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Rare Books & Special Collections

Guide to the California-Oregon Trail Diary

MSN/EA 8014


Collection Summary

Title: California-Oregon Trail diary
Dates: 1850
Collection No.: MSN/EA 8014
Creator: Unidentified
Extent: 1 volume; 1 folder
Language: Collection material in English.
Repository: University of Notre Dame. Hesburgh Libraries, Department of Special Collections. 102 Hesburgh Library, Notre Dame, IN 46556
Abstract: An 1850 overland diary recording an emigrant's passage from Dubuque, Iowa to the Salt Lake Cutoff.

Selected Search Terms

Pioneers -- West (U.S.) -- Diaries.
Oregon National Historic Trail.
Overland journeys to the Pacific.
West (U.S.) -- Description and travel.

Administrative Information

Restrictions: There are no access restrictions on this collection

Preferred Citation: California-Oregon Trail Diary, MSN/EA 8014, Department of Special Collections, Hesburgh Libraries of Notre Dame.

Acquisition and Processing Note: The diary was purchased by the Hesburgh Libraries in 2013, from Michael Brown Rare Books of Philadelphia (List 123, part 2, item 36). Arranged and described 2014, by George Rugg. Finding aid 2017, by George Rugg.

Biographical Note

In the two decades before the Civil War an estimated 250,000 persons emigrated westward across the North American continent to the Pacific Coast. The first-person accounts written en route—generically called overland diaries—are a distinctive form of American travel narrative. This unpublished 1850 diary is entitled: "A Driscription / of the Rout to / California and & / By / A Company of four / Jas. W. Simmons / Geo. W. Stout / A. Baker / Mat. Peck / from Clanton [Clayton] County / Iowa Who Started / on the 25th of March / 1850 / With 2 Waggins and / Seven horses" (p. v). The author cannot be identified with certainty, but was likely either James W. Simmons or Albert Matthew Peck (Stout and Baker are mentioned in the third person on p. 6). Simmons (b. ca. 1821) was an Ohio native who was settled in Los Angeles County by 1879. Peck (1821-1902), also an Ohio native, was living in Nevada County, California in 1852 and in Sierra County in 1860; by 1880 he, too, was settled in Los Angeles County. A later note on p. i attributing the diary to a Henry Hubbard is inconsistent with the title inscription. The author was literate but not overly educated, as his spelling is idiosyncratic throughout.

Scope and Content Note

The diary is a small volume of 11 cm., written entirely in pencil, with 54 leaves and 104 pages of manuscript. Its narrative runs to around 6000 words, with regular entries from 25 March (and the emigrants' departure from Dubuque, south of Clayton County on the Mississippi) to 19 July (when the volume concludes with the party at the northern end of the Salt Lake Cutoff, on the present-day Utah-Idaho border). No subsequent volume is present, or known. The emigrants' route took them across Iowa to Council Bluffs on the Missouri, and thence along the north side of the Platte and North Platte Rivers (the Council Bluffs Road) to Fort Laramie, the Sweetwater River and South Pass in modern Wyoming (reached on 24 June). At South Pass the party followed the trail's southern fork to Salt Lake City, and the Salt Lake Cutoff. Six loosely sketched maps appended to the narrative (pp. 92-97) suggest that the party proceeded to the Humboldt River (called Mary's River, p. 92) and on to California.

The narrative provides ample description of the trail and conditions thereon, as well as many other circumstances of the journey. Typically, overland diary texts limit themselves to the basic facts of travel—miles achieved, routes taken, river crossings, the availability of wood, water and forage, landmarks, other parties encountered. One reason for recording this information was to facilitate the passage west for those who followed. 1850 was one of the peak years for overland travel—an estimated 44,000 went to California alone, mainly to the gold fields—and emigrants found the trails unexpectedly crowded. The volume also includes the aforementioned maps and other non-narrative material.

Related Material

The California-Oregon Trail diary is featured in the digital exhibit "The Power of my Pen to Describe: Ten American Diaries, 1750-1900". Included are images of the entire journal.

Container List

  • Unidentified author. Diary, 1850 March-July. Item 1 (MSN/EA 8014-1-).
    1 volume, 11 cm., 54 leaves, with 104 pages of manuscript entries.