In the spring of 1845 Nathan Jones traveled to St. Joseph, Missouri to take his chances as a young man alone traveling the Oregon-California Trail. He knew more about the risks than many of the pioneers gathered at St. Joseph because he and his brother Samuel had once before visited Independence for the start of a trail season to sell provisions to the travelers.
It was impossible for a man to carry the food and supplies he would need on the journey. Normally for some cash and his labor, a lone individual could buy some space on a wagon for his goods and like the rest of the family that owned the wagon, walk the 2000 miles to Oregon or California.
Horses were not a good choice on the trip because they could not live off the often arid land, needing supplemental supply of oates. Oxen were the first choice of most travelers because they could eat nearly anything and were docile. The problem with oxen was that they were slow, making only about 2 miles per hour. Mules could also survive on the low nutrition fodder along the trail and could walk as fast as a man could, but they were troublesome beasts often refusing to pull the wagon at all.
The greatest risk was disease. Cholera would sometimes wipe out over half of a wagon train. Wagon accidents and accidental gunshots were the next leading causes of deaths on the trail. Nathan reasoned that his best chance was to travel as lightly and rapidly as practical. He might avoid disease and accidents by not spending much time in the company of the wagons. He would not take a wagon himself but pack his supplies on the back of a mule so that wagon breakdown would not slow him up.
As soon as the grass greened up to provided fuel for his animals Nathan started up the trail. The choice of mule power was easy for Nathan. He brought along two mules from his father’s farm; animals he could trust because he had grown up with them. He loaded one mule with flour, sugar, salt, bacon, beans, beef jerky and his camping equipment. The other walked behind unloaded. Each day he changed the load to the rested mule. In this way he soon outdistanced the ox-drawn pioneers and spent most of the trip in solitude.
Nathan was able to shoot enough game to give him an occasional taste of fresh meat. Streams along the way provided water for man and beast. Crossing rivers was Nathan’s biggest problem. Ferries were in operation in some places, set up by people who lived by charging huge amounts, as much as $16 per trip, to transport pioneers across the water. Nathan had some money with him but intended to have it when he reached California. He was making good enough time that he could stop and build his own raft at each river crossing, bypassing the ferry if one existed.
It was the farmland of southern California that attracted Nathan west in the first place so he departed from the Oregon trail at Fort Hall in what is now Idaho and began working southwest following the Raft River to the Humboldt River in Nevada. It was along the Humboldt River that Nathan met a family heading the opposite way. They told about a serious drought to the south that had nearly wiped out some settlers in that region. Nathan had about all he wanted of the Humboldt River. One later traveler described the area this way:
[The] Humboldt is not good for man nor beast...and there is not timber enough in three hundred miles of its desolate valley to make a snuff-box, or sufficient vegetation along its banks to shade a rabbit, while its waters contain the alkali to make soap for a nation.
—Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849
So Nathan decided on the spot to change his plan. He shifted his destination north to the California-Oregon border area. Ninety-one days after leaving St. Joseph Nathan left the California trail and headed northwest into the wilderness.
He had lost one mule on the trip and when he decided to leave the trail, sold the other to a pioneer family. The forested hillsides and open meadows provided fruit, nuts, berries and small game. After quite a time alone in the wilderness Nathan was surprised to come upon a campsite beside a small river where two dozen people had gathered. He was greeted by a man who introduced himself as Major Pierson B. Reading.
Reading was mapping the wild country of northern California under the sponsorship of the General Sutter. He informed Nathan that the river was the Trinity River. Nathan took note that the camp had a permanent look about it. More than half the people there were natives and there were signs of long term activity along the river bank. All in all it didn’t look like much mapping was going on.
Nathan was not one to pry into other peoples business so he kept his observations to himself and after taking a meal with the Reading party asked for directions to the California coast near the Oregon Border.
“Well,” said Reading. You could head off overland northwest but by the time you had climbed and descended all the hills you would probably have taken about as many steps as you would following this river downstream. I would keep the river in view and head always downstream. It is not a straight path but its down hill all the way and there are fish for eating.”
So Nathan headed off carrying the fish spear one of the natives at Reading’s camp had given him, with the intention of seeing the Pacific Ocean before building a permanent home for the winter.
It was rather a longer trip than Major Reading had indicated but eventually Nathan found the mouth of the river and the Pacific. He retreated upriver a few days journey to a pleasant valley where he set up his winter camp. He planned to live off the land for the winter and prepare some ground for a spring planting of the vegetable seeds he had carried all the way from Missouri.
While he was working at setting up his camp, he was visited by a band of natives who had come up river from the sea where they had been making salt all summer. They were concerned that Nathan would have a hard winter if he had to subsist on what he could gather or catch on his own. They invited him to winter in their village. Nathan was suspicious to such philanthropy but decided to give it a try.
It turned out that the natives were simply exercising their millennia old tradition of hospitality. They cared for Nathan all winter with nothing more to gain than that he might likewise befriend someone in need someday. They were Wiyot people and were delighted to hear Nathan’s stories of his family’s adventures and his trip to the west as he practiced their language.
In the spring of 1846 Nathan returned to his valley and began his farming enterprise. For two years he raised food and preserved it in the ways he had learned back on the Missouri farm. His farm lay on the path the Wiyot took on their annual trips to the sea so he was in a position to trade fresh food for salt each fall.
In the fall of 1848 his Wiyot friends brought him news that a fellow named Major Reading had discovered gold in the interior of the country and that white men were streaming into the land in huge numbers. Nathan remembered his encounter with Reading and had a pretty good idea where the gold find had taken place. He decided to close up the farm and travel up the river to seek his fortune.
It was on this trip that he encountered a clan of the Wiyot people living not far from where the Klamath flowed in from the north to join the Trinity. Nathan stopped by to exchange stories and see if there was any news of the gold rush. There he met a native girl of about 18 who the clan called Phoebe Ann. She was the daughter of a Wiyot woman and a fur trapper who had passed through in 1830.
Due to her fair skin and auburn hair Phoebe Ann was not considered attractive among the Wiyot, which accounted for her unmarried status at the advanced age of 18. Nathan thought she was beautiful. The local peace chief of the Wiyot was happy to offer her to Nathan in marriage and Phoebe Ann was delighted to find a husband.
They remained in the Wiyot village long enough to uphold the customs of Wiyot newlyweds and then set off together, not along the Trinity but along the Klamath. The change in direction was on the advice of the elders of the village who had heard bad things about the gold fever to the southeast and knew the land to the northeast to be blessed by the Great Spirit.
By the fall of 1849 Nathan and Phoebe Ann had established a homestead along the Scott River, a tributary of the Klamath, about a days travel south of the Klamath. In 1850 the gold rush reached their farm and also in 1850 their son Benjamin Franklin Jones was born. The prospectors and miners had no time for raising food so Nathan and Phoebe Ann prospered in what became the Mugginsville Mining Camp.