Isabella is on a train to Lake Tahoe. She’s walking the length of the train and enumerating her fellow passengers.
One car is full of “Digger Indians.”*
It’s not an excuse but let’s remember it is 1873. And, for what it’s worth, her language will get worse — but will remain about par for the course for the time.
“They are perfect savages, without any aptitude for even aboriginal civilization, and are altogether the most degraded of the ill-fated tribes which are dying out before the white races…The squaws wore their hair thickly plastered with pitch, and a broad band of the same across their noses and cheeks. They carried their infants on their backs, strapped to boards. The clothing of both sexes was a ragged, dirty combination of coarse woolen cloth and hide, the moccasins being unornamented.
“They were hideous and filthy, and swarming with vermin…A few had fishing tackle, but the bystanders said that they lived almost entirely upon grasshoppers. They were a most impressive incongruity in the midst of tokens of an omnipresent civilization.”
Now, of course, we know that the indigenous people she saw on the train had had their entire social/political/economic structures systematically upended over a century so that white people could take that land and its resources. It’s zero surprise that the Indians she saw were in rough shape. That’s what was supposed to happen after the course of westward expansion wended its way. Still. It sucks.
The train is winding its way through the Sierras, on a single track, “sometimes carried on a narrow ledge excavated from the mountain side by med lowered from the top in baskets, overhanging ravines from 2,000 to 3,000 feet deep.”
There is one moment where the train crossed a trestle bridge over a deep chasm. The view from the car’s window made it look like it was floating in mid-air. Which Isabella** found unnerving.
Then they entered the snow sheds, which block all of the view, including that of Donner Lake. Isabella is disappointed — but thrilled by the temperature. In just a few hours, it had dropped from 103 in Sacramento to 29 as they pulled into Truckee.
* The slur came about because these tribes dug up roots for food.
** and, like, all of us,