Tom Ross: Rediscovering my ancestors's 1848 journey on the California Trail

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— I’ve always known my ancestors on both sides of the family emigrated to California and Oregon by wagon train in the middle of the 19th century, but the magnitude of those bold trips never really hit home until last week. That’s when a published transcript of my great-great-great-grandfather Richard Martin May’s diary of his family’s trip to San Francisco landed on my doorstep.

Now I know in great detail how my ancestors took part in America's westward expansion.

I’ve had in my possession for many years a typed manuscript of May’s diary, and although I had read it, I didn’t quite connect with it until now.

Their trip across the plains to the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Basin and over the spine of the Sierras was relatively uneventful when compared to Hollywood versions of the westward migration.

The original diary is stored in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

However, the paperback book sent to me by a relative last week, “The Schreek of Wagons: 1948 diary of Richard M. May,” has captivated me. It was edited by Devere Helfrich and Trudy Ackerman. The qualities of their book that enhance the diary for me include contemporary Oregon Trail photographs, detailed footnotes that provide context to landmarks and descriptions of all 132 campsites relative to modern highways and towns where the wagon train stopped along the way to California.

As a child, I thought it was a pretty big deal when my family piled into a Ford station wagon and set out on a five-day journey from Wisconsin to visit relatives in Oregon. Of course, we were roughing it — for the first few trips we couldn’t afford a motel with a swimming pool.

William and Robinette Crump May originally intended in the spring of 1848 to go directly to the Oregon country, but they missed the last wagon train destined for the Willamette Valley due to the birth of a son. Instead, May sent a messenger ahead to flag down a wagon train, which had left Independence, Mo., a few days earlier. The train led by Joseph B. Chiles apparently agreed to travel more slowly for several days so the May family could catch up.

So they left Independence on May 12 with nine children ages 2 weeks to 15 years packed into a pair of wagons pulled by oxen, for a journey that would last six months and cover 1,855 miles.

They began on the Oregon Trail, traveling through the northeast corner of Kansas on the Little Blue River to the North Platte in Nebraska, where they followed the big river all the way north and west to the present-day location of Casper, Wyo., and up the Sweetwater, crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass and then on to ford the Green River somewhere north of the Great Salt Lake before taking the California cutoff.

On a personal level, the diary is somewhat disappointing because it is almost devoid of mentions of May’s family and their dreams for a new land. Instead, he had set out to create a travel guide that would be useful to emigrants that followed behind him.

As a result, May wrote more about the quality of the wagon roads, water, grass, firewood and timber along the trail.

However, Helfrich and Ackerman point out that the diary is of added historic significance for several reasons.

In 1848, some of the last free trappers who worked the beaver streams of the Rockies in an earlier era were still hanging around southern Wyoming. The Chiles train actively traded goods like tobacco, whiskey and other commodities with the last of the mountain men for buffalo robes, for example, and the mountain men helped the emigrants by directing them to shortcuts and safe rivers fords. Other portions of the diary that carry historic significance include interactions with Mormon pioneers returning from California to Salt Lake City with news of the gold strike and samples of ore that would soon set off a great gold rush.

William and Robinette May stopped in the gold fields before taking up residence in San Francisco and San Jose, Calif., but their destiny was to the north. They made another difficult trip to Salem, Ore., and the Willamette Valley in 1850 where they settled and lived out their years.

One of my favorite details in the diary is William May’s report that he caught a large “salmon trout” in the Bear River that flows north out of the Uintah Range from Utah into Wyoming.

I hope to make a short journey there this summer with my fly rod to see if I can reconnect with my ancestors.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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