Overland Trail Stories: T. H. Jefferson’s Map

This episode’s audio file may be found at http://www.utahhumanities.org/BeehiveArchive.htm
© 2009 Utah Humanities Council

The Story:

In 1849, a map of the California Trail was published by a man named T.  H. Jefferson, who, it turns out, is almost untraceable in the historical record.  Scholars have been able to pin down the fact that Jefferson emigrated to California in 1846, probably in the group just ahead of the Donner Party, but beyond that we know very little about the man.  Jefferson’s use of nautical terms on his map led historian George Stewart to suggest that he may have served a stint as a sailor.  Other researchers have even advanced the idea that the mysterious mapmaker was none other than Thomas Hemings Jefferson, the son of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson.

The murkiness of Jefferson’s true identity, however, doesn’t take away from the historical significance of his map.  The map’s careful illustration of the California Trail, especially the part of the trail that crossed the barren desert west of the Great Salt Lake, as well as Jefferson’s marking of campsites along the trail, makes it a unique (and valuable) document.   Add to that his careful notes about the waterless stretch of the desert that delayed the Donner Party in 1846, and you have an indispensible chart that emigrants could have used to navigate the very difficult terrain of the Hastings Cutoff.  “To accomplish the long drive” across the desert, Jefferson instructed, “grass and water must be carried … and the journey performed night and day making short and regular camps.  Not more than five waggons [sic] should go in company and the cattle should be continually guarded.”  Today, only three copies of the map’s original 1849 print run are known to exist. 

Sources:

See J. Roderic Korns and Dale L. Morgan, eds., West From Fort Bridger: The Pioneering of Immigrant Trails Across Utah, 1846-1850, revised and updated by Will Bagley and Harold Schindler (Logan, Utah: Utah State university Press, 1994), 187-195; and Charles Kelly, Salt Desert Trails (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1996), 95.  Also see Will Bagley’s article on Jefferson in the Salt Lake Tribune, dated May 6, 2001.  (The article may be accessed on the Utah History to Go website at www.historytogo.utah.gov.)

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