The Applegate Trail--1846 (I)
Bill Long 2/15/11
A Journey Into Early Oregon History
One of the most captivating things about historical research and writing for me is that study always shows me how far my initial suspicions or surmises were wide of the mark. I think about a historical problem or learn about an issue and then 'imagine' how it might have happened or unfolded. But then, I look more closely at an issue and see how my assumptions were unfounded or my initial take on it was far too naive or simple. Not only are my initial surmises proven wrong, but as I do my work I discover several even more interesting questions that study of the material has brought out.
For example, before delving into the story behind the Applegate Trail, I surmised that it was simply an alternative route platted by the Applegate brothers in 1846 in order to enable an easier route to settlers to choose Southern Oregon for their homes--where the Applegates were amassing sizable influence and land. Perhaps there is some truth in that but once I began to ask persistent questions about the trail, I was even led to the State Archives of Oregon, where a patient and helpful research archivist had to stand over my shoulder and turn pages for me (so I wouldn't actually touch the documents) of Provisional Governor George Abernethy's December 2, 1845 letter to the legislature about priorities for the legislative session that met during that month. The archivist said it was the first time in his 16 years working at the Archives that anyone wanted to read one of the old, handwritten Governor's messages from the early days. I will explain below why I felt I needed to do this...
1. I think the thing that fascinated me first about blazing the Applegate Trail of 1846 was the fact that it originated in NW Nevada or, more precisely, that it broke off from the California trail near the present-day near-ghost town of Imlay, on I-80, on the Humboldt River. I am studying the "northwests" of states (Gitchie Manitou in Iowa; Tarkio MO; NW Rhode Island; Salisbury CT; Astoria OR, etc.) and so I wanted, in this case and to the extent possible, to trace that trail with precision, at least from the point it left the Humboldt River until it got to Ashland/Medford OR. I realize I am tracing the trail backwards, so to speak, since they originally moved from OR to NV, but I am trying to explain it from the perspective of the first settlers that traveled it from the East.
So, the first thing I did was to assemble all the maps I could to figure out how the Applegates got from the Imlay area to the Black Rock Desert (where the present-day Burning Man festival is. I was going to say that they went across the Black Rock Desert because they were intrigued with Burning Man...but the anachronism might not have been funny for all..). So, they headed towards the present-day Sulphur, then across the Playa of the Desert, after fording (possibly) the bed of the Quinn River, then along the desert with the Black Rock Range on their left. They headed towards the present-day Vya NV, then across into CA between two of the Alkali lakes to Fandango Pass before skirting Goose Lake on the South, curving up north of Clear and Tule Lake and then moving generally along what is now Oregon 66 towards Ashland. I became so excited trying to trace the precise route that I realized I need to go to the Applegate Trail visitor center off of Exit 71 (I-5) in Southern Oregon and then drive along Route 66 and then as far as I can towards NV in order to try to understand the route of movement.
2. But after I charted some of the route, more questions arose. I realized that the Applegate party left Salt Creek, near Dallas OR, not until rather late in June 1846 to carve out the trail. I still don't know the answer to three questions: (a) had they already decided on the route to Nevada but were now just tracing it out or were they going "cold"?; (b) did they have a guide in the process? and (c) why did they leave so late? I think they were ultimately planning to meet an emigrant group as far away as Fort Hall ID, and so they had to get cracking if they wanted to get there through their new route. So, they got to the CA trail intersection near Imlay/Lassens Meadows on about July 9, 1846. Then, a portion of the 15 men who made the trip headed off to Fort Hall, meeting a group of more than 100 people on foot and in wagon trains and convincing them to follow the Applegates and others on this new "southern" route. They didn't actually leave Fort Hall until August 9. But what was unfortunate is that the 15 men never really planned on guiding covered wagons to Oregon through this route. The trail they had minimally cleared was meant for people on horseback and foot. This would cause immense problems for the people; indeed, they didn't make it to the Willamette Valley until early-mid November 1846. By then at least one person had died (her grave is near the interpretive center in Hugo OR), and the Applegates had won an inveterate long-term foe in Quinn Thornton, who believed that the Applegates deliberately took people on a treacherous trip to bring them to the point of exhaustion and desperation in order to bilk them of more money. More on Thornton below.
We are just getting started.