“Dreams are the touchstones of our characters” ― Henry David Thoreau
Hartford, Connecticut’s Congregationalist pastor Horace Bushnell (1802-1876) was a theological bad-boy. He raised objections to a wide range of dearly held beliefs of the orthodox Calvinists of his day, apparently making himself so annoying that the local association of Congregationalist churches attempted to administratively bring him up on charges of heresy, but he was a regional rock star so his local congregation unanimously voted to withdraw from the larger consociation, leaving him free to expound on his particular brand of Protestantism. Alas, by the 1850’s poor health forced him to resign his pastorate and he headed off to California to recuperate. In 1856 he was puttering around Oakland, California, declining the presidency of the College of California (which would later merge with the University of California) and giving the occasional well-received sermon. Then, one dark and stormy night in a hotel parlor in the Napa Valley, he was introduced to the venerable Captain George C. Yount, widely thought to be the first Euro-American permanent settler in the Napa Valley, not to mention the first to plant a vineyard. For this alone, the man deserves sainthood, in my opinion.
Bushnell recognized something special about Yount, describing him as “a man who came over into California, as a trapper, more than forty years ago. Here he has lived, apart from the great world and its questions, acquiring an immense landed estate, and becoming a kind of acknowledged patriarch in the country. His tall, manly person, and his gracious, paternal look, as totally unsophisticated in the expression as if he had never heard of a philosophic doubt or question in his life, marked him as the true patriarch” (Hasting, 1871, p258-259). As it turned out, Bushnell’s assessment of Yount was fairly accurate. A veteran of the War of 1812, Yount had business problems in Missouri, where he left his wife and three children heading off to New Mexico to stash some cash as a trapper, eventually making his way to California. He was the essence of a frontiersman. By the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War, Yount had accumulated something like 16,000 acres in the Napa Valley (his descendants formed the still existent and extensive Rutherford Wineries).
George C. Yount, a native of North Carolina, came to California in 1831, as a trapper in the Wolfskill Party, from New Mexico. For several years he hunted otter, chieﬂy on San Francisco Bay and its tributaries, and at intervals made shingles. In 1835 he was baptized at San Rafael as Jorge Concepcion, and worked for Vallejo at Sonoma. In 1836 he obtained a grant of the Caymus ranch in Napa Valley, where he built a cabin or block-house, and for years was the only representative of the “Americans” in the valley. He still spent much of his time in hunting, and had many experiences with the Indians, being very successful in keeping them under control. In 1843 he was grantee of the La Jota ranch, an extension of Caymus, where he soon built a saw-mill, having also a ﬂour-mill on his place; and the same year he was joined by two daughters who came overland with Chiles (Lewis Publishing, 1891, p163).
Obviously, Yount had lived a storied life and carved out a little bit of civilization in Northern California by the time he was trading stories with Pastor Bushnell at the bar. By the mid-19th Century, spiritualism was making inroads in America, and Bushnell reported that “the conversation turned, I know not how, on spiritism and the modern necromancy, and he [Yount] discovered a degree of inclination to believe in the reported mysteries” (Hasting, 1871, p258-259). Yount’s much younger wife, herself a devout Christian, suggested to Bushnell that Yount was inclined towards spiritist beliefs due to particular curious experiences in his past, suggesting that he might be drawn out by an intelligent conversationalist. Bushnell was never one to back down from a rhetorical challenge, so he pressed Yount on what in his own experience made him think favorably of modern spiritualism. Bushnell recorded Yount’s story.
About six or seven years previous, in a mid-winter’s night, he had a dream, in which he saw what appeared to be a company of emigrants arrested by the snows of the mountains and perishing rapidly by cold and hunger. He noted the very cast of the scenery, marked by a huge, perpendicular front of white rock cliff; he saw the men cutting off what appeared to be tree-tops rising out of deep gulfs of snow; he distinguished the very features of the persons and the look of their particular distress. He awoke profoundly impressed by the distinctness and apparent reality of the dream. He at length fell asleep, and dreamed exactly the same dream over again. In the morning he could not expel it from his mind (Stead, 1921, p117-118).
There’s nothing worse than a dream you can’t shake. Well, maybe a sucking chest wound. Or an intestinal parasite. Okay, so there are a lots of worse things, but the point is when you keep dreaming the same dream repeatedly, either you never loved your mother or your subconscious is trying to communicate relevant information to you. And since we can’t conclusively say what the “subconscious” is, you might want to leave room for the possibility that something external to you is trying to get a message through. Yount decided that the charitable thing to do was assume the dream might be true, and wasn’t about to let it go.
Falling in shortly after with an old hunter comrade, he told his story, and was only the more deeply impressed by his recognizing without hesitation the scenery of the dream. This comrade came over the Sierra by the Carson Valley Pass, and declared that a spot in the Pass exactly answered his description. By this the unsophistical patriarch was decided. He immediately collected a company of men, with mules and blankets and all necessary provisions. The neighbours were laughing meantime at his credulity. ‘No matter,’ he said, ‘I am able to do this, and I will, for I verily believe that the fact is according to my dream.’ The men were sent into the mountains one hundred and fifty miles distant direct to the Carson Valley Pass. And there they found the company exactly in the condition of the dream, and brought in the remnant alive (Leadbeater, 1903, p88-89).
St. Bernards and schnapps were in short supply, so Captain Yount did the next best thing and led an expedition himself in search of the stranded travelers. Given his successful track record in becoming a major landholder in the Napa Valley, it’s a wonder folks didn’t take him more seriously. We don’t like to think about preternatural phenomena, but sometimes you’ve got to play the odds. Lots of emigrants were coming through the Carson Pass to California, so the notion that a few got stuck when the winter set in early is not unreasonable. Ten feet of snow and Conestoga wagons just don’t mix well on mountaintops. Or anywhere really. Anyone who wasn’t there would not doubt remain incredulous, but Bushnell, in talking to other locals about Yount got plenty of testimony as to the veracity of the story – he was suitably impressed and being a pastor found the Christian spin on the whole incident (no doubt used it as a metaphor in a few sermons to encourage people to help others and just generally not be jerks, or worse, logical postivists).
A gentleman present said, ‘You need have no doubt of this; for we Californians all know the facts, and the names of the families brought in, who now look upon our venerable friend as a kind of saviour’. These names he gave, and the places where they reside, and I found afterwards that the California people were ready everywhere to second his testimony. Nothing could be more natural than for the good-hearted patriarch himself to add, that the brightest thing in his life, and that which gave him greatest joy, was his simple faith in that dream. I thought also I could see in that joy, the glimmer of a true Christian love and life, into which, unawares to himself, he had really been entered by that faith (Bushnell, 1861, p372-373).
Folks in the burgeoning industry of societies for psychical research were a little more cautious in their interpretations, shying away from Bushnell’s more spiritual interpretation, but emphasizing that Yount’s life-saving dream could be just as miraculous if it was telepathy, clairvoyance, remote viewing, or some such uncanny human talent rejected by skeptical physicalists or reinterpreted by theologians. You try scrubbing, and you try soaking, but still you’ve got physicalists and theologians.
Here is a fact known and acknowledged by a whole community. That it actually occurred is beyond cavil. But how could it occur by chance? In the illimitable wintry wilderness, with its hundred passes and its thousand emigrants, how can a purely accidental fancy be supposed, without ultramundane interference, to shape into the semblance of reality a scene actually existing a hundred and fifty miles off, though wholly unknown to the dreamer,—not the landscape only, with its white cliffs and its snow-buried trees, but the starving travelers cutting the tree-tops in a vain effort to avert cold and famine? He who credits this believes a marvel a thousand times greater than the hypothesis of spiritual guardianship. (Owen, 1860, p45).
Over time, Yount’s fame only grew and his dream took on mythic proportions, getting conflated with the horror of the Donner party, a public relations nightmare for pro-California immigration advocates. The Donner Pass is about 100 miles north of the Carson Pass, but the folkloric association of Yount with the rescue of the sad remnants of the Donner Party is understandable as Yount was clearly awesome on an order the few of us can hope to achieve. Have you saved any settlers?
In several of the old trapper’s experiences, as related by him and embellished by others, a trace of faith in dreams and omens is shown; but old story that a dream led him to organize the ﬁrst relief expedition for the Donner party is unfounded. In later years the old pioneer found the squatters and land lawyers more formidable foes than had been the Indians and grizzlies of earlier times; but he saved a portion of his land, and died at his Napa home – called Yountville in his honor—in 1865, at the age of seventy-one years (Lewis Publishing, 1891, p163).
You may not believe in spiritual guardians or telepathy, but consider that you may have left a few people to their fates along the way due to your confidence that certain things can or cannot exist. Skepticism is not an entirely unreasonable assumption, and it may work for you on a daily basis, but maybe the universe gets miffed when you insist on ignoring basic cues that suggest how you might be a better person. As W.B. Yeats said, “In dreams begin responsibilities.”
Bushnell, Horace, 1802-1876. Nature And the Supernatural: As Together Constituting the One System of God. Edinburgh: A. Strahan, 1861.
Hastings, H. L. 1831-1899. The Guiding Hand, Or, Authentic Records of Providential Direction. Boston: Scriptural Tract Repository, 1871.
Hyslop, James H. 1854-. Contact With the Other World: the Latest Evidence As to Communication With the Dead. New York: Century Co., 1919.
Leadbeater, C. W. 1854-1934. Clairvoyance. 2nd ed. London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1903.
Lewis Publishing Company. A Memorial And Biographical History of Northern California: Containing a History of This Important Section of the Pacific Coast From the Earliest Period of Its Occupancy to the Present Time. Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1891.
Owen, Robert Dale, 1801-1877. Footfalls On the Boundary of Another World. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1860.
Prince, Walter Franklin, 1863-1934. Noted Witnesses for Psychic Occurrences: Incidents And Biographical Data, With Occasional Comments. Boston, Mass.: Boston society for psychic research, 1928.
Stead, W. T. 1849-1912. Real Ghost Stories. New ed., London: Stead’s publishing house, 1921.
Tract Association of Friends (Philadelphia, Pa.). Musings And Memories: Being Chiefly a Collection of Anecdotes And Reflections of a Religious Character, On Various Subjects. Philadelphia: Tract Association of Friends, 1875.