Tracing the Cherokee Trail

Cherokee Trail marker on the ridge north of Currant Creek looking east ~ near the Buckboard Crossing of the Green River, Flaming Gorge

“This is the most desolate looking country that I ever saw.”

When John Lowery Brown made this observation on July 19, 1850, he was talking about this stretch of trail in southern Wyoming. Standing here a few weeks ago with his diary in my hand, it seemed little changed in 168 years. It’s still mighty desolate country. I couldn’t help but think about the even more desolate country that lay ahead on Brown’s route. To the west, things were going to get a lot worse for him and his companions — a group of Cherokee Indians caught up in the Gold Rush to California.

What? You never saw a Western movie about the Cherokee 49ers? Me neither. It’s yet another chapter of colorful American pioneer history that didn’t capture the European-American imagination. It’s so obscure, it’s almost like it never happened. Almost.

I stumbled upon a tantalizing clue studying a National Park Service California Trail brochure. Unfolded, it revealed a map that was nearly four feet long. A web of solid brown lines showed the many ways gold seekers traveled between Missouri and California. Toward the bottom of the map I noticed a dashed line wandering across the southern Plains all by its lonesome. It was labeled “Cherokee Trail.”

Huh? I thought the “Cherokee Trail of Tears” ended in Oklahoma? What’s it doing clear out here in Colorado? Then I remembered a smattering of “Cherokee” place names in the Sierra foothills. There’s a one-horse town, a river bar, a ridge, a camp, a flat, a creek or two — maybe this Cherokee Trail wasn’t about tears but about something else.

The “Cherokee Trail of Tears” refers to the forced march of people from their homes in southern Appalachia to Indian Territory (later Oklahoma) in 1838. They were evicted with little warning, incarcerated in stockades, then made to walk more than a thousand miles through a very cold winter. More than 4,ooo people died from starvation, exposure, and sickness. The events leading up to this horrific removal were complicated but a pivotal component was the discovery of gold on ancestral Cherokee lands in 1799 and 1828.

These early U.S. gold rushes played right into the Cherokee’s hands — at first. They became skilled at placer mining. In fact, they excelled to such an extent that the white men in power eventually took the rich land without even pretending their unscrupulous means were legal.

Many Cherokee families found Oklahoma a pathetic substitute for their homelands. Most tried to make the best of it. They set up schools and started newspapers that were published in both Cherokee (Tsalagi) and English. But when the California gold strike came along, hundreds jumped at the chance to put their placer mining skills to use again — hopefully under more egalitarian circumstances.

The Cherokee advertised for non-Indians to join their wagon trains. One big advantage to throwing in with them was “the Cherokee can pass across the prairies with perfect safety from the molestation of the Indians … as they are on most friendly terms …” They were skilled at keeping the peace between nations when it was in their best interest.

The Cherokee also knew what they were doing when it came to traveling long distances. After the deadly “Trail of Tears”, (over which they’d had little logistical control) they were painfully aware of all the provisions that had been lacking. They weren’t going to let that happen again. And although the Cherokee were skilled farmers, they had also continued to hunt and gather. They knew how to live off the land.

The Cherokee made the crossing with little sickness, few deaths, at least one successful birth, minimal losses of stock, and only one minor inter-tribal hostility. The Cherokee companies sent home articles and letters describing their passage. Several diaries chronicling the journey survived.

In California, many of the Cherokee enjoyed success in the placer mines. Others set up shop or went into farming. An impressive number nurtured the fledgling newspaper business as writers, editors, and publishers. The most famous was John Rollin Ridge, who wrote The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta in 1854. It was the first novel published in California, the first novel published by a Native American, and the first American novel to feature a Mexican protagonist. The story eventually morphed into the swashbuckling character of Zorro — fictional book, comic, and film star in America, Mexico, Europe, and even India.

Basically, these industrious and creative folks got to California and kicked butt.

As I stood on the Cherokee Trail near the spot where John Lowery Brown and the Cherokee ox teams crossed the Green River in Wyoming, it was strange to realize that I knew Brown would make it safely to California and back again to marry his sweetheart. But on the 19th of July in 1850, he had no idea if he’d survive another day.

I looked at the faint trace of the trail as it descended toward the river at a place that’s still called Buckboard Crossing. I touched my lips and blew a blessing into the wind. Good luck fellow travelers! I’ll see you on the other side.

Packed Away

“I felt instinctively that should she ever decide to move one of the surrounding mountains to the other side of the canyon, she would go about it calmly and deliberately, some evening after supper, perhaps. And she would move it – every stick and stone of it – and would ask no help.”

~ Nell Murbarger
“Josie Pearl, Prospector on Nevada’s Black Rock Desert”
Desert Magazine, August, 1954.

The West is rich in stories about strong, independent women. You may have to scratch the surface to find them, but they’re always there. Of course there’s your standard-issue pioneer wives, cowgirls, and widowed ranch women who run the place singlehandedly once their man is gone. But there are others who don’t fit the comfortable categories we’re used to pinning on them. Lately I’ve been thinking about two such gals. They never knew each other but they have one odd thing in common, an extravagance I find hard to explain.

The first is Nellie Bly Baker O’Bryan. Early in life, Nellie seemed an unlikely candidate for becoming a gutsy mountain mama. She started out working as a secretary for Charley Chaplin’s film company, First National Studio. Chaplin noticed her and invited her to play bit parts in his silent films. Eventually Nellie acted in 13 films alongside the likes of Joan Crawford, Edna Purviance, and Chaplin himself. She wasn’t a star, but work was steady and the pay was good. She’d made it in Hollywood.

By 1939, Tinsel Town had lost its luster and she took off for the rugged Sierra. She bought the ramshackle remains of a remote mining camp named Lundy near Mono Lake. She built her home out of boards scavenged from weathered shacks. Eventually she constructed four more cabins, a store, and a restaurant and christened her place the “Happy Landing Resort”. She lived year-round in this remote, avalanche prone canyon and became California’s first licensed fishing and hiking guide. Nellie toughed it out in Lundy until she was almost 60.

I once heard a story about Nellie’s first winter. She was freezing in her makeshift cabin during a typical Sierra blizzard. Snow blew through the cracks and she’d thrown every quilt and blanket she owned on the bed. Through her shivering she remembered a full-length fur coat packed away in a trunk. In desperation, she dug through the trunk, found the coat, turned it inside out, wrapped herself up in the furry cocoon and got back into bed. She said it was the first time she’d been warm in a week.

Many years after hearing Nellie’s story, I encountered the tale of Josie Pearl. She was a bona fide desert rat whose “retirement” cabin sat in a canyon on the edge of the Black Rock Desert. Josie had lived in boomtowns most of her life. She waitressed, ran boarding houses, prospected, and mined — mostly for gold. She was good at it too. When journalist Ernie Pyle visited her in the 1930s, he wrote, “Her dress was calico, with an apron over it; on her head was a farmer’s straw hat, on her feet a mismated pair of men’s shoes, and on her left hand and wrist $6000 worth of diamonds! That was Josie — contradiction all
over …”

Pyle noted something else that, after Nellie’s story, came as no surprise. Inside Josie’s rough cabin was an “expensive wardrobe trunk with a $7,000 seal skin coat inside …” Of course! No hard-ass Western hermit woman would be without one.

There’s no mention of Josie ever sleeping in her fur coat. Or maybe she did sleep in it but didn’t think it worth mentioning. We’ll never know. The funny thing is, every winter when the blizzards start blowing, I think about those fur coats packed away in trunks. Now I’m not a fan of wearing furs. I was brought up when magazines featured Greenpeace pictures of pathetic baby harp seals about to be bludgeoned. But I realize that fur coats used to have a mystique for women that they don’t have now. They represented luxury and status. In cold northern cities, they actually kept you warm. But when Nellie and Josie were young, well-off married women, a warm fur coat was hardly necessary in Hollywood, California or Goldfield, Nevada.

So why did these women haul expensive fur coats out to their ratty cabins in the  sagebrush? It’s hard to imagine many opportunities to dress up in your fur and heels. If they didn’t have a practical use, what purpose did they serve?

Maybe they were like money in the bank — you could always take them to Reno and pawn them in a pinch. But jewelry or coins would have been handier for that.

Maybe it had to do with a certain feminine ideal they couldn’t part with? As long as they owned a fur coat, they were in some magical way, a “lady” by association. Maybe they remembered a woman who felt at home in a more glamorous world.

And they didn’t want to forget her.

Cranes in the Family

I love this historic Nevada picture! A Newe (Shoshone) gal and her tame Sandhill crane head out for a day of gathering … or gardening? She has her hoe and her basket and a bemused smile on her face as if to say, “What? You don’t have a pet this cool?”

If you want to know what it’s like to be adopted by a crane, read Dayton O. Hyde’s book, Sandy: The Sandhill Crane Who Joined Our Family. After rescuing an egg from floodwaters, Dayton gets it to hatch and has a feathered friend for life.

All that happened decades ago, before cranes became a protected species. Hatching out wild bird eggs is generally frowned upon these days. But there are marshes, irrigated fields, and riparian areas in the high desert where cranes will mosey up close, if you sit quietly and thank them for their long standing friendship.

Historic photo courtesy of Special Collections, University of Nevada, Reno.

The Unlikely Life of Charlotte Green

Colorado in the 1840s was a pretty unusual place. Charlotte Green knew all about it. She called herself “the only lady in the whole damn Indian country.” She gave lavish parties, kept peacocks in her yard, knew all the latest dance steps and was called a “culinary divinity.” Hardly the kind of description and praise normally associated with an enslaved person of African descent before the Civil War. But then Charlotte’s home, Bent’s Fort, redefined normal.

Bent’s Fort was a multi-cultural, multi-lingual mecca on the northern bank of the Arkansas River near present day La Junta, Colorado. The settlement’s primary trade was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoe for buffalo robes, but it also served an international array of travelers on the Santa Fe Trail. William Bent, a Mayflower descendent and the fort’s mastermind, married into the Cheyenne nation and made sure that all peaceable visitors were welcome. Charlotte, along with her husband and brother-in-law, joined this diverse community after they were inherited by William’s brother, Charles Bent. He brought them from St. Louis and they worked for the Bent family until Charles’s death in 1847, after which they were freed. Charlotte and Dick returned to St. Louis in 1848.

When the National Park Service restored Bent’s Fort in 1976, Charlotte’s limestone kitchen hearth was one of the few original remains. The worn stones remember the movement of her feet, back and forth, as she made her famous buffalo stew, pastries and pumpkin pies. And when you visit, if no one is around except the cat, you might hear the echo of Charlotte’s laughter as she gathers her skirts to join the fandango — the frontiersmen’s “belle of the evening.”

Aloha Owyhee!

Most folks don’t realize Oregon was originally settled by Hawaiians. For decades following Lewis and Clark’s trip down the Columbia River, Hawaiians made up most of the non-Native workforce in the Pacific Northwest fur trade. They built the first forts and villages along the Columbia River, and journeyed thousands of miles inland as part of  exploratory surveys. They left their mark in unlikely places, like the high arid rangelands of Eastern Oregon. The Owyhee River is named after three Hawaiians who disappeared there in the winter of 1819-1820. (“Owyhee” was a common spelling of “Hawai’i” back then.)

European, American, and Asian trading ships regularly sailed into port on the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s. Many Hawaiians took the opportunity to explore the far reaches of the Pacific by signing on with companies competing for the North American fur trade. These islanders possessed all the maritime skills needed for survival in the Pacific: navigation, boat building, fishing, and swimming. Swimming might seem like an essential skill for any sailor, but in the early 1800s most Europeans and Americans didn’t know how to swim. As a precaution, at least one Hawaiian was assigned to every boat, ready to rescue any person or cargo that went overboard.

If a Hawaiian wanted to go to sea, they requested permission from their ruling monarch. The Aliʻi generally set limits on the length of employment and specified the compensation. And he expected his subjects to return to the islands. Many survivors did return with fabulous stories they retold for the rest of their lives. Others came back to visit but were anchored to the mainland by marriages with native people or, occasionally, European and American settlers. Many Indian families in Oregon Territory still have Hawaiian names.

This congenial mixing of Pacific Rim people encountered resistance when American settlers arriving overland from the East began to outnumber the people who were already here. Among this influx of Easterners was Samuel Thurston. He was described by one biographer as  “young, brilliant, handsome, splendidly educated, with an indomitable will, and almost insanely ambitious.” One of Thurston’s self-appointed goals was to exclude African Americans and Hawaiians from Oregon Territory. As the territory’s Congressional delegate in 1850,  he won passage of a land grant act that legally closed the door on anyone who wasn’t white or a half-white/Native American mix. Thurston described Hawaiians as “a race of men as black as your negroes of the South, and a race, too, that we do not desire to settle in Oregon.” After Thurston and his ilk had their way, Hawaiians could not own land, become citizens, vote, purchase liquor or testify against “whites” in court. The territory at that time included the future states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Some of Oregon’s racists laws remained on the books for more than a hundred years.

Many Hawaiian families in the Oregon Territory moved to Canada where they were welcomed as full-fledged citizens; some hid out with their native families on Indian reservations protected by the tribes’ sovereign status. But some stayed right where they were, as revealed by newspapers published on the islands. An article from Ka Lau Oliva, December, 1874, told of a Hawaiian woman who gathered Hawaiian language newspapers and books and sent them through a friend to Hawaiians living in Oregon. To express their gratitude, the Oregonians sent her a barrel of kāmano (salmon), “along with our warm aloha.”

And what would people on the islands do with a barrel of salted salmon? Make the popular luau dish, lomi-lomi salmon, of course! You see, everything just naturally flows together and no one can kill Oregon’s aloha spirit.

 

Photo: Sisters Luau, Sisters, Oregon, 2015, Jerry Baldock photographer.

Waking Up the Wheel Lines

Irrigation season always seems to start before I expect it. I associate the pssst, pssst, pssst of the impact sprinklers with warmth and sun. But the hay fields start growing as soon as the snow melts, so away we go.

Some mornings the ice sculptures are dazzling. I should have left a half hour sooner so I could explore the fancy filigree and not be late. Sometimes, you just have to be late.