Saturday, August 28, 2010

Big Rock Candy Mountain

More an eminence than a true mountain, the verdant slopes of what is colloquially named “Big Rock Candy Mountain” ascend gently from the dessicated verge of Death Valley. Its official name--Mont Finale--derives from the words of delight uttered by the first European explorer to set eyes on it. “Va te faire foutre finalement!” Jacques Cartier is said to have exclaimed, reaching the eminence after many days’ arduous travel through the desert. Although technically a detour, many westbound wagon trains would steer for Mont Finale, using it as a landmark in memoriam to Cartier’s courage and determination. The additional time spent navigating Death Valley may have occasionally cost the lives of humans and livestock, but many settlers felt it important to honor and keep their traditions alive in their new home, and the tradition of Mont Finale was no exception.

The mountain’s popular name, Big Rock Candy Mountain, arose from an accidental discovery by a pregnant traveler in one of the many wagon trains. Suffering from pica, she found herself overwhelmed with a craving for dirt (rather than the more common craving for rampion experienced by so many expectant mothers). Ashamed of her strange appetite, she furtively left the protective circle of the wagon camp and climbed to a particularly lush area of the hillside, where she proceeded to scoop up a handful of dirt and eat it. Her shame was forgotten, however, when she found the dirt tasted sweet. Amazed by the discovery, she took samples of the dirt back to the camp, where her fellow-travelers were glad of it: they had been without sugar for some time, and were unable to bake delicious cakes and pies as was common for settlers during the journey west.

The response among the travelers in the wagon train was sharply divided. One group, led by Jeremiah Wilkes, a wandering preacher whose long string of misfortunes had caused him to seek better luck in California, thought that the discovery of the sweet soil was a sign from God. “For is it not written that our Lord said to Ezekiel,” he said, “that ‘Where I tread, there ye shall make your dwelling-place, for the presence of the LORD maketh the earth itself to be as honey and frankincense’?” The Wilkes party, clearly intending to stay, began making dugout shelters in which to weather the coming winter. Another group, whose spokesman seems to have been one John Reed, thought Wilkes’ interpretation of the Gospel to be somewhat questionable; although the soil was sweet, there was certainly no hint of frankincense about it. This smaller party wished to press on westward, and knew that in order to make the dangerous Sierra Nevada passes before winter set in, they would have to leave soon.

Camp life became turbulent as the two factions first debated, then argued, then, increasingly, came to violence. The Wilkes party grew furtive and strange, and the most prominent among them would frequently depart from the rest of the wagon camp and, led by Wilkes, climb the eminence at night. When questioned by their fellow travelers, the group said that they were merely going to pray with Wilkes for guidance from the Lord; nevertheless, as Reed recalled later, “there were strange sounds in the night, and fires dancing upon the mountain; there was oft a sound as of many voices raised in a great cry, but the words were no language that we knew.” As the religious mania of the Wilkes party grew, the settlers who desired to leave were increasingly ill-treated, and began to fear their onetime fellow-travelers, whose mirthless smiles and staring expressions were a growing cause for alarm.

“A great hubbub arose this eve in the tents and dugouts of our now-strange companions,” reads the journal of Lloyd Packard, one of Reed’s followers, for the date of September 17, 1846. “They have been slipping by twos and threes into the tent of Wilkes, and thence to their neighbors, chattering in low murmurs but with evident excitement, as if an event of some import has occurred.” The nature of the happening was not discussed openly, and with no one of Reed’s party; fearing some act of violence was being plotted by the increasingly brutal Wilkes band, Reed and Packard slipped quietly as close as they dared to the rear of Wilkes’ tent in order to divine whether any threat was in the works.

What they saw there terrified them, although they refused to disclose the full nature of it to their fellow travelers. They would only say that the Devil himself was among them now, and that those who feared God must flee at once. The party had delayed their travel, first out of a desire to convince their fellow settlers to continue west, and then because lack of cooperation among the Wilkes party meant that valuable livestock and supplies could not be gathered to keep even the smaller Reed band alive and safe during the dangerous mountain crossing. After nightfall, however, the Wilkes party--no longer just the inner circle, but the entire band--gathered and crept up the mountainside. A hideous din rose and fell for long hours, and seeing the other band thus occupied, Reed and his followers knew that their opportunity for escape had arrived. Taking as much water, fodder, food, fuel, and other necessities as they could pack into their wagons, and gathering together as many of their own livestock as they could separate from the group’s communal pens, the Reed party fled Big Rock Candy Mountain and the horrors they had seen there.

They arrived in California near Sutter’s Fort on January 17th, 1847, exhausted and terrified. Inhabitants who allowed members of the party to share their lodgings and recuperate from the brutal winter travels reported that their guests suffered from night terrors. Slowly, however, they adjusted to the peace and normalcy of life at the Fort, and their initial fears were dismissed as the effects of nervous distemper brought on by too great an exposure to the outside air. John Reed, however, remained wary for the duration of his life, always keeping armed; he was often observed to stop and look over his shoulder, as if he feared some pursuer. Lloyd Packard, who had accompanied Reed to Wilkes’ tent that fateful night, exhibited no such apparent fear, but was known to have nightmares on occasion, during which he would shout incoherently about a “hideous Thing” and “horror in the mountain.” His wife, whom he had met after his arrival in California, once asked him the meaning of such exclamations; Packard seemed surprised that he should shout so, and told her that surely they were old dreams brought on by his travail during the passage, and that she should not let such things trouble her, nor attend to anything he said in those moments.

Once the spring thaw cleared up the mountain passes, a search party, guided by Reed, went up to Mont Finale to see if any of the Wilkes party had survived. What they found was “a great desolation,” in Reed’s words; there were no living persons or domesticated animals at the camp, which looked as if it had been uninhabited for months. There was, however, a small heap of human skeletal remains at the camp’s verge, with the flesh entirely gone from them. The search party’s first assumption was that the Wilkes band had merely run out of food during the winter and had begun to kill and eat each other, an event so common during the westward expansion that it was barely remarked-upon in newspapers or official records. Closer examination of the skeletons, however, revealed deep gouges upon the bones, which were dissimilar from any known marks of butchering or injury. The remains, when tallied, were considerably fewer than the known number in Wilkes’ party when Reed and his band escaped.

Thinking that perhaps the remaining survivors had taken refuge on the slopes of Mont Finale, most likely at that place where they formerly gathered to pray, Reed attempted to lead a small group of rescuers up to the spot. However, a rock-slide had occurred in the meanwhile, and the location of the gatherings, and of the spot where the sweet soil had been found, was now hidden. The ground being broken and impassable, the party descended to the camp, where they gave the skeletal remains a decent burial, then left for Sutter’s Mill once more. Although doughty of temperament, they seemed shadowed by the mystery of the Wilkes encampment, and it is said that they, and the settlers from the Reed party, reached an agreement to destroy all notes and maps pertaining to the location of the encampment or of Mont Finale. Whether or not this is the case, it is true that no explicit directions to the eminence are extant. John Sutter, upon interviewing Reed and others from the rescue party, used his influence with Federal personnel in that region to have Mont Finale declared off-limits to travelers, officially for “reasons of health, as the site is known to encourage dysentery.” The actual location of Mont Finale was lost, and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” gradually assumed the status of a legend.

In 1997, a thorough re-cataloging of the files and papers in the archive of the Sacramento Historical Society uncovered many letters, journals, official records, and even some newspaper clippings related to the disaster at Mont Finale. U.S. historians were intrigued by the findings, and the location of the eminence soon became a matter of some debate. Eventually, a team of archaeologists associated with UCLA gathered the hints and clues inadvertently left behind in the notes of Reed, Packard, and other settlers, and hit upon the idea of comparing them with maps made of the region in the years before the fatal wagon train arrived. Having pinpointed the location of Mont Finale in this manner, they then found the location on a current map. Surprisingly, what was once known as Mont Finale seems to have been leveled, perhaps by the earthquakes common in the region. The area is now almost flat, and without resorting to maps from the 1840s, it is certain that seekers would have continued to overlook it.

Archaeological teams were dispatched in 2008 to uncover the secrets of Mont Finale. To all accounts their work progresses well, despite occasional sinkholes, sudden unseasonal rains, and other naturally-occurring annoyances such as might plague any expedition. The high rate of turnover among the digging teams, and reports by those who depart that the wind in the rocks sometimes carries the sound of human voices, have been dismissed as “drug-addled laziness” by Ken Albrick, the expedition’s manager. “We hope to have a full excavation and cataloging complete by 2012,” he said in his most recent interview, six months ago. At this time, no further communication has been forthcoming from Dr. Albrick or his team.

No comments:

Post a Comment