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Between 1841 and 1860 over 200,000 emigrants traveled overland from Missouri to California. Amongst the first 400 to do so was Michael Kolmer (a.k.a. Michael Coleman) and his family.
Per Michael’s daughter Josephine (fifteen years old at the time), the Kolmer family left from St. Joseph, Missouri. If so, it is then almost certain they went with one of 4 wagon trains bound for Oregon that left St. Jo in early May, 1845. In early August, Michael Coleman is at Fort Hall (in British Oregon Territory, now south-east Idaho). He is mentioned amongst those persuaded by Caleb Greenwood to split off to California. They arrived at Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento) with one of the Greenwood parties (Grigsby-Ide) on about October 25th. It had taken them almost six months to cover the 2,000 miles (3,200 km) from Missouri.
Their eldest daughter, Josephine K. Benitz, recalled the journey in an interview with a reporter from the Sonoma County Press Democrat in September, 1898:
She was one the first white women to land in California. With her
husband[Correction: her parents] and party she crossed the mountains from St. Joseph, Mo., and arrived at Sutter’s Fort in 1845. They came in wagons and the journey occupied six months. The memories of that trip have stayed with Mrs. Benitz these many long years, and today she recalls with ease many points of interest and incidents which happened en route.
Laughingly Mrs. Benitz remarked that when she and the other white women arrived in California the natives would not believe that they were white, and as proof positive she says they rolled up their sleeves and exposed their arms to withdraw the skepticism of the doubting Thomases in the crowd. She says all the foreigners in the state, upon their arrival in 1845 — and there were very few of them — came to see their party.
Before entering the country they had to obtain permission of the Mexican government to do so.
The following is from the opening paragraphs of The Chronicles of Alfred Benitz, 1815 - 1937 (the unpublished first attempt at Alfred’s biography — Josephine was his mother).
The Kolmer family “lived at St. Louis, Missouri, until she was sixteen [Correction: Josephine was 15], when they crossed the plains in a covered wagon drawn by oxen, en route to California, a distance of about
one[two] thousand miles, and were among the first to make this terrible journey...”
The wagon trains of 1845 are fairly well documented, many people kept diaries, some took notes intending to write books about their experiences. Sadly, the Kolmers were not quite so literate nor that way inclined and left no written record of their own and we must experience their odyssey through the writings of others. For the vast majority, especially the young, it was an exciting adventure remembered fondly. (See the recollections and diaries of the 1845 wagon trains listed at the foot of this page.)
Most of the following I have adapted from the books The Brazen Overlanders of 1845 by Donna Wojcik, The California Trail by George R. Stewart, and Wagons West by Frank McLynn (details listed below), adding references to the Kolmers from wherever I can find them — a continuing process.
The account we give here is necessarily brief — we are not experts on the subject. If you wish to read a detailed account of the 1845 wagon trains, we strongly recommend you read the books listed.
In 1840, Ft. Laramie (Wyoming) was on the western edges of US territory. Ft. Hall (Idaho) and everything north-west of it was British Oregon Territory, Texas was a separate republic, everything west of Texas and south of Oregon was Mexican — except Ft. Ross (California) which was Russian. Within ten years, by 1850, the US had acquired it all, expanding to its present day borders with Canada and Mexico.
Previous to the emigrants of the early 1840’s, only explorers, adventurers, mountain men — mostly robust young men — went back & forth across the mountains and deserts to northern California, traveling light with pack trains (strings of mules carrying packs). The emigrants, such as the Kolmers, were quite different. They went west to settle and they took with them their families and possessions loaded in wagons.
They went north-west from Independence & St. Joseph (on Missouri’s western edge) because at that time the trails were safer and the opportunities to settle better. The route south-west through Santa Fe (New Mexico) and across, first used in about 1830, had some major drawbacks: (1) The southern trails past Santa Fe were unsuitable for slow moving wagons with long distances between water; (2) the southern Indians (Comanche, Apache) were much more hostile and dangerous than the northern tribes; and most importantly, (3) the continuing territorial disputes between Mexico and Texas made settling throughout the south-west quite uncertain.
The first people began emigrating overland north to British Oregon in 1840. The next year, in early November '41 the Bartleson Party of 33 people became the first emigrants to arrive overland in Mexican California. However, they had been forced to abandon their wagons on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. In '42 none went to California, in '43 another 38 made it through but again abandoned their wagons. Then in '44 for the first time and after great effort 53 people of the Stevens Party crossed the Sierra Nevada with their wagons — but badly scattered, the first arrived mid-December '44, the last in early March '45. With wagon crossing now proven possible John Sutter commissioned Caleb Greenwood to recruit (kidnap?) emigrants from the Oregon bound wagon trains of '45. Greenwood and his sons succeeded in leading about 260 people with 50 wagons over the new-found California trail of '44. Leaving Fort Hall in August '45 they arrived without major mishap at Sutter’s fort in late October '45 – among these pioneers were Michael Coleman and his family.
That year, 1845, ten times as many emigrants (2,500) went to Oregon. In '46 about 1,500 emigrants went to California (vs. 1,200 to Oregon), including the disastrous Donner Party where half died caught by snow in the Truckee Pass (later renamed the Donner Pass) through which the Kolmer family had traveled the year before. Then in '47 and '48, due to the war with Mexico, emigration to California fell off and most emigrants went to Oregon. However, in ’49 the Gold Rush began and 24,000 Forty-Niners went to California!
Between 1840 and 1860 over 200,000 emigrants traveled overland to California, 50,000 to Oregon, and 43,000 to Utah. At least 15,000 (5%) died in the attempt, most from illness (cholera was rampant) whereas only about 370 were killed by hostile Indians. [Note: The Indians fared far worse. The approx. 425 killed by the emigrants pales in comparison to the countless thousands, including entire bands, who died from European diseases (measles, smallpox, cholera) introduced by the emigrants and against which they had no natural immunity.]
Many of the early emigrants (pre-gold rush, such as our ancestors) were farmers and tradesmen from near the Mississippi who had fallen on hard times or felt crowded out by newer emigrants arriving from the further east. They went of their own accord, not due to any government policy of manifest destiny — that followed later when newspapers and politicians hitched up their band-wagons. The early emigrants went for personal reasons, to escape sickness (malaria was endemic along the Mississippi-Missouri valleys) or persecution (Mormons in 1846), an opportunity for a better life, land, new horizons, adventure. One young man, Jarvis Bonney, traveling with the Kolmers went for the trout and salmon fishing! A scant few went as missionaries; most emigrants held themselves superior to the native Indians and Mexicans who already occupied the territories.
Like many others, the Kolmers had moved at least once already, emigrating west to St. Louis in approx. 1841. The decision to go farther west was most likely Michael’s with Josepha, his wife, going along reluctantly. Their decision was probably made during the previous summer of 1844 (June-August). We assume they attended Oregon emigrant meetings to gain knowledge of the recommended route, wagon, equipment, clothing, and supplies. They would have needed plenty of time to sell whatever they were not taking and purchase or make everything they would need for the trek, as well as travel across Missouri from St. Louis to St. Joseph on the western edge of the settlements.
It was already April, 1845, when word first arrived in Missouri that the previous year’s wagon train to California had made it through — the first ever to do so. In April Michael and Josepha were already arriving at St. Joseph (commonly known as: St. Jo), their jumping off place, where they joined one of the large wagon trains bound for Oregon. Michael’s original destination, like virtually everyone else’s, was Oregon not California. Oregon belonged to the British, and the trading posts run by the Hudson Bay Company were friendly. California was likely not much more than an intriguing topic of conversation. It belonged to Mexico and it was rumored the Mexicans made it difficult to own land.
The expense of outfitting alone likely cost the Kolmers at least $500, including the wagon and stock (when a laborer earned $1/day). The expense of the entire journey likely came closer to $1,000 [or $34,000 USD-2000], especially when they had to arrive at the far end with sufficient funds remaining on hand to survive through to the first harvest. Arriving in California, the Kolmers had the great good fortune to happen upon and be taken in by a fellow native of Endingen — Wilhelm Benitz — but when originally setting out from St. Jo they were not even going to California.
Had they heeded the instructions of the day (many didn’t), at this point the Kolmers would have had a wagon so heavily laden with their supplies they likely had to walk alongside. The wagons have been described as moving hardware stores, often overloaded with everything possibly needed on the trail: tools large and small (axes, spades, & buckets to whetstone, awls, scissors, etc.), cooking utensils (pots & pans, coffee grinder, mugs, camp stools, etc.), equipment (rifles, shot-guns, tack, saddles for the horses), supplies (gunpowder, lead, canvas, nails, rope, shoe leather), and maybe spare wagon parts difficult to make on the trail (tongue, axle). In addition they carried enough food and supplies for six months: flour (200 pounds per person), bacon (50-100 pounds per person — a familiar staple but it melted in the heat), plus lard, salt, sugar, coffee, candles, matches, and much more, all in equivalent large quantities. They also needed spare clothes to wear (linen & cotton were out, wool & flannel strengthened with leather patches were in), rain gear, tent, and blankets to sleep under. Plus whatever delicacies, books, and personal items they could not bear to be without.
They most likely traveled in a single farm style four-wheeled wagon capable of carrying at least 2,500 pounds [1,200 kg.]. The dead axle wagons made by Bain or Schuttler were recommended; basically boxes on wheels without benefit of springs, they had to be a jarring ride, rattling and shaking along. A wagon would have been covered with water-proofed canvas (likely not pristine white as in the movies) and pulled by three yoke of oxen. Two yokes could pull a wagon but three yokes reduced the risk of failure should any fall ill or die. Depending on their wealth, they may have had another yoke of oxen included amongst some loose cattle (steak on the hoof), a couple of horses for herding and hunting, maybe even a milk cow. Mules were faster than oxen but at $75 each they were three times as expensive. Oxen were hardier subsisting on poorer forage making them more popular. Michael would have guided his oxen on foot, cracking a long bull-whacker’s whip above their heads to encourage them.
The farm wagons were light and had good clearance, practical considerations when fording rivers and traversing mountain passes. The emigrants were familiar with them, preferring them to the more maneuverable two wheeled cart used by the Mexicans in the south and the Hudson Bay Company in the north. Contrary to the Hollywood version, the Conestoga wagons were too big and heavy for the mountainous Oregon and California trails. They were used on the southern trails for freighting between Independence and Santa Fe.
The younger Kolmer children, John (8) and Caroline (6), would have ridden in the wagon whereas Josephine (15) likely walked (often barefoot) a great many of the 2,000 miles [3,200 km.]. When moving, the wagon trains traveled at about 2 miles per hour [3 k.p.h.] — easy strolling speed — making between 10 and 15 miles per day [15-25 km.]. They could go faster but 20 miles [30 km.] per day was about their maximum, possible only over flat land with no gullies to fill in, creeks to ford, and brush and rocks to clear. The livestock needed breaks during each day in which to water, rest, and graze. Every two weeks the wagon train stopped for a day to do the wash, repair equipment, hold meetings and elections, etc. Travel was slow, mundane, dusty, mosquito ridden, hot (it was summer) and boring. Today we travel by car across the plains over carefully engineered roads in one hour what took them almost a week on foot and wagon over open prairie.
The emigrants organized into groups during April. The wagon trains took on the names of their elected captains, who could and did change often during the trek. Wagons were constantly splitting off, either to form their own party or to join another more to their liking. The first wagon trains out of St. Jo hired guides, as did the wagon trains from Independence. The wagon trains following behind often did not, relying on the ruts left by the leading wagon trains to guide them.
In May 1845, approx. 950 people in 225 wagons left from St. Jo in 4 wagon trains. We don't know which one the Kolmer (Coleman) family joined. The first party left on about 26 April captained by William G. T’Vault, later by James McNary (275 in 60 wagons), followed closely by Solomon Tetherow (293 in 66 wagons, company organized as the “Savannah Oregon Emigrating Society”), Samuel Parker (200 in 45 wagons), and departing late on about 20 May was Elmer Hackleman (214 in 50 wagons, company organized as the “New London Emigrating Company” — Holliday split off before Ft. Laramie). About the same time, another three wagon trains with 1007 people in 278 wagons left from Independence. Amongst them was the Ide family with 3 wagons (one emblazoned with OREGON across its back), members of the company captained by John Henry Brown.
George Stewart, in his book The California Trail, broke the trail up into the following steps. I have modified them for a jump off from St. Jo and the conditions of 1845 (please follow on the map; 1 mile = 1.6 kilometers) and added the photos of Shann Rupp of OCTA (Oregon-California Trails Association, California-Nevada chapter):
After crossing the continental divide, the emigrants were technically in Mexican territory. Somewhere short of Fort Hall they entered British territory. Fort Hall was a minor outpost of the Hudson Bay Company. It had fewer supplies than Fort Laramie. However, in 1845 when the emigrants stopped for a day or two to rest and repair their equipment it provided Caleb Greenwood the opportunity to talk some of them into going to California instead of Oregon.
John Sutter needed settlers with whom to populate his Mexican land grant. He commissioned Greenwood, at $2.50 per settler wagon, to convince emigrants of the benefits of choosing California over Oregon. Apparently Caleb had the gift of the gab and unashamedly exaggerated the dangers of the Oregon trail over those of the California trail — a trail so far traveled by only one wagon train! He further enticed them with promises of supplies (which by this time they were short of) and large sections of land (which they very much wanted).
The decision to go to California was not made lightly nor was it well received by those continuing to Oregon. Arguments became quite heated resulting in some dramatic moments — see the diaries below. Michael Coleman was one of several heads of family who opted for California. We can easily envision that as part of his argument to influence Michael’s decision, Caleb listed the German settlers already in California, including Wilhelm Benitz. Michael would surely have recognized Wilhelm’s name for they were from the same village of Endingen and knew each other. A familiar name at the end of the trail would be a strong deciding factor for anyone venturing into the unknown.
Per the recollections of Henry Marshall, Reminiscences of a Pioneer, in The Pioneer, San Jose, August 10, 1878:
“at Fort Hall a train was made up for California and I joined it. The Hudsons [David and William], Elliots [William B. Elliott] and [Michael] Coleman for whom Coleman Valley is named, joined also, with P. McChristian and James Gregson.”
The exact composition of each party leaving Fort Hall at that time, August, 1845, is uncertain. Hubert Howe Bancroft in his seminal History of California (San Francisco, 1884-90, volume IV, pages 576-86), includes the Colemans and Gregson in a party he named “Grigsby-Ide” though they arrived separately at Sutter’s Fort, a day or two before Grigsby and Ide. Caleb Greenwood’s “wagon-train” as such was actually a series of small parties led by him and his two sons. The composition of the parties varied during the journey. Differences in their speed and fortunes of travel — healthier oxen, a broken axle, availability of grass and water — caused parties to merge and split apart. According to the New Helvetia Diary (The Grabhorn Press, 1939), parties arrived at Sutter’s Fort between September 27 and October 30.
Resuming George Stewart’s steps described in his book The California Trail (please refer to the map again; 1 mile = 1.6 kilometers)
We don't know with absolute certainty when the Kolmers arrived at Sutter’s Fort (aka: New Helvetia, today in Sacramento), or when they first made contact with William (Wilhelm) Benitz and joined him at Fort Ross. According to the often inaccurate recollections of “Dutch Bill” Howard, the Kolmers spent the winter of '45/'46 at or near Sutter’s fort with the other recent arrivals, moving to Fort Ross in the spring of 1846. However, we believe Dutch Bill was quite mistaken.
Sutter’s New Helvetia Diary (see details below) does not unquestionably identify Benitz nor the Kolmers, but its terse misspelt entries come tantalizingly close. Allowing for common misspellings of Benitz and Kolmer, we have concluded the Kolmer family stayed only one night at Sutter’s Fort (October 23/24, 1845), met up with Benitz soon after, were taken under his care (as their bondsman), and wintered with him at Fort Ross.
The details: The following entries very likely record a visit to New Helvetia (Sutter’s Fort) by William Benitz, misspelt as Mr Benit and W. Bennet, the week prior to the arrival of the Kolmer family. From William’s letters, we know he often went to Yerba Buena (today: San Francisco), and from the New Helvetia Diary we know boats travelled constantly between Yerba Buena and New Helvetia. At that time, Wilhelm and his partners were renting Fort Ross from Sutter, reason enough for him to travel to New Helvetia on business.
... — Mr Benit arrived today — ...
..., despatched whale Boat in charge of Jas Gilbert for Y. Buena. Passengers, W. Bennet.
In the following entries, the German family mentioned is very likely the Kolmers. No other family group is identified as German. H. H. Bancroft in his History of California included the Kolmer family with the Grigsby-Ide party (the Ides arrived two days after the Kolmers, on the 25th., see below). Also per Bancroft, Wilhelm was “bondsman for some of the Grigsby-Ide immig.” who may have been the Kolmer family.
... I recd despatches from Government ordering me to stop the Emigration from the United States with News of War’s being declared between Mexico and the United States — ...
... today a meeting of the Emigrants was called to take into consideration the late news from the Seat of Government concerning the introduction of Forigners into this country — they adjourned over untill Monday next — a German family arrived today from the U.S. — ....
departed the German family who arrived Yesterday. loaned him a horse. — ...
... — 4 Waggons More came today — Mr Ide’s and Mr Skinner’s.
Six months later, April 1846, Michael Kolmer (commonly misspelt as Colman) stayed the night at New Helvetia (Sutter’s Fort), arriving from Fort Ross, and departing the next day with Hugle — surely Frederick Hügal, one of William’s partners at Rancho Hermann.
Arrived ... M.Colman from Ross.
Departed ..., also Colman & Hugle for the valley above
Pure conjecture, but Mother Nature supports our view that the Kolmers did not winter at Sutter’s Fort. According to family lore (from Alfred Benitz’s biography & its draft), the Kolmers' eldest daughter, Josephine, informally wed Wilhelm (William) Benitz at Fort Ross during 1846 — exact date unknown. We do know her fourth child (Frank) was born on 22 May, 1850. Working back from that date and assuming Josephine had a child at the incredibly brisk rate of one every 12 months, they were wed no later than August, 1846. Incredible because the shortest period between births of her surviving children was 20 months. To be more credible with Mother Nature, William and Josephine must have wed much earlier, requiring the Kolmer family to have arrived at Fort Ross before or during the winter of '45/'46 (November-February).
In remote Fort Ross, the activities that led to California becoming part of the US seem to have gone largely ignored. By the time Josephine and William were officially wed in February of '47 it was a US justice of the peace who formalized their union.
According to Sutter’s diary entries, on Saturday September 27 he received the first report of emigrants arriving over the Sierra:
... Dr. W. B. Gildea and J. Greenwood with a small party, preceding a large company from the United States also arrived this afternoon.
The last party to arrive at Sutter’s Fort that year were ten men led by Lansford W. Hastings (author of the dubious “guide book”: The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California). Traveling light and fast with a pack train, they left St. Jo in August and arrived at Sutter’s Fort in December. US Army surveyor Captain John C. Frémont also wandered by (stirring up the emigrants and Mexican authorities alike) and is counted as one of the parties of '45.
Sutter’s Fort was built in 1843 — armed with Russian cannon from Fort Ross. It was relatively small with space sufficient for only 50 people inside. Illness was rife amongst the emigrants and they must have been anxious to move away to a healthier environment. Some emigrants went north to Oregon, particularly those who were unsatisfied with the unfriendly and unstable conditions in California. They felt hoodwinked by Greenwood — amongst them the previously mentioned Bonney family.
During the 1840s, Mexican rule over Alta California grew tenuous, weakened by distance from and neglect by the central government. By 1846, it was ripe to be taken by either Britain from the north or the US looming ever closer in the east. The hopeless proclamation in April, 1846, by General José Castro, governor in Monterey, prohibiting the purchase or acquisition of property by foreigners set in motion the events that led to the annexation of Alta California by the US. It was expected, even favored by many, including the Mexican general in Sonoma, Mariano Vallejo, and Johann A. (John) Sutter.
Local Mexican authority collapsed on the morning of June 6 with the “Bear Flag Revolt”: a motley force of 33 hot-heads pounded on the door of Vallejo’s home in Sonoma. The general invited their leaders in for breakfast and wine; they repaid his hospitality by taking him prisoner and sending him to Captain John C. Frémont (rushing back from a ramble to Oregon). Soon after, William B. Ide proclaimed the California Republic with himself as president. The muddle ended on July 11 when the US Pacific fleet sailed into the bay and claimed California for the US. Unknown locally, the US on May 13 had declared war on Mexico. The Bear Flaggers saw little fighting during the US-Mexico War of 1846-1848; one skirmish, the “Battle of Olompali” on June 24,1846, in which several were wounded & one was reportedly killed.
Mexico eventually relinquished Alta California (& much more, over 50% of its territory) to the US on February 2, 1848, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo; the same treaty that made Wilhelm (William) Benitz a US citizen. Vallejo, a prisoner in Sacramento for two months, later partook in the California state constitutional convention and became a state senator. Frémont was promoted. Ide returned to his rancho near Red Bluff.
There seems to be an infinite number of these sites because of its historical significance. Wickepedia has something on just about any of the places. Here are just a few that I visited:
For more web sites, the following persons are quoted widely and you can search on their names, e.g. as follows: “David Hudson + 1845 + emigrants”
Parts of Albert Bierstadt’s 1869 painting Emigrants Crossing the Plains (aka: The Oregon Trail) is on Stewart’s, McLynn’s, & Unruh’s book covers.
© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)