The Western Trip of Abram Sortore

Keokuk Iowa to California
Via the Oregon Trail, 1850



(NOTE: This type written manuscript was provided to me by Gilbert Sortor, descendant of Abram Sortore. I have corrected some of the spelling, feeling that some errors may have been caused by the typing of the manuscript; I have also added paragraph breaks and section headings for ease of reading, but made no other changes as to content or writing style.)

As a teenager, Abram Sortore leaves his home in Scio New York with his family in 1845, traveling to Keokuk, Iowa

With my father's family on a raft of pine lumber, we started west. Leaving Scio, Allegheny County, New York on the first day of March 1845. we ran our raft down the Allegheny river as far as the Indian Reservation. The water got so low that we could not run over the mill dam. We laid here six weeks or more when there came a raise in the river; we moved onto the mouth of the Clarion river, when again "because of low water" were compelled to lay by. This time for five or six months. As I did not have to foot the bills, it was all very pleasant for me. For while on the Indian Reservation I made friends with the Indians, went hunting and fishing with them. Then we would drive the game; they always being willing to give me my full share or even more in the divide. During our stop on the Clarion river by brother William and I unloaded from the raft a span of horses and threshing machines which we had along, and while here did considerable threshing, mostly in a Dutch settlement; where every hour the machine must stop and every body be treated to both water and whiskey. This you will note was in your Prohibition state, Pennsylvania, and was the most fiery whiskey I ever drank.

Soon the water came up booming and spread all over every where; we then soon glided down to the Cincinnati, where we sold our raft, loaded our goods including threshing machine onto a steam boat and came to Keokuk, Iowa. Arrived here on the fifth day of November. My father bought a farm in the Mormon settlement, eight miles north from Keokuk, where I worked with him until the spring of 1850. I was then twenty one years old, and with no sweetheart to leave behind, I joined with three of my neighbors in the great rush to California, for gold.

But, before starting to California, must tell you that we reached the Mormon settlement in time to see the smoke and hear the roar of cannons, when the citizens fired on the Mormons to drive them from Naive, just across the river from our home. After they succeeded in driving them across the river, the Mormons would steal any thing they could appropriate to their own use in getting away. They stole a yoke of oxen from each of two of my brother-in-laws. I joined them in search of the oxen. By a few scattering leaves of corn fodder, we trailed then into a thicket of underbrush where we found oxen corralled in a small pen; we opened the pen and drove the oxen home. This is the only time they ever molested us in any way.

We are now back to March 28. 1850. When the wagon was brought into my father's yard and each man brought his share of provision with which to lead it; flour, meats, coffee, butter, sugar, beans, rice, dried apples, salt, tea and some cholera medicine, I think completes the list. The next day each brought a yoke of nice oxen, making four yoke in all, one new milk cow, with understanding that should any one get homesick or for any reason turn back, that he should forfeit all his belongings, except his clothing. We are now ready to be off. but while some members of our party were shedding tears at parting with wives or loved ones, I picked up with whip and waged it at the oxen to move up. While passing out the gate and up singing, "I am going to Sacramento with my wash pan on my knee."

The group departs for California

In two days we had traveled about sixty miles, camped near Bentensport. That night it turned cold and snowed six inches, we laid there two weeks; it turned warm; all except one of our party started on out journey, he being homesick, started for home. We had not gone much further when another of our party turned back, thus leaving Scott, my brother-in-law and myself to make the trip to California. The weather, roads, and grass were fine. There was plenty of game, mostly deer. My mother had filled a three gallon bucket with butter. My! I can now taste venison fried with butter. Every thing went fine to the Missouri river. We struck this at a little Mormon town called Canesville, where Council Bluffs now stands. Just on the other side of the river where about fifty Mormons had wintered the year before was called Winter Quarters. There were no Mormons there at this time, but we could see relics of their old fire places and such like.

Following the Platte River

Here we saw our first Indians. They were friendly but our oxen were afraid of them. This is where Omaha now stands. We then went on to the Platte River where we joined a company of seventy-five teams. We could get our wagons ferried across, but to get the cattle across another man and myself swam across behind them. After crossing the river we left the large company and joined one of three teams. We then went on about seventy-five miles to Wood River, where we had to lay by until about three or four hundred teams were ahead of us could cross. As soon as we were across the river we had occasion to get in readiness with our cholera medicine, for from here to Ft. Laramie, a Government fort about four hundred miles, we were scarcely out of sight from where some one was digging a grave. The only preventative that we used was to boil all of our drinking water. Not one of our company was sick. A man from another company who took our medicine got well. Ft. Laramie is situated in the forks of the Platte River. The old Mormon trail crossed the river at Ft. Laramie, following the Platte River on the south for about seventy-five miles before crossing back to the north side. Some of us being afraid of cholera in the fort, about twenty-five wagons, including ours, kept on the north side and went through the Black Hills. After leaving Ft. Laramie we never saw nor heard of another case of cholera.

A fierce hail storm

After about three days travel in the Black Hills very suddenly after dinner we could hear the roaring of an approaching hail storm. Both men and cattle seemed frightened. My partner fastened down the wagon cover more securely, while I turned the wagon side to the wind; loosened the oxen and put them on the side from the wind; then jumped into the wagon. Our cover turned the storm, the oxen crowded against the wagon almost upsetting it. We came through all right and dry, while others who did not loosen their oxen from their wagons had their wagons upset, some had their wagon tongues broken out. None except two men from my old neighborhood were seriously hurt. These men where out hunting at the time and were so badly drenched and beaten with the hail that it was with difficulty they they were able to make it back to the wagons. The storm was soon passed and the sun shining. We then all went to work setting wagons right side up, making wagon tongues and such like when again we were ready for travel. And very soon we reached where the Mormon trail crossed back to North Platte. At the ferry we met some of our old Summitville friends, who had followed the Mormon trail up the south side of Platte River.

Everything went fine for several days, plenty of grass, wood and water. We had all the time a Mormon guile book to go by, but here made a mistake in the country by in it, for thinking we were not get to the desert we started after dinner on to a twenty-five mile desert. There was neither grass, wood, nor water.

We reached Willow Springs at eleven P.M. that night. Gave our cattle water, tied them to our wagons and went to bed. But the bawling of our cattle, nickering of the horses and braying of the mules sounded the most doleful I ever heard.

The next morning we learned that out a few miles from the main road was plenty of grass, and all except Scott, my partner, wanted to take their cattle out for breakfast, but he being discouraged insisted that the cattle would all die anyway, and that we would rather hunt grass straight ahead. So after giving our oxen two or three crackers each for their breakfast, we yoked and hitched them to the wagon and leaving the remainder of our company behind we started on our journey.

Joined up with two other wagons

Had gone only five or six miles when we came to where two wagons were camped and plenty of grass, but the water was alkali, and resulted in the death of one of our cattle, but we kept the others from drinking it. Then with these two wagons we traveled clear through to Hangtown, now Placerville, California.

But from Willow Springs on to the Rocky Mountains, where the range of racks were perhaps one half mile wide with just a cut through them some two or three hundred feet deep and wide enough for two wagons to pass. This was called the South Pass. About eighty rods north of this pass is a cut from the top of the rocks to the level of the ground and passing through this is a branch of the Platte River called Sweet Water.

No doubt there has been a large lake west of this range of rocks which time has drained by the constant pouring of its waters over them, thus making the cut through the rocks. At the summit of these mountains was Pacific Springs. The gradual decent down the mountains, and on to the Green River being attended with plenty of grass, water and wood all went well.

Crossing Green River

At Green River the boat was out for repair, buy the time they got it back there was near three hundred teams waiting to cross. It was a small flat boat, only large enough to take one wagon at a time, and only ferried wagons. All had to swim their cattle across. They would swim about half way across, get frightened, the front oxen turning back would try to climb onto the others, in that way several head were drowned before reaching the shore. Their captain wanted us to start our cattle in ahead, and if ours would cross, their's would follow. Some of my company said, "All right, take off the yoke." I swelled up and said, "No sir, I have one yoke of oxen that I can drive across and they will not turn back if only they can hear me speak to them. There is too much noise and confusion here now, with all these men whooping and hollering, it would only increase the fright of mine when they reached the middle of the stream, we have no cattle to spare. In the morning if you can line up your men with their cattle, also with instructions that there is to be no hollering or noise so that my oxen can hear me speak, I will start mine in and you can let your string in one and two at a time, after ours."

They did so, and when ours was near the center of the river I saw my lead frightened, he started to turn back but I began to tell him what to do, he straightened around and started for the farther shore, as also did all the others follow through safely. I then told them they could make all the noise they pleased. They did so and many were the cheers and greetings of good will that I received from the whole company.

Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City

From here we found plenty of grass, water and wood to Fort Bridger, an individual fort where an Indian trader bought furs, Buffalo and deer skins, and shipped them to St. Louis. Leaving Fort Bridger, the next point was Salt Lake. We traveled down Bear River a number of miles, fording it several times. It was running rapids and was up to the wagon bed. Then we came to Wilbur River, following it some distance, then leaving this we struck into a canyon. The Mormons had fifty soldiers stationed here to see that none of their people should get out and leave. Uncle Sam did not send soldiers through it for at that time they believed they could not force their way through the valley.

We struck the valley six miles south of the city, went up past the city three miles; here we camped seven days to rest our teams. The next day, July 24th, being the day they arrived in the valley in 1846, was celebration day with the Mormons. I went and heard Brigham Young lecture in their temple. There I met with several families I had known in Iowa five years before. The first was Nathan Tanner. He did not know me until I spoke to him, then he seemed greatly pleased to meet me. I shook hands with his wife that he lived with in Iowa; there were other women standing by, three of whom he introduced as his wives, making four in all. Then Barney Adams stepped up and after giving me a warm hand shake he too introduced me to three of his wives and so on. Soon after, Brigham Young with sixteen wives, all dressed in white and each wearing a uniform; blue ribbon on her arm, marched across the square to where a large crowd of Emigrants were gathered and introduced himself as "Profits of later day saints." His wives treated us nicely, gave us all the vegetables we could use and invited us to their houses. Their temple, quite different from the one of today was very rough, built by setting posts in the ground and siding up with willow poles, from one or two inches through, reaching to the eaves then tying them at both top and bottom with bark; then small willows over the top covered with dust constituted the roof.

Up the Humboldt and Across the Forty Mile Desert; then to California

July 30 we broke camp and went north of Salt Lake twenty miles to Weber river, ferried wagons swam our cattle. Then twenty miles to Bear river where we ferried both wagons and cattle. After leaving Bear river, we came to a small desert twenty-five miles across, on which there was no wood, water or grass. After which we passed several boiling wells, but plenty of pure cold water within eighty rods of these wells, from there on plenty of wood, grass and water, to the head of Humboldt river. We followed down it four hundred miles to where it sank into the earth and wholly disappeared. Here we came to a desert forty miles across; neither wood, water, or grass. We started onto this about noon, had ten gallons of water and several bundles of hay; we wet the hay before putting it in the wagon. We traveled until night, camped and gave our oxen some hay and water. Then yoked and traveled until midnight; camped again, gave our cattle more hay and water, let them rest about one hour, then traveled until daylight, then we camped and gave our cattle the remainder of the hay, and water except one half gallons. The road this far was dead level, the ground looked like an old ash bed. We now hitched up and the last ten miles was through a deep fine sand. This brought us to Carson lake, the sink of Carson river, where both men and cattle enjoyed the nice cool water after their night of travel. We traveled in the night in order to cross the last ten miles in the cool of the morning rather than in the P.M. where the sand would be burning hot to the cattle's feet.

From here we traveled up the Carson river, until we struck the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Carson City. From there to the summit of the mountains it took us three days to make it, could travel only three to six miles a day. The last night before reaching the summit it froze ice one half inch thick. This was the roughest, rockiest and steepest road on the whole trip. On the summit it was snowing and blowing so that we could hardly see our oxen. this was at 11 A.M. But down the steep slope we had a nice smooth road and before sunset we were out of the snow and where we had nice roads and good wether on to Hangtown, where we did our first mining. And here I found my first little nugget of gold, about $4.00 which I have yet, 1913 as a keepsake. We arrived here about the middle of September.

Soon we had to prepare for winter, that is the rainy season. We went to Louisville, a little mining town on the south fork of the American river, twenty miles north from Hangtown. When we reached here, Scott my pardner, thought we could do better some other place. I did not, so we separated and each went his own way. I went in with three men. we built us a log cabin, got it done just before the rains came. It rained all winter; we made very little more than our board during the winter. In the spring I went to Oregon bar on the North fork of the American river; worked there near two months. From here went north to the mouth of South fork of Uba [Yuba?] river near Bridgeport. During this time my Pardner was Charles Brown, an old acquaintance from Iowa. We worked on this river until the first of October 1851, at which time we started for home.

From the Gold Fields to Central America

We went to Sacramento thence to San Francisco, there took ship on the North Western for Del Sud Central America. As soon as we were out of the harbor where the sea was rough, Brown and I both became seasick. Otherwise all went well to Acapulca, New Mexico, where a storm came up. We were about three or four miles from shore, the wind blowing toward shore drifted us until by sea measurements we were only one mile from shore and right by a square high bluff. The Captain headed our vessel straight from shore, and with a full head of steam, could only hold his own, not gaining any from 10 P.M. until 2 A.M. Then the wind fell some, and we ran out to sea where we had plenty of room. We never saw land again until we reached San Juan, Del Sud in Central America, where at day break we landed in the harbor. From there we had twenty miles to boot it to Virgin bay, a little town on the bank of Lake Nicaragua. From here we had thought to take shipping on steamboat for Graytown. But on learning that the boat had gotten too close to the falls in Nicaragua river and went over, and would have to remain there for three weeks or until its owner could get cables from New York with which to pull back. Instead of waiting sixteen of us bought a large canoe, called a "Bungo," from the natives for $100. It was thirty feet long, three feet wide, with four oars. We could get no provisions except beans, had no way to cook them, so at 11 A.M. we started without any thing to eat. Rowed to the first island twenty miles, expected we could get bread, but could not. So spread our beds and slept very well except when the monkeys would run over us. In the morning we started for the next island, four miles distant, about 9 A.M. The wind raised, dashing the waves into our Bungo, so that it kept one man busy bailing water. We could make out little headway, and did get to island until after dark. Our clothing dripping wet. No supper, and with but one dry match in the whole party. We kindled a fire, hung out blankets to drip, stood by the fire until our clothing had drained off some, listening to the growling and the roaring of the California lions, which were kept at bay only by light and crackling noise of our fire. Not with standing all this, wrapped in our wet blankets, (with only occasional replenishing of the fire as someone would waken). we slept soundly; and ne'er did morning light 'ere dawn upon a happier crew, as without breakfast, we set sail for island No. 3, ten miles distant. Here a pot of fish and garlic thickened with flour was eaten with a relish which none but sixteen men who had not tasted food for fourty-eight hours could eat. From here our next stop (ten miles) at St. Charles on Nicaragua river just at the outlet of the lake. Here we got something which I think the Spaniards called bread. It was in chunks and tasted something like fried cakes without sugar. It was good, so good, that we took with us a goodly supply, as we journeyed down the river. The river was exceedingly high at that time, and the country being so level it spread seemingly everywhere. It was about eight miles from St. Charles to the mouth of the river, and about fourty miles down from St. Charles were heavy falls in the river. We reached these falls just as night was coming on. Not caring to go splashing over them in the night, we anchored "or tied" our boat to the limb of a tree which seemingly stood about midway of the river, and here crouched upon our oars we camped for the night. But the huge alligators protruding their heads from the water kept us in such constant dread of having our Bungo upset that our restful sleep was not to be compared with our slumbers on the island among the California lions. When daylight came, we rowed to land and our crew (excepting three men including myself) landed, carrying with them blankets. Spanish bread, heaps of gold, and such like. They proceeded to journey on land until below the falls, where we three "stripped for swimming" manned the boat safely over the falls, and to where our crew was again taken on. From there we glided on down to the mouth of the Nicaragua river. we reached there at dark, but the wharf master not allowing us to land until the next morning, we again camped upon our oars for the night.

Stop in Greytown, Nicaragua

In the morning we landed at Gray Town, but found there were more men than could well find shelter in the town, but our little band of sixteen men had the good fortune to rent a room twelve by sixteen feet, without anything in it for $8.00 per month, in advance. This furnished accommodation for all sixteen of us. we found this to be a sickly place. Different mornings men were found dead, lying beside the fence or on the street, and with no one to look after them. We remained here a while week before we could take ship for New York. While here one of our men seeking revenge on the wharf master, for not allowing us to land that night, slipped out and spiked the canons that went off at nine o'clock every night as to signal for every body to be off the streets. When the canon failed to go off, the master came out to investigate the cause, then our man knocked him down with his fist, giving him a black eye, then dodged around the back way, came to our room, turned the key in the door, and with the rest of us was soon snugly tucked in his blanket for the night. Presently a soldier called to know whether or not our men were all in. We opened the door and invited them to come in and see for themselves. They did so, and counting the whole number sixteen, they went way satisfied to our innocence.

A storm on board ship

We had expected to go on main line steamer "Permitheus" [SS Prometheus]. Brown and I wanted to go to New Orleans, but we would not miss a chance of getting away from here, we took passage on Brother Johnithan, which came into the harbor bound for New York. We had good weather between here and Kingston, on the island of Jamaica. It took four days to make the trip. I was seasick about all the time. We laid here two days and one night taking on coal. When we landed our vessel drew eight feet of water, when we had finished coaling we drew sixteen feet. While here I boarded at the Hotel Kingston, was a pretty town about one mile square, the buildings mostly three story brick with tile roofing. the people were very friendly. On Friday we started for New York. Nice weather, made good time, until Sunday about four P.M. Charles Brown, my pardner, and I were sitting on deck in front of the Captain's door, counting that it would take us two days to New York, four days to Cincinnati, Ohio, six days to St. Louis, two days to Keokuk, then two hours home. While thus counting, the mate came to the Captain's door and said, "we are going to have a squall." The Captain walked out and looked around, but went back into his cabin. The mate toward the center of the ship called, "Sailors on deck." In less than one half minute, the sailors, sixteen in number, were standing by the mate apparently breathless. Again the mate spoke to the Captain, this time the Captain said, "Go away, there is no sign of a squall." The mate then said, "Every sail on the vessel is stretched, and if not taken in will go over board." To this the Captain again came out and said, "take in the sails." The mate then ordered the sailors aloft, and the passengers below. The squall struck us as I was about half way down the stairs, it broke all three masts off about twenty feet above the deck. The main mast breaking hole in the bottom of the ship, letting the water in at a rapid rate, the ship had on board a separate engine for pumping water from the ship, but this engine was out of repair. The head engineer proceeded to take the cylinder head off and fix it. he was a christian man, he went to work perfectly calm and composed: while other's were frantic, some screaming, some praying, and some swearing, but he worked away saying, "We must do our duty and if it be God's will for us to sink, His will be done."

Another officer passes through the vessel said, "there is sixteen of water in the vessel now, and we can carry but eight feet." Oh, how fast thoughts flew through my head. The prayers that I had heard my father and mother offer for their children. I then prayed God to forgive my sins, but it seemed all the answer that I could get was, "You have left it too long, it is too late for your time has come." While I could not remember when I did not believe that Christ died for me, still could feel reconciled, that I could meet God in peace. But if I could only have a little time on earth again, I would not say, "I will wait until older, or until I get sick, then well seek the Lord. But if I ever have the opportunity will seek him first, and be ready for his coming. About this time the engineer put on the last tap, and turned on the steam, it worked alright, kept the water at six feet, but could not settle any. The next morning was bright and clear, the storm had blown us back sixty miles, travel was slow that day, because of so much water in the vessel. All went that day and night. Next morning, Tuesday, when the bell in the first cabin rang for breakfast, there stood the Captain at the head of the table with a few of his aristocratic friends at his right. Just then the head engineer, with twenty firemen just as they came from their work down in the vessel shoveling coal, stepped in, he too was covered with coal smoke and grease, and with no sleep since the storm commenced. He went straight to the table. Here the Captain shouted, "Take these dirty men out of here." But instead, the engineer standing returned thanks, he did not eat, but waited on all the firemen, who ate heartily. The captain then said, "there is a law to punish a man for disobeying his Captain when out at sea, and I shall see to enforcing it when we reach New York." "Yes," said the engineer, "There is a law this side of New York that may be enforced. Did we not raise hands toward heaven and before God, promise that in time of storm we would do all in our power to protect the ship, the passengers and the crew, and with them, I share a like fate. Now our vessel is wrecked, it has a hole in the bottom which can get no smaller, and sooner or later it must sink: now it is our duty to push the vessel fast as possible. Five of our firemen are sick from over work the night of the storm, and are not being cared for. The others are having additional work in getting the coal to the furnace. They work four hours, then are off four hours, and have had nothing to eat since four P.M. yesterday. I believe there is not a passenger among the six hundred and fifty who, if they will go and see these men work, and knowing that our speed depends wholly upon them, would say, "Give these men their meal first." Both the passengers and the crew, that heard this conversation looked with indignation upon the Captain, and shouted, "Give the firemen their meals. I can wait or go without." Some said, "Put the Captain below and make him shovel the coal."

Arrival at New York

The Lord smiled in compassion, and landed us safely on land at New York, Friday morning at eight A.M. Our vessel sank that day at four P.M. As I was going from the landing to a hotel, I remembered my promise to God, I prayed now to Him again, and thanked Him for my delivery from a watery grave. And right here I realized that God had forgiven my sins, I promised Him that I would be a christian man the rest of my life. This promise that I made to God has been a blessing and comfort to me until this day, and shall live in hopes of a continuation of God's comforting spirit until He shall call me from earth to His tribunal above, then can I feel that I am ready to meet Him in peace. At seven P.M. of the same day of our loading in New York we took the boat for Philadelphia, and reached there at ten P.M. November 27, 1851. Went to a hotel where we had a nice clean bed, the first feather bed that I had slept on since leaving my mother's in Iowa. The next morning we went to the U.S. Mint where we had our gold coined into money. While there we were shown through the mint, saw where the first coin was stamped, learned that it took three minutes to stamp a ten cent piece. While with the newer process for stamping they could stamp fifty pieces in three minutes, the difference being in the power used, the old method by man power, the new by steam. After spending a few days in the city, my pardner Brown and I separated. He started for his home at Montrose, Iowa where he is still living, and I for Scio, Allegheny County, New York, where I was raised and where I left on the raft of pine lumber in March of 1845. I visited with friends and relatives in New York until the ice went out of lakes and rivers, then took a steamer at Erie for Detroit, from which I took a train for Chicago. the railroad at5 the time being on the old strap iron plan was built by laying two pieces of timber, eight inches square, the right distance apart, then with a bar of iron spiked on each of them for the cars to run on. The bars were five eights of an inch thick, and two inches wide. At Ft. Byron on the Mississippi river I took boat to Montrose, Iowa, where after a walk of four miles I received a glad welcome home, and there remained until July of 1853 when I was married. Then from my pile of California gold dust I purchased a little farm here in Clark County, Missouri, which with the sweat of my brow being thrown in, has ever since procured for myself and family a comfortable home. Scott, my pardner through to California, never returned. the last account that could be learned from him, was at San Francisco where he had bought a ticket and took shipping for New York.

Dictated to Miss Almena Osborn by Abram Sortore
March 25, 1909

Abram Sortore was born on 30 May 1826 in Friendship, Allegany Co., New York. He left Scio, NY on 31 Mar 1845, and arrived in Iowa on 5 Nov 1845. Abram was married to Zarina Mead on 3 Jul 1853 in Clarke Co., MO He appeared on the census in 1870 in Clay Twp., Clark Co., MO.

A very extensive Sotore Family History may be found at:
Sartor/Sorter/Sortor/Sortore Family History
Direct any family questions or comments to Ronald Sortor, Webmaster of the Sortor Family History

Further information about Gold Rush Routes across Nicaguara,
including other Gold Rush Diaries and newspaper accounts may be found at:
Gold Rush Routes Across Nicaguara


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