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Route for the Overland Stage: James H. Simpson's 1859 Trail Across the Great Basin

Route for the Overland Stage: James H. Simpson's 1859 Trail Across the Great Basin

by Jesse G. Petersen

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The 1859 exploration of the Great Basin by army topographical engineer James Simpson opened up one of the West's most important transportation and communication corridors, a vital link between the Pacific Coast and the rest of the nation. It became the route of the Pony Express and the Overland Mail and Stage, the line of the Pacific telegraph, a major wagon road


The 1859 exploration of the Great Basin by army topographical engineer James Simpson opened up one of the West's most important transportation and communication corridors, a vital link between the Pacific Coast and the rest of the nation. It became the route of the Pony Express and the Overland Mail and Stage, the line of the Pacific telegraph, a major wagon road for freighters and emigrants, and, later, the first transcontinental auto road, the Lincoln Highway, now Highway 50.

No one has accurately tracked or mapped Simpson's original route, until now. Jesse Petersen shows in words, maps, and photos exactly where the explorer went. Sharing his detective-like reasoning as he walked or drove the entire trail west and Simpson's variant route returning east, Petersen takes readers on a mountain and desert trek through some of America's most remote and striking landscapes.

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Utah State University Press
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A Route for the Overland Stage

James H. Simpson's 1859 Trail Across the Great Basin
By Jesse G. Petersen

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2008 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-693-6

Chapter One


DURING THE SUMMER of 1859, Captain James Simpson of the US Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers led an expedition of exploration from Camp Floyd to Genoa. Camp Floyd was an army post in Cedar Valley, about forty miles southwest of Great Salt Lake City. Genoa was a small settlement located at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The mission of the expedition was to find a practical route for wagons through the central part of Utah and Nevada. If such a route could be found, it was believed that it would shorten the distance between Salt Lake City and California by as much as two hundred miles. The members of the Simpson expedition were not the first to travel through this region of the American West. During the preceding three decades, a number of fur trappers, explorers, and emigrants had made their way across some sections of this area. Jedediah Smith, Joseph R. Walker, John Charles Frémont and Kit Carson, the Bidwell-Bartleson party, Lansford Hastings and James Clyman, the Donner-Reed party, Capt. E. G. Beckwith, O. B. Huntington, George Washington Bean, Orrin Porter Rockwell, and Howard Egan had all traveled through different sections of this territory. These travelers had cut across various portions of the region, traveling in various directions, but none of them had taken the shortest possible route from east-to-west or west-to-east, and it appears that Lansford Hastings was the only one who had taken any meaningful action toward the establishment of a wagon road through this central region.

Before the Simpson expedition, most of the travelers who intended to make the journey from Salt Lake City to California followed a route that went around the northern end of the Great Salt Lake and joined the California Trail near City of Rocks, near the Utah-Idaho border. A smaller number of California-bound travelers headed south by way of the Mormon Corridor, now the route of Interstate 15, and got onto the Old Spanish Trail near present-day Cedar City. It is true that the relatively few travelers who followed the Hastings Road did take a more central route, but about a quarter of the way across present-day Nevada, near the southern tip of the Ruby Mountains, this road turned to the north along Huntington Creek and the South Fork of the Humboldt River, and joined the California Trail not far from the city of Elko. None of these wagon routes traveled through the area that the Simpson expedition intended to explore.

It had always been apparent that a road through this central area could save many miles and perhaps a great deal of time, but until this time, no one had attempted to take wagons across the entire distance. In 1854, Col. Edward Steptoe of the US Army had given it some serious consideration. Steptoe was in the Salt Lake City area with a force of about three hundred soldiers, and wanted to find the best way to get them to California. In an effort to locate a new and shorter route, he engaged two different groups of men to make scouting trips into the desert. Oliver B. Huntington was in charge of the first group, which included himself, his nephew, an Indian named Natsab, John Reese (whose home at the time was in Carson Valley and who would later become Simpson's guide), and two of Reese's friends. Somewhere between Salt Lake City and the Great Salt Lake they were joined by eleven soldiers who had recently deserted from Steptoe's command. Huntington's party traveled all the way to Carson Valley, most of the time following a trail that had been made earlier that year by Captain E. G. Beckwith of the army's Topographical Corps, who was engaged in a railroad survey. When Huntington and his nephew returned to Salt Lake City, they reported to Steptoe, telling him they had found a practical route that would save about two hundred miles, and they would be willing to act as guides. However, when the time came to leave for California, Huntington became evasive and Steptoe decided he was not to be trusted. After Steptoe became convinced that he could not depend on Huntington's help, he obtained the services of a second group, the leader of which was Orrin Porter Rockwell. Another member of this group was George Washington Bean, who later acted as Capt. Simpson's guide during a relatively short trip into Utah's West Desert in late 1858. The Rockwell-Bean group traveled about eighty miles into the desert and when they returned, they told Steptoe that the country was not fit for wagon travel. At this, Steptoe gave up on any further attempts to find a central route and marched his troops to California by way of the north-of-the-lake and Humboldt River route.

In 1855, a noted Mormon explorer named Howard Egan, and a few companions mounted on mules, made a speedy trip across this central area. Leaving from Salt Lake City, they made it to Sacramento in ten days. But like the Huntington party, they followed the Beckwith Trail to the Humboldt River near Lassen Meadows, then followed the California Trail to Sacramento. Captain Simpson first became involved in the concept of a central route in the fall of 1858, when he received orders from his commanding officer, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, to lead an expedition of a few days' duration into Utah's western desert. As a result of this short trip, Simpson became interested in further exploration of this area, and in January 1859, he submitted a proposal to the War Department, requesting permission to make a much more extensive expedition. Johnston endorsed this proposal and forwarded it up the chain of command. In April, orders came down from army headquarters, assigning Simpson to lead an expedition that would travel from Camp Floyd to Genoa. The expedition would turn around when it reached Genoa, because of the existence of serviceable roads between there and San Francisco.

Throughout the expedition that followed, Simpson kept a daily journal, and from this he compiled an extensive report to Congress. The title of this document was Report of Explorations across the Great Basin of the Territory of Utah for a Direct Wagon Route from Camp Floyd to Genoa, in Carson Valley, in 1859. Simpson completed his report within a couple of years after the expedition, but primarily due to the onset of the Civil War, it was not published until 1876. The report was much more than a simple recitation of the events of the expedition. The first major section was devoted to a history of previous explorations into the region of the Great Basin, including the journeys of Fathers Domínguez and Escalante, Father Garcés, Jim Bridger, Joseph Walker, John Charles Frémont, Capt. Howard Stansbury, and Capt. E. G. Beckwith. Taking up thirteen pages of the report, this section shows that Simpson had done his homework, and had familiarized himself with the available information relating to previous explorations of the country he was about to enter.

The next ninety-two pages of the report consist of Simpson's account of each day's journey, and a description of the country through which they traveled. Simpson did not limit himself to simply reporting the basic facts about where they went and when they got there. He described the country in some detail, talking about geographical features and the existence, or lack of, water and forage. Some of Simpson's entries reflected his enthusiasm and apparent enjoyment of what he was doing. An example of this was written on May 26 as the expedition left a campsite in Central Nevada's Monitor Valley.

The crack of the whip, the "gee! Get up!" of the teamsters, the merry laugh, the sudden shout from the exuberance of spirits, the clinking of armor, the long array of civil, military, and economic personnel, in due order, moving with hope to our destined end, coupled with the bright, bracing morning, and, at times, twittering of birds, make our morning departure from camp very pleasing.

Following the description of the journey, the report contains 346 pages, which include twenty different subsections on such subjects as astronomical observations, tables of distances, geological information, descriptions and drawings of indigenous wildlife, and descriptions of the native inhabitants of the area.

My interest in the Simpson expedition was a result of my interest in the history of the Lincoln Highway. I was attending the Lincoln Highway Association's 1996 conference in Reno, Nevada, when one of the presenters mentioned that the historic highway had followed much of the route that James Simpson had opened through Nevada in 1859. I had been vaguely aware of the Simpson expedition for some time, but this comment stirred my interest. A short time later, I obtained a used copy of the Simpson report and started studying it. I soon found that a general concept of the location of the Simpson route could be gathered from the report, but it proved to be quite difficult to translate the exact details of the route onto modern maps. After reading the report, I started looking for other books that included information about the expedition. It did not take long to discover that although the general route of Simpson's expedition seemed to be fairly well known, specifics were vague. And the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to figure out exactly where the expedition had gone.

My next step was to obtain a number of United States Geological Survey (USGS) 30 ? 60 minute series maps. Then, working from Simpson's descriptions of his travels, I started drawing lines on the map which showed where I thought the trail might have been. After doing this for a while, I decided that I would have to get into the field and travel the route wherever I could. Since that time, I have traveled the entire route, driving wherever possible, and hiking many sections that are not accessible by automobile. Eventually I came to the decision that I would have to write something that would document what I had learned about the route.

When I first began writing about the expedition, my inclination was to simply report on what I had learned about the location of the route. Later on, I began to realize that how I reached these conclusions, and what I had done in attempting to verify them, were also important parts of the story. As a result, this work is comprised of two separate but mutually dependent and interrelated components. First is the information that relates to the location of the route and the campsites. The second component is a description of how I came up with this information and some of the experiences that I had during my travels along the trail. Today, much of the route can be easily driven in an ordinary family vehicle, and I have said very little about my travels along these sections. What I have described are my experiences in traveling the more difficult, off-pavement sections of the expedition's route.

I feel a need to mention to the reader that I am not attempting to offer irrefutable proof of anything. I am only attempting to share what I believe to be reasonable and logical conclusions about the most likely route, and the most likely locations for the campsites. These conclusions have been reached after studying Simpson's description of the terrain, after plotting his mileage figures onto modern maps, and after making many on-site visits to the areas involved.

In developing my conclusions about the route, I did not always get it right the first time. In fact, in many instances I failed to get it right the second and the third times. Tentative locations were moved around on the map up to a dozen or more times before I was finally satisfied. On several occasions, after studying the maps and making my best guess about the location of the route, I traveled to the area in question and found that the terrain would not have allowed the wagons to follow the route that I had projected. When this happened, it was back to the maps to look for other possibilities.

When I first started on this project, I had a presumption that much of the route would travel through roadless areas, and I would be seeing very little evidence of the trail. It soon became clear that the exact opposite is true. I found that a high percentage of Simpson's route soon evolved into well-traveled roads, and many of these are still in use today. Some sections of the route have been paved and are now a part of major highways, such as US Highway 50 and US 95. Some are well-maintained and frequently traveled dirt and gravel roads. There are also a number of sections that are now abandoned, but can still be driven in high-clearance vehicles. Other abandoned sections are not drivable, but are still recognizable as traces in the sagebrush. There are only a very few sections where no visible evidence of a trail can be found today.

The methods that I used in attempting to determine the route evolved over time. In the beginning, my only tools were the USGS 30 ? 60 minute maps and a pair of dividers. Before my research was finished, I had learned how to use global positioning satellite (GPS) technology, and was making use of mapping systems and aerial photography programs that are available on the Internet. Microsoft Terraserver and Google Earth are the programs that I have used most extensively.

As briefly mentioned above, my first steps in looking for the trail were to open my copy of Simpson's report, spread a map on the table, carefully study the description of the route that had been traveled during a particular day, and attempt to plot that route on the map. I would look for features that might correspond with Simpson's descriptions, and would use dividers to measure the distances between tentatively identified points. I would repeat this process a number of times, all the while looking for alternate possibilities. By using this process, I was able to develop a general theory about the approximate location of the route, but was still a long way from determining its exact alignment.

Then I began taking trips to areas that contained sections of what I felt was the most likely route. My first long-distance trip was in the summer of 1999. This journey took me from Camp Floyd to Middlegate Station in central Nevada. As this was just a familiarization trip, I intentionally bypassed many of the hard-to-get-to places, including several mountain passes. I later returned to these places and found my way across them, either in my four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle (SUV) or on foot. During the following years, I made many more trips, most of which were for only one or two days, but a few lasted for nearly a week.

In 2002 I obtained a GPS receiver and began learning how to make use of this technology. This greatly improved my ability to get to the places that I had located on the maps. I could now be certain that I was where I wanted to be when I attempted to make on-site visits to certain sections of the trail.

A little later, I learned about the Terraserver website, and found that I could print copies of small sections of USGS 7.5-minute maps. By taping these sections together and using a set of dividers, I could make measurements that were much more accurate than the measurements I could get on the 30 ? 60 minute maps. I also began studying aerial photos that are available on the Terraserver website. In 2005, I started using the Internet mapping program called Google Earth. This program is quite versatile, and when combined with reliable GPS data, makes it possible to obtain highly precise measurements between identified locations.


Excerpted from A Route for the Overland Stage by Jesse G. Petersen Copyright © 2008 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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