Land Between the North Platte and the Sweetwater

“Once across the [North Platte] river, the emigrants faced 50 desiccated miles of sagebrush plains as they passed overland to the Sweetwater River. It was a bleak crossing—as Henry Bloom described:

No sign of grass today whatever; a perfectly desolate and barren region. . . . Nothing grows here but the wild sage. Saw dead horses and oxen, lots of them today. I have seen in the last few days lots and lots of homesick chaps, many of them nearly discouraged; a fretful time in which men begin to show their real character; a discouraging prospect truly.

“A new phenomenon, born of the growing aridity, greeted the emigrants here-alkali lakes. These shallow pools hold water briefly after rainstorms but otherwise are bone dry. They are coated with white crusty residue of saleratus and salt. Saleratus is potassium or sodium bicarbonate—essentially impure baking soda—and many emigrants ‘collected this deposit and used it . . . for the purpose of making bread light and spongy But the alkali lakes were deadly for livestock.”