Neverending Journeys

To The Pikes Peak Gold Fields - 1859 has been in my library of Lovewell sources for more than a decade.  The book comprises six diaries of hopeful migrants who followed the major trails across Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska in what was sometimes characterized as "the year of the great humbug." 

 The entries of Edward H. N. Patterson were of special interest to me because he followed the Platte River route, sometimes traveling in tandem with D. C. Oakes and the Williams family from Michigan, who appear in the familiar “Pikes Peak Or Bust” photograph, and crossing paths at least once with a stagecoach carrying legendary newspaperman Horace Greeley.  

Patterson, who was from Oquawka, Iowa, does mention one other wagon bearing a company from Iowa, but gives no clue as to whether anyone on board might have been named Lovewell.  You can’t have everything.

Patterson devotes page upon page to detailed descriptions of the eye-popping scenery that greeted travelers along the trail to Cherry Creek and the new settlement of Denver City.  Despairing of the power of mere words to do justice to such wonders, Patterson implored schools to train up a generation of young draftsmen in order to share the geological grandeur and flora of the West with all of the less adventurous homebodies of America.  

The diarist could not know that an educated young man from Rhode Island had already taken up the challenge.  Having passed by Denver weeks earlier, Daniel Jenks was already on his way to California, paper and pencils in hand.

Gold Rush

Daniel Jenks was not only a passable landscape artist but a truly gifted writer who captured the grit, heartbreak, and jubilant sense of adventure of the westward trails.  His journals and renderings  are available in a volume called The Lost Gold Rush Journals, published in 2021, or they can be tracked down piecemeal on the Library of Congress website.  

Jenks is a valuable resource for anyone studying the Gold Rush era, because he traveled between the American coasts by nearly every means available before the building of the Transcontinental Railroad.  In 1849 he boarded a barque in New York Harbor for an eight-month voyage around Cape Horn bound for San Francisco, where the clumsy old tub backed into port, as it seemed inclined to do.

While he was never able to prosper in California, Oregon, or Idaho, Jenks did manage to stash away enough money to book passage to New York in 1857 by way of the Isthmus of Panama, a journey of less than a month.  A short stay with his parents in Rhode Island was enough to remind him why he had left home in the first place.  Besides finding business conditions unimproved during his absence, he felt himself stagnating whenever he wasn’t on the move.  

Within a year he answered the call of the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, traveling this time by steamboat until joining a train of oxcarts following the Arkansas River trail.  Warned by a returning horde of disappointed migrants streaming in the opposite direction, the end of their two-month trek across the bleak landscape of Kansas Territory found Jenks and many of his companions sticking to the westward trail as they inched their way toward Oregon and northern California.  Their journey would last an additional three months.

His story is a catalog of nearly every annoyance, privation, and catastrophe that could possibly befall migrants heading for the gold fields.  We also learn much about Daniel Jenks’s feelings towards the various categories of people encountered in his travels.  He admires abolitionists, views Georgians with suspicion, and detests thieving Indians, although even they occupy a higher pedestal than the Mormon shakedown artists who demand tolls from migrants passing through Utah.  His lowest opinion of all is reserved for the Irish, whom he regards as a race wholly without merit, excelling only in the amount of alcohol they are able to consume.  

Jenks especially enjoys chatting up squaws for the latest gossip, and can generally arrive at a mutually agreeable dialect for conversing with natives of the Northwest.  When one squaw spies a queue of Chinese newcomers filing through her neighborhood she inquires, “Wake Boston, wake siwash,” mystified by the sight of new neighbors who seem to be neither white (“Boston”) nor Indian (“Siwash”).  Jenks replies that they are Indians, but from far, far away.  “Wake, wake siwash,” the squaw responds indignantly, having none of it.  These were not, definitely not, Indians.

Jenks compels us see, hear, and feel the West.  His travel diaries include charts which note daily progress in miles traveled, temperatures and other weather conditions encountered, and numbers of humans and livestock lost.  Instead of reporting that the drinking water aboard the barque Velasco is foul, he describes in vivid detail how it looks and smells and tastes and exactly how and why the unscrupulous suppliers allowed it to become poisoned.

In the same way Jenks’s frontier anecdotes sometimes suggest early run-throughs for Mark Twain’s travel journals, his crude, squared-off renderings of primitive commercial buildings and frontier cabins remind us of a sketchbook young Grandma Moses might have kept of a bus tour through the Far West.

It is clear that Daniel Jenks was a self-taught draftsman.  His occasional depictions of human figures are on a par with the work of the average fifth-grader doodling in the margins of his homework.  However, it’s also evident that he put his heart into sharing the breathtaking landscapes he saw, shading in penciled outlines with crayons and watercolors by firelight in his cabin, and proudly sending off the finished works to relatives whom he seemed to love best when he loved them from afar.

His story is generally a record of grueling labor, disappointment, loss and heartbreak amid breathtaking scenic wonders.  However, now and again he records vivid moments of simple joys that make us realize why he kept at it.

Anyway, such a camp as ours presents a lively romantic picture at night. The row of bright fires, the white wagon tops glistening in the background, the large herd of cattle and horses in the foreground and the groups of men, women and children gathered around the different fires or scattered around camp. 

The singing, laughing and gay talking of the men and the girls, interrupted occasionally by the squalling of some of the numerous tribe of young ones. Take it all in all, it has to be seen and heard to be appreciated. I must confess there is a romance, a wilderness about it that amply repays me for the many hardships and trials one endures on such a trip. In one word, I like it. 

At an early hour the fires are put out and men, women and children seek their pile of blankets spread upon the ground around and under the wagons, where we sleep as sound and awake in the morning as refreshed as though we had a bed of feathers to lie upon and a roof to cover us, lest it rain, snow or freeze.

Okay, who’s ready to go with him?

© Dale Switzer 2023