The following descriptions of the journey across the plains to the California gold fields come from 2 sources – Alonzo Delano’s Journal,1 which he kept day by day during the journey and Jesse Green’s memoir,2 in which he wrote his memories of the trip many years later.
Twenty wagons and forty-nine men, principally from Dayton, but some from Ottawa, left on the boat Timoleon from Ottawa for the California gold fields on April 2, 1849. Jesse Green was elected captain of the company; Joseph Green, his younger brother, was among the company. John Green, their father, had been hired by the company to go with them as far as St. Joseph, MO to buy the oxen for the journey.
From St. Louis they took a boat up the Missouri River to St. Joseph. There were no cases of cholera on their boat, but on other boats, many people died – in one case, 12 in a single night. The first night after arriving in St. Joseph, one of the company suddenly came down with cholera and died before morning. That was the only death in the Dayton company during the entire trip across the plains, but John Green decided there was so much cholera on the river that it would be dangerous to go home, so he went on to California with them.
They left St. Joseph and went sixty miles up the river to find more plentiful grass for the teams, then headed west , travelling without a road for some two hundred miles.
[JG memoir] We agreed upon a point of compass that we would travel, making headway on our route rather than striking more south in order to reach the main road from St. Joseph. The grass still being short we did not aim to travel over five to ten miles a day for a spell, and were so long reaching the main road that [a] mutinous spirit began to manifest itself, until I yielded to their request to allow Mr. Delano (of Ottawa) to lead them, which he undertook to do not caring for my compass, and though it was a clear day, I found before noon that in his eagerness to strike the road sooner, he had swung completely around and was traveling on the divide between the big and little Nimehahs down stream, while all knew we should travel upstream. To satisfy the company that we was lost, I went to the nearest stream to see in which direction the water was running. I knew by my compass and otherwise but did not wish to take any chances in ordering a countermarch. I hurried back and stopped the train for our noon halt, and satisfied our men that we had been traveling the most of the forenoon on our back track, and said if they desired to go with me to California we should have to turn about, and try to make [the] camp which we had left in the morning, and I would lead them as I had been doing by the aid of my compass but would bear a little more in the direction of the road. In due course of time we struck the road at a point where we could not possibly have bettered had we been well acquainted with the country, as ten miles further west we would have encountered sand hills where it was impossible to travel with teams. Mr. Delano published a history of our travels across the plains giving a good and truthful account with the exception of his leadership of our company, which was of such brief duration that he doubtless did not consider it worthy a place in his history.
[AD journal] May 15, 1849: the party found a ford through a stream “and it was duly consecrated by an involuntary baptism of Mr. [John] Green. The old gentleman rode in to sound the depth, when his saddle-girth gave way and he slid, body and breeches, over the mule’s head into the water; but as cold baths are recommended by physicians, he consoled himself upon the water-cure principle against future disease. Notwithstanding the consecration, fate claimed a mite for her share from the old gentleman, for when the train was about to ford, he rode in to show the way, when the girth gave way a second time, and made a cold-water man of him again; then he claimed the honor of being the best marksman in the company, for without firing a shot he had got a brace of ducks – two duckings in one morning.”
That night, again according to Delano, John Green, who was acting as hunter for the party, did not return to camp. There was much concern and at the earliest dawn a search party went out. About 11 o’clock, the old pioneer was sighted approaching the camp. It seemed that, the previous evening, just as he was approaching camp, an antelope started up near him and in attempting to bring it down he was led on a chase of 2 to 3 miles and lost the direction of the camp. He wrapped himself in his blanket and slept until the rising sun showed him the correct direction. Upon his coming in, a second search party was sent out after the first and it was not until night that the entire company was re-united.
[JG memoir] …at Laramie the abrupt bluffs approached so nearly that we were obliged to leave the River for a distance of one hundred miles over the Black Hills, and here grass was so scarce, that we concluded to divide our train, as it was almost impossible to find grass in sufficient quantity for so large a train.
[AD journal} Captain Greene continued in command of eleven wagons and 29 men…I parted from Captain Greene with regret, for his modest unassuming manner, and his sterling good sense had made me much attached to him.
[JG memoir] Isaac Freadenburgh of Ottawa was elected captain of the branch Company. Our friend Delano was in the mess that went with Mr. Freadenburgh. He tried to get into our mess; when we separated he said I knew how they abused him and he really cried like a child at his being refused. The difficulty between him and his mess mates was that they thought he was spending too much of his time on his Journal and failing to do his share of camp duty.
They crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass.
[JG memoir] “…and here on top of those gigantic mountains, although eager to reach the mines, we were constrained to stop and meditate on the grandeur of the scenery, surpassing anything we had ever beheld, as peak after peak, snow-clad, in the distant Wind River Mountains, dazzled the eye…” The next point on our route of importance, was the crossing of Green River, where we found about five hundred wagons awaiting their turn to be ferried over by a company of Mormons. Instead of waiting on this company, there was a train there from Hennepin in our state, which had two wagon boxes made of sheet iron with the view of using them in such emergencies, they crossed their own train and we paid them ten dollars each for ferrying our wagons and loading them over, and swam our teams. By this means we got ahead of the five hundred teams awaiting the ferry.”
They arrived in the mines on September 2, 1849. They spent a year at various locations, with a moderate amount of luck, but in late summer of 1850 they decided to go home. Rather than recross the great plains, they went home through Mexico. On September 2, 1850 they went to San Francisco and took passage on a boat which landed them at Mazatlan, Mexico, after a trip of 18 days. In Durango, there was a Government Mint and they exchanged some of their gold for coin to buy horses, which they had to take in silver, and put it on a pack mule. They bought 500 head of horses at 5 to 6 dollars each and drove them overland to Texas, where Joseph and some others remained to winter them there and drove them home in the spring. Their profit was not as great as they’d hoped as they arrived with less than half the original number, due to stampedes in Mexico. The Mexicans would stampede the horses, then get a reward for rounding them up, although some went missing every time.
[JG memoir] We passed over the memorable battleground of Buena Vista where General Taylor and General Santa Anna were in command.
In San Antonio Jesse and John Green and Mr. Goodrich left the company and took a steamer at Port Lavaca for New Orleans, in what was a very rough passage – the boat striking bottom 2 or 3 times and seeming as if it must be smashed to pieces.
[JG memoir] “We arrived at New Orleans all safe and got aboard a boat for Saint Louis the same evening, and while at supper we had our trunk broken open in our state room just back of where we were sitting, and everything of value taken, not much money however, only about fifty dollars in silver, but all our specimens of gold and other rare specimens of value together with several small buckskin sacks, filled with black sand and fine gold, a watch, etc. These sacks were very nearly as heavy as gold, and doubtless those thieves thought they had made a larger haul than they really did. We regretted the loss of our specimens more than all else.”
They encountered ice on the river at Cairo and reached St. Louis with difficulty. There, they found the Illinois River was frozen over and were obliged to return home by stage, reaching there in January of 1851, where Jesse Green saw for the first time his daughter Clara, born over a year before.
- Delano, Alonzo. Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings. Auburn [N.Y.] : Milner, Orton & Mulligan, 1854.
- Unpublished memoir of Jesse Green, a transcription of which is in the possession of Candace Wilmot, Urbana, Illinois.