“My dependence, however, is in a higher power
And as He has never yet failed to help me
In the straits of life through which I have passed
I am still encouraged to believe that He will
Yet conduct us safely through our trials and difficulties.”
—Capt. James H. Simpson
July 29, 1859 – Sevier Desert, Utah
In last week’s column, we left off with Capt. James H. Simpson and his exploring party standing on Dugway Pass, disappointed they could not complete their reconnoiter of the West Desert because of the lateness of the season.
Full of determination, Simpson and his expedition returned to Camp Floyd and began preparing to complete the reconnaissance next year.
On May 2, 1859 the Simpson Survey Party rolled out of Camp Floyd on the greatest exploration ever of the Great Basin.
The party consisted of some civilian scientists, assistants, two Mexican packers, two Ute Indian guides, 14 teamsters, 1 wheelwright, 1 blacksmith, 4 herders, and 3 months rations consisting of 6 “Beeves” driven on foot.
There were 12 six-mule quartermaster (supply) wagons, and two wagons for the party’s scientific instruments. Such instruments consisted of sextants, artificial horizons, chronometers, barometers, inclinometers, and all manner of other scientific apparatus. There was a military escort commanded by 2nd Lt. Alexander Murry, which consisted of three non-commissioned officers and 18 privates, 10 of which were heavily armed and well-mounted “Dragoons” (cavalry). All in all, there were 64 members of the party and 14 wagons. It was a large expedition.
Much of the territory Simpson’s party was about to enter was un-mapped, hostile Indian territory. This was real frontier adventure in the extreme. In light of this fact, Capt. Simpson stated in his report that the members of the topographical party were each provided with a Navy Revolver and that “of course” the military escort had its proper arms.
After leaving Camp Floyd, Simpson made some observations about Rush and Cedar valleys.
“These valleys are very sparsely watered, and though the soil itself has all the properties of fertility, yet for want of the necessary moisture, for agricultural purposes, it is utterly worthless,” he wrote.
Simpson’s assumptions were right as both valleys remain much as they were in 1859. Often when I drive state Route 73 from Lehi to Tooele, I’ll gaze at Pole Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains from the west near Fairfield and dream about walking the high ridges or lazing under an ancient fir. Simpson commented on this same scene:
“The mountains limiting the valley are at points quite formidable. The Oquirrh Range, dividing Cedar and Rush valleys discovering along its crest in mid-summer, shreds of snow which the sun has not been able to dissipate.”
The Simpson Party rumbled its wagons west through Rush Valley, over Lookout Pass and onto the desert, camping at Meadow Creek (Faust Station), Lookout Station Valley, Simpson Springs, just west of Dugway Pass, Fish Springs and the Great Salt Lake Desert.
Simpson made some interesting observations here:
“The country passed over is as desert a region as I ever beheld, scarcely a spear of grass visible, and in some areas not even, the characteristics of an arid soil, grease wood or sage. In some places the ground is perfectly bare of everything and is smooth and polished as a varnished floor.”
Simpson further described the crude mail station at Fish Springs, the towering sight of the Deep Creek Range to the west, and passing several six-mule team mail carriers on their way to Salt Lake City.
Finally, the party came in contact with some Goshute Indians near Willow Creek. Simpson spared no expense in describing them in detail:
“We have today seen a number of Goshute Indians. They are most wretched looking creatures, certainly the most wretched I have ever seen, and I have seen great numbers in various portions of our country. Both men and women wear a cape made of strips of rabbit skins, twisted and dried, and then tied together with strings, and drawn around the neck by a cord. This cape extends just below the hip and is but a scant protection to the body. They seldom wear leggings or moccasins, and the women appear not to be conscious of any impropriety in exposing their persons down to the waist.”
Simpson was obviously taken aback by the sight of the Goshute at first, but he showed great humility and kindness to them during the remainder of the trip.
Simpson spent some time talking and exploring a bit with Henry “Doc” Faust at Pleasant Creek just south of the Deep Creek Range. Doc Faust took Simpson to see a camp of Goshutes and described the potentials of the country and the Indian farm at Deep Creek, 25 miles to the north. These tales and countless others provide one with an interest of the west desert a treasure trove of reading enjoyment.
Simpson was a fabulous writer who possessed a high literary skill. His report and journal is a must read for anyone who is interested in Tooele County’s West Desert. Once you begin to read his voluminous work, you may not be able to put it down.
Even though the report was submitted in late 1859, this incredible work was shelved for years due to the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1876 it was published as the “Report of Explorations across the Great Basin Territory of Utah for a direct Wagon-Route from Camp Floyd to Genoa in Carson Valley.”
I felt it expedient to insert Simpson’s report here because anyone who travels the Pony Express Trail today should know that it was instrumental in Russell, Majors and Waddell’s decision to have the Pony Express pass through our county’s West Desert.
Some other significant contributions of the report were the many geographic features, such as the House and Thomas ranges that Simpson named. Students of Utah history will be interested to know that we have Simpson to thank for the English translation of Father Escalante’s journey to Utah in 1776. The original Spanish manuscripts were obtained from a friend’s personal library in Washington D.C. and translated per Simpson’s order in preparation for his trip. Simpson’s report is a masterpiece that should not be missed and will be noted often as we continue our exploration of the Pony Express Trail in Tooele County.
The University of Michigan maintains a large collection of Old West texts, military exploration reports and other items of interest from the 1800s. You can read Simpson’s report in full at this website (Choose the option: Read Full Text): http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/textidx?c=moa;idno=ABA0861
Local historian Jesse Petersen studied Simpson for decades and his work culminated in a book entitled: “A Route for the Overland Stage.” This book covers Simpson’s expedition day-by-day and much more. It can be previewed at the following site: http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1113&context=usupress_pubs
Maps: Rush Valley; Fish Springs; Wildcat Mtn 1:100,000 USGS or BLM. These maps cover a good auto tour route from Camp Floyd to Ibapah.
Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He and his family live in Stansbury Park.