Regional Trails: Hudspeth Cutoff
by Gar Elison
Benoni M. Hudspeth and John J. Myers were the two individuals who lead the first wagons on a new branch of the California Trail, which left the main trail near Soda Springs and rejoined the main trail near Malta, Idaho. But why did they think this would be a short cut? Did they just strike out or did they have some sense of where they were going?
In 1841 the Bidwell-Bartleson group traveled south from Soda Springs to California. In the Bartleson Party was a Joseph Chiles who returned to Missouri in 1842 and in 1843 led a horseback group through Fort Boise and into California via southeastern Oregon. In this group was J. J. Myers, the guide engaged for the Hudspeth group. Myers was an experienced mountain man.
Benoni Hudspeth is mentioned in a number of writings. He was with Fremont expeditions of 1845-47. Both Hudspeth and Myers were with the Fremont expedition of 1845. Hudspeth was enrolled in the California Battalion and was a 2nd Lieutenant in Company A, but became a captain in Company C when a second battalion was created. (Cherrie Monson, "The Hudspeth Trail," Thesis, Idaho State University, 1987.) According to "Gold Rush Diary" quoted in LeRoy R. Hafen, editor, "Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West," both men returned to Missouri in 1848 following a "mountain track known only to hunters, which...old Bill Williams had shown to a member of Fremont's party in 1844. "
Bernard Devoto in "Across The Wide Missouri", Boston 1947, says there was a James Hudspeth in the California Battalion. Hudspeth is also stated as being with Hastings in 1846 and while working for Hastings rode horseback from the Humboldt River to Fort Hall in 20 hours, in July 1846. Hudspeth is also purported to have been the guide for the Bryant Russell group on horseback. He did lead a train to California in 1849, died November 16,1850, and was buried in the military cemetery two miles east of Sutters. (J. L. Campbell, Idaho: The Emigrant's Guide Overland, New York 1864.)
We see from these few accounts that both men had been in the general area before 1849. However, there is no indication that either had actually travel the 132 miles of the trail they pioneered in July of 1849, (July 19-25).
In 1849 Ben Hudspeth and four of his brothers along with John J. Myers formed a wagon train to head to California and the lure of Gold. They took along items to trade. According to Campbell the wagons were loaded with cards, silk hankies, whiskey, brandy, wine, belts, scabbards, boots, spades, picks, ropes, coffee and blankets.
In her thesis, C. Monson says there were 70 wagon, mainly with ox teams and about 250 people, mostly families when they left Soda Springs. Originally there were only 40 wagons, 100 men with women and children. So wagons must have joined them later.
When they left the main trail west of Soda Springs, they thought they would save considerable miles and arrive at the headwaters of the Humboldt. To their surprise, they were still in the Raft River drainage when they again came upon the trail from Fort Hall. They actually had saved about 25 miles, but had crossed four mountain ranges and a number of lower, but difficult divides. At least one wagon train divided when they came to the juncture, with half the group going via Fort Hall and the remainder taking the Hudspeth Cutoff. When the cutoff group arrived at the reunion, the Fort. Hall group was already there. So the Cutoff may not have provided any savings in time for most of the travelers.
Even with no readily apparent advantages, travel continued over the trail from 1849 through 1859 when Indian troubles and the opening of the Lander Trail caused most California bound groups to return to the main route via Fort Hall. However, some travel continued until 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed.
If there were no significant savings in miles and time why did the trail get so much use for more than a decade? The answer seems to be in a number of key factors: the northern route had difficult places, especially getting over some bluffs and down to water along the Snake River, there was wood on the Hudspeth, but mainly sagebrush on the northern route, the people seem to have preferred wood for cooking. the grazing opportunities for the cattle were more plentiful on the Hudspeth, and in most years water was reasonably available.
An estimated average of 250 wagons a day traveled the trail, with perhaps twice that during mid-summer. An estimated 45,000 traveled the route in 1850 and 50,000 in 1852. On October 7, 1849, General Persifor F. Smith, commanding the Pacific division, wrote from Vancouver to authorities in Washington about abandoning Fort Hall, If a post were established at Ft. Hall to assist emigrants, it would be nearly useless, because they follow a new route more to the southward." (J. Goldborough Bruff, Gold Rush: The Journals, drawings and Other Papers of J. Goldborough Bruff. April 2,1849-July 20, 1851, edited by Georgia Willis Read and Ruth Gaines, New York, Columbia University Press, 1949.)
Although short in length, the Cutoff is a significant part of the western migration and can be enjoyed because the Trail is still visible in many places.
Gar Elison of the Crossroads Chapter has conducted a number of field trip along the trail and prepared a guide with maps to the Trail. If you would like more information or to join with others for a field trip please contact Gar Elison at:
Some individuals have requested a list of the readily available sources about the Hudspeth Cutoff. The following publications are the best of the general interest publications easily available.
Hudspeth Cutoff Field Guide, Soda Springs to Malta, Idaho. by Gar Elison.
Prepared for the 1997 OCTA National Convention at Pocatello, Idaho.
Copies available from Utah Crossroads members:
Gar Elison, e-mail: email@example.com, 801-955-3990 or 801-243-9130; or from
George Ivory, 801-268-0700.
"Hudspeth Cutoff," by Arthur C. Hope, Bookshelf Bindery & Press, Idaho Falls, 1990.
450 E Farney Ln.
Las Cruces, NM 88005-3317
"Emigrant Trails of Southern Idaho, Adventures in The Past-Idaho Cultural Resource Series, Number 1," Bureau of Land Management and Idaho State Historical Society, Idaho BLM 1993. Copies available through the Burley, Idaho BLM Office.