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Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 1/Document from issue number 4

< Oregon Historical Quarterly‎ | Volume 1

DOCUMENT.

The following is one of a set of documents giving contemporary evidence on a most important epoch of Oregon history. It was secured by Principal J. R. Wilson.

(From the New Orleans Picayune, November 21, 1843.)

PRAIRIE AND MOUNTAIN LIFE THE OREGON EMIGRANTS.

During our detention among the upper settlements, before starting out, a constant source of interest to us was the gathering of people bound to Oregon. One Sunday morning, about the usual church hour in a larger place, five or six wagons passed through the town of Westport, and one old man with silver hair was with the party. Women and children were walking, fathers and brothers were driving loose cattle or managing the heavy teams, and keen-eyed youngsters, with their chins yet smooth and rifles on their shoulders, kept in advance of the wagons with long strides, looking as if they were already watching around the corners of the streets for game. There was one striking feature about the party which leads us to name it more particularly. Though traveling on the Sabbath and through the little town that was all quiet and resting from business in reverence of the day, there was that in the appearance of the people that banished at once even the remotest idea of profanation. They were all clean, and evidently appareled in their best Sunday gear. Their countenances were sedate, and the women wore that mild composure of visage so pleasantly resigned, so eloquent of a calm spirit, so ready to kindle up into smiles that is seen more often among churchgoers, perhaps, than in ballroom or boudoir. Some of the women carried books, and the prettiest girl carried hers open before her as she stepped a little coquettish ly through the dust of the road. Whether she was reading, or trying, or pretending to read, was hard to tell, but the action had a naive effect, and as she passed she was, no doubt, much astonished at a strange young gentleman who audibly addressed her with, "Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered."

Many other small bodies of these adventurous travelers crossed our notice at Independence, Westport, and at encampments made in the vicinity of these and other towns, but in their largest force we saw them just after crossing the Kansas River about the first of June. The Oregonians were assembled here to the number of six or eight hundred, and when we passed their encampment they were engaged in the business of electing officers to regulate and conduct their proceedings. It was a curious and unaccountable spectacle to us as we approached. We saw a large body of men wheeling and marching about the prairie, describing evolutions neither recognizable as savage, civic or military. We soon knew they were not Indians, and were not long in setting them down for the emigrants, but what in the name of mystery they were about our best guessing could not reduce to anything in the shape of a mathematical probability.

On arriving among them, however, we found they were only going on with their elections in a manner perhaps old enough, but very new and quizzical to us. The candidates stood up in a row behind the constituents, and at a given signal they wheeled about and marched off, while the general mass broke after them "lick-a-ty-split", each man forming in behind his favorite so that every candidate flourished a sort of a tail of his own, and the man with the longest tail was elected! These proceedings were continued until a captain and a council of ten were elected; and, indeed, if the scene can be conceived, it must appear as a curious mingling of the whimsical with the wild. Here was a congregation of rough, bold, and adventurous men, gathered from distant and opposite points of the Union, just forming an acquaintance with each other, to last, in all probability, through good or ill fortune, through the rest of their days. Few of them expected, or thought, of ever returning to the states again. They had with them their wives and children, and aged, depending relatives. They were going with stout and determined hearts to traverse a wild and desolate region, and take possession of a far corner of their country destined to prove a new and strong arm of a mighty nation. These men were running about the prairie, in long strings; the leaders, in sport and for the purpose of puzzling the judges, doubling and winding in the drollest fashion; so that, the all-important business of forming a government seemed very much like the merry schoolboy game of "snapping the whip." It was really very funny to see the candidates for the solemn council of ten, run several hundred yards away, to show off the length of their tails, and then cut a half circle, so as to turn and admire their longitudinal popularity in extenso themselves. "Running for office" is cer398tainly performed in more literal fashion on the prairie than we see the same sort of business performed in town. To change the order of a town election, though for once, it might prove an edifying exhibition to see a mayor and aldermen start from the town pump and run around the court house square, the voters falling in behind and the rival ticket running the other way, while a band in the middle might tune up for both parties, playing "0, What a Long Tail Our Cat's Got;' which we surmise some popular composer may have arranged for such an occasion.

After passing them here, we never saw the Oregonians again. They elected a young lawyer of some eminence as we were told, named Burnett, as their captain, and engaged an old mountaineer, known as Captain Gant, as their guide through the mountains to Fort Hall. Several enactments were made and agreed to, one of which was called up to be rescinded, and something of an excitement arose in regard to it. The law made was that no family should drive along more than three head of loose stock for each member composing it, and this bore hard on families that had brought with them cattle in large numbers. The dispute resulted in a split of the large body into two or three divisions; and so they moved on, making distinct encampments all the way. Captain Gant was to receive $1.00 a head from the company, numbering about a thousand souls, for his services as guide. But a few more such expeditions following in the same trail will soon imprint such. a highway through the wilderness to Oregon that emigrants may hereafter travel without such assistance.

We left them here about the last of May and encountered no sign of them again until returning in September, when we struck their trail on the Sweetwater, near the south pass of the mountains. They had followed in our own trail as far as this point and had here turned off, our course lying in another direction. From here, all the way to Fort Laramie, we found the now deeply worn road strewn with indications of their recent presence. Scaffolds for drying meat, broken utensils thrown away, chips showing where wagons had been repaired, and remnants of children's shoes, frocks, etc., met our notice at every deserted encampment.

But one death seemed to have occurred among them, and this was far out under the mountains. Here the loose riders of our moving camp gathered one morning to examine a rude pyramid of stones by the roadside. The stones had been planted firmly in the earth, and those on top were substantially placed, so that the wolves, whose marks were evident about the pile, had not been able to disinter the dead. On one stone, larger than the rest, and with a flat side, was rudely engraved:

J. HEMBREE.

And we place it here as perhaps the only memento those who knew him in the States may ever receive of him . How he died, we of course cannot surmise, but there he sleeps among the rocks of the West as soundly as if chiseled marble was built above his bones.

On returning to Rock Independence, a point about nine hundred miles from the settlements, we were astonished at finding that the Oregonians had reached and passed it only four days behind us. We had confidently supposed them four weeks in our rear, and their rapid progress augurs well for the success of their enterprise. On the rock we found printed:

"THE OREGON CO.

arrived

July 26, 1843."

At Fort Laramie we were told that they were still well provisioned when passing there, and could even afford to trade away flour, coffee, etc., for necessaries of other kinds. But it was droll to hear how the Sioux stared at the great caravans. Some of them on seeing the great number of wagons, and particularly white women and children, for the first time, began to think of coming down here, having seen, as they supposed, "the whole white village' move up the mountains.