Tuesday, July 20, 2021

In 1859, the road to gold passes through Chariton

Traffic on the old Mormon Trail into Chariton from the southeast had slowed by the spring of 1859 as travelers chose instead the newer state road --- a route that followed the general path of today's U.S. Highway 34 west from Albia, entering Lucas County at Lagrange.

After crossing the Chariton square, that road angled northwest out of town along the approximate route of Osceola Avenue and its extension, 495th lane (now a dirt road), before turning west to cross Whitebreast Creek, pass the stage stop at Tallahoma and exit into Clarke County, Osceola-bound, on the ridge northwest of where Lucas eventually would be located.

There had been a sharp uptake in traffic on the road during April as its ruts dried after the spring thaw and grass alongside greened sufficiently to support the yokes of oxen that provided "horse power." 

This would be the peak year for the Colorado gold rush, which had commenced during midsummer 1858 and would continue into 1861. An estimated 100,000 fortune-seekers traveled west to the Rockies during those years --- many through Chariton. And of course others still were intent on seeking their fortunes in California.

During early May, the editor of The Chariton Patriot commissioned someone to count the number of emigrant outfits that passed his office on the square May 5-10 and published the result. No issues of The Patriot from that year survive, but his news item was picked up and republished in the Burlington Daily Hawk-Eye of May 18 as follows:


"Below we give the number of teams that have passed our office for five days in succession, which is about average for the last two weeks. The emigration is about equally divided between California and Pike's Peak. The teams will average four yoke of oxen to the wagon.

"Thursday, May 5, 67 teams; Friday, May 6, 16 teams; Saturday, May 7, 37 teams; Sunday, May 8th, 37 teams; Tuesday, May 10th, 32 teams.

"There were also several droves of loose stock, intended for California."


If that seems like a lot of oxen, remember that at least three yokes (six oxen) were required to pull a large heavily loaded wagon. Sometimes a fourth yoke was part of the hitch; at other times it trailed behind or alongside to provide relief or extra power if an incline like one of the Whitebreast hills was encountered.

So if you're up on the square today, glancing out a window toward the courthouse or parked on a bench on the courthouse lawn surrounded by a sea of pickups, consider what your view would have been on a summer day 162 years ago.

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