What really happened on the California Trail?

 is marker in the Coral Cemetery commemorates the deaths of Lyman Stewart and Hendrick Anderson. Both were residents of Coral and were killed by Indians on the Humboldt River in Nevada on August 15, 1850.After the first settler came to McHenry County in November of 1834 many others soon followed. These adventurous souls traveled long distances from eastern and southern regions of the US to seek new opportunities in an unsettled frontier. After the first settler came to McHenry County in November of 1834 many others soon followed. These adventurous souls traveled long distances from eastern and southern regions of the US to seek new opportunities in an unsettled frontier. But, as the area slowly populated some of these settlers weren’t satisfied, and set their sights even further west to places like Oregon and California.

Prior to 1840 the far west regions of the North American Continent were mostly visited by fur trappers and traders, and the land routes to these places were treacherous and could only be navigated on foot or horseback. In 1836 a wagon trail was established from Independence, Missouri to Fort Hall, Idaho, and in subsequent years this route was pushed farther west and eventually became known as the Oregon Trail. In 1841, members of the Bidwell – Bartleson Party intent on reaching California forged a new path from the Oregon Trail heading to the southwest, and this new route became known as the California Trail.

And then it happened - the flood gates to the west ruptured after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California, on January 24, 1848. Approximately 300,000 people chased their dreams and the scarce mineral hoping to strike it big. In 1848 San Francisco had a population of approximately 1,000 inhabitants, and by 1850 this number swelled to 25,000. The California Trail Interpretive Center estimates that 150,000 emigrants used the trail during the Gold Rush years, and according to the November 20, 1850, Stewart,Hendrick Anderson,William Barnes, and only the surname of Soule was given for the fourth man. The article doesn’t provide any detail on why these four men were on the California Trail, but for certain we can determine that they never fulfilled their dreams of California gold or riches because they were killed in an Indian attack! The following text will give you the available story.

“CALIFORNIA INDIANS. – We take the following paragraph from one of our late exchange papers: Mr. James Sutter, of New Orleans, formerly from New York, who arrived at San Francisco, reported that the party to which he was attached,were attacked by a party of Indians on the 15th August, at the head waters of the Humboldt river, and had a severe engagement with them. The following persons were killed: Lyman Stewart, Hendrick Anderson, William Barnes, and ---- Soule, all of McHenry county, Illinois; and Charles Ralls of Canada. Mr. Sutter, it appears, was the only one that escaped. The Indians secured all the horses but one, and on this, after having been chased 12 or 14 miles, Mr. Sutter escaped. Upon reaching the main road, Mr. Sutter met a party of emigrants, who returned with him the succeeding day for the purpose of burying the dead bodies. After having decently buried his companions,and on their return, they fell in with a body of the same tribe of Indians (the Snake) fourteen of whom were slain in the engagement with them. – But one of Mr. Sutter’s party was a married man, William Barnes, of Pleasant Grove, town of Coral, McHenry County, who has left a wife and family.”

It is very likely that the four men were heading to California seeking gold because the route along the Humboldt River on which the four were killed was popular with gold rushers. American explorer and soldier John C. Fremont named the river during his 1845 mapping expedition after German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt. This route offered the traveler an arduous journey, and author of Across the Plains in Forty-nine, Rueben Cole Shaw, wrote the “Humboldt is not good for man nor beast and there is not timber enough in three hundred miles of its desolate valley to make a snuff box, or sufficient vegetation along its banks to shade a rabbit, while its waters contain the alkali to make soap for a nation.” Today the trip along the Humboldt is much easier for travelers because Interstate 80 runs generally along its 330 miles of riverbank from Wells to Lovelock, Nevada.

Additional searches of newspapers and government documents revealed no other mention of the unfortunate circumstances that led to the deaths of the four men. However, and quite coincidentally, a recent article about Coral in the McHenry County Historical Society newsletter the Tracer shed an additional glimmer of light. The article written by local historian Craig Pfannkuche mentioned a marker in the Coral Cemetery commemorates the deaths of Anderson and Stewart. The marker states that both were killed on Humboldt Mountain on August 15, 1850. This marker provided a little more information in that it listed Stewart’s age as 20 years old, and Anderson’s age as 17 years old. A search of the cemetery revealed no markers for Soule or for Barnes; however, the 1840 McHenry County federal census lists a William Barnes household having three males and one female.

Somewhere out there in the stacks of old newspaper, government records, or family bibles there has to be more information; it’s just buried and not readily available. Hopefully, someday more information will be discovered to offer a more complete picture of what really happened to Anderson, Stewart, Barnes, and Soule on the California Trail.