Dr Otway's journey across the Rocky Mountains

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Map of the overland trails overlaid on the current US state boundaries.[1]

William Beauclerc Otway set up and operated the first steam-powered quartz-crushing mill in Ballarat.[Notes 1] An American, he arrived in Victoria in December 1853 with his wife Rebecca.[2] In one newspaper article he is described as having "crossed the rocky mountains three times".[3] Evidence can be found of one crossing, undertaken in 1849.

Otway travelled from Ohio to California with the Western Mining Company of Cincinnati who were praised by the St Louis Republican correspondent for their preparedness, including equipping themselves with the "complete running gear for a saw mill". [4] They set out from Independence, Missouri somewhat late in the season, on or about 17-18 May 1849.[5][6][7] Like many of the overland emigrants, they brought with them more than they could carry, and on 18 July they threw away the saw mill.[5]

Otway's company split several times to make the travelling easier and, on one occasion, because of arguments. By August they were travelling in small groups with one wagon each. It appears Otway may have been his group’s leader.[5]

On 20 September they inadvertently took Lassen's Cut-off, a branch of the trail which would become known as the "death route". Fortunately, they, and the other late arrivals, were rescued by the US military in the Sierra Nevada mountains.[5][7]



Prior to 1849, about 19,000 Americans had emigrated to the west, of which less than 3,000 travelled to California. After news of the gold discovery in California had spread, the number of emigrants in 1849 was about 27,000, of which 25,000 travelled to California.[8] Otway was among the tens of thousands making the trek that year. Indeed, "Ohio, in comparison with other states, contributed a disproportionately large number of citizens to the gold seeking migrations to California in 1849 and 1850. The Ohioans who were infected by the gold mania represented nearly all classes of society..."[9]

After Otway's discharge from the US Army in 1845,[10] he next turns up in Ohio, USA, where he marries Ketura Bickerdyke. Newspapers in late 1848 in the US, including Ohio, were full of stories about the gold discovery in California, exciting many to travel to California via coastal shipping through the northern hemisphere winter. The excitement escalated dramatically in December that year, when President Polk officially announced the stories were based on fact.[9][7]

As well as stories about Californian gold, the newspapers in Cincinnati were full of advertisements regarding publications to inform the curious and assist the adventurous, as well as all sorts of tents, wagons, tools, weapons, blankets, clothing, cooking equipment and long-lasting foods including various forms of alcohol and food such as "California Pilot Bread" that was touted to last twelve months and even cheese with the miraculous shelf-life of "four years in the warmest climate".[9]

Otway would have been surrounded by all this hoopla, and he and Ketura may even have gone to see a play about California gold:

The drama, California Gold Mines and a Mr Benton's play, The California Gold Hunters, were presented at Cincinnati's National Theatre in January, 1849. The California Gold Hunters, described as "an admirable burlesque: full of fun and incident," returned to the National for a June engagement. In February, 1849, one of the plays presented at Rockwell's New American Theatre in Cincinnati was entitled Buckeye Gold Hunters; or Dutchey in California.[9]

However, Otway does not seem to have taken the advice of "Messrs. Burnett and Blair, authorized agents for the California Gold Mining Company, [who] informed the public that "'tis essential to those wishing to prosper (and who does not?) - that they take a good Wife with them..."[9] It appears Ketura spent the rest of her life in Cincinnati, raising a family with her second husband, Henry Linscott.[11]

Travelling to the frontier

Among the several thousand diaries, journals, letters and other first-hand accounts left behind by the overland emigrants, many were written by Ohioans. Amongst these are the diaries of Peter Decker,[12] who travelled through Cincinnati and on to St Joseph, Missouri, in April 1849. It's possible Otway could have been travelling from Cincinnati to Independence, Missouri, at about the same time. Here are some extracts from Decker's first diary:

April 4 Having six weeks ago concluded to make a trip to California I have during that time been busily engaged in making necessary preparations for the journey & placing my business affairs in a condition for a contemplated absence... The journey of thousands of miles before me I have studied and make the tour for the sake of the tour... After a rainy day the evening was blustering but moderate which during the night changed into a cold wind from the N.W. the moon struggling through the clouds occasionally.

April 5 A beautiful day, arrived in Cin. at 10 Oclk & found the teams had arrived a few minutes before us & were already on board the Steamer [J.] Hancock... Purchased a few articles of clothing necessary for the trip. Went to the wharf & found our wagon taken apart, boxes strewn round – men, women & children working, looking on & enjoying the bedlam and confusion which the wharf exhibited on acct of the display of 4 or 5 California Companies with their fixtures about being shipped, by 9 o'clock all on hoard — 3 companies & other passengers bound for St Louis & Independence Mo. Reached the boat at 9 o'clock & found it jammed, officers no control of passengers — each looking for his own baggage & confusion worse confounded. Came too late to get a stateroom or berth, the whole floor was covered with mattresses & one blanket to each for a bed, some 400 passengers some playing the violin, some dancing, some firing pistols, some singing others walking and some uttering their misgivings as to the comfort of the mass bed spread, 150 ft long & 15 wide. 10 o'clock found all the blankets in use — gathered up two stray sheets which McColm & I agreed were table cloths a few hours before & laid me down in my scanty bed amid noise of every namable as well as unamable kind, in an hour I was in "Morpheus embrace." (I had slept nothing the night before.) A little after twelve o'clock woke up & found our craft animated by an application of steam — a few snorts & puffs and we were off on our way to El Dorado...

April 6 Servants snatched the beds from under us to make room to set the table. Had tolerable breakfast — by dint of management found myself at first table some waited for the fourth which brot breakfast nearly to dinner... Was informed this morning that a Steamer from the south arrived in Cin about the time we left that had several deaths on it from Cholera which makes some of our passengers feel uneasy... Touched a few hours at Louisville passed through the city... Passed through the canal 2 miles long around the falls at Louisville, took 3 hours having broken a wheel in passing... The afternoon was extremely warm for temperature in my room 76 degrees. The evening cool and pleasant beautifully clear & moon & stars shone brilliantly. By invitation I room with [other company members] two in a berth is close sleeping. Left canal at twilight this evening.

April 7 ...Had a meeting of the Board of Directors of our company & appointed J. Walton a com, to wait on & advise with 3 of our number concerning their vulgarity & a too free use of ardent. Hope it may do some good. Passed a steamer this morning from St Louis, the Lamartine with several cases of Cholera aboard. We have pretty good order on board considering the large crew, fiddling, dancing, card playing & gaming generally being considered a matter of course employment for a majority of the folks traveling on the river — Steam boats are wicked places... Rogues "follow the river" for a living. Have carried some $1200 as Secretary of our Co. I felt uneasy with it. Lay it and one of Allen's revolvers together under my pillow every night... The moon sailed athwart the sky in all her wonted loveliness the broad bosom of the river was without a ripple on its mirror like surface.

April 8 It being by previous arrangement made the duty of our mess no. 2 to attend the mules [Otway's company used oxen (bullocks)] I rose before break of day to assist, found some 50 passengers & hardy men women & children laying around on pig iron barrels, boxes, bundles of hay & on the floor which was not occupied by horses & mules of which there were 100. It was by the steam made hot as I could bear & smelt badly, poor wretches how can they escape cholera... Entered the Mississippi at its junction with the Ohio... Three of our men unwell this afternoon... Struck a sandbar & had to back out from it. Had but little observance of the Sabbath, some fired rifles & pistols. Played various games & others did better. Steamer Missouri passed us, is the largest on the Western Waters 300 ft long. She laid up on shore to bury a man who died of cholera, so we are right in the midst of it but I feel but little uneasiness, take care of myself. Dr. Boyle gave asafedita as a preventitive & it smells enough to keep off cholera & everybody else... 9 o'clock found the cabin strewn all over with beds & a hundred or more lying down in great confusion cutting up more funny antics than my gravity could bear, so I like all the rest enjoyed it & had hearty laughs, a few crusty old fellows growled & threatened to punish the officers for not keeping passengers from taking the liberty of enjoying themselves.

April 9 With my glass viewed the City and wharf [at St Louis] looking forest like with steam boat pipes 40 or 50 of which lay here & were receiving & discharging cargoes consisting of every variety of goods, chattles, produce &c... Held a meeting of our company in the cabin to arrange business matters. The ladies thought it a novel legislative assemblage for they peeped out of their cabin frequently... Visited Travellers Rest Lodge No. 1 and felt myself at home among my brother Odd Fellows...

April 10 The wharf as well as the streets in the lower part of the City much too narrow. Wharf two miles long, streets are mostly muddy & lower part of the City filthy, entirely too much so for Cholera times — which prevails here now to a limited extent... The upper part of the City is pleasant many fine dwellings. The ladies tread the streets freely and ride horseback — they generally dress very richly—more so than any place I have been in and some are handsome. All possess an air of dignity & self possession peculiar to the Slave State—arising perhaps from conscious superiority to those who attend to all the menial affairs for them...

April 11 Left St Louis at 3 o'clock... [Saw] a ship of respectable size bound for California, freight & crew engaged for trip... 17 miles above St Louis entered the Missouri at its widest where the river is two miles wide. The Mississippi looks clear the Missouri very muddy. As we entered the Missouri the sun set in the west in a gorgeous field of fire.

April 12 [One of Decker's company] had bowel complaint & thought it was Cholera, is better this morning...

April 13 [Another company member] taken ill as if by an attack of Cholera — is better this morning... Run on sand bank but got off easily... One man had difficulty with an officer on boiler deck on acct of taking (without leave) the pump & hose to water mules after many oaths (in which boatmen are accomplished) he granted the privilege...

April 14 Sleeping on boat soon becomes a habit, I now lay down in evening & in a few minutes the motion of boat rocks to sleep, like a child lulled to slumber in a cradle. Weather cold, N.W. wind temperature 38 [3°C]... Cold wind, gloomy sky... Cards, checker, chess & domino playing is done on a large scale.

April 15 Sabbath morning landed at Independence early. The town, however is 3 miles back from the river, on left side. Went out after breakfast passed over high hill where large rocks overhang & scenery below picturesque. Good farms over rolling land lay along road. Town has from 1000 to 2000 inhabitants has a beautiful location on a gentle rise, fine green lawns in suburbs. In center is a square with pretty good Court House, use a hard blue limestone good for building use. Although stores generally closed doors were open some & goods could be bought. Some of our folk remarked that the Sabbath had not got so far West, it seemed, although two or 3 churches are here & some folks going to them... Saw here a Mexican an Indian, a crowd of all sorts of people, some Indian ponies & many mules. A lady riding one of the latter in company with a gentleman perhaps on their way to church. The number encamped about & within 10 miles of this place waiting for grass to grow on prairies to enable them to start for California is various & estimated from 3 to 4000 this being early many more will leave from here. Also a government train of perhaps 1000.

Camp scene at St Josephs, likely to be indicative of conditions at Independence.[13]

Camping at Independence, Missouri

Another diary is that of William Swain, who lived in upstate New York. Swain travelled to Independence via a different route than Decker (and probably Otway). His diary is the main source used in The world rushed in – the California gold rush experience by J. S. Holliday, which states:

By mid-April some 30,000 goldseekers had reached the outfitting towns along the Missouri River. In meadows and forest groves they camped on the outskirts of these jumping-off points, packing and rearranging their wagon loads and training their teams. Each day hundreds more pushed ashore at the steamboat landings [who, together with] others who had come overland from farms and villages in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Missouri could find space to set up camp only on the outer edge of the vast sprawl of tents, wagons, mules, oxen and horses. At night the campfires looked like those of besieging armies.
After the months of anticipating and planning and then the journey to the frontier, the goldseekers wanted to get started for California. But everyone had to wait, those who had set up camp in early April and the stragglers who arrived in May. With the prairie trails soggy from spring rains and the grass yet too sparse to provide forage for the thousands of animals, the emigrants spent their days attending to camp chores or wandering into the towns to make purchases or just to look at the crowds. The first companies broke camp the week of April 15; the great majority rolled west by the first week of May.[7]

It is not known when Otway arrived, but by April 19 he and the other members of the Western Mining Company of Cincinnati were encamped at Independence and "ready to move". The company was "a joint stock company, with ample provisions, &c., for nine months service... mostly composed of mechanics, who carry with them their tools, and complete running gear for a saw mill. Of the large number emigrating, very few have taken similar precautions...[4]

Jumping off

According to a letter written by Harriet Knapp[14], her husband William, who appears to have been a member of Otway's company, died of cholera on Monday, May 5, (May 5 1849 was a Saturday), and was buried "in the village Church yard Tuesday the day they were to start for California". The letter is written in June, so her memory of the dates may be in error, but she is more likely to remember that he died the day after the Sabbath. Perhaps they were to start for California on Tuesday, May 8.

Pioneering on the plains, journey to Mexico in 1848, the overland trip to California[6] was "printed but not published" in 1924 and contains a transcript of the diary of Samuel Finley McCoy together with transcripts of letters and diaries from his brothers and other family members and associates. The McCoy brothers - Alexander, John, Samuel, William, and possibly others - appear to have links with frontier activities such as trading via the Santa Fe Trail[17], and it appears Samuel passed up an opportunity to work for his brother William on a Santa Fe freighting contract in order to travel with the Western Mining Company of Cincinnati. Samuel and Alexander jumped off from Independence fitted out with "a light wagon drawn by four mules" on May 19. It appears they were some days behind "the main company", but mules travel faster than bullocks (oxen) and by May 24 they caught up.[6] Swain's company, the Wolverine Rangers, departed Independence on May 16, and, according to Middleton's diary,[5] were travelling behind Otway's party until sometime around 25 August, when they commenced travelling together. Thus, it appears the Western Mining Company of Cincinnati jumped off prior to May 16.

The Swain diary and the other diaries referenced in The world rushed in[7] give us an idea of what was involved in preparation for "jumping off":

May 6 (ten days before departure) [According to the diary of Randall Hobart,] "all hands are making . . . sacks, wagon covers, and tents, except a few who are cooking by the side of an old log preparing coffee, bacon, beans and hard bread. The boys stand up or sit down on the logs to eat their grub and drink their coffee from their tin cups. They crack their jokes and enjoy it all."[15]

May 9 We are engaged in fitting up the wagons.

May 10 We have been busily engaged fixing the wagons and loading them, a ton in each.

May 12 Today we have finished the wagons, and this afternoon I ran up [poured] some bullets. Mr. Hutchinson and I went out and shot some rabbits and plovers and had a fine soup for supper.

May 13 Today we have been breaking the oxen. It is a mean job.

May 15 (the day before departure) Our business today is yoking the steers, branding them, and getting them ready to start tomorrow.

The journey to California

Dr Joseph Middleton is not listed in Otway's company on 19 April, but it appears from his diary that he travelled with them. According to the preface to a transcription of the diary held at Yale University:

Dr. Joseph Middleton, the writer of the present diary was a native of Scotland and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh. He served in the Battle of Waterloo, and traveled extensively throughout Europe before emigrating to America, where for a time he resided in New Orleans.
In 1818 he removed to Kentucky, where at Louisville he established himself as a physician and surgeon. His reputation was of the highest...[5]

Extracts from the Middleton, McCoy and Swain diaries are provided in the Chronology section below.



September 24 On Sunday morning... the Cincinnati Enquirer announced that "the papers are being filled with accounts of the discovery of a gold region in California, that is turning everybody in that country topsy-turvy."[9]

December 6 The Cincinnati Enquirer publishes "President Polk's special message to Congress in which the President explained that the California gold mines were "more extensive and valuable than was anticipated."[9]


Camping at Independence, Missouri

February 5 ...the Cincinnati Gazette avowed that "there is not a village or town scarcely in the United States, of any magnitude, that has not its companies formed and forming, for California..."[9]

April 19 Otway is included in a list of "Pioneers who crossed the continent for California in 1849" as part of "a Company that left Cincinnati started April 19th", apparently taken from the newspaper article transcribed below.[16][Notes 2]

April 19 Movements of California Emigrants on the Western Frontier. [Correspondence of the St. Louis Republican.] Independence [Missouri, USA], April 19, 1849.
Notwithstanding the large number of emigrants congregated in this vicinity, very little material, other than that of procuring a register of the various companies, is afforded a reporter, upon which to base his communications. A case of accidental shooting occurs almost daily, (and it's a wonder they do not occur oftener, so careless are persons in handling their fire-arms,) but even here an "item" is forestalled by a special and earnest request that it will not be reported, as "the wounded party is in a fair way to recover." In my next, however, some cases, not specified as above, will be given. In addition to the companies from the State of Ohio, previously forwarded you, the following are in camp in this vicinity, and ready to move, viz.:--
"The Western Mining Company of Cincinnati,” composed of [the list includes "W. B. Otway"][Notes 2] all of Hamilton county. They are provided with seven tents, seven wagons, twenty-six yoke of oxen, and a mule for each man to ride. They go as a joint stock company, with ample provisions, &c., for nine months service. The company is mostly composed of mechanics, who carry with them their tools, and complete running gear for a saw mill. Of the large number emigrating, very few have taken similar precautions, nearly all relying for subsistence upon their success at finding gold. Should they be disappointed in these expectations, their all is lost; for even if the necessary tools are to be obtained in that country, the exorbitant prices will render it impossible for the great majority to obtain them. The captain of a company remarked to-day, in my hearing, that his men, after purchasing their outfit, had ample means to maintain them some time after their arrival, but now could not average two dollars each, in pocket. This is the case, I fear, with too many who are emigrating; when their outfit is obtained, they regard it as all-sufficient. "Gold is plenty in California," and with this as their motto, they seem determined not to be burdened with its transportation, and recklessly and foolishly relieve themselves of the supposed drug. I hope none may in their anticipations be disappointed.[4]

April 19 INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI (April 19, 1849) California emigrants continued to congregate in the vicinity of Independence, Missouri. Handmaiden to influx was dissension. Cases of "accidental shooting" occurred almost daily in the wagon train campsites. Carelessness in the handling of firearms was generally the cited cause of the "accidents" and many of the shooting encounters were never reported on the pretext that the wounded parties were "in a fair way to recover".
Disagreements over procedural matters, route decisions, purchasing of provisions and selection of cattle were complaints that resulted in some instances in the complete dissolution of companies of wagon trains. One of the dissolutions, or winding up of affairs, came near proving fatal to an innocent party. In an encounter between two members of the company, Thomas S. Sawyer and Mr. Walters, of Illinois, respecting a balance claimed by Sawyer as due him, shots were exchanged, and a Mr. Alexander H. Baldwin, of Elmyra, New York, who chanced to be passing the belligerents at the time, received the contents of a gun, fired by Sawyer into his loins. Baldwin is said to have recovered. Sawyer was arrested; pleaded guilty to an assault, and was fined the sum of $1.00 and costs.
Very few of the large number of emigrants congregating in Independence took time to consider that they might be disappointed in their quest for gold in California. "Gold is plenty in California" was the motto. Few anticipated failure. One of the rare groups that displayed foresight was "The Western Mining Company of Cincinnati". This train was from Hamilton County, Ohio and it was mostly composed of mechanics, who carried with them their tools, and complete running gear for a saw mill. Very few emigrants took similar precautions, nearly all relied for subsistence upon their success at finding gold. This unit had wisely considered that if they were available in California, most of the emigrants found it impossible to the exorbitant prices.
Thus, in spite of the fact that the men of the "Western Mining Company of Cincinnati" could not average two dollars each in their pockets, they were better off than most of the emigrants in camp on that day in April, 1849.[17]

Circa May 5 In a letter from Harriet Knapp regarding the death of her husband William W. Knapp she states that "...Mr S[hepard] says that he never saw so bad a case of colera the Doctor was caled immediately but his stomach would not bear any medicine This was always the trouble with him in sickness S. says that he was with him all night that they rubed [rubbed] him all the latter part of the night and that often his arms were cramped about his head and he would beg him to straighten them when his legs were in the same condition says that he tried hard to save him for he could not bear think that he must die so far from home in a tent and on so hard a bed of which he complained incessantly he said that he should not recover when he was first taken Mr H[arris] was sick in another tent he sent for him when he went in he gave him his hand but could not speak dear sister are these not dreadful facts for me to write he died Monday about ten o’clock the 5 of may and was buried in the village Church yard Tuesday the day they were to start for California"[14] (Errors are as per the original letter. Text in brackets are as per the referred document.)

  • John Marbley, W.W. Knapp, N.M. Harris, and G.D. Sheppard are listed as members of Otway's party.

May 12 Cholera Among the California Emigrants on the Missouri Frontier. Louisville, May 12, 1849. Letters from Independence, Missouri, state that the cholera was prevailing among the California emigrants encamped at that place.[18]

Travelling to California

Unless indicated otherwise, the extracts below are from the Middleton diary.[5] All three diaries provide much detail concerning the landscape, the distances travelled and other observations. The extracts below have been chosen principally to illustrate the dynamics of the company, plus some observations regarding other matters to provide occasional ambience.


May 19 McCoy: Taking brother John's outfit, with which he had just returned from Mexico over the Santa Fe route, I left Independence after breakfast at eight o'clock in company with brother Alexander. He had started from home (Chillicothe, Ohio,) early in April and with a large company left Cincinnati on April 19th to travel overland to the California gold mines.
The road, leading out at first on the Santa Fe trail, was familiar to me in every respect...
The main company had gone ahead jubilant and with high hope.[6]

May 20 McCoy: ...a violent thunderstorm came up...[6]

May 21 McCoy: Early in the afternoon encountered a violent thunderstorm and all were thoroughly drenched.[6]

May 22 McCoy: As I jot this down by the uncertain light of the camp-fire I am struck by the weird picture before and around us. Camp-fires are blazing or smouldering here and there and dusky figures move from group to group as the incidents of the day are recounted and the hopes of the future are painted in colors more or less roseate. Some of the men are lying down trying to sleep, while others stand around in the ruddy glare of the fire. With most of us the sense of strangeness is beginning to wear off and we are beginning to adjust ourselves to our novel situation.[6]

May 23 McCoy: ...a thunderstorm routed us all out early in the morning. All got up tired and sleepy, but the tremendous peals of thunder and flashes of lightning rendered further effort at sleep useless...
It rained during the night and stormed continuously.[6]

May 24 McCoy: Rose at daylight and drove down to the Kaw Ferry and crossed it and found the most of the Company who had preceded me had encamped. All were apparently glad to see us. The river seemed to be nearly a third of a mile wide and the banks were clay and sand. The belated letters which we brought with us were distributed and eagerly read and the news passed around concerning "the folks at home."
The weather was bright and the warm sunshine seemed to bathe the heart with gladness. But later in the day the wind rose high. We continued on for three miles in the afternoon and camped about sundown on the top of a high prairie ridge. Scarcely had we made our preparations for the night when a severe thunderstorm, which had come up rapidly, broke on us. The thunder and lightning were incessant and grandly beautiful.[6]

May 26 Travelled about 15 miles. About 5 miles from the [Kansas River] we crossed a small creek with steep banks called Muddy Creek.

May 27 ("Sabbath") McCoy: Shall strive more earnestly to do good to those about me.[6]

May 30 Bad rainy day. Travelled about 4 or 5 miles.

May 31 McCoy: Becoming impatient at the slowness of the Company...[6]


June 1 McCoy: When the company stopped for the night, angry discussion arose among the men and there was much fault found by one and another. Friction is unavoidable and grumblers can easily find material for complaint.[6]

June 7 Up to this day my life has been miserable ever since I left Independence. McCoy has treated me so very meanly and insultingly that I was compelled to apply to several of the Company for protection. Mr. Mobly [likely to be the John Marbley in the April 19 list] directed me to sleep in his tent. I had slept 2 nights in the open, and Dr. Thomson [listed as Dr. J. Thompson in the April 19 list] wanted me to join his mess, where I am as comfortable as I could wish, and free from the neglect and insults of McCoy and 3 of his men in whose mess I was before.

June 10 McCoy: Another Sabbath dawned, clear, cool and pleasant, as befitting a day of rest. Everything indicated a profitable day, but like the morning cloud, or as the early dew, the good impressions, with which the day began, quickly passed away. Absence of grazing for the animals compelled us to hitch and travel ten miles to good grass. Dissatisfaction among the men is on the increase and Hedspeth comes in for much criticism despite his previous experience on the plains. The men are anxious to travel faster than would be consistent with the safety of their animals. Those with mule teams chafe under the slow progress demanded by the ox-teams.
I escaped from the dispute and took refuge some distance from the camp and spent the time in reading and meditation. Mine iniquities are great and my feet had well nigh slipped but Thou sustained me.[6]

June 10 Travelled up the Platte bottom to opposite Fort [Kearney], say 5 or 6 miles, when we camped for the day.

June 11 Swain: This morn we were all aroused before daybreak by a heavy storm of wind and rain, which blew down many of the tents and wet the beds and clothes of many of our people.[7] There are no entries for June 11 or 12 in Middleton's diary.

June 11 McCoy: Wakened by a violent thunderstorm. The wind blew a gale and the lightning was incessant and the thunder rolled in deafening peals; rain mingled with hail rendered the prospect of travel unpleasant and we remained in camp, which brought the dissatisfaction to a head and after more or less angry argument it was decided to divide the Company, as the split seemed irreconcilable. Separation seemed to be the only solution and without it peace and friendship are impossible.[6]

June 12 McCoy: As Alexander and I could not travel with either division without offending our friends in both divisions we passed out from the Company at 9 A. M., with our own wagons. Parting with those with whom we had travelled the past three weeks reminded me of the sadness with which I parted with my friends at Independence. We made good headway and kept on until night when we camped alone with one mule wagon belonging to the Pioneer train.[6]

June 13 Lay here in camp for 2 days and started this morning. The Company divided into two equal parts - 26 oxen to each party, 13 original owners on each side. Divided everything equally. McCoy, his brother Sam, and their Uncle left us yesterday with a wagon and 4 mules, and riding one.
McCoy wanted to travel with the other Company, but they refused him. The two Companies have 3 mules each.
I wished to go with Dr. Thomson's mess in the other Company as they were so kind and friendly, and most respectable, but this Company said they had no Physician, and they all solicited me to go with them, so I could not refuse. We are composed of 7 Irishmen, 5 Americans, 1 Englishman, and myself - 14 in all. I am afraid we will split again. We have 4 wagons and are not heavy laden. The other party have 3 wagons.

Drawing by J. Goldsborough Bruff of the storm experienced by Middleton (and Otway) on June 19.[19][Notes 3]

June 19 Got one wagon over the river last night, in which I went. Another with my baggage stood all night in the river 100 yards from shore. The other two wagons remained on shore with the oxen and men. We had 3 mules, but lost 2 of them yesterday whilst nooning. A man with the other mule hunted for them all afternoon till dark.
This morning the hunt was resumed but the man returned without them. He reported that he had seen several Indians scattered about. So we infer that the Indians have got them. We got the other 3 wagons over. Emptied one of them, sent it back to lighten the load of the one that was in the river. Got everything over safe. After getting some refreshment, and repacking we got on the way about 3 or 4 miles, when it came on a severe thunder storm which lasted till near midnight. I was one of the guard and was in all the rain.


July 17 Started tolerably early, had to double teams again to ascend the summit of the hill. At the summit the tongue of one of our wagons broke off. The other three wagons went ahead. Four of us with a sick man in the wagon stopped behind and coopered it up. We overtook the others where they nooned... We have two men on the sick list from bowel complaint; I think from bad water and badly baked bread, and perhaps an excess of buffalo meat. We have been generally very healthy. I was sick for one afternoon from a suspended action of the liver. I rode in a wagon all next day, and thank God got well, or else I fear I would have had dry shucking[Notes 4] and possibly very soon made a repast for wolves or some other prowling wild beast of the desert.

July 18 This morning found one of our best oxen dead. This misfortune, I think, will bring some of our obstinate men to a serious state of thinking about the necessity of lightening our loads, as also the necessity of abandoning one of the four wagons... All excepting one of the Company are willing to throw away the saw-mill. It must go soon... [Later the same day,] our wagons could not ascend a slight hill until they doubled teams, and so were obliged to throw away the saw mill concern. This lightens us between 600 and 700 lbs.
While perusing the vast quantity of goods thrown aside by others, Middleton finds "a large crucible, which I gave to Ottoway who was with me."

July 19 Ants and big fat crickets are extremely numerous here. Our rough Irishman said the crickets were "preginant". Yesterday he came up and pulled one of the Company by the feet who was lying in his way and damned his soul for a worthless good-for-nothing-scoundrel, and told him to get out of the wagon. He also alluded to me. After he went away I got out, although indisposed and tired.

July 20 Started late. A cold misty morning that in Scotland would be called dawkie, and in England a fine Scotch mist. Was on cattle guard till near midnight. Felt cold, but got out of my poncho, buffalo robe and blankets very warm and comfortable. There are several springs at the Willow Springs, and some considerable pasturage. We must stop here to graze a little and be thankful of the opportunity.

July 21 We have at length reached the Sweetwater at 11 A.M., and I have quenched my parched throat, after travelling over the desert, and washed my bronzed face and hands in it... [Notes 5] I now write on the highest point of the Rock Independence... I see from this height the Sweetwater coming down through the green valley winding like a silver serpent. High granite mountains rise up on each side and far ahead. I am about to enter into the rude incomprehendible recesses of nature...
The Irish bully had been grumbling and quarreling about his night watch, as has been his custom for several days past; this morning he collared a weakly, inoffensive man and threatened to choke him for making some trifling observation. He was soon separated and the affair so ended. He is a great nuisance to us all.

July 23 Have concluded at last to abandon one of our four wagons. We are at present arranging and shifting the baggage. Our cattle have improved much and look a great deal better since they have got good grass. This place, like Platte Ferry, is a great spot for refitting and abandoning...
We travelled till the moon was on the point of setting, say 9 o'clock. I wanted our Captain to stop at the good grass when I saw the sage appearing ahead. He is full of presumption to overflowing and knows everything. He says that he has crossed these plains before. What is very remarkable is that he knows the places and localities as minutely where he has not travelled as where he has travelled. Is not such a person a most admirable person for a guide?

July 24 Last evening Mr. Ottoway said he saw a Captain Duncan of the U. S. Army when he was riding ahead on a mule after our train had started. He said Duncan informed him that a short time ago – 78 miles back from Sweetwater ford – four of the U. S. dragoon deserters went to a camp where they found a woman. They compelled her to open her trunk and took all the money, which was $115. Then they ravished her one after the other in immediate succession; then they left. The woman’s husband was at some distance at the time, herding his cattle.
A detachment of Soldiers had been sent out to protect the emigrants and were encamped not a great distance away. Duncan, with six other men, dressed like private citizens, were on the spot in about 24 hours. They passed here after them last evening. The scoundrels were said to have been seen about the entrance to the Sweetwater day before yesterday (Sunday [July 22], the day we arrived). They had horses, which seemed to be tired, and they still wore the U. S. uniform jacket. Again last night Ottoway said that he had been informed that Captain Duncan had asked a man belonging to the Boston Company if he would assist him to take the four wretches, which the Boston man agreed to, and went with the Captain and some others on this meritorious expedition.

July 28 The wind blows a hard gale in my face and at times the fitful gusts lift up and carry clouds of dust and sand that are like to suffocate and blind me ...
The turbulent gentleman who kicked up so much disturbance among us some days ago was banished to Coventry[Notes 6] by us all. He began yesterday to talk in a mild manner. One of the Company presented a pistol at him, and another told him that would be his certain fate if he did not take care and behave himself. I don't expect any more trouble from him.

July 29 Got the loan of a blanket coat from one of the Company to wear this cool morning and it is very acceptable. My fine waterproof oilcloth cape wore into ragged ribbons by the time I got up the [Platte River]. I then got a second hand cloth one from one of the Company which I think will wear me through. ...we have passed the culminating point [i. e. South Pass]... I have a vigorous charge from the Pacific mosquitoes. Whilst I write they bite through my thick pantaloons. None of the Atlantic ones I met with can beat them.

July 30 One of our oxen died last night. This is the second that we have lost.

July 31 The Guide books say that we must start off from here and travel all night, as there is neither grass nor water till we come to Green River, 35 or 40 miles ahead.
This is a nasty dirty place where many have camped before and left all their filth and offals. The few large willows that remain are about 60 feet high; the largest from 2 to 3 feet in diameter. In one small spot I counted 14 stumps, the trees from which have been out this season. The tall trees are a cross between the willow and the cottonwood. They resemble the willow in the leaf and the cottonwood in the bark. They report tolerable grass down the river about a mile. Thermometer 30° [-1°C] this morning and 71° [22°C] at noon, 68° [20°C] at sunset. The last three mornings clothes washed and hanging out all night were frozen stiff.
We started after sunset to take the desert. We will be favored with a fine moon.


August 4 The Boston Company man who was employed for $100 to try to catch the four deserters told us today that Captain Duncan had caught them somewhere behind this and was taking them back to the States. He said that Duncan had got 3 of them and he supposed had shot the fourth one.

August 5 We will lay here all this day to refresh our weary cattle.

August 6 Started after a late breakfast. Crowds of wagons are constantly arriving and stopping here. During the time we have been here many have left to resume their journey, after stopping from 2 to 6 days. We are travelling with a Company from Chicago called the "Wolverine Rangers" [Swain's company], a company of 21 wagons.

August 7 We are going to abandon one of our 3 wagons here as our oxen are very weak and may not recover their strength soon - indeed I don't believe some of them will ever recover.

August 14 Our Company have become dissatisfied with one another and a division is to take place this morning. Three Americans, two Irish and I are to go together. Five Irishmen compose the other party.

August 15 We have got all our things divided and packed in each of our wagons, and are getting the cattle gathered to make a fresh start in two independent parties.

August 18 The company of 5 that divided from us on Bear River left us after breakfast this morning with their wagon, in a kind of a miff. One of them accused some of our party of not having divided the things fairly, which called forth a sharp reply. They yoked up and started before us. We may meet again.
Two miles from "15 Mile Creek" we enter a small run and ascend a very steep hill. The country is shattered into all kinds of sharp angles, abrupt slopes and contortions unimaginable. Our old friends who left us have returned to help us up this steep hill – unasked. Four of that company are good worthy men.

August 25 Swain: We met a Mr. Ottaway today, who is an old trader. He says that we are now not more than four hundred miles from California and that we are not on the Fort Hall road but on a cut-off leading from the Fort Hall road to the Mormon road to the Humboldt River. Amid this confusion of statements we know not where on the route we are.[7][Notes 7]

August 26 We parted with poor Keenan and his wife and 3 children; the Company refused him 50 pounds of flour. May God be merciful and take care of them in this inhospitable country. Some of the Wolverine Rangers have come up whilst I was writing at this last creek. They seem to have shown more humanity to Mr. Keenan than our Company. One of them told me they had given him a bag of meal.

August 27 The Irish wagon stopped behind this morning to recruit their oxen and to put in a new axletree. So we are now travelling alone... Last Friday we had to leave one of our oxen behind. He was so exhausted that he could not work for several days, and at last could not follow the wagon. We have 9 oxen now - one of which we picked up. He is very poor but he works every day.

August 29 A fine mild morning. Ice formed last night in the water pan.


September 3 The large raw-boned ox which we picked up at Big Sandy, after doing a good deal of labor and helping us along, had to be left behind this morning as he could not get up. We have lost 2 oxen, and have at present 8, or four yoke. My hands are badly chapped, especially on the knuckles, which bleed some almost every day.

September 9 Travelled yesterday 11 miles and camped with the Wolverines, who let us have one of their light wagons. We are to let them have it on arriving at the Sacramento, providing we get it there. Our large blue Santa Fe wagon is so very heavy that our exhausted oxen could not have hauled it much further. We are resting all this day, and exchanging our baggage to the Wolverine wagon so as to make a start at sundown for a night drive.

September 9 Swain: Today we let one of our wagons go to Mr. Ottaway to take through to California, to be delivered to us when he gets through.[7]

September 11 Travelled last night from sunset till this morning at sunrise & stopped one hour in the middle of the night. Travelled 18 miles. The road was rough and badly cut up a good part of the way. The wind blew a gale till 10 when it ceased. The dust blew at times like a snow storm, so that the ruts of the road could only be seen for a few yards before and behind you.

September 15 This is the day that Mr. Ottoway bet me $100 that we would be at Sutter's Fort in California - and we are not within 250 or 300 miles of it. So I win the $100 but will never get it.

September 18 We have now 7 oxen and 1 cow - all hauling the wagon – and one poor mule that follows, tied to the wagon behind.

September 20 We camped tonight on the north bank of the [Humboldt] River, and will leave it entirely a mile further on, where the Oregon Road comes into the valley, as we are going a new and shorter route to Feather River where we will cross the Sierra Nevada. Travelled today 11 miles. For preserving me so far over this perilous journey I offer my most grateful thanks to God.

September 22 One ox died last night and another was abandoned as useless from exhaustion.

Drawing by J. Goldsborough Bruff of Rabbit Hole Springs on September 20, three days before Otway's party camped there.[20]

September 23 [At Rabbit Hole Springs.] Travelled 9 miles last night, when at 1/2 past 12 we stalled on a sandy hill and stopped till 8 this morning, without supper or breakfast. I lay on the side of a sand hill in a place scooped out, in my blanket, buffalo skin and poncho. Saw 7 dead oxen last night, 1 pony and 1 horse, and passed 6 abandoned oxen. A new grave, 16th September, l849, aged 50. Counted 10 dead oxen while standing at this grave scattered around in a space about the size of a boneyard. Another 6 at some dug wells. A dead ox each in two of the wells, 3 dead oxen in a third, one above the other, another in a fourth well; another down on the edge of a slope. At some other dug wells, another; another in a distant dug well, body all in, except the hind legs and hams. Three on the bottom of the slope; eight more huddled in groups in a small dry run a hundred yards in advance of the grave.

September 24 We have discovered that we are on the wrong road, and that it's above 30 miles of desert yet where there is no grass. We have got a piece of wagon body with two wheels and are going to put our provisions and other indispensables in it and abandon all the rest and go ahead. We are still on the Oregon road and will go what is called the "Lassen Route". Our hay is all gone. ...172 dead oxen.[Notes 8]

September 25 Last night before 9 o'clock I arrived at Black Rock Hot Springs. The wagon did not arrive until 7 this morning leaving 2 of our oxen behind. It is hoped they will be able to be brought up.... Hot springs near boiling heat are here in profusion (the hottest is 170° [77° C]). Cold water - very drinkable - can be got by digging... This is a dismal looking desert, and the road from [Rabbit Hole Springs] affords neither a blade of grass nor a drop of water... Thermometer 94° [34° C] in the shade of the wagon.

September 30 Some of the St. Louis Company have arrived. They report that our 5 Irish friends who dissolved from us lost their oxen in the desert between [Rabbit Hole Springs] and Black Rock.


October 2 The wind blows a perfect gale this afternoon and the dust is desperate.

October 4 A very cold night. Ice an inch thick this morning. Started about 9 o'clock. Got a present of about 8 lbs. of sugar, and a small piece of bacon from one of the mess of the Wolverines, which was received as a Godsend. One of our Company quarrelled with our best man who pushed us on, and drove and managed the wagon, and now he will drive no more. Therefore I am almost certain we will not be able to get along far before we will be compelled to abandon the wagon and pack.
The pony we found was claimed by a man that was with the Wolverines, after we had brought it through 30 miles of desert. He had found it himself some way back, so as to settle the difficulty - for most of the Wolverines were in our favor - one of our men and the fellow played a game of Uca, the best of three games, and the fellow won. Three horses and a mule have strayed and the owners are panting over the hills hunting them, while the wagons are going ahead, and I am writing beside our campfire. I will light my pipe and follow the wagons. The wolves made a tremendous racket last night howling among the hills. Found the horses and the mule.

October 5 Thermometer at sunrise 18° [-8° C].

October 8 A fine morning. Last night flocks of wild geese flew over us going to the south - a sign of severe weather near at hand.

October 9 Went up 2 miles for water this morning. A board here says that it is 17 miles from here to the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, then north 10 miles, then to the summit [probably the pass] 3 miles. A party of the Wolverines and some of my Company are preparing to start ahead to have 3 or 4 days hunting in the mountains.

October 11 We are lying at the foot of the mountain ready to ascend. Governor Smith of California, by authority of the Government, has sent men and supplies for those in need to every pass in these mountains. One of the parties arrived here yesterday, and one of the Wolverine men copied the following request of U. S. Captain Todd for the perusal of emigrants:

"Notice is hereby given that a Government train, sent out by Governor P. F. Smith, commanding in California, with provisions for the relief of emigrants, is encamped 8 miles further on than this place. All parties who stand in need of its assistance are therefore requested not to camp here but to push on to it so as to cause no unnecessary delay. All information as regards the route can be furnished. Inquire for Capt. Todd's camp. October 10, 1849. Elisha Todd. Com'd Party."

October 12 ...our wagon, 3 of the Wolverines, and the other 2 wagons did not get over. Capt. Todd says that it is very unfortunate that we came this road, and did not go down the [Humboldt] River direct to Sutter's; that from the Sierra here to the first settlements (Lassen's and others) is 290 miles, and 40 miles further to the gold mines; that we can do nothing till after we have gone down to near Sutter's to buy provisions and that it was only 260 miles from the place where we left [the Humboldt] River to Sutter's.[21]

October 13 Got over the hill (the last wagon of the party) about sunset last night, and all are encamped in a valley about 4 miles from the summit. Travelled 4 miles yesterday to the spot where Captain Todd and his party are camped.
It has come to what I long anticipated - to pack. Three of our party pack and take the poor mule for their share. The others will get the 6 worn out oxen and what extra provisions the Company and I may not want. One of the two who gets the oxen was very insolent to me at breakfast, and I retorted as severely, but temperately.
I then went and got a responsible man, as I think, to take care of my surgical instruments, which cost not less than $200; also a suit of new clothes; 12 new shirts, 12 new lamb's wool socks, 6 new silk handkerchiefs, 2 fine sets of scales & weights; sheets, towels, and a number of other exquisite and valuable and useful articles, and half a segar box of precious costly medicines, and my Louisville portfolio, and all the papers therein except my diary, my diplomas, etc, and an English New Testament that belonged to Mary.
I made him a present of my buffalo robe and my dearly beloved poncho, reserving only my pair of Scotch blankets. Then went to the Government train, as did all the packers. They gave me perhaps 10 pounds of fresh beef, which I have out in small pieces, and kept a slow fire over it till it is nearly dry. This is called jerked beef, which eats very fine. We have 290 miles before any settlement, which is Lassen's & Davis' near each other.

October 13 Swain: This evening our boys, and those of another train lying here, joined with the Smith girls and had a tall time in the way of a fandango, which lasted till ten o'clock.[7]

According to Holliday:

Neither Swain, Pratt nor other Rangers described the fandango, but it must have been an unforgettable scene – more than seventy men and a few women gathered around campfires in a forest of soaring pines; wavering shadows on the tattered remains of wagon covers; men and women, with children watching, dancing to the improvised music – a moment that drew them all together before facing separately the next day's realities.[7]

This is the last point at which it is likely that Otway and Middleton travelled together. Over the two weeks Middleton writes of travelling with the party of three with the mule, including sleeping together for warmth, but it is unclear whether any of them is Otway. After that he travels alone or with people he meets on the way. He encounters several people from the "old company", but none of them is Otway.[5]

See also

William Beauclerc Otway


  1. The California Trail, Missouri to the Sacramento Valley, USDI, National Park Service, Eligibility/Feasibility Study and Environmental Assessment for National Historic Trail Authorization, Washington, D.C.: United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1987[1]
  2. Potts, E. Daniel (Eli Daniel) & Potts, Annette, (joint author.) (1974). Young America and Australian gold : Americans and the gold rush of the 1850's. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, QLD
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Movements of California Emigrants on the Western Frontier. New York Herald. May 10, 1849[2][3]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 Joseph Middleton Papers. Western Americana Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.[4]
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 6.14 McCoy, Alexander William; McCoy, John; McCoy, Samuel Finley. (1924). Pioneering on the plains, journey to Mexico in 1848, the overland trip to California.[5]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 7.9 J. S. Holliday & Swain, William, 1821-1904 (1981). The world rushed in – the California gold rush experience. New York Simon and Schuster
  8. California Trail. (2015, November 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05:36, November 10, 2015, from [6]
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 Thomas, Melvin Robert (1949). The impact of the California gold rush on Ohio and Ohioans. Ohio State University / OhioLINK
  10. United States Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914, index and images, FamilySearch : accessed 24 February 2015, William B Otway, 08 May 1840; citing p. 167, volume 043, New York, United States, NARA microfilm publication M233 (Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.), roll 21; FHL microfilm 350,327.
  11. Personal communication, Kathy Reed, 4 March 2015; FamilySearch [7]
  12. Decker, Peter & Giffen, Helen S. (Helen Smith), 1893-, (ed.) (1966). The diaries of Peter Decker: overland to California in 1849 and life in the mines, 1850-1851. Talisman Press, Georgetown, Calif
  13. Bruff, Joseph Goldsborough, 1804-1889. Camp at St. Joseph’s, Mo. Huntington Digital Library[8]
  14. 14.0 14.1 Letter from Harriet Knapp regarding the death of William W. Knapp from cholera. Burr Family Material, Worthington Historical Society, MA PVHN-09-27[9]
  15. Diary of Randall Hobart, quoted in J. S. Holliday & Swain, William, 1821-1904 (1981). The world rushed in – the California gold rush experience. New York Simon and Schuster
  16. Haskins, C. Warren. (1890). The Argonauts of California: being the reminiscences of scenes and incidents that occurred in California in early mining days. New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert.[10]
  17. Attributed to California Wagon Train List - Volume 1: April 5, 1849 to October 20, 1852 by Louis I. Rasmussen in a posting on RootsWeb[11]
  18. New York Herald. May 13, 1849[12]
  19. Journal and Drawings of J. Goldsborough Bruff, Henry E. Huntington Library, mssHM 8044[13]
  20. Journal and Drawings of J. Goldsborough Bruff, Henry E. Huntington Library, mssHM 8044[14]
  21. According to Holliday, "the actual distance from the turnoff to Sutter's Fort via either the Truckee or Carson routes was 350 miles... the distance from the summit to Lassen's Ranch: 250 miles."


  1. Several authors credit Otway with more than this. See, for example, Cooper, B. 'Black Hill - the White Cliffs of Ballarat', Ballarat Historian, v4 n7 (1990)[15] or Guide to Ballarat, F.W. Niven & Co, Ballarat, 1890, p.49
  2. 2.0 2.1 For a list of names of others travelling in Otway's party, see, for example, http://www.sfgenealogy.com/californiabound/cb104.htm.
  3. According to Holliday, this storm was experienced by Swain on June 20.
  4. A Google search on this term found nothing likely to relate to Middleton's meaning. Perhaps it is something to do with being buried without a coffin.
  5. Swain's company, the Wolverine Rangers, crossed the ford at noon the previous day.
  6. Meaning he was ostracized [16]
  7. Holliday states that "Ottaway's estimate of 400 miles as the distance to California was at best an 'as the crow flies' guess" and recommends untangling the rest of his statement by reference to the map accompanying that chapter of his book.
  8. Throughout the diary Middleton records the number of dead oxen passed. On most days he records nothing, suggesting there was none that day, with less than 10 on most other days.

Further reading

Holliday, J. S & Swain, William, 1821-1904 (1981). The world rushed in : the California gold rush experience. Simon and Schuster, New York

External links

Wikipedia article regarding Independence, Missouri [18]

Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) index to overland emigrants [19]

--Neil Huybregts 09:50, 21 February 2015 (AEDT)

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