William Waldo Writes about Starvation and Death Among Overland Emigrants

From the Osceola Independent, 14th inst.
STARVATION AND DEATH AMONG OVERLAND EMIGRANTS.

TRUCKEE RIVER,
Emigrant Road, Monday, Sept. 30th, 1850.

Mr. W.P. JOHNSON — Dear sir: Yours of the 4th of July, written at Clinton Mo., was taken out of the office at Sacramento City, and kindly forwarded to my by Mr. A. Blakely, and gave me the latest news I have received from your section of Missouri.

I have now been on the horrible road more than one month, during which time I have witnessed every grade of human suffering & misery. Too often have I seen families, who from all appearances, had been brought up in the enjoyment of every luxury, feasting upon the carcasses of dead oxen. Capt. Duncan, of Michigan, stated to me a few days since, that the best food he ate for sixteen days, was a faithful dog that had followed him from home; that he saved him as long as he could, but finally killed him to prevent starvation, and divided the meat among twenty men. I have seen hundreds so weak that they reeled and staggered as they walked along the road. Saw one man from St. Louis on Humboldt river, a few days since, lying by the side of the road in the last agonies of death, caused by starvation. —

Have just reached this point, after ten days journey up Humboldt river, where I found many persons without one pound of provisions, although four hundred miles from Sacramento City. And what makes their situation worse, they have suffered from starvation until they are so weak that they can scarcely walk. These people have been robbed by the Indians even, to their blankets although the nights are cold and chilly, and it requires two or three blankets to keep a man comfortable, yet many of these people have neither blankets or coats. The hostile Indians are very numerous, becoming very bold, and killing the emigrants daily. They conceal themselves in the thickets and ravines, and fire upon the emigrants as they pass; those on foot being too weak to carry their guns, fall an easy prey to the savages.

The Indians have taken a great deal of stock from the emigrants, and are consequently well mounted; and by picking up the fire-arms thrown away by the weak and exhausted, they are also well armed, which makes them far more dangerous than they have been at any previous period. Many believe these Indians are headed and led on by white men, whose object is to secure the emigrant’s stock. Several families have disappeared, for which no account can be given who have either been killed by the Indians when off the road, or taken prisoners.

I have only mentioned a few of the thousand calamities which have befallen the overland emigration of 1850. Such an amount of suffering never has been experience by the American people since the settlement of the country; and I sincerely hope that it may never be my lot during life again to witness scenes of suffering and misery. —

The snow is now four inches deep upon the mountains, and the rivers rising, and in fifteen days from this time, in all probability, the mountains will be covered with snow from five to ten feet deep, and in many places much deeper. There will not be a trader on this side of the mountains after 5th of October. The greater part of them are now leaving, with their stock, for fear of being in the snow storms of the Sierra Nevada. —

From the best information I can get, there is yet between 100 and 200 families and probably 2,000 men in the most perfect state of destitution, far back on this route, without stock or provisions, and many of them without blankets or comfortable clothing. If the winter sets in early, I cannot see any possible chance for these people to cross the mountains. I have at my command 3,000 lbs of fat beef, and 3,000 lbs of flour, besides 30 mules and horses, which will answer for food; but the horses and mules are needed to transport the feeble women and helpless children over the mountains and across the deserts.

I have fitted out an expedition, and will leave here to-night to relieve the sufferers on the Humboldt, and shall carry back flour and beef sufficient to enable 1,000 persons to cross the Desert. We have relieved emigrants from every State in the Union. — Those from the city of St. Louis have been the greatest sufferers. Then comes those from Ohio, Kentucky Tennessee, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Missouri. — Probably fifty from New York and Pennsylvania have been relieved, three families from Louisiana, and about twenty men from Georgia, and from every State, more or less.

I have with me Thomas Kinkade, of Benton Co., Mo., and Ewing Story and Washington Pond, of St. Clair Co., Mo., who have pledged their word of honor to remain with me on the east side of the mountains until the last emigrant has passed on, or has been called to a final account.

Observing that the traders were becoming alarmed & leaving for the settlements on account of the approach of winter, and fearing the effect of this course on the men with me, I determined to know who would remain at any hazard, and risk every consequence. I stated to them my resolution was formed, and that I did not intend to cross the mountains as long as there was reason to believe that one emigrant remained behind alive that they all knew the circumstances in which we were placed; liable to be attacked by the numerous tribes of hostile Indians east of the mountains, and should we be so fortunate as to escape the Indians, they were aware of the still greater dangers arising from the almost impossibility of crossing the mountains after the winter set in and when across the mountains, we must pass through the Indian tribes on the west side, by whom so many murders were committed last winter and spring. After full consideration, those I have named from your section of Missouri declared they were willing to risk the consequences and remain, and declared they would never attempt to cross the Sierra Nevada until I crossed with them; so you may rest assured, if you ever hear of our arrival in Sacramento City, that the last of the overland emigrants of 1850 are out of danger from starvation, as we shall go in with those in the rear. My company is small but well armed, each man having a rifle, four pistols, hatchet and bowie knife. —

I have duly considered the risk and reflected upon the consequences, and should I never reach Sacramento again, I shall at least die with the consolation of having attempted to discharge a painful duty to the suffering humanity under difficulties too great to be overcome. My respects to friends.

Yours, truly, WILLIAM WALDO.

Ohio Repository, The (Canton, Ohio) Jan 22, 1851

More about William Waldo, from Wikipedia:

William Waldo (1812 – 1881) was a candidate for Governor of California in 1853. He was born in Virginia, but spent most of his life in Missouri, where he was a merchant and steamboat captain. In 1849 he joined the gold rush to California at the head of a wagon train. In California the next year, reports arrived of impending starvation among numerous immigrants on the Nevada side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Waldo put great effort into recruiting and delivering supplies for them, and became well known for his relief attempts.

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2 Responses to “William Waldo Writes about Starvation and Death Among Overland Emigrants”

  1. Donald L Wallo Says:

    The writer of this letter, William Waldo, is my first cousin, 5 times removed. If I am not mistaken, he addressed the letter to W.P. Johnson, as in Waldo Porter Johnson, which if so, is his nephew, (William’s sister Olive’s son). It seems to me that “Dear nephew” would have been the more expected salutation than “Dear sir”, although people were probably more respectful in their correspondence in that day.

    • mrstkdsd Says:

      Donald,

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving the additional information.

      I think the reason it sounds so formal is because it is from W.P. Johnson to the newspaper or someone there, who HE is addressing as Dear Sir, if I am reading it correctly. I would imagine the actual address on the original letter was something else.

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