J.A. Draper of Mt. Zion and Silas Packard of Decatur are the only known survivors of a memorable expedition from Decatur, Ills., to the gold fields of California in 1850.

Around the then little village of Decatur was exhibited a great deal of enthusiasm over the lively preparations that were being made in Springfield and other neighboring towns for an overland trip to the newly discovered gold fields. Word came from Springfield that several parties would start from there, and soon many Decatur people had the "gold fever" bad. It did not take long to organize a party here. J.A. Draper, Silas Packard, Edward Packard, Mason Packard, Uncle Johnnie Hanks, John Sawyer, Samuel Powers, Hosea Armstrong, Judd Metlins, Jonathan Florey, William Stewart and Samuel Hudson were the promoters and others to the number of sixty were soon making hurried preparations for the long, tedious and dangerous expedition.

Mr. Draper, who is now the second oldest man born in Macon county, in order in complete his part of the preparations, rode a pony to Perryville, Ind., where he traded the pony for a team of mules, paying the difference in cash. It was then that he learned about the stubbornness of mules. He says he had to lead, drive, ride and pull them back to Decatur, but finally arrived in fairly good condition. It required only a few more days to complete the arrangements and the wagon train started.

There were fifteen wagons in the train each drawn by four mules. The wagons were filled with provisions, camping outfits, rifles, shot guns, plenty of ammunition; also water and, to use Mr. Draper's expression, a certain sort of amber colored fluid which they thought woud be useful in case of snake bites while crossing the wild and unsettled prairies.

On March 25, 1850, which was J.A. Draper's birthday anniversary, the reins were drawn over the backs of sixty mules and the start was made midst the tears and cheers of friends they were leaving in the little village of Decatur, to face the hardships and dangers of crossing the plains, deserts and mountains of the far west.

Mr. Draper gives the following account of the trip: "We traveled about twenty-five miles the first day, camping for the night west of what is now the village of Illiopolis in Sangamon county. Mud was plenty and deep here, there and everywhere and slow progress was made. It took us three weeks to reach Quincy. Here we crossed the Mississippi river on ferry boats, without accident, and proceeded to St. Joe, Mo., where we went into camp. We stayed there for seven days, partly to rest, but more particularly to wait for grass to start, for it was now toward the middle of May. We amused ourselves with hunting and fishing.

On the way from St. Joe to Fort Kearney, Neb., we met many large and small bands of Indians every day. The Indians were inclined to be friendly, but were amazed at the sight of so extensive a wagon train.

Jonathan Florey was inclined to be a little slow and was therefore always far in the rear. He wore a bright necktie of many colors. This caught the eye of the Indians and they surrounded him and made signs and in other ways gave Mr. Florey to understand that they wanted that necktie. He took it off and gave it to them. They were greatly pleased and allowed him to go on unmolested.

Arriving at Fort Kearney we camped for the night and in the morning started out on the trail that was to lead us to Fort Laramie, Wyo. This trail, starting from what is now North Platte, Neb., followed the North Platte river to Fort Laramie.

On this trail we passed over the bad lands in northwestern Nebraska, and when within twenty-five miles of the Wyoming line passed around and through what is known as Scott's bluff. The formation of this bluff is a remarkable freak of nature. It is composed of sand, which seems to have become petrified and shaped by the continued action of water away back in the ages. Its elevation is 300 feet above the level of the plain. Its base is 200 feet in diameter, and at the height of 200 feet there is a table 40 feet wide. Above this is a conical or funnel shaped pyramid 100 feet high, smooth and round as a top. There are embedded in the outer surface of this remarkable bluff fossil shells of many varieties, also turtles of enormous size, which have become petrified. All of this proves conclusively that the formation of this bluff was caused by the action of water, which enveloped the mountains and hills of that country at some period in the history of the world.

After leaving Scott's bluff Indians were numerous. The water was bad, even dangerous for man or beast to drink, but our provisions were holding out well and the ground had become dry so that we were making about thirty miles a day. It was 300 miles from Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie and we were only ten days in reaching the latter fort. On leaving Fort Laramie we proceeded in the usual northwesterly direction for our next objective point, which was Fort Hall, situated in eastern Idaho, 300 miles from Fort Laramie. The trail took us over a rough and mountainous country, consequently our progress was slow. On reaching Fort Hall we camped for a day, visited the fort and gazed with admiration that was only equalled by our astonishment at the wonderful and beautiful scenery which presented itself in all directions. At Fort Kearney the Packard brothers and I took the lead, and by the time Fort Hall was reached we were seventy- five miles ahead of the main body.

The regular route or trail from Fort Hall was south to Salt Lake, thence southwest to what is now known as Carson City, on the line between Nevada and California, but there was another route known as the Sutton cut off trail, established by a man of that name, and who was the first to discover gold in California, at Columbus, while engaged in digging a mill race. After some discussion as to the better route of the two, the Packard brothers and I took the Sutton cut off route, whild the others, then far in the rear, took the old route by Salt Lake. Three days later we reached the regular trail, having saved a distance of 100 miles. However, this Sutton cut off route was considered dangerous, for the Indians were more hostile. We gave them notions and otherwise humored them, which they seemed to appreciate. At least we met with no serious trouble.

After reaching the old trail we traveled about 300 miles along the Humboldt river before reaching the great American desert. Here we camped and rested for the day, and about sundown, having supplied ourselves with water, we started to cross the desert, which is about forty miles wide. I took the lead and by morning was far ahead of the Packard brothers, they having turned off the regular trail to find water for their mules, which had become almost frantic from thirst caused by the heat of the sand over which they had to travel. While on the desert we abandoned the wagons and packed the mules with all they could carry. This was the custom of all the overland wagon trains, because it was impossible to haul a wagon over the mountains beyond the Carson river. We found abandoned wagons all along the route across the desert.

About 9 o'clock the nest morning I discovered the Carson river near where Carson City is nwo located. After quenching my own thirst, I filled a vessel with the pure mountain water and hastened back to find the Packard brothers. They were found after traveling about five miles. They were very thirsty and water never tasted better to them. After reaching Carson river we all took a long rest, not starting out again till the next day. Then we crossed the river and began to climb the Sierra Nevadas. It was then July, but in many places on these mountains there was snow from ten to twelve feet deep.

On our arrival at Weaversville we went to mining, making from $4 to $5 a day, but we were not satisfied with this and went on to Marysville. We stayed there for some time and then went ot Downeyville, where we remained all the rest of the time we were in California.

Mr. Sawyer and I started home in the fall of 1852, having been gone two and a half years. We went to San Francisco and came home by water. Arriving at New Orleans we traded our gold dust and quartz for currency. We arrived in Decatur Jan. 19, 1853.

After Mr. Sawyer and Mr. Draper returned home Silas Packard and the others remained for some time. Mr. Packard had intended coming back with Draper. In telling why he happened to stay in California he said:

The snow was three or four feet deep on the mountains when we started. We had to walk about three miles up the mountain. Each had from ten to fifteen pounds of gold to carry, besides provisions, and it was hard climbing; but by night we had got down to where the oak leaves were half size. The sun was shining bright and there was no longer any signs of snow. We were as tough as greyhounds and walked about thirty miles that day. We stopped for the night at a tavern, and nest day we were so stiff and sore that it took us till 2 in the afternoon to walk eighteen miles to the stage road.

There Draper and Sawyer took a stage for Marysville. I went a mile off the road to see Dick Piatt of Piatt county, who owed me $1,000 and the others were to wait for me at Marysville. When I got there they had taken a boat for San Francisco and left word for me to follow. I didn't like it very well when I found they had gone off and left me, and as Piatt couldn't get the money for me right then I waited. Piatt offered me $10 a day to stay for ten days and work for him, saying that at the end of that time he would have the money for me. I worked for him ten days and got the money. He wanted me to keep on working for him, so I staid with him for a year, getting $100 a month, while the most he paid his other men was $50 a month.

I quit of my own accord at the end of the year, but remained in California another year. I had intended starting for home on the Golden Age, but two others who were to start two weeks later induced me to stay and go to the Golden Gate. I was glad I remained, for the Golden Gate caught fire and was burned and two or three hundred passengers were drowned. Dick Piatt is up on the Sacramento river now and doing well.

Mr. Packard is 72 years old and enjoys excellent health. Mr. Draper is 74 years old and is strong and healthy. He visits Decatur frequently. He and Silas Packard have always held each other in high regard, born of the intimate relationship that existed between them in that memorable trip across the plain. Both possess in a marked degree that strong social and congenial disposition which makes men companionable.

Sunday Review, Decatur, Illinois, Sunday Morning, March 16, 1902


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