Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

Benjamin Briggs’ 49er Diary – Part 1


Dr. Benjamin Briggs is considered the founder of La Crescenta. He came here in 1881 because of the healthful clear air and purchased the entire Crescenta Valley. He named it La Crescenta, and divided it into saleable lots. What many don’t know is that Briggs originally came to California by wagon train during the “gold rush” of 1849 with dreams of striking it rich in the gold fields. He kept a rather terse diary of his trip across the plains and mountains. Local historian Jo Anne Sadler was able to access a transcribed copy of this interesting piece of Americana, and has shared it with me.

The so-called “father of La Crescenta” had an interesting trip, especially to those who are fascinated (as I am) with this American westward migration. Here are a few highlights. (I’ll correct Briggs’ horrible spelling. To be fair, he wasn’t a doctor yet.)

Benjamin Briggs was just 22 in 1849. He had just returned from a short stint in the Army during the Mexican-American War. On March 19, 1849, Briggs, along with two of his brothers and a friend, left Sharon, Ohio on a steam boat down the Ohio River. They joined with the Missouri River, traveling to St. Joseph, Missouri, a 20-day boat ride. Along the way, they “passed Jefferson City, a small and dirty town on the south bank.” They also “run onto a sand bar” where they were stuck an entire day. Just before they arrived in St. Joseph, “One of the boilers gave out. I started to St. Joseph on foot.”

St. Joseph was north of the favored “jumping off point” of Independence. There were thousands of gold-seekers cramming all the towns along the Missouri River, competing for wagons and supplies. They spent the next 15 days buying wagons, teams and other goods they would need. They bought four yokes of oxen (a yoke meaning two oxen), wagons, cows and other supplies. On April 24, they set out, making 15 miles the first day.

Mike Lawler is the former
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“Passed over nice rolling prairies with intervening groves,” reads one entry.

Continuing across the prairie, they joined the larger Oregon Trail. In 1849 it would have been like a crowded freeway, with hundreds of wagons jostling along. They stopped along the way to cut timber to fashion more yokes for the oxen.

“Shot a prairie chicken.” “Shot a turkey.”

On May 15, “a party of Pawnee came in camp” and two days later “passed through the Pawnee village.” Two days after that, “met a large party of the Sioux Indians.” This was getting exciting!

“Traveling along the south bank (of the Platte River) saw a number of buffalo. Two horsemen and myself pursued a herd and killed one.”

Three days later: “Passed across the bluff to the north fork, a new route. Shot two buffalo and three antelope. Left camp alone in the morning and were in sight of 100 wagons.”

By June, members of the party were dying. June 3 they buried one member of their party and another the next day. Cholera was a common water-borne disease along the trail.

June 5: “Met two men from Salt Lake who had been robbed by Crow Indians.” They continued through Wyoming and into Idaho through June and the first part of July, averaging about 20 miles each day. As they got into more mountainous country approaching the Rockies, they took one of the many “cutoffs” from the Oregon Trail, alternate routes that would lead them southerly to California.

In Idaho, just south of Pocatello at the base of Cedar Mountain, a momentous event in the life of Benjamin Briggs occurred. As Briggs noted simply in his diary: “I got accidentally wounded.”

Apparently, while his party was shooting for target practice, Briggs stepped into the line of fire. A bullet fired by one of his brothers had hit him and lodged in his spine. The shot didn’t kill him, but it did change the course of his life.

Next week, we’ll cover the remainder of a now-wounded Benjamin Briggs’ journey to California.