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Beyond the North Platte, William Swain and the other Forty-niners in his company endured fifty miles of treeless sagebrush dotted with pools of alkaline water fatal to oxen.
Wagons and carts were scattered on all sides, and the stench of dead and decaying cattle actually rendered the air sickening. Some idea can be drawn from the fact that in one spot could be seen 150 dead creatures.
On July 31st, they crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass. They were now through the Rockies, more than halfway to California. But the hardest part -- the deserts and the Sierra Nevadas -- still lay ahead.
Everyone on the trail that summer had heard the story of an earlier wagon train that had taken a supposed shortcut called "Hastings Cutoff," only to be trapped in the Sierras near Truckee Lake. Half of the emigrants had died; some of the others had survived by eating the flesh of their dead companions. They were remembered as the Donner Party.
William Swain and the others were late too and they knew it. Snow would soon begin to fall in the mountains. They also began to follow short-cuts that seemed likely to speed them through to the goldfields. Sublette's Cut-Off. Hudspeth's Cut-Off. And in the western Nevada desert, Lassen's Cut-Off.
"You had heard by the grape vine that there is desert, there's death, there's desolation, there's horror, ahead. Everybody thinks they want to go due West. Lassen's cut-off presumably leads you due West, across the desert, over the Northern end of the Sierra Nevada, and down into the warmth and the rewards of the Sacramento Valley.
So at the point where you make the choice, there is this moment where scores of men stand around, and they debate and they argue and they discuss and they read little signs on the road. And a barrel, a big barrel, full of cards and full of information. You sift through it: 'Oh, George went this way, Sam went this way, Louie went that way. What am I going to do?' There's choices being made. And they stand around and they debate, and sometimes companies'd argue and they split, and there'd be fights, and We'll go this way and We'll go that way. So it was a life-and-death choice, everybody knew it to be that. Wasn't just some casual matter of saving a few hours, it might save your life.
On September 21st, William Swain and the Wolverine Rangers joined the stream of 10,000 gold-seekers and started down Lassens Cut-Off. It, too, would prove a mistake.
They first had to struggle across the searing Black Rock Desert, traveling by night, to save their oxen. Then, they had to face the mountains. The roads were made up of almost equal parts mud and boulders. Wagons broke down. The Wolverine Rangers agreed to split up into small groups. It would now be every man for himself.
November 6, 1849
"But when you get to the other side of the Sierra Nevada, you don't see the green of the Sacramento Valley, you see the desolation of the Pitt River Valley. You see rocks and stunted growth, and mountain deserts. It's just, it's just a pain, it's a shock, it's a hit in the head, it hurts your heart to see what still lies ahead. And you haven't gone a short cut. What you've done is you've gone north, and you're at what's called Goose Lake. So instead of going west, you've gone north-northwest. Now you've got to go south.
At dawn we arrived at Antelope Creek, eight miles from Lassen's Ranch, and found it not fordable. The sky cleared. We kindled a rousing fire, dried and rested ourselves till noon when two other men and myself -- with our clothes lashed to our shoulders -- forded the stream.... It was the hardest job I ever had. When I stepped onto the opposite shore I thought my flesh would drop from my bones.
William Swain had finally made it to California.
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