Campbells of Southwest Virginia

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Pioneer of 1846 - A Sketch of the Hardships Endured by Those Who Crossed the Great Plains in 1846

by David Campbell (1825-1912)


Introduction by Phil Norfleet

The following sketch first appeared in the July 1899 issue of the Weekly Review, a newspaper published in Porterville, California. David Campbell (1825-1912), eldest son of William, wrote the basic narrative; the sketch was then edited for the Weekly Review by the Reverend G. Eckles, father of Mrs. F. E. Bears.

I believe that David Campbell’s narrative contains several factual errors. I have noted these errors in the explanatory footnotes (accessed by hyperlinks) appended to the basic text.


Transcript of David Campbell's Narrative

There were 250 wagons in rendezvous at Independence, Missouri, ready to start for California on April 1, 1846.

In order to guard against Indian raids, we organized or 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, l846. [1] 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 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 parties that 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 ran 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 (Copyist Note: I believe this name to be John Foster, tho it may be John Porter - handwriting is rather dim) David Wray and myself, and we were very successful in killing the buffalo. The way in 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 the 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 5000, 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 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 riverbank 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 this 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 deerskins 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. [2]

The Donner party concluded they would take another road, which was called the Hastings Cutoff, by the way of Fort Bridger. This road proved to be a longer and a 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 [3] 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. [4] 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 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 foot below the surface of the ground and they never ran 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. They’re a few willows growing in this valley.

Just after leaving 1000 Spring Valley we struck the head of the Humboldt River. Here we came into 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 very 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 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 bore to the west. This brought us into the mountains where we found we had 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 doubled 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 happened, and that he had been driven off and were fearful lest the party would never get through as the road was so bad. [5]

Our company reached Johnson’s place all right and in good spirits. We laid over there for 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 level country. When we reached Sutter’s Fort we laid over there for several days, bringing the time up to the tenth 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 Sutter’s 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 the Santa Clara Mission, where they could be guarded and have houses to live in. Col. Fremont commissioned Capt. Aram to raise a company and guard the women and children. The Government gave to each woman and child a soldier’s ration.

Most of the men that Blackburn enlisted went 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 200 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’s 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’s 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 next day.

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. [6] This is how I happened to get into the Santa Clara battle in 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. Aram. 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 to be attacked at any hour, but they had been 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 that was half a 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 three hundred 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 San 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 in 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 Alcalde. The Governor appointed him and whatever he said had to be done. In one instance the Priest complained to the Alcalde that the Americans were trespassing on the Mission land, which was five miles square, and he wanted them driven off. The Alcalde ordered them off but they refused to go and the Alcalde then called on the Governor for assistance and he sent soldiers, who drove them 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 Alcalde 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 1850 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 sawmill. They did not know whether it was gold or not, but thought it was something very valuable, so they sent a man poste haste down to Monterey with it to Governor Mason to find out what it was. He told them 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 "Gold 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 the way of Benicia and cross the Bay on an old float 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 turn would come. There were two other men with me who were old sea captains and understood all about boats. 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; then 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 all right. This was the first time horses were ever swum across the Bay at Benicia. We then started for Sutter’s 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 handsaw, 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 that 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 that 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; 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 was high in proportion. Flour sold at $30.00 per barrel. In 1849 everything was booming at San Jose.

There were only five houses in San Francisco in 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 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. They were later called the "San Jose Forty Thieves," but being under Spanish law the titles were 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 a local Methodist preacher, who crossed the plains with us, preached a funeral sermon over the remains of Captain Aram’s daughter, who had 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 the old Santa Clara Mission.


1.  This date is undoubtedly too early; grass on the Great Plains would not yet have grown sufficiently to feed the livestock. Most sources state that the train departed Independence on or about 5 May.

2. James Campbell was one of those who took the turnoff for Oregon. His wife, Margaret, had died just a few days earlier, on 28 July.

3. The "captain" so referenced was James F. Reed of Illinois. Reed was a very wealthy furniture manufacturer, who had served in Abraham Lincoln’s company of Illinois militia during the 1832 Black Hawk War. On 5 October 1846, Reed had gotten into a dispute with a Graves family teamster named John Snyder; in the ensuing fight Reed stabbed him to death. Reed, a rather overbearing man, was not popular with many of the wagon train members. He narrowly escaped from being lynched on the spot; however, it was finally decided to expel him from the train. Reed set out for Sutter’s Fort on horseback with a man named Walter Herron, one of the Donner teamsters. McCutchen and Eddy did not accompany Reed at this time.

4.  David’s account again appears to be in error. The entire family of James Reed did survive the crossing; however, all of Eddy’s family, i. e., his wife and two children, perished. McCutchen’s infant child also died.

5.  As stated in footnote 3, Walter Herron left with Reed; William Eddy came through later to seek aid for the surviving members of the Donner party who were now snowbound and starving.

6.  The family sickness undoubtedly refers to the illness of David Campbell’s mother, Agnes, who died in Santa Clara on 30 November 1846.