Part 2: How did sheep get to the West?

Historic, commonly seen photo of Trapper “Uncle Dick” Wootton.

These drove the flocks out in the shoulder-high grasses; “for in those days,” said Jewett, “we never thought feed any good, less than eighteen inches high.”

–Mary Austin, The Flock

Part 1 covers sheep in CA and OR from the 1490s to 1840s, bringing us to the 1840s and 1850s for this post. This is the time when pioneers — and sheep — made their way West overland from the eastern U.S. My husband’s family, known as the Boggs Company, arrived in CA in 1846. California became a U.S. state in 1850 and Oregon in 1859.

As mentioned in Part 1, sheep had previously been driven into CA from what is now Mexico, and into OR from CA, but sheep had not been driven into CA and OR from eastern U.S. states. Lomax tells us that sheep “were not generally attached to the first wagon trains because they demanded constant shepherding.”

Joseph Watt and family, and Joshua Shaw – Oregon, 1848
In the Acknowledgments section of his book Pioneer Woolen Mills in Oregon, Lomax thanks “Mrs. Roxanna Watt White, sister of Joseph Watt, who helped drive her brother’s sheep across the plains” and into what was then Oregon Territory (OT). Joseph Watt and Joshua Shaw drove the first sheep — approximately 330 surviving head of Saxon and Merino from Ohio — into OR in 1848 and, more incredibly, dragged a  carding machine with them! Watt later founded the first woolen mill in the OT at Salem in 1857.

There is not much dispute about who brought the first sheep to OR, but the story for CA isn’t as clear. Col. William Hollister alone is usually credited with bringing sheep overland from the Eastern U.S. to CA in 1853. Even Mary Austin writes that “In ’53, William W. Hollister brought three hundred ewes over the emigrant trail and laid the foundation of a fortune.” But it appears that at least two other parties — the Bixby family and Trapper “Uncle Dick” Wootton — accomplished much the same at the same time.

“Uncle Dick” Wootton – Sacramento, 1853
Wootton is said to have accomplished an incredible feat. In 1852 he left Taos, NM with approximately 9,000 sheep. He spent one year crossing dangerous deserts in Indian held lands in NM, AZ and Southern CA and arrived in Sacramento, CA one year later, having lost just 100 head along the way.

Historic, commonly seen photo of Trapper "Uncle Dick" Wootton.

Historic, commonly seen photo of Trapper “Uncle Dick” Wootton.

Though the book “Uncle Dick” Wootton by Howard Louis Conard (a small portion of it here) somewhat sensationalizes Wootton’s adventurous life, it was written when Wootton was still alive, quotes him directly, and is the best source I could find for an account of Wootton’s travels with sheep. Wootton says that several of his sheep were shot and killed by “Digger Indians.” According to, this is a disparaging term used to describe “any of several Indian peoples of western North America, especially of a tribe that dug roots for food.”

More threatening than “Digger Indians,” it seems, were some of Wootton’s employees, who had “entered into an arrangement with an emigrant train” in which they planned to “steal enough sheep to pay their passage to California.” Wootton’s solution is to unload their packs and march them out of camp, at which point they presumably join the emigrant train.

Like people mentioned in the following chronicle by Bixby Smith, Wootton also met Brigham Young.

Flint, Bixby, Hollister and others – California, 1853
The Library of Congress (LOC) contains the full-text chronicle of one Sarah Bixby Smith, who tells us she “was born on a sheep ranch in California, the San Justo, near San Juan Bautista, an old mission town of the Spanish padres… and about a hundred miles south of San Francisco.” When she was older, Bixby Smith and her family sometimes “went to Gilroy, and sometimes to Hollister, often just about the ranch to the various sheep camps, which were widely separated.”

I recommend reading Bixby Smith’s full chronicle via the LOC. It features exciting events like a woman chasing off Indians with a hatchet, thereby saving some Mormon lives, which later results in a welcome from Brigham Young that includes giving the sheep grazing access to gardens.

Photograph of Sarah Bixby Smith by Weston as found at

Photograph of Sarah Bixby Smith by Weston as found at

The story of Bixby Smith’s father and his role in driving sheep west was almost lost. By the time Bixby Smith was older, a Dr. Flint was the lone survivor of the overland journey that had also included Bixby Smith’s father and uncle. She wrote to Dr. Flint asking for an account of their pioneer experience. He replied and said he had kept diaries on both journeys and that Bixby Smith was welcome to see them, but he died before the opportunity came.

Twenty years later, Smith found Flint’s letter and immediately asked Flint’s son to see the journals:

“but their existence was not known. A holiday devoted to a search among old papers was rewarded by the discovery of the valuable documents. And so, while I cannot recall all the detail of the charming tale my father told me, I am able, because of these records, to give an accurate report of how the cousins came to California and brought across plains, mountains, and deserts to this Pacific Coast some of the first American sheep, and thus were instrumental in developing an industry that for many years was of great importance.”

Bixby Smith tells us that on December 31, 1853 Dr. Flint noted that they had traveled “on horseback and on foot 2,131 miles” alone. This means that of a total of 10,693 miles “on a direct line between points reached,” the men had walked or ridden on horses for 2,131 of those miles. Bixby Smith recalled that “Father often said that he walked across the continent; he had a saddle horse, Nig, but, going at a sheep’s pace, he found it pleasanter on foot.”

They brought approximately 2,400 sheep overland:

“On May 7 (1853) they started off for the overland journey with 1,880 sheep, young and old, eleven yoke of oxen, two cows, four horses, two wagons, complete camping outfit, four men, three dogs, and themselves. They ferried across the Mississippi River at Keokuk for $62.00. At some time during the trip the number of sheep was increased for I have always heard it said that the flock contained 2,400, and I have a later brief resume of the trip, made by Dr. Flint, in which he mentions the larger number.”

It is because of Dr. Flint’s journals that we now know Bixby Smith’s family and others traveled with the Hollisters. Bixby Smith writes that:

“Friday the 30th (December) they crossed the mountains through Cajon Pass, and on New Years Day, the scribe to whom we are indebted for the detailed account of this long, long journey was the guest of the Hollisters at San Bernardino for dinner. Father told me they celebrated by having doughnuts. It is evident that the two trains came in together, sometimes one ahead, sometimes the other. I make note of the fact of their traveling in company because I have seen it stated in print that Col. Hollister was the first to bring American sheep to California. I am pleased to be able to offer this contemporary witness to the fact that there are others to share the honor. Mention is made of the sheep of Frazer, White and Viles, and McClanahan as well as of Col. Hollister and Flint Bixby & Co., all of whom shared the hardships of the trail those last days of 1853.”

Who else?
Despite the addition of the above names to our Western sheep history, there are many more names missing from these sheep-bringing feats and travels. There were shepherds and “employees,” suppliers and guides, whose names are lost to history and that may never have been widely known or recorded. If you know of individuals, teams, companies or other entities who were key to bringing sheep to CA and OR in the 1840s and 1850s, please add them in the comments below. I’d love to add more posts on this topic.

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