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Wyoming History

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The Cherokee Trail

Part three of five parts - First published 1994 Revised 2002

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Part 5

Cherokee Trail Bibliography

stage.3.red.neg.bmp (512456 bytes)The main reason the southern Cherokee Trail wouldhavebeen desirable as an emigrant trail is its proximity to permanent water. Moving west from the Sierra Madres in south-central Wyoming, the trail ran parallel to the Little Snake River. As the trail crossed the Colorado-Wyoming border, it traverses Powder Wash and Powder Springs. The trail continues northwest and crosses Vermillion, Alkali, and Salt Wells creeks which have dependable water flows even in summer. Further west there were the springs at Maxon Ranch. Sage Creek provided permanent water all the way to the Green River. Thus from the Sierra Madres to the Green River the Cherokees were never more than twenty miles from a water source if they knew where the water was located. 

During the California and Colorado gold rushes, Native Americans were involved in the exploration and extraction of placer gold. This is due to the fact that Native American groups such as the Cherokee and Delaware had first-hand knowledge of how to mine placer gold. In fact it was in the 1830s on the Cherokee lands of northern Georgia, near present Dahlonega, that gold was first mined in large quantities within the United States. It was Cherokee miners who extracted this gold (Gardner 1980). In fact, Cherokee law forbid white miners from working the placer deposits near Dahlonega. By restricting access to their gold fields, the Cherokee accomplished several important political and economic goals. Politically they briefly turned back the invasion of Georgians onto their lands. Economically they acquired a useful skill that made the Cherokee miners excellent placer operators in the mid-1800s. When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California, the Cherokee, who had lost their eastern homeland and mines, naturally saw the placer gold fields of the Sierras as an opportunity to earn money by putting their unused skills to use in the West.

Cherokees who had been forcibly removed from Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia to Oklahoma in the 1830s saw the gold fields of California as an opportunity for needed revenue. When John Lowery Brown left Oklahoma in company with other Cherokees, he was seeking opportunity. The route he traveled became known as the Cherokee Trail.

By 1850 the Cherokee emigration efforts were relatively well organized. At "Fifteen Mile Creek" on May 1st 1850 the following was agreed upon and entitled

Constitution of the Cherokee Emigrating California Company:

Art.1st. The company shall consist of the following officers,viz:

One Captain, one Lieutenant, one Sergeant of the Guard, one Wagon Master, a Committee of twelve persons to transact business, and a Secretary all of which shall be elected by a vote of the majority of the Company, to serve during good behavior . . .

The foregoing Constitution was read and unanimously adopted, on the 29th day of April 1850, at Camp on Elk Creek.

After which, Jno. H. Wolf was called the chair, and an election went into: which resulted in the election of the following officers, viz:

C.V. McNair, Captain, Robert Haris Lieutenant; Jno. Gott, Sergeant of Guard; Alfred Cunningham, Wagon Master; Jno. H. Wolf, Secretary (Cherokee Advocate, May 27,1850:2).

It was the Cherokee California Emigrating Company formed on the banks of "Fifteen Mile Creek" that John Lowery Brown joined in the spring of 1850.

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At the top of John Lowery Brown's journal were inscribed the words "Off for California." Lured by the discovery of gold, several parties of Cherokees left for California at about the same time. Brown left Stillwell, Oklahoma, on April 20, 1850. On his way to join the rest of the westward-bound Cherokee, he passed through Tahlequah. The party of gold seekers Brown traveled with was captained by Clement Vann McNair. McNair resigned his command on the Cache La Poudre River.   In his place, Thomas Fox led the group through the Rocky Mountains and on to California (Wright 1934:177-178).

John Lowery Brown was in the company of an illustrious group of Cherokee emigrants. Brown, who emigrated in 1850, would return to the Cherokee Nation in 1857 or 1858. Returning to the reservation appeared to be the intent of most westward-bound Cherokees. Thomas Fox Taylor, who led a company of Cherokee west in 1850, returned to Oklahoma and would become president of the "Cherokee National Committee." Taylor also was a lieutenant in Colonel Stand Watie's Cherokee Mounted Rifle Regiment. It was while in service of the Confederate army at Bayou Menard, that Taylor, then a Colonel in the regiment was killed on July 27, 1862 (Wright 1934:181). Clement Vann McNair led another company that Brown's company joined on May 6, 1850. McNair was great grandson of Joseph Vann, a leading Cherokee figure in northern Georgia. McNair served as the attorney for the Cherokee Nation and senator in the years spanning 1841 to 1847. When he left for California in 1850, he left Oklahoma for good. Unlike Brown and Taylor, McNair would never return to the Cherokee Nation. John H. Wolfe, who commanded yet another company of Cherokee gold seekers, would travel to California ideally to make enough money to pay for his son's education. He never made enough money to pay for his son's education. Desiring to see his son, he returned to the Cherokee Nation on a visit. By the time he would return, his son was full-grown and Wolfe decided to go back to California (Wright 9134:185). Wolfe typifies the experience of many western-bound Argonauts. He went west to earn money for his family, but actually failed to find enough gold to both live in California and send money home.

One man who accompanied Mc Nair and Brown wrote home expressing his desire to take care of his family. Joseph A. Sturdivant, from the "Going Snake District" of the Cherokee Nation wrote home to his wife "Ary" shortly after reaching Sacramento City in November of 1849. In the letter he expresses his problem with illness and work. He also provides insights into the hardships a wagon train might encounter and the good will extended to his train by other emigrants, who made efforts to ease the potential dangers the group faced. Many times along the trail provisions were shared. In ending his letter he declares his loneliness for his family and wishes them well. In closing he states, "write me how you are getting along, and whether the children are going to school or not, and it is in your power to keep them at school try to do so." His last words are "nothing more but remain, yours truly" (Cherokee Advocate, March 11, 1850:2).

Numerous companies of Cherokee headed west from the Cherokee Nation in 1850. Brown, in his diary records at least eight different companies of Cherokee emigrants. Brown's diary is slightly confusing because the different groups that left from Tahlequah often merged, blended, then split apart. After each split a new Captain would be elected. Then, when companies met again there might once more be a split, merger, and blending of travelers to form a new group. From the Cherokee capital at Tahlequah west to the "diggins" there were traditional Cherokee cultural dynamics at work. The merging and splitting, at least in Brown's diary, were not necessarily due to friction, but a desire to accompany a different group for a short time.

After one merger of companies, Brown describes the make-up of his camp. On May 11th, 1850, Brown wrote:

The Company was joined on Thursday by, five waggons and 21 men . . . the number . . . grew to 105 men, 15 negroes and 12 females all under the command of Clem McNair (Wright 1934:183).

The gender and racial data provided in this entry are significant. Cherokees owned slaves. Prior to the arrival of Europeans they used captured Indian slaves.  After the Europeans arrived,  they began to capture and later purchase African slaves. Joseph Vann, the grandfather of McNair was one of the largest slave holders in the Cherokee Nation. The "15 Negroes" were more than likely slaves.

The trail taken west from Oklahoma to California followed the Arkansas River and headed northwest to present Pueblo, Colorado. To reach Pueblo, John Lowery Brown and company followed portions of the Santa Fe Trail. Reaching Pueblo, the party turned due north. Brown and company traveled through the area of present Colorado Springs where he noted on June 17: "passed Pikes Peak which is covered with snow" (Wright 1934:189). On the 20th of June they reached the South Platte not far from present Denver and on the 21st of June they discovered gold. In his diary John Lowery Brown wrote: "June 22 Lay Bye. Gold Found. . . . we called this Ralston's Creek because a man of that name found gold here . . . " (Wright 1934:190). This report is substantiated in February 25th, 1851 (2) Cherokee Advocate where it was noted that Jeffrey Beck's company "discovered gold on the [east] side of the Rocky Mountains . . . " Interestingly, Evan's company also reported finding "at the foot of the Rocky Mountains . . . placer gold" (Cherokee Advocate, September 3, 1850).                   

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Continuing north, Brown's party turned northwest near present Fort Collins and entered the Rocky Mountains at Cherokee Park south of Virginia Dale, Colorado. Somewhere west of Cherokee Park, it appears the Cherokee dropped into the Poudre River Valley. It is here, on the 29th of June, that the Cherokees followed "Evans Trace" (Wright 1934:191). Evans is credited with pioneering the Overland Trail along Bitter Creek. Yet it is clear Brown's party did not follow Evans' route in its entirety. The Cherokees traveled along Evans' route into North Park where they abandoned his "trace" to follow "Edmonson's route" (Wright 1934:192). Edmonson was apparently also a Cherokee who lead pioneers west. Following the Poudre River west, they crossed the crest of the eastern Rockies. From the Divide between the North Platte and the Poudre Rivers, the Cherokees angled northwest through North Park, Colorado, following the North Platte to present Saratoga, Wyoming.

The Cherokees would ford the North Platte at Sage Creek near the Overland Trail crossing. From the Platte, John Lowery Brown's party headed west to cross the Continental Divide at Twin Groves roughly twenty miles south west of present Saratoga. His route lay roughly sixteen miles southeast of Bridger's pass that the Overland Stage line crossed in 1862.    Historians in the past placed this crossing at Bridger's Pass ( Fletcher, Fletcher, and Whiteley 1999: 337).   Brown's party followed Little Savery Creek west.   The wagon train  reached Muddy Creek at the mouth of "Cherokee Creek."  The Brown train had traveled "west around the North Flat Top Mountain, . . . before turning south toward the Little Snake River" (Fletcher, Fletcher, and Whitely 1999:339).  Near present Baggs, Wyoming, the Cherokees reached the Little Snake River. Following this river west for a relative short distance, they would leave the valley at what is presently called Cherokee Basin and then travel west following the crest of the Cherokee Ridge. This is the same ridge that Clarence King would record in his 1867 survey of the Fortieth Parallel. The Cherokee followed this ridge to Powder Rim which is north of present Powder Wash, Colorado. The Cherokees then headed west to Currant Creek. In taking this trail along Powder Rim, they were traveling E. Willard Smith's route. Smith had traveled this route in 1839 and thus it appears the route across Powder Rim was not completely unknown.

Traveling downstream along Currant Creek, the Cherokee reached the Green River and took approximately three days to ford the river. Continuing west, Brown and company passed south of Wildcat Butte and did not reach the Black's Fork River until somewhere near the site of the future historic stage station called Millersville. From this point on the Black's Fork River the company headed for Fort Bridger.

Near Fort Bridger, the Cherokees joined the main stem of the California/Mormon/Oregon Trail. They would follow the California branch to the gold fields traveling through the "Mormon Kingdom." Brown made observations of northern Utah and trail conditions. Leaving northern Utah they passed into future northern Nevada and then crossed the California Sierras, Brown and company would reach the "diggins" in September of 1850. Having left Oklahoma in April, the trip west had taken 161 days. References

Brown's diary from the Continental Divide  west to Fort Bridger is enlightening in terms of locating the Cherokee Trail in southwestern Wyoming. Top

July 8

very bad road

Today the two ox Co. and our Train move on togather. only ten horse teams, the rest ox, ours & Olivers train & traveled 20 miles and Camped on small Branch 1/2 mile to the rite of the Road good water, grass & wood Capt homes Co moved father on ahead-- Camp 57--

[July] 9

very Bad Traveling on account of Bad Road & wild sage

today at 10 o'clock we crossed the dividing Ridge between the waters of the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans. Bad Road Traveled 20 miles. crossed Elk head creek, and camped on small branch tolerable good grass Camp 58--

July 10

Traveled 25 miles today without finding water until night when we camped on a Branch of Elk head creek [probably Muddy Creek]. Very Bad Road. Grass scarce & water not good. Camp 59--

July 11th

Today we had very good Road for a few miles and then the rest of the way, the worst Road that we have Traveled over since we left home. No water or Grass or Timber. The Road Dry & Dusty & pached. No game, Sage Grass scarce. at Sundown we reached the dry Bed of a large Creek where we got water by digging holes. the water tasted of Salaratas & salt. Grass scarce. Made today 20 miles-- Camp 60--

Graves we have passed since Intersecting the Independence Route
1. C. McDaniel -- July 25, 1850
2. J. A. Drake Died at this place July 15, 1850
3. Horatio Morse July 17, 1850 Marcy Co. Mo.
4. M. Harris died July 18, 1850, Franklin Co Dublin Ohio
5. A Grave on the left side of the road with some writing on the head board, stating that he had been found by the road so [word illegible] that they could not ascertain who he was or where he was from--dated 19th July, 1850 & signed An Emigrating Company--

[July] 12

Camp 61

We traveled 5 miles and came to where Capt Home's Co. were camped which was 1-1/2 miles from the Yamper River [the Little Snake River]. A great many Indians were coming into camp as we got there which caused great excitement. They came up Friendly. The proved to be the Snake Indians. Capt Homes reported that he had been 8 or 10 miles and could find no water or grass, so we all concluded to stay where we were carelled togather. [word illegible] carried our stock to the R to graze and packed water from the same place 1-1/2 miles

July 13

horses & oxen failing

Traveled today 25 miles very Rough Road. No grass wood or water. Traveled until sometime in the night when we came to Sulphur Springs. Not fit for man or Beast to drink. No grass

[July] 14

Camp 62--

[July] 15

Traveled 5 miles and came to Salt water with little grass. Camped Camp 63--

 

Man & Beast sick. Caused by drinking the water that we have been drinking for several days Traveled today 20 miles and came to a narrow swift Branch of good cold water with tolerable good grass Camp 64--

July 16

Lay Bye--

[July] 17

Traveled 20 miles over tolerable good Road. Camped in deep holler on little Branch. Good grass. Sage for fuel Snow on mountains in view on ahead Camp 65--

[July] 18

Several cases of sickness in the Co. Very Rough Road Camp on Branch of Green River, one mile from the River Made today 20 miles wild sage as usual Camp 66--

July 19

2 miles today lay Bye

Home's Co moved 3 miles to the crossing of Green River. Olivers & taylors Co. Camped along the River. Great many preparing to "pack" from this place Camp 67

 

499 miles from Peueblo to Green R This is the most desolate looking country that I ever saw. Since we crossed the deviding Ridge on the 9th the Ground has been dry & parched & very dusty. Salt water

 

Except now and then you find good water Grass very scarce. No game. Nothing much Except wild sage growing in this part of the Country Wild and Rugged hills (very Bad Roads)--

[July]  20

we lay Bye

Today Capt Home's Co Rafted their waggons across the River. R. J. Meigs drowned one of his mules.--

[July]  21

lay Bye

Capt Olivers Co-- Rafted over the River. Taylors Co. not crossed but preparing to pack--

[July]  22

lay Bye

This morning Capts Oliver & Home's Comps Traveled on. Capt. Taylors Co. here yet. Expect to cross the River tomorrow

[July] 23

lay Bye

This morning we commenced crossing the River By Riding our shoulders our horses and Carrying the Packs on our sholders as the water was very deep. by 12 oclock we were all safe across and camped on the west bank of Green River Camp 68--

 

March 8, 1851
I owe J. B. Hunter $50

 

Green River is about [blank] yards wide, with numerous Islands upon which Good Grass Grows into which we drove our horses & mules The Timber is cottonwood & willow. The water of the River is good, though not so cold as that of the Platt or other Mountain Streams which we crossed. The country along the Banks of the River is very rugged, looks Dreary & Desolate, with high Bold Bluffs on the west Bank-- (Wright 1934:194-197).

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If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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