Edwin Bryant made the journey from Independence, Missouri to California in the years 1846-47, through the southern pass of the Rocky Mountains and across the desert. As a medical student, he became an unofficial doctor along the way, and witnessed some gruesome scenes, like the amputation of a little boy’s gangrenous leg, which he describes in painful scientific detail. He is equally explicit when portraying the daily life of the wagon trip, and his prose illuminates the trials of the traveler:
During the process of cooking supper, it commenced raining and blowing with great violence. Our fire was nearly extinguished by the deluge of water from the clouds, and our dough was almost turned to batter…We ate standing, with the rain falling, and our clothing completely saturated with water. Our oxen become entangled in the ropes by which we had secured them from straying during the night, and it was not without much labor and difficulty that they were released. Jacob and myself made our bed, or rather took shelter from the storm, among the boxes in our wagon; McKinstry and Brownell bivouacked under the wagon, and Curry and Nuttall under a large tree. The suspension of the fury of the storm lasted until about 2 o'clock in the morning, when the rain recommenced falling in torrents, accompanied by peals of crashing thunder and flashes of lightning so brilliant, as to illuminate the whole vault of the heavens. Notwithstanding all these inconveniences, we rested pretty well.
Bryant intended his work to function as both entertainment to the general reader and instruction for those planning to follow his path, and the book is a repository of useful information, like distances, weather, water source locations, and descriptions of plant life. As such, it is invaluable to enthusiasts of Western history. It is also a really good story, with entertaining sketches of camp life, Indians, and animals. Bryant’s descriptions of the landscapes are particularly compelling:
The vast prairie itself soon opened before us in all its grandeur and beauty…The view of the illimitable succession of green undulations and flowery slopes, of every gentle and graceful configuration, stretching away and away, until they fade from the sight in the dim distance, creates a wild and scarcely controllable ecstasy of admiration. I felt, I doubt not, some of the emotions natural to the aboriginal inhabitants of these boundless and picturesque plains, when roving with unrestrained freedom over them; and careless alike of the past and the future, luxuriating in the blooming wilderness of sweets which the Great Spirit had created for their enjoyment, and placed at their disposal.
The variety of Bryant’s adventures is striking – in one day he is present at a death, a wedding, a funeral, and a birth. He is often nearly overwhelmed by the functions of nature going on around him, and is particularly moved by the continuous presence of death:
One of our party who left the train to hunt through the valley, brought into camp this evening a human skull. He stated that the place where he found it was whitened with human bones. Doubtless this spot was the scene of some Indian massacre, or a battle-field where hostile tribes had met and destroyed each other. I could learn no explanatory tradition; but the tragedy, whatever its occasion, occurred many years ago. The bones of buffalo, whitened by the action of the atmosphere, are seen every few yards…but none of the animals have yet been discovered. It is probable that the large number of emigrants who have preceded us, have driven the few buffaloes which descend the Platte so low as this, into the hills. The bleaching skeletons of these animals are strewn over the plain on all sides, ghastly witnesses deposited here, of a retreating and fast perishing race.
What I Saw in California is the classic yet remarkable adventure of a young man heading west, well-written and full of historically useful information.