Sunday, August 30, 2009

John Sinclair

Exactly 160 years ago today, San Francisco's Alta California published news of the death of John Sinclair, an early California pioneer who had participated in the efforts to rescue the Donner Party.

Sinclair arrived in California in 1834, obtained a land grant, and plowed the first furrow in the Sacramento Valley, according to the Alta. He settled at Rancho del Paso, 2-3 miles north of Sutter's Fort across the American River, and was serving as the alcalde of the Northern District in the winter of 1847 when the news of the Forlorn Hope's arrival at Johnson's Ranch reached him. He promptly sent a message to Washington A. Bartlett, the alcalde at San Francisco, soliciting aid, then hurried up to Johnson's to interview the survivors. Sinclair helped coordinate the rescue of the Donner Party, sheltered some of the refugees in his home, and later, in May and June of 1847, officiated at the marriages of five of the survivors.

Sinclair did well during the early days of the gold rush and amassed a considerable fortune. In the spring of 1849 he and his family set out for New York by the isthmus route. During the voyage he became ill (cholera, according to some, yellow fever according to others) and died aboard the steamer shortly before it arrived in New Orleans.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Wildfire on Hastings Cutoff

Skull Valley was full of smoke on the afternoon of on August 2, 1846, when the nine members of the Bryant-Russell Party arrived at Redlum Spring. They camped early and rose in the middle of the night to begin preparations to cross the Great Salt Lake Desert. At 1:30 A.M. on August 3, Edwin Bryant wrote, the nearly full moon* looked "like a ball of fire, and shining with a dim and baleful light, seemed struggling downwards through the thick bank of smoky vapor that overhung and curtained the high ridge of mountains to the west of us." The Donner Party, passing through the area a little over three weeks after Bryant, made no mention smoke or fire, one of the few misfortunes they missed on their disastrous trek west.

163 years later, the moon is full and Skull Valley is again filled with the smoke of a wildfire. A lightning strike near Iosepa on August 6, 2009, sparked the Big Pole Fire, which, fanned by the wind, has consumed more than 44,000 acres as it's raced north along the Stansbury Mountains on eastern side of the valley. BLM firecrews battled the flames all day Thursday and today; this morning the smell of smoke hung in the air in Salt Lake City, over40 miles away.

*The U.S. Naval Observatory website provides details of moon phases -- type in any year you like between 1700 and 2035 in the search box and click "Get data."