I am Douglas G. Walsh. I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts.
My father, probably in his early 70's, wrote about the cross-country trip of my great grandfather Richard Welch and my great grandmother, Mary Russell Welch, from Hadley, Massachusetts to Smartsville, California, around 1876 or 1877. Richard and Mary are herein known as ‘Dick and Marie.’
I have tried to copy the manuscript faithfully, except to modify punctuation and correct some spellings. I will add more comments at the end of the manuscript.
Loss of the onion crop was the last straw. It had been one of New
England's worst winters in the past ten years. Snow and sleet was usually
moderate, but this one had been very heavy, followed by a rainy spring.
The Connecticut River had overflowed its banks covering the farmland with
several inches of silt. This on top of losing his six sons by Black
Diphtheria in the past year was just too much for Dick. He swore he
wouldn't spend another year in this section of the country.
Returning to the house, he told his wife Marie, he had made up his mind to
sell the farm and move to California, where there was reported that
another gold strike had occurred.
That night he went to see his uncle Jim who lived halfway up a foothill of
the nearby White Mountains. He told Jim of his plans to sell the farm. Jim
did his best to discourage him. Realizing Dick intended to go through with
his plans, Jim offered to buy the farm.
They agreed on a fair price. Jim was a shrewd business man. He had worked
as a mason back in England and coming to the United States he had bought
this land where he now lived, very reasonable. In terracing it, he had
found clay deposits. He started a small brick-yard with a kiln. Wood was
plentiful. He was able to make and sell bricks. Very soon he had his
original investment back plus much more. With the sale of bricks so
successful, Jim was able to hire two brothers, French-Canadian, whose
family had fled from Acadia when the English took over. They dug the clay,
molded the bricks and fired the kiln. Jim's house was one of the first in
Western Massachusetts to have a brick-veneer. He also had a smoke-house
and vegetable and wine cellar.
It took Dick nearly the whole month to prepare for his trip. The heavy
farm wagon had been converted into a Conestoga wagon. Dick had the
regional blacksmith make the metal-bands to support the canvas top.
(Jim)-A former cabinet apprentice, he had built a cabinet to hold the
kitchen utensils. On one side of the wagon he had bolted this to the metal
bands. On the floor of the wagon he had laid a number of 8-foot wooden
planks, loose, so if they ran into any mud holes he would have something
to put under the wheels. Two heavy draft horses, a riding pony, and a cow.
A crate of chickens and a keg of salt pork. Marie would put her preserved
fruits and vegetables in the drawers in the bottom of the long cabinet.
Her bed clothes and woolens in the inner half of the divided chest Dick
had built under the high wagon seat. His guns and tools would go in the
Two water barrels were banded to the side of the wagon opposite the
cabinet, for balance. Two buckets and two lanterns. On the cabinet side, a
long box had been fastened. This held two containers of kerosene and the
rest of the box contained charcoal, and one section of oats and corn. On
the tailgate were four bales of hay, this is where the cow and pony would
be tied. The hay would have a canvas tied over it.
Inside, opposite the cabinet, Dick had fastened a folding table. The
clothes-side of the box would serve as a 'seat.' Also on that side, the
bed-frame was fastened. The mattress would be laid on the floor when
in-use and then tilted and tied to the bed-frame when not in-use.
Finally the day came to start their trip. It was the middle of June. The
few neighbors had come to see them off. Each had brought a 'going-away
gift,' vegetables, smoked-meat, matches, and Jim had brought two jugs of
homemade wine. Also a tin box filled with silver coins.
Dick intended to follow the old well-worn freight route west, so he
crossed down through western Connecticut, southern New York state into
Pennsylvania. These Eastern roads were fairly well kept, so he made good
The farmers along the route were most hospitable. Dick was able to refill
his water barrels, get plenty of grain and hay for the horses and cow and
stake them out to nibble at the grass. Dick and Marie were always asked to
have supper with the farm family. The families were fascinated with the
plans for such a long trip. Nothing would do but that they take some more
smoked-meat and fresh vegetables along.
After thanking them for their hospitality, Dick headed southwest towards
St. Louis where they would cross the Mississippi River. From St. Louis
they would then head for Kansas City.
In Kansas City, Dick was able to buy a wagon-dog very cheap. He had been
left at the freight depot by a teamster who was returning to Chicago by
train. The dog sleeps most of the hot day in the wagon and is tied to the
wheel at night, on guard.
With the grain-box and the water barrels filled, they headed west across
the Kansas prairies. Three days later came the first danger they had
encountered so far. On the horizon to the north, Dick saw a dark cloud,
but after watching it for a while he came to the conclusion it was
‘smoke.’ This meant only one thing out here. A ‘prairie-fire!’
Looking to the south from the freight-road, he spotted a dry-gulch,
probably caused by a flash-flood. Turning off the road, he headed for it.
Stopping about twenty-feet from the edge, Dick walked over and looked at
it. About seven-feet deep and twenty-feet wide, the bottom looked fairly
hard-packed. Returning to the wagon, Dick untied the light plow off the
top of the water barrels and set it to one side. Then getting his shovel
from the tool-box, he returned to the edge of the gulch and started to dig
a ramp. Being mostly sandy soil, it was but a short while till he had a
gradual slope back to the wagon. Driving down the ramp, he turned at the
bottom and pulled in along the northern side of the gulch.
Untying the four nested buckets, he filled them with water. He had Marie
get him six towels which he placed in the bucket to soak. Four of these he
wanted to tie over the three horses and cow’s heads. One large one he
intended to tie on the end of the garden hoe to wet down the canvas top of
the wagon. The last one wrung-out would be for the dog.
Unhitching the two big horses from the wagon, he led them up the ramp he
had made and hitched them to the plow. Dick then plowed four-furrows each
side from where the wagon stood. Then turned and plowed up and back on
each end to the road.
Returning down the ramp, he tied the two horses to the south-side of the
wagon. Wringing out the towels, he fastened them over the heads of the
horses and the cow. Giving one to Marie, who would be inside the wagon
with the dog, he tied the big towel around the head of the garden-hoe.
With a bucket of water and the hoe, he went back up the ramp. By dipping
the towel in the bucket, he reached out and wet the top of the
wagon-canvas, letting it run down the sides.
With the wagon-canvas wet-down, he wet his bandana and tied it around his
nose and mouth. Picking up his shovel, Dick started a ‘back-fire,’
controlling it with shovels of dirt. By the time he had burned-off the
plowed-in strip, the prairie-fire was less than a mile away. He returned
to the edge of the gulch next to the wagon. Sitting down, he waited.
The wind blowing at six to eight miles an hour, it wasn’t long before
the fire could be seen under the cloud of smoke. But something was running
ahead of the fire. A pair of ‘jack-rabbits’ came through the burnt-out
strip, bounding along, down the ramp he had dug and ducked under the wagon
up against the side of the gulch, where they huddled shivering. Dick rose
to his feet, picking up his shovel, for he knew more dangerous things
would also be fleeing the fire.
Smelling the rabbits, the dog in the wagon started to bark, but Marie
quieted him down. To the west, Dick saw several coyotes dash across the
road, but knew he had nothing to fear from them, they were running for
their lives. Near by, across the burnt-strip, something was moving. Moving
closer, Dick saw it was a sidewinder-rattlesnake. He couldn’t let this
get down into the gulch, for it would frighten the horses, so waiting for
the right moment, he chopped it in-two with the edge of the shovel.
Digging a shallow-hole, he buried it, for he did not want Marie to see it
or the horses to sense it on the way back to the road, for it was a big
By this time the fire had reached the north side of the road. Stopped
where Dick had ‘back-fired,’ and jumped across on each side of the
burnt-out strip and raced along past them.
Dick returned to the wagon, decided to spend the night where they were.
Feeding and watering the horses and the cow, while Marie prepared supper,
he threw a handful of hay under the wagon for the two rabbits huddled
there. As there was no way of storing fresh-meat, he thought it best to
let them live.
After cleaning up the supper-dishes, Dick and Marie climbed out on the
wagon-seat to talk and watch the clouds scurry across the quarter-moon.
There was a faint smell of ‘burnt-toast’ on the light breeze. They
talked of the trip so far, and wondered what lay-ahead of them. Shortly,
the moon clouded-over, and a light-rain started to fall, so they returned
inside the wagon and prepared to go to bed. Dick felt tired after his
day’s work. He had fastened a rope to the dog’s collar, so he
wouldn’t bother the rabbits.
In the morning, when Dick looked under the wagon, the rabbits had gone. He
took the shovel and going to the ramp, patted down the damp sand, firming
it for the trip back up it.
Feeding and watering the horses and cow, he ate breakfast which Marie had
prepared. Then, hitched the horses and brought the wagon in a half-circle
to the foot of the ramp. Getting down from the wagon, he untied the pony
from the back of the wagon and led him up the side of the ramp to the flat
at the top, and staked him out at the side. Next, he brought up the cow
and did likewise. Returning to the wagon, he picked up the reins, flipped
them along the horses’ backs. The horses started up the ramp at a good
clip, but as the wagon started up, they were forced to dig into their
horse-collars and strain against the weight. This was nothing new for
them, who had pulled a stone-boat back on the farm. Digging-in, they kept
the wagon moving even as the wheels sunk in the sand an inch or two. Slow
going, but they finally made it to the top.
Tying the pony and cow to the back again, they headed back to the
freight-road. Once on the road, they could see the scorched-earth on all
sides as far as they looked. Thankful for escaping the fire, they headed
west. It was several hours before they came to the edge of the burnt-off
The wagon-trail crossed the bridge on the Walnut Creek just north of the
Great Bend in the Arkansas River, then headed west and then northwest to
(Doug’s note: At the city of Great Bend in central Kansas, the Arkansas
River goes southwest and a tributary - Walnut Creek - goes westbound.)
The next several days they made good mileage across the rolling prairie.
There was plenty of forage each evening when they pulled off the road and
staked-out the horses and cow.
An early start in the morning, they soon came to the foothills of the
Rockies. One afternoon they heard a ‘rolling’ noise that sounded
almost like thunder, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. On reaching
the top of the next rise, they saw the cause of the noise. In a narrow
valley, a small herd of buffalo were running north. Quickly grabbing the
long rifle from under the wagon seat, Dick jumped down and laying down he
aimed at a young buffalo and squeezed-off a shot. The buffalo reared up,
ran a few steps and tumbled over on his side.
Waiting until the rest of the herd had passed, Dick drove down the side of
the valley and off the side of the road to where the buffalo lay. Taking
his skinning-knife, he started to skin the buffalo. Having butchered
steers back on the farm, this was nothing new to him. The dog was
all-excited and kept running around the buffalo, until Dick had to tie him
to the wagon wheel, where Dick tossed him scraps to keep him happy.
It took most of the day to butcher and salt the meat, so they decided to
camp there for the night. After lunch, Dick had taken the shovel and
clearing a shallow pit, had set up the iron frame to hang the iron pot on.
This consisted of two iron stakes with ‘Y’ shaped tops, across which
another iron rod lay. He built a small fire under the pot and poured water
in it until it was about a quarter full.
In the meantime, Marie had been busy cube-ing pieces of meat which she put
into the pot. Adding onions, carrots, turnips and potatoes. Making what
was called a “Mulligan stew.” After simmering for several hours, they
had supper. They thoroughly enjoyed the stew, glad to get fresh meat for a
change. After supper, Dick scraped and salted the hide, stretched it
across the feed-box , hair-side in, to let it dry.
It was another day and a half before they got to Denver. They had another
good meal the evening before by heating the rest of the stew, by adding a
little water to it.
In Denver, a good-size town, they drove to the freight station where the
station-master let them park their wagon in the freight yard. After taking
care of the livestock, they joined the station-master in his office.
Sam, the station-master, had been a freight wagon driver for twenty years
before settling-down to the job he now had. Dick and Marie told him of
their plans to go to the new gold-fields. Sam gave them some good advice
from his past experience. He told them of the extreme heat in the desert
at midday. Advised Dick to buy a large piece of canvas to shelter the
horses and cow by stopping in the midday and erecting the canvas on two
long poles and two ropes across the top of the wagon. Also to buy an extra
barrel for water. When Dick mentioned building a barn for winter shelter
for the livestock, Sam told him to buy his lumber here in Denver at
one-third the cost it would be in California and ship it by freight-wagon
to Smartsville, the nearest town to the new goldfields, where he could
pick it up himself at the freight station.
Dick heeded Sam’s advice and went to the lumberyard, buying the lumber
he figured he would need, and also two kegs of different size nails and
several rolls of tar-paper. Bought a new barrel at the coopers and a large
piece of canvas and two long poles. He had plenty of rope. He had the
feed-box filled and another bale of hay.
Sam said he would take care of the shipping of the lumber, nails, and
tar-paper. Resting the livestock another day, they started out west on the
wagon road. After thanking Sam for his kindness, they said their
The next several days was slow-going. The many ups and downs required many
stops to rest the horses. The road headed northwest towards Salt Lake
City. (Doug’s note: Guess through the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming.)
Finally they came to the place where the road divided, one headed north,
the other headed southwest, which they turned onto. (Doug’s note: Guess
the old Fort Bridger area in Wyoming, near present-day Evanston, Wyoming.)
This road led into the desert. (Doug’s note: The road south of the Great
Salt Lake goes into the Great Salt Lake Desert. This is Route 80 to Alt.
Route 93 South in Nevada.)
Making camp for the night, they watered and fed the animals, had supper
and sat and watched a beautiful sunset and retired for the night. They
wanted to get an early start by daybreak.
Dawn comes slowly in the shadow of the mountain, so it was still dark
where they were camped when Dick arose. Lighting a lantern, he fed and
watered the animals. Then starting a small fire, he set up the tripod for
the kettle to boil.
Marie had been preparing breakfast. Slicing bacon and potatoes, she set
the iron frying pan on the fire. First the bacon and then the sliced
potatoes. Coffee in the boiling water and they were soon eating. A quick
clean-up and they started out into the desert.
Taking the lantern and the dog on a leash, Dick led the way back to the
road, while Marie drove the team following him. It was at least an hour
before the sun popped-up over the top of the mountain.
Climbing back on the wagon, Dick took the reins. They made good time for
the next four hours. By then, the sun was high in the heavens and hot.
Looking for a place to stop, they came to an outcropping of wind-blown
gravel. Pulling off the side of the road, Dick got out the large square of
canvas and the two long poles. Tying two ropes to the corners on one end,
he threw the ropes over the top of the wagon, went around to the other
side and pulled the end of the canvas up to the top of the wagon and
fastened it there. Fastening the other corners to the end of the poles he
set them upright. He now had a shelter for the animals.
Untying the horses and cow, he led them under the shelter, tying them to
the side of the wagon. Getting a bucket, he filled it from one of the
water barrels. He let the animals drink and then gave them some grain and
Marie had made lunch, so after eating they laid down in the wagon for a
siesta. It seemed they had hardly fallen asleep when the noise of the
horses stamping and the dog barking woke them up. Dick climbed up on the
seat to see what was disturbing them. At first he could see nothing. Then
he heard the sound of “rattles” and spotted a rattlesnake about a
dozen feet outside of the shade of the canvas which it had been heading
for when the vibrations of the horses stamping had caused it to stop and
Taking the shotgun out of the wagon-box, Dick jumped down and walked
toward it. Stopping about six feet away, he took aim and blasted the snake
to pieces with buckshot. Quieting the animals down, he reloaded the
shotgun, putting it back in the wagon-box. Taking a shovel, he scooped-up
the pieces of the snake, he walked some distance away and buried it.
Coming back to the wagon, all was quiet again, so he climbed back in the
wagon to finish his siesta.
Four hours later, with the sun on a slant from the west, they broke camp
and started west. It was still hot, but nothing like it was at noon. About
an hour on the wagon road, they could see what looked to be a small town
in the distance. They traveled an hour more, when all of a sudden, the
town disappeared. Then they finally realized that what they had seen, was
a mirage. It was another three hours before they came to the little mining
town of McGill, at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. (Doug’s
note: McGill, NV is in ‘Eastern’ Nevada on Alt. Route 93 South, just
north of Ely, NV, located between the Schell Creek Mountain Range on the
east, and the Egan Mountain Range on the west. The “Sierra Nevada
Mountains” are much further west.. )
Stopping at the freight station, the stationmaster said they were welcome
to stay in the freight yard for the night. Thanking him, Dick drove the
wagon into the freight yard, unhitched the horses and put them in a small
corral, watered and fed them. Going back to the wagon, he took care of the
pony and cow. Then he put the pony in the corral also. Getting a pail, he
milked the cow, filled a jug with milk, and set it in a bucket of water to
In the meantime, the stationmaster told Marie to use the stove in the
station to cook supper. She made up a batch of biscuits, cut up some of
the dried buffalo meat, some onions and potatoes, and made a stew. When
all was ready, she called Dick in from the wagon. The stationmaster called
“Rusty,” who in his younger day had red hair, invited to join them,
was only too happy to have a home-cooked meal. Dick had brought in the jug
of milk, cooled by now. They ate and talked till there wasn’t a scrap
left. Rusty pushed back his chair and said he couldn’t recall when he
had enjoyed a meal more.
They sat and talked for a while. Dick asked about water. Rusty told him
that about a mile to the west, was a brook that crossed the wagon road,
where he could fill his water barrels with cold mountain water. Rusty had
many tales of the old days when the Indians were a danger. Finally saying
their ‘good-nights,’ Dick and Marie went out to the wagon. They wanted
to get an early start in the morning.
Shortly after daybreak, they were on the road west, deciding to wait
breakfast until they came to the brook. Arriving there, Dick built a small
fire. He setup the metal cooking frame, then watered the animals and gave
them some grain and hay. He then started to fill the water barrels, while
Marie prepared breakfast. When the barrels were full, Dick milked the cow.
Filling a jug, he placed it in the brook to cool. Also a pan-full to the
dog, who seemed to like it warm. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal with a
little salt, buckwheat cakes cooked in bacon fat with a little maple
syrup, washed down with cold milk.
They made good time through the valley, coming out into the Nevada desert.
Four hours later it was time for their siesta and lunch. Three more days
of the same, they came to Virginia City. This was a busy town, what with
the big silver mines. Dick was tempted to settle here, but decided to
continue on to California. So camping on the outskirts on the west side of
town, they spent the day shopping for supplies.
After an early breakfast, they headed west toward Donner Pass. Warned that
the snow sometimes came early in the mountains, they wasted as little time
as possible until they had reached the pass. A couple of steep grades, it
had been necessary to hitch the pony out front on a special hitch to help
pull up the steep grades.
Through the pass, they started down the other side of the mountain. The
view of California as they descended was spectacular.
The next freight-station was located in Smartsville. This was also the
closest town to the new gold-strike. Dick’s lumber was also consigned
Several days later, they pulled into the freight-yard. The freight-agent
told them they were welcome to camp there until the lumber arrived, if
they wished. The agent was talking with another man who had been listening
to Dick. He spoke up and said that he had a cabin up on the creek where
his claim was. Dick looked up at him. He was a big fellow, six-foot seven
and well-built. He introduced himself to Dick and Marie. He said his name
was Bill Evens. He told Dick that he was ‘looking for a partner.’
Invited them to come up with him to look the place over.
Talking it over with Marie, who said she liked the looks of the big
fellow, thus agreeing with Dick’s first opinion, they decided to go
along with him.
Bill had come into town for supplies. So Dick told him to load them into
the back of the wagon instead of tying them on his horse. They started out
heading north. It was about two miles to Bill’s claim. He had built
himself a good-size cabin on a plateau over-looking the stream. Dick and
Marie both liked the place. Dick saw that there was good grazing for the
animals so he talked things over with Bill. The front of the cabin faced
the South. By putting up a partition on the east end, they would have a
room for Dick and Marie. This would leave most of the lumber to build a
barn attached to the house on the north side.
A week later, Bill came back from town with the news that the lumber had
arrived and was waiting at the freight yard for Dick to come and get it.
Dick and Marie had been moving most of the things in the wagon into the
cabin, so it wasn’t long before the wagon was stripped. Dick and Bill
road into town and loaded the lumber on the wagon. Sam, true to his word,
had also shipped the nails and tar paper.
Stringing a rope across the east end of the cabin with two drapes on it,
they created a place of privacy for Marie. For the present, the mattress
was laid on the floor.
Bill’s bunk was along the south wall. The fireplace Bill had built of
stones and clay from the creek on the west wall was a good-size one. The
metal frame they had brought with them would easily fit in it with room
for the iron pot. Bringing in a pail of water from the water barrel, Marie
prepared to get supper. With plenty of dried buffalo meat, onions, carrots
and potatoes to make a tasty stew.
They all enjoyed the meal very much. Bill was lavish with his praise. They
sat and talked of their plans to close off the east end of the cabin,
making it into a bedroom. Building a barn on the north side of the cabin
for the horses and the cow. Also Bill suggested, if there were any boards
left, that they make a ‘traverse-trough’ for the creek. With this they
could stop panning the sand.
I offer this story “as-is.” My dad, the author, suffered a severe stroke, and that’s probably why the story ended here. I barely discussed the story with him when he began to write it and never saw it again until roughly 10 years after his death.
I have no way of verifying anything except:
1. Photo of “Dick,” on the back saying:
“Died in Smartsville, California in 1878.”
2. Gravestone in the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception graveyard in Smartsville, California.
The stone shows the death-date as: “Jan. 6, 1879.” But, a photocopy of the actual Church Burial Record, obtained from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, Calif., shows the death-date as: “Dec. 6, 1878.” The stone also says: Age: 32 years “Erected by his affectionate wife” (Nativity: “County Waterford, Ireland”) No other family member is buried there.
The Church Burial Record lists “illness” as cause of death.
Interestingly, in a book entitled: “El Nino,” by J. Madeleine Nash, I found the following: “The winter of 1877-78, Kiladis and Diaz concluded, was the second wettest San Francisco had experienced in 125 years; by contrast, 1982-83 qualified only as the third wettest.”
Smartsville is roughly 120 miles northeast of San Francisco. So, living at a mining location, and mining itself, in that type of weather could have contributed largely to his untimely death.
3. A church statement of Baptism of Dick and Marie’s son - Richard 2nd - my grandfather - that he was born in Smartsville or the Smartsville area on August 6, 1878 and that he was baptized August 8, 1878 in the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception in Smartsville.
4. My grandfather’s US Marine military service record, 1899-1904, which I obtained in 2006, shows his birthplace as: “Smartville, California.” I will do a separate study of him, complete with pictures, in the future.
5. The 1880 Federal Census shows: “Widow Mary” and her 1-year old son - born in “California” - now residing with her parents Ellen and Michael in Hadley, Massachusetts. Widow Mary and deceased husband Richard are both shown to have been born in Ireland. (This Census was taken in mid June, 1880.)
6. On Kathy Sedler’s “YubaRoots” Yuba County website:
A “Richard Walsh,” Rose Bar Township – in which “Smartsville” was located - signed-up for “Voter Registration” for “only” the years: 1877 and 1879.
A “Richard Walsh” signed-up for the “Military Draft” for “only” the year: 1878.
(Click on photos for larger
||Richard Welch - unknown date of photograph
Pioneer of Smartsville - born in Ireland
||Back side of photo above
||Mary Russell Welch born 1850, Ireland - wife of Richard
Back side of above photo - taken in Northampton, Mass. - unknown year
Their son, Richard - born August 6, 1878, Smartsville
Baptized in the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, Smartsville, August 8, 1878.
Photo above taken during his tour in the U. S. Marines 1899-1904, Private, serving 2.5 years on land and 2.5 years at sea. He had just turned 21 years when he enlisted.
Enlistment record 1899
and family information provided by Douglas G. Walsh