country. Reese's train was the first who had ventured; none of our party had ever been over, and I never want to traverse it again.

In travelling over the vast prairies and mountains it is well that the range of our vision has certain limits. If we could take within scope of our sight, the whole extent of the distance to be travelled, we should most probably give up the original intention as one of the impossibilities; a wise Providence has ordained otherwise. The distance is bounded frequently by high ranges of mountains, which cut off the perspective, or the atmosphere between the eye and the object produces an aerial effect, which obscures like a curtain, the far spread waste, inspiring the wearied traveller with fresh and renewed energy.

"So doth the untrod distance still delude us."

This was decidedly the worst ground I had ever travelled. After 20 miles ride, I saw in the distance, what I took to be a lake, and none of the party knew better. It was an extensive bed of pure white sand, probably fifteen miles in diameter, and may have been once the bed of a lake. Our road lay directly over it, and we proceeded slowly, and with much difficulty; at midnight we rested our animals.

3rd.—At 4 o'clock we were on the road again. Carcasses of dead horses and oxen, strewed the way. Some were left to die, and others still warm, although dead. In the space of one mile I counted 40 dead oxen and cows; the air was foully impregnated with the effluvia arising from them. We also passed six deserted wagons, chairs, tables, and feather beds which were left on the road in greater quantities than on the first desert.

At noon we arrived at Bitter Springs, the grounds about which are strewn with dead animals, and the polluted atmosphere at this time, one o'clock, P. M., ranges at 95º in the shade of our wagons, and is nearly unbearable.

This is a howling, barren wilderness; not a single tree or shrub for the last fifty miles, nor is there one in sight now. I did not observe during the last day's travel, a lizard or any sign of animal or insect life. There was plenty of food for wolves, but they dare not venture so far from water.

These springs are not bitter, but possess a brackish taste. There are small springs in different places; the largest admitted one horse at a time to drink, the rest would have to wait until the water was replenished from the earth.

While I write of the sterile and barren desert, over which I have travelled, I cannot but contemplate with admiration the goodness of the Almighty, in placing at intervals, food and water for the sustenance of our animals.

Along the whole road there is not a blade of grass for a distance of fifty miles; but in the immediate vicinity of this spring there are hundreds of acres of the best quality of bunch grass; there is, apparently, the same sandy barren soil, not deriving any nourishment from the spring, which is a mile away.

Without the watchful care of Divine Providence, man would be unable successfully to traverse these deserts.

June 4th.—We left camp at 5½ P. M., and camped at 8 o'clock this morning: 5th, encamped on the Mohahve River. We made 31 miles since last evening.

I return grateful thanks to the Omnipotent for conducting me safely over the mountains of snow, and the dangers of the desert wilderness.

We may now consider the real perils of the journey past. San Bernandino is ninety miles S. W. of us. In four days, I trust we shall arrive in good health and condition.

Yesterday two horses gave out. Our Mormon lady is the sub-tenant of one of our wagons; her own was so heavy as to wear out the animals, she was obliged to leave it on the road. My poor mule is only a shadow of himself, I walked about fifteen miles yesterday, to relieve him. He has now good grass for his supper.

When we struck the Mohahve River, it appeared to be only a dry bed of sand, with a few pools of water about six inches deep. We were very grateful that we found any at all, as our animals were suffering very much for the want of it.

Cottonwood and willows grow abundantly near the banks. The sight of vegetation is refreshing, and indicates our approach to a country more adapted for the purposes of man.

We left camp at four o'clock, in hopes of finding a better camp-ground.

We travelled thirteen miles through loose deep sand, when, turning again to the river, we found a large sluggish pool of water, twenty-five feet in diameter, and one foot deep in the bed of the river, which sinks and rises in the sand for many miles.

Good bunch grass was here in abundance, and our animals are faring sumptuously.

The flowering willow (a dwarf), is the only tree now visible. Thermometer, at day-light, 60º. A strong gale of wind is blowing from the north.

We have been highly favored with pleasant weather during our journey across these deserts, with the exception of a few hours at mid-day: the temperature has been delightful, quite opposite to what I had anticipated.

6th.—We left camp this morning, and continued along the dry bed of the Mohahve River for fifteen miles, when we halted. We dug holes in the sand, and found good pure water.

Our camp-ground is surrounded with fine large cottonwoods, and plenty of bunch grass on the benches near.

7th.—We were on the road at an early hour this morning. We struck across a sandy desert, of about ten miles, and approached the river again, but found no water. We continued along, and at noon halted about five miles further up, with clover, grass, and water in a little pool on the road.

The thermometer at daylight this morning, was down to 40º. Large fires were very comfortable. In the last forty-eight hours, there has been a variation of 60º of the thermometer, in the shade.

The weather is more like October than June.

Two high snowy mountains, bearing S. S. W., almost immediately on our course, indicate our approach to the Nevada Mountains.

At five o'clock, we encamped within five miles of the crossing of the Mohahve River. Abundance of good red clover, grass and plenty of water.

We travelled thirty miles this day.

8th.—At daylight this morning our camp was in active preparation for departure. The temperature 55º, and delightful weather. After an early breakfast, we rode through a beautiful grove of cottonwood, with willow undergrowth. Rose trees in full bloom, with hundreds of other beautiful flowers. This is a fairy land, indeed. What a contrast to the desert of a few hours ago! Grape vines hang gracefully from the branches of lofty trees, while the air resounds with the songs of birds. I noticed numbers of doves, a species of quail with a top knot (the California quail), herons, and ducks in great numbers on the river.

We crossed the river, which at this place was a running stream, about two hundred yards wide, and fringed with cottonwood and willow trees. After leaving the river, we commenced to ascend gradually to another desert, of seventeen miles. The last five miles was through a forest of muskale (Agave Americana), which grow to an immense size; some as large as the greatest oak tree I ever saw. This is a curious tree, the trunk is cylindrical, as if it were turned; its limbs are leafless, except at their extremities, on which grow long narrow leaves, with a sharp prickle at the end. These trees assume the most fantastic forms. At noon we arrived at the summit of the Cajon Pass, in the Sierra Nevada the descent from which is on a saddle or spur of the mountain, on an angle of thirty-five degrees, and the length of the descent is a quarter of a mile, then it becomes more gradual for a mile, until you reach the valley below.

The view from the top of the pass, is grand beyond description—from it, you can see the San Bernandino Mountains, and numberless valleys; from this eminence the Tulara Pass is in view.

The descent of our wagons occupied considerable time; the team was in front, but the whole force of the men were attached to long ropes at the end of the wagon, to prevent its too rapid descent; the surface of this saddle is perfectly smooth, and a good team of horses easily draws up a wagon over it to the top. There would be no difficulty for two steam engines to propel a train of cars up this natural inclined plain, while the road from Great Salt Lake to San Bernandino, eight hundred and fifty miles, could be laid without any grading; the passes through the mountains being perfectly level, and well adapted for railroad purposes—while the deserts are almost perfect plains.

After descending into the valley, the road to San Bernandino leads through a wide level cañon in which grow spontaneously abundance of wild oats. We encamped, after journeying ten miles through it, with good water and grass. We travelled thirty-two miles this day.

9th—This morning at daylight the thermometer was at 35º. We left camp early, and continued through the cañon which was well timbered for twelve miles, we then emerged into the San Bernandino Valley, and at one o'clock, P. M. we all arrived safely at San Bernandino. I collected and preserved numerous specimens of wild flowers, which are yet unclassified.

My mule is in tolerable condition, the last few camps where good clover and grass were obtained, improved him greatly. The horses have all come in very poor, and many of them lame and broken down.

I was kindly received by Gen. Rich, the president of San Bernandino, who showed me many civilities.

San Bernandino Valley, is a tract of most fertile country; it was the seat of a Catholic Mission some years before, but recently purchased by the Mormons for a settlement.

San Bernandino City, contains about one thousand inhabitants, the church owns saw-mills and flouring mills, it is a great agricultural country. Being desirous of reaching the sea-board, I only remained three days here. I mounted my trusty mule, and rode into Los Angeles in twelve hours, a distance of forty-five miles, pretty well for an animal that had just come off the deserts.

Immediately in the vicinity of Parowan, there are several mountains containing magnetic iron, which accounts for the great variation in that place.

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