The Charles Preuss Maps of the Oregon Trail

In Lead Me Home, and again in my about-to-be-published novel Forever Mine, I make frequent mention of what my characters call “the Frémont maps.” In fact, these maps were created by Charles Preuss, a German cartographer who accompanied John Frémont on his explorations of the West in 1842 and 1843. The maps were first published in Frémont’s reports to Congress in 1845 and 1846, so my fictional characters could have obtained copies by early 1847.

Preuss’s seven maps are available online

On the 1842 expedition, Frémont, Preuss and their companions followed what would become the main route to Oregon—along the Platte River through what is now Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing to the Sweetwater River, then to South Pass where they crossed the Continental Divide, and then searching for the Snake River, which they followed as far as the Columbia River. Preuss’s maps stop at Fort Walla Walla, where the Snake joins the Columbia. That’s where the 1842 Frémont expedition turned around.

Preuss created seven maps depicting their travels on the 1842 trek. These were later published with Frémont’s report to Congress, and the maps became guideposts for many travelers to Oregon.

Here is the first of Preuss’s maps, showing the trail from Westport to the Little Blue River in Kansas, where the emigrants headed north toward the Platte.

I used the Preuss maps extensively in my research about the Oregon Trail. I often triangulated Preuss’s maps, pioneer journals, and Google Maps to decide where to have my fictional wagon train camp each night along the way. I had to be realistic in how far oxen-pulled wagons could travel (compared to the lighter Frémont convoy), and I had to make sure I thought about what changes to the terrain might have occurred between the 1840s and when Google’s satellite images were prepared. Many of the rivers have been dammed in the intervening 170+ years.

Here is an image from Google Maps reflecting my research into where my wagon train camped in Missouri and Kansas. This private Google Map shows all the waypoints I identified along the trail. I used this as a guide for where to place the emigrants each night of their journey.

Writers, what are some of the unusual research techniques you’ve used?


Thoughts on Random Photos of the Absaroka Range

In the summer of 2015, when my sister and I went through family memorabilia from our parents’ house, we did a rough sort of our dad’s photographs. We threw the envelopes of negatives and prints into three piles—one for me, one for her, and one for our brother—based on whose family was most featured on that roll of film at first glance. I ended up with two large boxes of stuff, including my share of the photos, which wended their way to my house.

Sometime last year, I sorted those photos into two shoeboxes—one containing pictures of my childhood years and the other of when my kids were young. But I didn’t organize them any further. I should have, I know, but I didn’t. I knew it would make me emotional.

This past weekend I decided it was time to go through all the stuff I have from my parents’ estates. I didn’t get very far.

As I was trying to separate photos from files, then start to discard the paperwork I collected while managing their estates, I opened the shoebox loosely categorized as photos of my children. These were mostly taken when my parents came to visit us in Kansas City or when my kids went to visit them in Washington State.

At random, I pulled an envelope of snapshots out of the box. “Absorka Ranch Trip ’89” my father had labeled it. (He was never a good speller. Moreover, the trip was really in 1990. But I knew what the envelope contained.)

I’ve written before about our vacations at the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming. (See here and here.) Of horseback riding and campfires and such. This random envelope I grabbed contained pictures of the family trip my husband, children, and I took in 1990 with my parents, my in-laws, my husband’s sister and her family. We had a total of twelve in our party, ranging from my five-year-old daughter to my 72-year-old father-in-law. We took up about half the cabins in the ranch, and two other families filled up the rest.

My daughter, the youngest wrangler

I found a nice snapshot of my daughter. And many panoramic views of the mountains and fields where we rode. Many mornings, my parents and I walked out from the ranch house before breakfast while waiting for the meal to be ready, and my dad took several of the pictures in the envelope on those walks. As I went through the deck of pictures, I remembered our trip.

My mother and me on a morning walk in Wyoming

But the snapshots also resonated with me in the summer of 2017—twenty-seven years after they were taken—because I am currently writing about the emigrant travel through Wyoming. The settings I describe in my work-in-progress look much like the views my father captured, though at the point I am in the story, the wagon train is not yet to the Absarokas. In fact, my novel will end before the wagon company reaches the Absarokas—it ends at Independence Rock. But I write about things I experienced in the Absaroka Range. About the sagebrush and the sand, the mountains and the meadowlarks, the hawks wafting on the wind, and the cool morning air before the heat of the day.

My memories of those trips to the Wyoming ranch have colored not only my life but also my fiction, in ways I never imagined in 1990. My memories give depth to the research I’ve done.

Writers, how have your personal experiences influenced what you write?

Relocation of Fort Kearny

In a post several years ago, I mentioned that Fort Kearny was relocated from near what is now Nebraska City, Nebraska, to a location further west along the Platte River. I described the surveying of the new fort site in Lead Me Home, and I’ve been revisiting that scene in my current work-in-progress.

As migration to Oregon increased in the mid-1840s, the Army decided it needed a fort at the eastern edge of the frontier to protect the western settlers and to provide them with a supply station. The first fort was named after an early explorer, Col. Stephen Kearny, who scouted the area along the Missouri River near what is now Nebraska City, Nebraska. He recommended that a fort be built in that place, and the Army constructed the first Fort Kearny in 1846.

Soon after the fort opened, however, the Army realized the location was not suitable. Settlers passed either south of the fort from Westport, Independence, or St. Joseph in Missouri, or north through what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska.

But almost all the emigrants to the West followed the Platte River, which became known as the Great Platte River Road. So the Army began scouting for a new location for the fort in September 1847.

Lt. Daniel Woodbury described the site he selected as follows:

“I have located the post opposite a group of wooded islands in the Platte River . . . three hundred seventeen miles from Independence, Missouri, one hundred seventeen miles from Fort Kearny on the Missouri and three miles from the head of the group of islands called Grand Island.”

The timing of the scenes in my novel is not exact, because I have my wagon company encounter the surveyors of the new site in May 1947, several months before they arrived.

Moreover, the replacement fort itself was not built until June 1848, when soldiers from the first fort arrived at the new location. The wooden buildings of the new Fort Kearny were built that summer.

By the summer of 1849, Fort Kearny was a mecca for the western travelers needing more supplies for the journey. On June 2, 1849, Lieutenant Woodbury wrote:

“Four thousand four hundred wagons have already passed by this post—nearly all destined for California. There are four men and ten draft animals to each wagon—very nearly. Many, not included above, have traveled on the other side of the Platte and many more are still to come on this side. The post is at present very poorly prepared to give to the emigrants the assistance which very many have required even at this point so near the beginning of their journey.”

Thus, the fort grew in importance as a supply station. By 1850 regular mail service had begun, along with a stagecoach route from Independence to Salt Lake City.

In the mid-1850s, hostilities between the Native Americans and the emigrants increased. Soldiers from Fort Kearny provided protection to the wagon companies. But by the mid-1860s most of the conflicts were farther west, and with the advent of the transcontinental railroad, there was less need for an Army presence. The Army abandoned Fort Kearny in 1871.

Ft. Kearny reconstruction, photograph by Chris Light, from Creative Commons

Later, the fort buildings were torn down and the land made available for homesteading. What exists at the site now is only a reconstruction of the fort.

As a side note, one of the interesting aspects of writing historical fiction is how the author should spell geographic names. For example, the name Fort Kearny is spelled as I’ve typed it, without a second e. But the town named after the fort is Kearney, with the second e. The reason? The fort was named after an Army officer named Kearny, but a later postmaster consistently misspelled the name as Kearney.

In my work-in-progress, I have recently been writing a chapter that takes place near Scott’s Bluff, Wyoming. The early settlers were divided on whether to spell it with or without the apostrophe. I chose to use the more accurate Scott’s Bluff because the location is named after a man named Scott (not Scotts). However, the National Park Service adopted the name Scotts Bluff. And the nearby town in Wyoming is Scottsbluff—all one word.

I don’t always choose the most historically accurate name. In my novels, I’ve called a more western fort along the Oregon Trail Fort Laramie, though it was called Fort John in 1847 when my fictional wagon company passed through (and had been called Fort William even earlier). But for the convenience of the modern reader, Fort Laramie makes more sense.

I’m sure some of my readers wonder why I’ve chosen the names and spellings I have. There is usually a reason, though sometimes I am just wrong.

When have you been surprised by some aspect of history?

Transporting Gold in 1850

One of the problems I’ve had to deal with in my soon-to-be-published novel, Now I’m Found, is how gold was transported in California in 1848-50. The gold flakes and nuggets had to get from the mines where they were panned from the water or dug from the ground to the surrounding towns, then ultimately to shipping ports to be sent to the mint.

Here are a few facts and figures:

  • The amount of gold reserves found in California in this era was astounding. From a total gold yield of $890,000 in or before 1847, U.S. gold increased to $10,000,000 in 1848, to $40,000,000 in 1849, to $50,000,000 in 1850. (And that wasn’t the end of the California Gold Rush; it’s just the end of the period covered in my novel.)
  • Despite the incredible riches mined during the Gold Rush, there was no bank in San Francisco until January 1849, and the early banks weren’t much to speak of. Merchants were the only businesses that owned safes, so they became the first bankers. The bankers held deposits of gold in their safes, and shipped gold wherever the owners directed—to local exchanges, to the mint in Philadelphia, or to the miners’ families in the States or elsewhere. The same banking practices were true in Sacramento as in San Francisco.
  • stagecoach11

    No Wells Fargo in 1850

    Wells Fargo was the first express company to operate in California, but it did not begin until 1852. According to the page on the company’s website describing its history, Wells Fargo offered banking services (buying gold and selling paper bank drafts as good as gold) and express (rapid delivery of the gold and anything else valuable)
  • Despite these primitive commercial practices, a lot of gold got moved in California. In November 1848, the first large shipment of gold departed by ship from San Francisco to the mint—a shipment of $500,000. In May 1850, another ship left San Francisco with $1.5 million worth of gold. ($500,000 would be worth more than $15,000,000 today, which means that these two shipments alone carried over $60,000,000 in today’s dollars.)
  • Regular steamship service between Sacramento and San Francisco began in August 1849. Before then, boat traffic was chartered or irregular, and the alternative was to make a week-long overland trip around the south end of the bay past San Jose.
  • The transcontinental railroad connecting California to the East was not completed until 1869.

All this research still left me with the question—how did the gold get from the mines to San Francisco?

In my novel, I created a business that began in 1850 to haul gold from the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to Sacramento, and a second business that ferried the gold from Sacramento to San Francisco. I know the ferry route existed down the Sacramento River as early as August 1849, but I don’t know whether it was used to transport gold.

I haven’t found any definitive support for a gold transport business existing in 1850, but it seems reasonable to me to think that some type of enterprise would have been created to handle this transportation. Maybe it’s fiction only, maybe it’s not true. But I like to think it’s at least “truthy.”

Authors, when has your research for your writing been stymied?

Now I’m Found—Cover Reveal!

A year ago, I showed readers the cover of Lead Me Home, the first book in my Oregon Chronicles series. Today I am ready to reveal the cover of the sequel—Now I’m Found. (I might revise the cover slightly, but this is close to final.)

NIF front cover 9-2-16

I’m working on final edits of this book, and it will be published later this fall, probably sometime in October. I’ll definitely post on this blog when it’s available.

This novel has been a challenge, because the plot is more complex than in the first book, with longer and more intricate time lines. Now I’m Found follows Mac McDougall and Jenny Calhoun over a three year period from 1848 through 1850 in both Oregon and California.

But I’m almost finished!

And I’m very happy with the cover, which is derived from Oregon City on the Willamette River, an oil painting by John Mix Stanley, circa 1850, in the Amon Carter Museum.

To follow my progress toward publication of Now I’m Found and learn more about the book you can

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And if you haven’t read Lead Me Home yet, it’s available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Then you’ll be ready when the sequel is published.

Many thanks to readers of this blog, who have inspired me to keep writing for close to five years. I couldn’t have done it without your support!

Why Don’t I Write About the Chinese During the California Gold Rush?


Chinese Gold Miners, from Wikipedia

The novel I’m currently writing alludes to race relations between whites and Native Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans during the California Gold Rush years. However, I do not touch on the Chinese influx into California. Why not? Because my novel takes place in 1848-1850, before the large wave of Asian immigration to California began.

The U.S. Census in 1848 reported that there were three Chinese men in San Francisco. One source states there were 54 Chinese in California in February 1849, then 791 by January 1850, and around 4,000 by the end of the year.

Word of the discovery of gold in California reached China sometime in 1848. A few Chinese men set out for California to seek their fortunes, just as prospectors from around the world did. They sent back word to their home provinces that California was a “Gold Mountain” where the precious metal lay on the ground waiting for them.

It wasn’t until these reports reached China that the Chinese began immigrating to California in large numbers, reaching the new U.S. in 1851 and after. Around 2,700 Chinese came in 1851 and 20,000 arrived in San Francisco in 1852. By the end of 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese in California. See The Story of California From the Earliest Days to the Present, by Henry K. Norton (1924). By the mid-1850s, the Chinese were the largest single group of Gold Rush immigrants to California other than whites.

One article states:

“The typical Chinese gold seeker was in his late teens or early twenties, male, single, and uneducated. His purpose was to return to China as soon as he had accumulated his wealth. He did not intend to assimilate into the California community and he assiduously protected his traditional life style. Customs, clothing, language, food, and the traditional queue set him apart from his fellow miners.” 

chinese man 1851 oakland museum silver-chman

Chinese man in 1851, from Oakland Museum of California

Because the Chinese workers’ intent was to amass their fortunes return to China, they were incredibly hard workers and were willing to do work that many others did not want to do. They worked gold claims that whites had already abandoned. They worked as cooks and in laundries. They started small businesses supplying miners. They accepted wages far lower than white workers, who had better opportunities in the gold fields.

Another reason the Chinese were not particular about the work they did was that there was a strong prejudice against them. This was true of attitudes toward other foreign miners, African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but the Chinese were visibly different and kept to themselves.

According to most reports, the Chinese kept to themselves more than most other immigrants to California. White prospectors tended to mine by themselves or in small groups. By contrast, Chinese worked in larger communities and so retained their conspicuously different language, food, hair and dress, religion, and other customs.

African American and Hispanic laborers were also easily identifiable, and often were kept separate both legally and socially, but the longer history between whites and these groups meant that they were more easily assimilated into Western life than the Chinese.

Starting in 1850, the California legislature passed laws taxing foreign miners. The Foreign Miners’ License Law imposed a tax of $20/month on all foreign miners, but this immediately took workers out of the mining camps. A destitute population returned from the mines to San Francisco, causing social and fiscal upheaval. The law was repealed in 1851.

But in 1852 California instituted a new tax on foreign miners who were not U.S. citizens. Although this tax was lower—three dollars per month—Chinese miners made only six dollars a month. Moreover, Chinese could not become U.S. citizens, so the tax effectively precluded the Chinese from mining, while permitting white foreigners to become citizens and avoid the tax. As a result, the Chinese had to earn their keep otherwise.

Although some Chinese sought legal protections in the California courts, in 1854, a California Supreme Court decision declared that they could not serve as witnesses in court proceedings. Section 14 of the Criminal Act stated “no Black or Mulatto person or Indian shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against, a White man.” The court found that this law was intended to preclude all non-white persons from testifying against whites.

After this decision, the Chinese immigrant communities became even more insular, deciding most disputes among themselves. As a result, they were viewed as having their own secret laws—which, of course, they did, because it was the only way they could find any justice.

About the time the Gold Rush bonanza declined, the railroads needed workers. The Chinese became the primary labor force for the railroads in the West in the 1860s. They laid most of the tracks from Sacramento across the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Chinese immigration came to an abrupt halt in 1882, with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act—the first U.S. immigration law excluding a specific national or ethnic group, though similar acts followed against other racial and ethnic groups. This act remained on the books until 1943, but quotas for Chinese immigrants remained impossibly low until 1965.

As I researched this post, I found many parallels between treatment of the Chinese in the 1850s and how some think we should treat Muslims today. Conspicuously different religions and cultures have always been difficult to assimilate. This topic may not be an issue in my novel, but writing this post has given me a new perspective on history, and on our politics today.

When have you learned something about history that you see reflected in today’s society?

Development of Mining Codes in the California Gold Rush

group of miners

A group of Gold Rush miners

One of the topics I’ve had to research for my work-in-progress is the mining laws of California at the time of the Gold Rush. Essentially, there were no laws. In January 1848, when gold was discovered, California was under the control of the U.S. Army, which had taken California from Mexico in the Mexican American War.

There were serious questions as to whether Mexican land grants were valid. And in the areas where gold was found, there hadn’t been a lot of Mexican land grants. In fact, Johann Sutter, who was building the mill where gold was first found, sent representatives off to Monterey to confirm his land rights.

The Native Americans did not hold land individually, and the whites who came to seek gold thought of it as open territory. It was each man for himself.

GoldRush miners 1856 print

1856 print of Gold Rush miners

I was surprised when my research indicated how small the land claims were. Many were only ten feet by ten feet. The prospectors hunted for gold by panning in creeks and by digging with knives and shovels on dry land.

When they could no longer find gold by panning and digging, men banded together to use more effective means of processing the dirt, like rockers and long-toms, which required more space.

Despite the violence that old Western movies show us, the first miners typically resolved their disputes themselves, which is how the practice of staking claims developed. Staked claims were generally respected, at least as long as men stayed on their claims.

Over time, each area where prospectors congregated because of a gold find figured out ways to police themselves. They developed local codes that they enforced to keep each other and newcomers in line.

As “Dame Shirley” (Mrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) described it to her sister back home,

First, let me explain to you the ‘claiming’ system. As there are no State laws upon the subject, each mining community is permitted to make its own. Here, they have decided that no man may ‘claim’ an area of more than forty foot square. This he ’stakes off’ and puts a notice upon it….If he does not choose to ‘work it’ immediately, he is obliged to renew the notice every ten days; for without this precaution, any other person has the right to ‘jump it’….There are many ways of evading the above law. For instance, an individual can ‘hold’ as many claims as he pleases if he keeps a man at work in each….The laborer…can jump the claim of the very man who employs him…[but] generally prefers to receive the six dollars per diem, of which he is sure…[rather than] running the risk of a claim not proving valuable….The labor of excavation is extremely difficult, on account of the immense rocks…[in] the soil. Of course, no man can work out a claim alone. For that reason…they congregate in companies of four or six, generally designating themselves by the name of the place from whence the majority of the members have emigrated; for example, the ‘Illinois,’ ‘Bunker Hill,’ ‘Bay State,’ etc., companies. In many places the surface soil, or ‘top dirt,’ ‘pays’ when worked in a ‘Long Tom.’

It wasn’t until the unruly Forty-Niners arrived and the gold fields became overrun that claim jumping became a real problem. Unscrupulous people who wanted to sell their claims, would “salt” them by scattering gold on the land.

When crimes were discovered, the miners meted out harsh and speedy justice. Small crimes were punished by flogging, more serious crimes—including robbery and murder—resulted in a quick hanging. Sometimes mobs lynched a man without bothering with a trial.

As an attorney, I loved reading law review articles about these early mining codes. Most people might find them dry, but they appealed to me, and gave me the level of detail I wanted to write my novel. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Of course, the first-person accounts, such as the one from Dame Shirley quoted above, were also fun to find as I researched.

When have you been surprised to learn something about history?