The Englishman William Woodhams, more recently from Michigan, crossed the Missouri River on April 28, 1854, arriving in Sacramento in August. On August 6 he wrote in his diary: "We of course (ragged in the extreme, unshaven and unshorn, knives and pistols at our belts) were rather wild looking even for California."
Those who journeyed west in the mid-nineteenth century were a motley crew, but many of them kept diaries. In fact, write Chicoans Andrew and Joanne Hammond, "it has been estimated that one out of every 200 emigrants kept a diary or journal of some sort."
The Hammonds have skillfully excerpted the diaries of "eleven women and twenty-six men who recorded their experiences while en route to Oregon, California and Utah" to form a roughly chronological account of the way west. The result is "The Look of the Elephant: The Westering Experience In the Words of Those Who Lived It 1841-1861" ($18.95 in paperback from the Oregon-California Trails Association, www.octa-trails.org, or from the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org).
The authors write that "to have 'seen the elephant' meant that one had not only endured the rigors of the trail, but had survived as well. The expression still symbolizes the indomitable spirit of the emigrants and their ability to view extreme hardship with a sense of humor."
There were dangers along the way, not always external. "Less than a month after setting out, John Bidwell reported that 'a young man by the name of Shotwell while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew it, with the muzzle toward him in such a manner that it went off and shot him near the heart.'" The diarists include not only Bidwell but "querulous J. Goldsborough Bruff, considered by many to be the greatest diarist of all; the captious Joshua Variel; the upbeat but frequently ill Alonzo Delano; . . . the unfortunate Mary Rockwood Powers, whose physician husband appears to have been insane. . . ."
The Hammonds provide maps of each stage of the journey, black and white illustrations, and biographies of each diarist, along with insightful commentary. This is a treasure of a book, one that touches the heart of those long ago days before ever there were blogs.