Truckin’ on Down the Road: Book Review

“To Truckee’s Trail: The Greatest Adventure… Never Told”
by Celia Hayes ISBN-13: 978-1-60145-252-8

Based on an actual historical wagon train, this book tells the story of the Stephens-Townsend Party that left Kanesville, Ohio, on May 18th, 1844 and ended on March 5th, 1845 at Sutter’s Fort in California.

From the blurb on the back cover:

The author reconstructs the long-lost diary of Dr. John Townsend, physician and ad-hoc leader, carrying readers through every dusty mile and every hard choice, with this extraordinary group of ordinary Americans.

From this blurb, I expected the entire book to be in the form of diary entries.

Not so.

The diary entries, in a flowery style similar to early 19th Century writing, are sprinkled among more conventionally written scenes of adventure, plus transcripts of an imagined interview of one of the younger immigrants as part of an oral history project.

And adventures they had.

The first part of the journey was in the company of a larger party headed to Oregon. At Ft. Hall in Idaho (near present-day Pocatello), the others continued on toward Oregon while the Stephens-Townsend Party split off toward northern California.

An unplanned shortcut, insufficient water in the dry high plains, a near miss with a band of Sioux warriors and cattle run off during the night are a hint of harder times to come. Finding traces of an old trail reassures the party, but more time is lost in searching for the lost cattle and refilling water stores.

The party soldiers on until November 1844 finds them ragged and weary, with failing livestock, high in the Sierra Nevada. A small mounted party is sent ahead of the main party in search of help.

Those remaining behind faced a grim choice. Camped beside a lake high in the Sierra Nevada with snow falling before winter even officially arrived, not enough oxen left to pull their wagons and a difficult climb to get over the next pass, the group decided to split again. Three men would winter over beside the lake, waiting for a relief party in the spring. The remainder, including women and children, would attempt the pass after repacking into as few wagons as possible.

None knew the fate of the first party. None knew whether the wagons could be taken over the pass. None knew whether wintering over meant starvation or freezing to death.

Those who enjoy historical fiction or regional American history should also enjoy this imaginative reconstruction of a real months’ long trek from Ohio to near Sacramento.

For us in the 21st Century, who fly in a handful of hours over the land that the Stephens-Townsend Party trudged across in months, a detailed and harrowing reconstruction of the bravery and perseverance of one party of overland immigrants can restore a sense of wonder and delight at how far we have traveled in 160 years, and in more than miles.

Political correctness and revisionist history would bury stories like this. Congratulations to Ms. Hayes for bringing Doctor Townsend, his wife Elizabeth and all the others back to life for us to cheer on as they head west, to California.

Ms. Hayes provides an explanatory appendix that lists the members of the Stephens-Townsend Party and indicates which characters in the book are embroideries on history. The appendix also gives a brief account of what happened to some of the members of the party after the end of her story.

To Truckee’s Trail may be purchased through Booklocker. Other titles by this author include the already-published Our Grandpa Was an Alien ($13.95 from Booklocker and the upcoming Adelsverein trilogy that will tell the story of a German immigrant family in early Texas.

Be sure also visit the author’s website.

[cehwiedel also writes at]

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