A Forty-Niner from Tennessee

The Diary of Hugh Brown Heiskell

  • Author(s): Steel, Edward M., ed.
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 1998-08-28
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $30.00 | Buy Now

When Hugh Brown Heiskell set out from Tennessee for the California gold fields in 1849, he was one of thousands traveling west in search of fortune. Hugh and his cousin Tyler joined a wagon train from St. Louis and made their way across a continent that most people of the time could only imagine. What distinguishes him from other Forty-niners, however, is the captivating record he kept of that journey. This young Knoxville lawyer had a farm boy’s curiosity for new vistas and wildlife, and he described what we saw with keen perception and insight.

This unique book includes not only Heiskell’s journal but also numerous letters to family back home. Although many Forty-niners kept diaries, Heiskell wrote in great detail to provide a more complete sense of life on the trail and the difficulties of the journey. Averaging just sixteen miles each day, his party faced challenges such as the three-day crossing of the Forty-mile Desert where they lost more than half of their oxen and wagons. Heiskell’s accounts of camp life, of people encountered along the way, and of the treacherous crossing of the mountains through Carson Pass are all richly compelling. Of special interest are Heiskell’s observations about Native Americans, their customs, their clothing, and their shelters. And, finally, readers will be deeply moved by the fate of the adventurers once they reached their destination.

Edward M. Steel has integrated other sources with Heiskell’s story to provide a broader overview of the gold rush days. His prologue introduces readers to young Heiskell’s background, explains how wagon trains operated, and describes the country that the Forty-niners crossed. His careful annotations, meanwhile, shed light on specific points in the diary. Heiskell’s trek was made at an important point in the history of western expansion, and his diary complements other classic accounts of that experience—notably that of Sarah Bayliss Royce, whose wagon train was encountered by Heiskell’s along the way.

Heiskell’s diary and letters form a valuable document that will prove to be a rich resource for historians. But A Forty-Niner from Tennessee is also a compelling story of adventure that invites any reader interested in this era to relive those dangerous but exciting times.

The Editor:  Edward M. Steel is professor of history, emeritus, at West Virginia University. Among his other works in American history are The Speeches and Writings of Mother Jones.