Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 1/The Oregon Trail


The early Oregon pioneers not only gained the first secure foothold for the American people on the Pacific Coast, but their movement opened the way to American occupation and in itself counted as an occupation of that realm for American civilization. They moved across the continent at an auspicious time, and so were able to influence, if not to shape, the course of great events touching the widening of the American dominion on the Pacific. It was all done so quietly, so efficiently, at so comparatively small cost and without any shock of harrowing disaster, that the world has yet to connect the momentous results with a cause seemingly so inadequate.

As the American people come to realize that their distinctively national achievement so far, next to that of maintaining a national integrity, has been that of preempting and subduing an adequate dominion and home for a civilization they will revere the services of those who made the transcontinental migrations in the thirties, forties and fifties. The glory that belongs to the participants in those migrations is the peculiar birthright of the patriotic Oregonian. The passage from the Atlantic slope to the Pacific of these first American households bearing the best embers of western civilization must ever stand as a momentous event in the annals of time.

For twenty-eight years, now, surviving participants in this world event have annually assembled to recount the incidents of their coming to Oregon, to live over that trying but hallowed time, to rekindle old flames of friendship and form new ties on the basis of their common experiences. At these meetings of the Oregon pioneers there was always an "occasional address" in which the reminiscences of the immigration of some particular year were given. As the journal of the association puts it, the object of the association "should be to collect reminiscences relating to pioneers and the early history of the territory; to promote social intercourse, and cultivate the life-enduring friendships that in many instances had been formed while making the long, perilous journey of the wide, wild plains, which separated the western boundary of civilization thirty years ago from the land which they had resolved to reclaim." The biographical notices contained in the transactions of their association all mark this coming to Oregon as a dividing event in the lives of their subjects. That generation of Oregonians suffered something like a transfiguration through this movement, which also widened the nation's outlook in making it face a greater sea. These transforming influences wrought their effects during the summer season that each successive immigration spent on the Oregon trail, while journeying in canvas-topped oxen-drawn wagons from the banks of the Missouri to those of the Willamette. The greatest epochal expansion of the nation was insured

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1.—Near the site of Fort Kearney on the Platte. (Part of pontoon bridge is used as road fence.)

through these migrations at the same time that the participants were translating their lives to a new sphere. For engaging and vivid detail of experiences in this movement, recourse must be had .to the transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association, and to journals kept on the way across the plains. These will ever have an interest for the heart of man as they show life under heroic impulse and in trying conditions long sustained. The whole movement Oregonward has an epic unity, and when its significance has become fully manifest will challenge the powers of the national poet.

But the movement has not yet, even in its outward aspects, been viewed as a whole. To mark off its limits in time, in routes taken, in numbers and population elements involved; to note the main motives, the forms of characteristic experiences; in a word to make, as it were, a composite view with relation to national history as a background, would seem to be the first step for realizing the due appreciation of the significance of the work of the Oregon pioneers. A sketch of the outlines of the movement in its more salient features, then, is what is attempted here, with the hope that such setting forth of the movement as a whole, with outlines more or less closely defined, will lead to its being brought fully into relation with the general course of events of American history. Until the story of the Oregon movement is thus set forth, the historians of our national life cannot weave it into its proper conspicuous relations in their narratives. It has no doubt been largely due to this lack if the story of this pioneer achievement in available form that a somewhat undue estimate of Doctor Whitman's services and the acceptance of mythical accretions to them have come about. The Whitman story was early available and was made to do service in accounting for a larger outcome than facts warranted.

The Oregon migrations effected at one sweep a two thousand-mile extension of the Aryan movement westward in the occupation of the north temperate zone "a far-flung': outpost of occupation and settlement. To appreciate the boldness, intrepidity and consummate effectiveness of such pioneering we have but to note that no previous extension had compassed one-fourth this distance. Nor were the conditions in this instance easy. One continuous stretch of Indian country infested with most formidable predatory tribes had to be passed through. Conditions approximating those of a desert had to be faced during a large part of the migration. There were swift rivers to ford or ferry, and three mountain ranges to scale. Only one form of the usual difficulties of pioneer road-making did not appear. There were no extensive forests to penetrate except on the ridges of the Blue and the Cascade Mountains.

The settlements of the blue grass region of Kentucky, and the Nashville district, in Western Tennessee, were, when first made, the most isolated from the main body of the American people. Yet, these had less than a fourhundred mile stretch between them and the settled region of the Atlantic slope. No other outward movement of Aryan people ever covered anything like the distance made by the Oregon pioneers on the Oregon trail . Measured by the sea voyage, the Oregon settlements were a leap of seventeen thousand miles.

Though the Oregon pioneers traced the first trail across the continent, adapting for sections of it the lines of travel of fur trading expeditions; yet, were it not for the title of Francis Parkman's narrative (which, however, has only the slightest references to anything pertaining to its title), I am not sure but that the very name would have been lost to all except Oregonians. The meagerness of Parkman's presentation of the

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transcontinental movement is easily accounted for. He did not take his trip of roughing it to Fort Laramie and the Black Hills, in 1846, to see the Oregon pioneers. His plans to write the history of the new France in America tended to narrow his interest strictly to aspects of Indian life as they were with the Indian in his original state. He was concerned solely during his life on the plains to get that insight into Indian character and customs that he might interpret the records of the relations of the French with them, and give his narrative in his great life work truth, life, and color. Had he been inclined to associate himself with the westward moving trains, and to enter into their life and thought, his "Oregon Trail" would naturally have been a final characterization of the migrations up to the stage they had assumed at that time. There are, however, indications in some of his references to the pioneers that their necessarily deshabille condition while en route, and the astounding and almost reckless character of their undertaking were by him set in contrast with the steady comfortable ways of the New England folk from which he hailed and the Oregonians correspondingly disparaged. In this he would be bringing a pioneer phase of civilization into comparison with a more finished form. The wayfaring pioneers were still marking out wider and more natural limits for the national home, while the New Englanders were advancing the arts of life on the original nucleus of national territory. But who can say to which the nation in its destiny owes the more?

Two years ago there appeared a book of five hundred and twenty-nine pages written by Colonels Henry Inman and William F. Cody, bearing the title, "The Great Salt Lake Trail." In its preface there is to be found the following comment on its title: "Over this historical highway the Mormons made their lonely hegira. * * * Over this route, also, were made those world renowned expeditions by Fremont, Stansbury, Lander, and others of lesser fame, to the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and beyond, to the blue shores of the Pacific Ocean. Over the same trackless waste the pony express executed those marvelous feats in annihilating distance, and the once famous overland stage lumbered along through the seemingly interminable desert of sage brush and alkali dust avant-courieres of the telegraph and the railroad."

The body of the book touches upon topics ranging in time from Jonathan Carver's explorations in 1766-'68 to the building of the Union Pacific Railroad. Its map lays "The Old Salt Lake Trail" exactly on the route of the Oregon trail as far as Fort Bridger, in Southwestern Wyoming. But the Oregon migrations are not hinted at by a single word in the body of the book. The authors' account of them could not have been crowded out by more weighty matters, as all the disjointed fragments of Indian hunting and fighting and drunken carousal, whether happening on the line of the trail or not, are crowded in. Either the story of the Oregon movement during the thirties, forties and fifties was absolutely unknown to Colonels Inman and Cody, or, if known, thought worthy of relegation to oblivion by them. In interviews last summer with people living along the line of the trail, only those whose experiences extended back to the time of the Oregon migrations recognized the trail as the Oregon trail. It was always the "California trail" or the "Mormon trail."

It is, of course, to be conceded that more people traveled this road to California than to Oregon. But the Oregon movement was first in time. By it the feasibility of the route was demonstrated, and people susceptible to the western fever were accustomed to think of

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3. The North Fork of Platte—its sandy bottom exposed.

the trip across the plains in a way that brought them when the cry of California gold was raised, or when as Mormon converts they were longing for a refuge from molestation. Then, too, the Oregon pioneers not only led the way; they decided our destiny Pacificward. It is time that history was conferring its award of justice to them. The highway they opened to the greater sea, and which their march made glorious, should take its name from them and thus help to commemorate unto coming generations the momentous import of their achievement for all the future of mankind.

The transcontinental movement as a march of civilization to the west shore of the continent was in its incipiency a missionary enterprise.. There is hardly any doubt, however, but that the home-seeking pioneer would have been on the way just as soon without the initiative of the missionary heroes and heroines. It is, nevertheless, the lasting glory of the Presbyterian and Congregational denominations that under the auspices of their missionary board the first American families successfully made the passage that was to sweep such a marvelous movement into its train. The Methodist Episcopal missionary enterprise antedated all others and played a conspicuous role in the political organization of the Oregon community, but it was not first in setting up the American home. So long as it lacked that it could not bear an American civilization, which was the crucial matter. It was Whitman who demonstrated the possibility of taking households across the plains, and this achievement, too, was a decisive initiative.

But how did the impulse to make this dangerous and arduous journey to the then far-off wilderness of Oregon originate with the missionary and the homeseeking pioneers? The inception of the Oregon movement in both its missionary and its pioneering aspects is best understood when viewed as outbursts of missionary zeal and energy and pioneer daring and restlessness from vast stores of potential missionary and pioneer spirit existing in this country in the thirties. Missionary activity in the direction of Oregon was liberated by something like a spark, or, to change the metaphor, by a "long-distance' "Macedonian cry.' A delegation of four Nez Perces Indians from the upper waters of the Columbia arrived in St. Louis in 1832 in search of "the white man's Book of Heaven.' An account of this singularly unique mission was published in the newspapers of the time. The story was made all the more effective and thrilling, with those of deep religious sensibilities, through its including what purported to be a verbatim report of a most pathetic farewell address made in General Clark's office by one of the two surviving members of this mission.

The closing passage of the speech, as it has been handed down, is as follows:

"We are going back the long, sad trail to our people. When we tell them, after one more snow, in the big council that we did not bring the Book, no word will be spoken by our old men, nor by our young braves. One by one they will rise up and go out in silence. Our people will die in darkness, and they will go on the long path to other hunting grounds. No white man will go with them, and no Book of Heaven to make the way plain. We have no more words."

The missionary boards of several protestant denominations were already establishing foreign missions in Africa, India, and among the western North American Indians. Hall J. Kelley had been agitating the cause of the Oregon Indians for half-a-generation . An appeal for missionary help so pathetic, so unheard of, and withal

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shedding such luster on those from whom it came, as was that of the Nez Perces delegation to St. Louis, could not fail to bring forth a missionary movement towards Oregon.

The spirit that materialized in the Oregon pioneer movement was not kindled by any special spark like that which called forth the missionary enterprises. Nor was it aroused by anything like the cry of gold that brought on the mad rush to California in '49 and the early fifties. The Oregon migrations were the outcome of cool, calm, reasoned determination. This characterized the movement collectively as well as individually.

In a sense, the Oregon movement was in preparation from the time when in 1636 Puritan congregations were led by Hooker and others from the vicinity of Boston westward through the forests to the banks of the Connecticut. This initial western movement was communicated along the Atlantic coast settlements by the ScotchIrish crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains in Pennsylvania, and by the Virginians penetrating to the Shenandoah Valley. Some would say that an instinct to move west has been growing in strength among civilized peoples since about 1000 B. C., when the Phoenicians moved west on the Medeterranean to found Carthage, and the Greeks to plant colonies in southern Italy and at Marseilles.

So largely had pioneering been the mode of life of those who were living in the western zone of settlement in the United States in 1840 that it was almost a cult with them. The traditions of each family led through the Cumberland Gap or west to Pittsburg and down the Ohio, or along the line of the Great Lakes. Hon. W. Lair Hill, in his "Annual Address" before the Pioneer Association in 1883, fitly characterizes the people among whom the Oregon movement took its rise. "The greater number of them were pioneers by nature and occupation, as their fathers had been before them. In childhood the story of their ancestors' migrations from the east to the west, and then to the newer west was their handbook of history. Homer or Virgil, of whom few of them had ever heard, could have rehearsed no epic half so thrilling to their ears as the narratives of daring adventure and hairbreadth escapes, which, half true and half false, ever form the thread of frontier history. They knew nothing of Hector and Achilles, but they knew of Daniel Boone, who, Lord Byron said, 'was happiest among mortals anywhere,' whom civilization drove out of Pennsylvania by destroying the red deer and black bear, and who, after some years of solid comfort in his log cabin amid the wilds of Kentucky, was again pursued and overtaken by the same relentless enemy and compelled to retire into the Missouri wilderness, beyond the Mississippi; and who, even in that distant retreat, was soon forced to say to his friend and companion, according to current anecdote, 'I was compelled to leave Kentucky because people came and settled so close around me I had no room to breathe. I thought when I came out here I should be allowed to live in peace; but this is all over now. A man has taken up a farm right over there, within twenty-five miles of my door.' Of Boone. and such as Boone, most of them who founded the commonwealth of Oregon, knew much more than of the great names of literature, statesmanship, or arms, and their minds dwelt fondly on the exploits of the frontiersman, whether in the contests with the savages or the chase. More familiar with the log cab'in than with the palace, with the rifle than with the spindle and loom, with saddle than with the railway, they felt cramped when the progress of empire in its westward way put

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restraint upon those habits of life to which they were accustomed."

Knowledge of a "new country" was sure to create in them an almost irrepressible longing to move on. Such natures as these furnished the best culture conditions in which to develop an Oregon movement with the reports explorers and travelers brought from the far Pacific Coast region. Such Oregon material had early been disseminated among these susceptible people. The journal of the Lewis and Clark expedition was published in 1814 and distributed far and wide as a government document. Pioneers speak of reading it as boys and of becoming permanently interested in the Oregon Country. The journal of Patrick Gass, a sergeant in the company of Lewis and Clark, fell into the hands of others and stirred their imaginations. From 1817 on until 1832 Hall J. Kelley, a Boston schoolmaster, was compiling and distributing information designed to awaken a desire to join in a movement to establish a civilized community in Oregon. His society is said to have had thirty-seven agents scattered through the union. An Oregon question became a subject of negotiation between Great Britain and the United States in 1818. These negotiations were renewed in 1824, 1827 and 1842. The occupation of Oregon was proposed in congress in 1821. The subject was kept before congress almost continuously until 1827, and again from 1837 on. The proposed legislation elicited exhaustive reports and warm discussions, which were published in the newspapers of the land. The bill of Dr. Lewis F. Linn, senator from Misouri, introduced in 1842, with its provision for a grant of six hundred and forty acres of land to every actual male settler, was naturally a most potent cause of resolutions to go to Oregon. The fact that during all these years Great Britain disputed our right to claim the whole of the Oregon Country only added to the ardor of some who thought of going thither.

Soon sources of fresh information brought direct from Oregon became available. St. Louis was the winter rendezvous of representatives of fur companies and independent trappers who were operating in the Rocky Mountains. These came in contact with officers and employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, and from them secured much information about Oregon. Nathaniel J. Wyeth conducted two expeditions overland to the Lower Columbia between 1832 and 1836. Mr. William N. Slacum, who had been commissioned by President Jackson to visit the North Pacific Coast to conduct explorations and investigations among the inhabitants of that region, reported in 1837. Irving's Astoria was brought out in 1836, and his Adventures of Captain Bonneville in 1837. In 1838 Jason Lee, the Methodist missionary, returned to the States, and talked Oregon whereeverhe went. His lecture on Oregon in Peoria, Illinois, that year netted an expedition of thirteen or fourteen persons for Oregon the next. The leader of this party, Thomas J. Farnham, returned to the East, and in 1841 published a book of travels, which had a wide circulation. Dr. Elijah White, for several years associated with the Methodist mission enterprise, but who had returned to his home in New York, received an appointment in 1842as sub-Indian agent for Oregon. He immediately began a canvass for immigrants to Oregon. His party, made up mainly of those found on the Missouri border ready to start, added one hundred and twenty-seven to the American population in Oregon. During this same year Commodore Wilkes' naval exploring expedition to Oregon returned and reported. Early in this year, too, Fremont's overland party was organized, and was on the trail a short distance in the rear of Doctor White's

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pioneer party. On February 1, 1843, the Linn bill passed the senate. All the missionaries were sending back letters giving glowing accounts of the attractions of Oregon. The famous winter ride of Doctor Whitman from Oregon to Missouri was made in the winter of 1842-3. He did go to Washington and he urged the importance of American interests in Oregon upon President Tyler and some of the members of his cabinet. Returning west in the spring of 1843, he was at the Shawnee mission school, near Westport, Missouri, while the great migration of 1843 was forming and filing by. The sight reassured him that Oregon was to be occupied by American citizens. His thought seemed no longer mainly concerned with the pioneers getting to Oregon. There would be no trouble about that. His plans reached forward to include the conditions of a stable and progressive civilization there. His letters at this time, after mentioning the number of emigrants, turn to matters that would determine their condition as proposed settlers. He says: "A great many cattle are going, but no sheep, from a mistake of what I said in passing." And again: "Sheep and cattle, but especially sheep, are indispensable for Oregon. * * * I mean to impress the Secretary of War that sheep are more to Oregon's interests than soldiers." Doctor Whitman's influence had probably not been decisive with many of the pioneers, possibly not with any, in getting them started, but all the leaders of that great immigration testify that his services as pilot and counsellor were most valuable in getting them through.

The facts so far marshalled on the origin of the pioneer movement to Oregon disclose the existence of a people in the Mississippi Valley competent for the undertaking, and on general principles not disinclined towards it, whose thought, moreover, had been arrested by some unique advantages claimed for the Oregon country. But the Oregon movement, like most migrations, has most light thrown on its origin and motive by an inquiry into the conditions that made the old home undesirable, and in some cases even unbearable.

Not a few came from Missouri, Kentucky and other border slave states because they were not in sympathy with the institution of slavery. Their aversion to slave owning placed them at a great disadvantage in those states. Their families were not recognized as socially the equals of the more influential portion of society. They were accustomed to labor, and slavery brought a stigma upon labor. In the cultivation of tobacco and hemp, the main articles of export, the owner of slave labor had a decided advantage. The employer of free labor found it exceedingly difficult to make ends meet. Snubbed in a social way, worsted in industrial competition, in individual cases they were even mobbed when they tried to express their anti-slavery sentiments at the polls. Some of the more nervous of the slave-owning population, too, were impelled to seek relief in the same movement from the constant dread of a negro insurrection.

The "fever and ague" was a dread visitant to very many engaged in turning over the virgin soil of the Mississippi Valley. In Oregon they would be free from this curse, so the "fever and ague," with not a few, brought on the "Oregon fever." The frequent recurrence of the awful scourge of the cholera in the towns of the middle west in the late forties and early fifties made many, in the hope of safety, more than willing to brave the dangers and hardships of the journey to Oregon. The warning signals of approaching old age no doubt were the deciding influence with some who set out as modern

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Ponce de Leons in search of fountains of renewed youth in Oregon.

Monetary disturbances had made business stagnant all over the country from 1837 to 1841. Many had gone to the wall, and had been compelled to see their homes turned over to others. The hard times were felt keenest in the then farthest west. They were so far inland that commercial intercourse with the rest of the world was almost totally cut off. What traffic they had was carried on by slow, laborious and expensive processes. Railroad building had not progressed so as to give a hope, hardly even an intimation, of its wonderful solution of the problem of maintaining a high civilization far inland. By going to Oregon they would, as they thought of it, again be on the open shores of the greater sea, within easy reach of the highway of the civilizations of the world. Not often, perhaps, were their motives formulated. These were allowed to rest in their minds in the most naive form of impulse. Col. Geo. B. Currey, in his "Occasional Address': before the Pioneer Association, in 1887, endorses the following as the best reason he ever got. It was, as he says, "from a genuine westerner," who said he came "because the thing wasn't fenced in, and nobody dared to keep him out."

The western border of Missouri was the natural jumping off place for the plunge into the wilderness. The settlements there had extended out like a plank beyond the line of the border elsewhere. The Ohio and the Missouri, with a short stretch of the Mississippi, had furnished the line of least resistance to the westward movement.

Each recurring spring tide from 1842 on witnessed the gathering of hosts at points on the Missouri, from Independence, near the confluence of the Kansas with the Missouri, north to what is now Council Bluffs. They were enamored with one idea, that of making homes in far away Oregon. This part of the border was also the starting line for the California and the Mormon migrations. The California movement was only sporadic until 1849. This was seven years after the Oregon movement had become regular. The Mormons first struck across the continent in 1847.

Independence and Westport, just south of the Missouri's great bend to the east, were the gateway of the earliest regular travel and traffic across the plains. These towns are now the suburbs of Kansas City. The Oregon migrations" of 1842 and 1843 were formed exclusively in this vicinity. The old Santa Fe trail led by these settlements. From these points, too, the fur trading companies conducted expeditions annually to the upper waters of the Green River beyond the Rocky Mountains. The route was up the south side of the Kansas River some fifty miles, then turning to the right, the river was forded or ferried and a general northwest course adhered to, more direct for Oregon.

Beginning in 1844 Saint Joseph, then a thriving border town, situated on the river some fifty miles to the north of the first jumping off places, became an important fitting out place. Those who took steamboat passage to the border would naturally wish to make as much of the distance to Oregon in that way as possible. The vicinity of Saint Joseph seemed to furnish excellent facilities for securing the necessary ox teams and other needs for the trip. The Saint Joseph route, too, was a more direct one for those coming across the country from Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. After 1850 the Council Bluffs' route had the largest transcontinental travel. Weston and old Fort Kearney, the present Nebraska City, both on the Missouri, the former between Independence and Saint Joseph and the latter between Saint Joseph and

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8.—The Trail leading down to bottom lands of the Sweetwater.

Council Bluffs were minor points of departure.. Smaller companies would cross the river wherever there was a ferry.

Steamboating on the treacherous Missouri during those spring seasons while the tide of emigration was strongly westward set is given a lurid hue in the journals of the emigrants. The river route was the natural one for all coming from Ohio and the states to the east, also for many coming from Indiana.

One entry made during this part of the trip in 1852 reads as follows: "We have a bar on our boat, too, and that is visited about as often as any other place I know of. A son of temperance is a strange animal on this river, I can assure you. I think there are three or four sons on the boat, and- the rest, about five hundred people, like a dram as often as I would like to drink a little water." * * * We get a little scared sometimes, for we hear of so many boats blowing up. There was another boat blown up at Lexington last Saturday and killed one hundred and fifty persons, the most of which were emigrants for California and Oregon. These things make us feel pretty squally, I can assure you, but it is not the way to be scared beforehand. So we boost our spirits up and push on. * * * Got to Lexington at 12 o'clock. There we found the wrecks of the boat that blew up five days ago. There were about two hundred people aboard, and the nearest we could learn about forty persons escaped unhurt, about forty were wounded and the balance were killed."

The man who kept this journal fitted out with a company at Saint Joseph. The company planned to drive up the east side of the Missouri and cross at old Fort Kearney. But, finding the roads too bad on that route, they made for a ferry ten miles north of Saint Joseph. I quote FROM his account of their experiences in getting across the river: "Went up to the ferry. Mr. H—'s and Mr. S—'s wagons went over safe. Then Mr. S—'s family wagon and five yoke of cattle and all of Mr. S—'s family except two boys went on the ferry boat, and when they were about one-half way across the boat began to sink. They tried to drive the cattle off, but could not in time to save the boat from sinking. My family are still on the east side and I—S— with his teams. We witnessed the scene and could do nothing. Mrs. S— and the baby and next youngest were all under water, but the men of the boat got into the river and took them out, and the rest of the family got upon the wagon cover and saved themselves from drowning. A Mr. r— jumped overboard and thought he could swim to shore, but was drowned. He was one of Mr.—S 's hired hands. By the assistance of one of the other boats the rest were saved, but we thought from where we were that it was impossible that they could all be saved. Well, I paid a man fifteen cents for taking my wife and little children across in a skiff. They have no skiff at the ferry, but they have three good ferryboats that they work by hand. But the people here are as near heathens as they can be, and they go for shaving the emigrants, and then they spend it for whiskey and get drunk and roll in it. But we are all over on the west shore of the Missouri and in Indian terriority."

For those congregated hosts, encamped each early spring at different points along the banks of the Missouri, and intent as soon as grass had grown to be sufficient for their stock to sally forth on a two thousand mile passage to the Valley of the Willamette, the natural features of the continent pointed out just one general route to travel. This road, so clearly marked out by the configuration of the country for all using their mode of conveyance, lay up the Valley of the Platte; its tributary, the

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Sweetwater; through South Pass; across to the Valley of the Snake, the tributary of the Columbia; following down the course of the Snake to its great bend to the north; across to the Columbia; down the Columbia to their destination. Those sections of the trail which constitute connecting links, as it were, to the grander portions, can be accounted for almost as clearly as the main sections can. Forage and water must be regularly available to those traveling with horses, mules or oxen. These must be found in great abundance by those who are driving considerable droves over long stretches of arid wastes. In summer months, on the unsettled parched plains, these resources were insured only along river or creek bottoms. So in striking out from Independence or Saint Joseph for the Valley of the Platte to the north, to economize in the distance traveled to the Oregon goal, and insure supplies of the prime requisites—good water and grass—their course would be such as to bring them to nightly camps on the banks of one of the numerous streams flowing into the Kansas. Passing one they would make for a higher point on the next to the west so as to keep in a more direct line for Oregon. Fuel, so necessary for preparing their meals, was in that region found only on the banks of these streams. Along the Platte, the North Fork, and the Sweet water "buffalo chips" sufficed fairly well the need of fuel, except the night was wet. In moving from the South Pass to the basin of the Columbia, mountainous country made a direct route impracticable. In the detour to the southwest the valleys of the tributaries of the Upper Green were utilized, and particularly the most convenient northwest course of the Bear River. The details of the course in this detour were determined by the stepping stones, as it were, of water, grass and wood. These were found in that desert region, too, only in the river and creek bottoms. On issuing from the South Pass, then, the valleys of the Little Sandy, Big Sandy, and the Green itself, had to be followed, with such crossings from one to the other as were feasible, and were in the interests of economy in distance, until they struck a tributary coming in from the west, up which a passage could be made and the divide crossed, bringing them into the Valley of the Bear, a part of the Great Salt Lake Basin. The Valley of the Bear has a general northwest direction of some seventy -five miles from where they usually entered it. It was in every way a natural road to them to the point where it makes its bend to the south. At this bend was the first fork made in early times by the California trail's turning off to the south. The divide at this point between the Basin of the Great Salt Lake and the Valley of the Snake was comparatively easy. The Snake River Valley, with its barren wastes, deep precipitous canyons, sharp lava rocks, made a trying portion of the route. There were several optional routes. None so acceptable as the Platte Valley had furnished. To follow the Snake in its long bend to the north would have led them far out of their way, so they took the available valleys of the Burnt and Powder rivers that led them farthest on their way towards the westerly flowing Umatilla, a tributary of the Columbia. They thus not only kept on in a comparatively direct line towards the Valley of the Willamette, but were also afforded water, grass and wood so necessary for further endurance of the now well fagged transcontinental wayfarers. But the Blue Mountains lay across this short cut and gave them their first real experience in climbing steep mountain sides. From the crest of these mountains the way to their goal lay down hill, except they chose a road across the Cascade Mountains. But whether they took the Barlow Road or

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dared the dangers of the gorge of the Columbia, the darkest, sternest trials were yet to be faced by the now weak and famished pioneers. They were, however, veterans now, and if succored with fresh supplies from settlers in the Willamette Valley and the strength of their cattle sufficed, no difficulties, however stupendous, could daunt them.

On the whole, those home-seeking pioneers, as they lay encamped on the banks of the Missouri, could congratulate themselves that no specially stupendous natural obstacles had been interposed in that immense stretch that lay between them and their destination. There was only the inter minableness of it, and the facts that it was to be entered upon while the fierce pelting spring storms of wind, rain and hail were liable to be of daily and nightly occurrence; that muddy sloughs would cause breakdowns, and freshet-swollen streams would be fraught with danger; that there would then be four months in which the fierce burning, blistering sun would have them at its mercy, and a dense, stifling dust would enhance their misery during the midday hours to the point of wretchedness, and no bathroom in the evening in which to find relief; that in the later and almost final days of the journey they would probably be exposed in approximate nakedness to the searching blasts of the oncoming winter, fortunate if they were not caught and held fast in mountain snows. Withal, they knew it would be a lumbering trudge with ox teams that would take them all summer and far into the autumn.

Each recurring spring season family or neighborhood groups who had determined to try their fortunes in Oregon would move out to one of the points of departure on the Missouri border. They would soon find themselves a part of a larger aggregation. Generally there was no more prearrangement for this meeting than there is among birds that flock for a migration. All who constituted the company from any one point had simply selected the same jumping off place.

When the grass had grown abundant enough to furnish subsistence for their stock and draft animals, those who were ready with their outfit would begin to file out on the prairie trails converging upon the main Oregon road. After having traveled a day or two a halt was called by those in advance to await the coming up of others who proposed to undertake the same trip with themselves. The American instinct for organization would then assert itself, and there was occasion for its activity. They were in an Indian country. It was not wise to tempt the predatory propensities of the savages by too much straggling in their traveling or by too much unwariness in guarding their cattle and horses. In order to avoid molestation by prowling bands of Pawnees, Otoes, Cheyennes and Sioux, through whose ranges the trail east of the Rockies passed, it was necessary to travel in companies of some size and with such discipline as to be able to establish an effective guard at night and to make some demonstration of force when encountering considerable bands of Indian warriors.

There was much economy, too, in bunching their several droves of loose stock into a single herd, in having a single lookout for selecting camping places, in the help that each would receive in case of accidents that all were liable to. Very essential, too, were organization and discipline when they came to a bank of a large stream across which their trail led. With the earlier migrations before printed guide books were available, organization was necessary to secure the services of. a pilot. The first large migrations those of 1843 and 1844, and even of 1845 erred in attempting to go as one compact body. The difficulty of securing adequate

Oregon Historical Quarterly vol. 1.djvu-395.png

11.— "DEVIL'S GATE,"
Showing dam for leading out an irrigating ditch.

grazing was much enhanced as the company increased in size. From this fact and the further fact that in case of a hitch or accident of any kind in a large company, many would be delayed who could be of no service in getting things fixed up for a fresh start, it resulted that twenty or thirty wagons were the maximum limit to the size of companies that did not chafe under their organization. In later years six or eight wagons were a normal number for a company. Even in the earlier migrations, when the Upper Sweetwater was reached and the danger from the Indians was measurably past, the large companies would divide up into sections. The earlier migrations, too, took precautions that no person attached himself to the train unless he was furnished with such resources as to rations and transportation that he would not likely become a common burden.

The records of the migrations give ample corroboration to the truth of the adage, "Uneasy lies the head, etc.," and yet these privately penned diaries disclose comparatively little bickering or unwholesome feeling, notwithstanding the severe strain human nature was under in the conditions of this four, five, and sometimes six months' passage. Whenever conditions developed making advisable a division of the body into two or more, the division was made, and all was smooth again. The documentary material printed in this number of the Quarterly throws light on this phase of their experience and depicts the unique proceedings of the pioneers of 1843 in effecting an organization.

The type of the transcontinental pioneer changed materially after the gold-seeker was in the majority. From 1849 on the diarist's account is not devoid of the tragical. "These plains try and tell all the dark spots in men," says Rev. Jesse Moreland in his journal of the trip from Tennessee to Oregon in 1852. He describes evidence of three executions for murder by hanging. He says: "As they had nothing to make a gallows out of, they took two wagon tongues, put them point to point and set a chair in the middle, and the man stood on the chair till the rope was tied, and then the chair was taken from under him. This is the third we have heard of being hanged."

Before 1849, while the Oregon movement still constituted the great part of the transcontinental travel, and a fierce commercial spirit was not yet dominant, the humanity of the pioneers seemed to stand remarkably well the strain incident to the experiences on the plains. Their journals do not reveal half the irritation and demoralization that the accounts of Parkman and of Coke do in companies that had vastly better outfits and were passing over the same routes.

The average company of immigrants in pulling through the miry sloughs of the Missouri bottom lands in early spring, with only partly broken ox teams, would break a wagon tongue, an axle tree, or a wheel, and suffer more or less exasperating delay. The fierce spring storms of rain and hail would play havoc with their tent coverings, and drench and pelt all who must stand outside to prevent the teams and stock from stampeding. These freshets would make impassable, for the time being, the numerous streams of the Kansas and Nebraska prairies. With the feeling that they must not over-exert their teams mere trifles even were allowed to delay them during the first four or five hundred miles of the journey.

Except they had some one like a Doctor Whitman with them to persistently urge them to "travel, travel," as the only condition of getting through, there would be too much loitering in the early stages of the journey. Those who entered upon the trip in later years had more nearly an adequate sense of the vastness of the distance

Oregon Historical Quarterly vol. 1.djvu-399.png

12.—Gap just south of Devil's Gate used for the Trail.

they must cover, and wasted no time in the initial stages.

Especially the migration of 1849, and to some degree those of .1850 and 1852, were in deepest dismay over the presence among them of the dreadful scourge of cholera. The trail was lined in places along the south side of the Platte through the width of rods with mounds of freshly made graves after these migrations had passed. The Hon. F. A. Chenoweth, in his "Occasional Address' before the Oregon Pioneer Association, in 1882, gives the following account of the ravages of the cholera among the trains of 1849:

"But the incidents of hardship which I have noticed were the merest trifles compared to the terrible calamity that marked with sadness and trailed in deep desolation over that ill-fated emigration. Very soon after the assembled throng took up its march over the plains the terrible wave of cholera struck them in a way to carry utmost terror and dismay into all parts of the moving mass.

The number of fatally stricken, after the smoke and dust were cleared away, was not numerically so frightful as appeared to those who were in the midst of it. But the name "cholera' in a multitude unorganized and unnumbered is like a leak in the bottom of a ship whose decks are thronged with passengers. The disturbed waters of the ocean, the angry elements of nature, when aroused to fury, are but faint illustrations of the terrorstricken mass of humanity, when in their midst are falling with great rapidity their comrades the strong, the young and the old the strength and vigor of youth melting away before an unseen foe. All this filled our ranks with the utmost terror and gloom. This terrible malady seemed to spend its most deadly force on the flat prairie east of and about Fort Laramie.

One of the appalling effects of this disease was to cause the most devoted friends to desert, in case of attack, the fallen one. Many a stout and powerful man fought the last battle alone on the prairie. When the rough hand of the cholera was laid upon families they rarely had either the assistance or the sympathy of their neighbors or traveling companions.

There was one feature mixed with all this terror that afforded some degree of relief, and that was that there was no case of lingering suffering. When attacked, a single day ordinarily ended the strife in death or recovery. Avast amount of wagons, with beds and blankets, were left by the roadside, which no man, not even an Indian, would approach or touch through fear of the unknown, unseen destroyer.

While there were sad instances of comrades deserting comrades in this hour of extreme trial, I can not pass this point of my story without stating that there were many instances of heroic devotion to the sick, when such attention was regarded as almost equivalent to the offering up of the well and healthy for the mere hope of saving the sick and dying."

Not a few who had purposed to go to California that year turned off on the Oregon road to escape the contagion which the dense crowd seemed to afford this disease. Excepting in these cholera years and in 1847 there were only infrequent cases of mountain fever and forms of dysentery that were developed in the alkali regions of the mountains.

A train of pioneers with sensible outfit emerging into the valley of the Platte in a season free from the cholera affliction could almost make it for a time a grand pleasure excursion. The heat was not yet oppressive, the roads good, the air exhilarating, the boundless expanse of green undulating prairie under crystal skies filled them with a sense of freedom. The exciting buffalo hunt was soon

Oregon Historical Quarterly vol. 1.djvu-403.png


on and afforded them a welcome addition to a diet exceedingly unvaried at best. After the usual trudge during the day amid a panorama not yet monotonous the wagons would be driven to form approximately a circle —the end of the tongue or the front wheel of one lapping the hind wheel of the wagon in front, according as a more or less spacious corral was desired. The oxen would be unyoked and taken to water and then to the selected grazing spot. Fires would be kindled alongside each wagon outside of the corral for preparing the evening meal. After it was partaken of there would be an hour or two before darkness settled down upon them. Then the cattle would be brought within the corral, if there was the least apprehension of danger, and all except the guards for the first watch and possibly the matrons with multitudinous family cares would quickly surrender themselves to sleep. But congenial groups of young people would generally have a social hour or two. A blanket or extra wagon covering was thrown on the ground beside the wagon, and, when rain threatened, spread under the wagon. (Most were probably without tents other than the canvas tops of their wagons.) This with something for a covering sufficed for the beds of the young men and boys. In the morning at a given signal all were astir— and, if the cattle had not strayed during the night or been stampeded by Indians, breakfast over, everything was soon in readiness for falling in, each in his appointed place, and taking up the march that should bring them a day nearer to their Oregon home. But this idyllic succession of days very soon developed a very seamy side.

The sun's rays became more and more scorching in their fierceness, the plains assumed a dull, leaden grayish aspect. The sagebrush and cactus took the place of the waving grass. The burning sand and stifling dust became deeper. These the west wind would raise into a cloud continuous from morning until night. This cloud of sand and dust particles beating against them at a terrific velocity they had to face all day. Soon eyes and lips were sore. To relieve the uncomfortable feeling that the parching air gave the lips they would unwisely be moistened and the soreness thus extended and deepened. Soon everything was obdurately begrimed. Rags then were in evidence. Shoes worn so as to no longer protect the feet. In the dry, scorching air the wagons would develop loose joints and lose their tires.

The monotony was relieved by lying by a day now and then during which the women would wash and mend the clothes and the men repair wagons and hunt buffalo, the meat of which would be jerked to furnish a supply after they had passed beyond the limits of the buffalo country. The buffalo did not commonly range west of the Lower Sweetwater.

The experiences which the buffalo gave them were not limited to the fine sport of hunting him and the delicious feasts his steaks afforded. His presence seemed to kindle into life the old ancestral wildness of the ox and the horse. Without the least warning some sedate member of a team would raise his head and give the old racial snort of freedom. This would kindle the same spark in every animal of the train, and away they would stampede with wagons, inmates and all, and not to be stopped until utterly exhausted. In these stampedes people would be run over, bones would be broken, oxen dehorned, their legs broken, and things demolished generally. The simple-minded pioneer with any tendency to personify could not help but believe that the devil had gotten into his hitherto always tractable animals. I quote a pioneer's account of a stampede, though he does not ascribe it to the presence or influence of the buffalo, as is almost always done: "After passing

Devil's Gate from OHQ.png


Devil's Gate, a beautiful stretch of road lay before us. All at once the teams broke into a run something started them, no one seemed to know what. It was a regular stampede as to our team. Father and mother were walking; I was walking also, and some of the children were in the wagon. Away the team went, the hardest and the wildest running I ever saw. When they stopped and we caught up with them, we found the children w r ere not hurt, but the two wheelers were down and one of them dead. It took our team a long time to get over the scare."

There was still another condition in which the spirit of the buffalo made the pioneer show deference to it. This happened when a great horde of buffalo was on a stampede bearing down upon an emigrant train that happened to be passing across its trail. The moment was almost enough to bring dismay to the pioneer. Either the teams of the train were urged into something of a stampede to get out of line of the horde's advance, or a corral was formed and volleys fired into the impending mass to divide it so as to leave the corral a safe island between a destructive flood rolling by on either hand.

Distressing accidents must almost of necessity befall them from their carrying their loaded guns commingled with household goods on their wagons. It is not strange that at least half of the journals should have records of fatalities thus caused. Under the law of mathematical probabilities, with the frequent occasion there was to remove gun or blanket thus intermixed, while the members of the family were standing around the wagon, accidents must occur. The small boy of the family during this four or five months' trip had very many occasions to clamber out of and into the wagon while it was in motion. He, too, would come to grief with a broken leg. Any ordinary fracture, however, even though there were no surgeon at hand, would be attended to, so that no deformity resulted. If the case was one seeming to require an amputation "a butcher knife and an old dull hand saw r ' were improvised as surgical instruments. But I have not found that a patient survived such an operation and got well. The other great epochal events of family life, marriages and births, were not infrequent on the trail, and seemed to cause little distraction.

The experiences of the pioneers in crossing the rivers in the line of the trail were very diverse. It is reported of one of the migrations that they were not compelled to ferry until they reached the Des Chutes in Oregon. But the migration of 1844 had a serious time even with the Black Vermillion and Big Blue, tributaries of the Kansas. Where logs were available they were hollowed out and catamaran rafts made so as to fit the wheels of a wagon. Sometimes the best wagon boxes would be selected and caulked and used as flatboats. Where buffalo skins were plentiful they would be stretched around the wagon box to make it water-tight. In later stages of the journey, after their teams were more reliable, it was a common practice to raise the wagon beds several inches above the bolsters, if the depth of the stream required it, couple several teams into a train with the most reliable in front on a lead-rope, and drivers along the down-stream side of the other teams. They would then ford as trains. After the rush in 1849 ferries were established at the more important crossings, whose owners reaped rich harvests.

Their route had no rich diversity of scenic grandeur. There are most impressive natural features along the line of it, but with their slow mode of travel one phase became exceedingly monotonous before another was

Oregon Trail along the Sweetwater.png

15.–The deeply worn Trail along the Sweetwater.

reached. There were the vastness and solitude of the prairies and plains, the transparency of the atmosphere that gave magnificent sweep of view. Along the North Fork of the Platte stood great sentinel rocks with interesting sculptured proportions. Among these are the Lone or Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, Castle Rock, Steamboat Rock, and Scott's Bluff. Farther along on their journey they come to Independence Rock and Devil's Gate on the Sweetwater, one a huge basaltic mound upon which with tar or with iron chisels they would register their names; the other a most unique breach in a granitic range with sides two hundred feet high, through which the Sweetwater flows. A week or two later they w^ould have the exhilarating sense of standing on the backbone of the continent in South Pass, with the towering Wind River Mountains to their right and the Oregon buttes to their left. A few miles on they would drink from the Pacific springs and know they were in what was then called Oregon. Scenery most unique was still before them on their way. Some of it, like the panorama from the divide between the Green and the Bear rivers and the Soda Springs, they would enjoy. But their march from the South Pass on was a retreat. Oxen would fall helpless in their yokes, wagons would become rickety beyond repair. The trail was strewn with wreckage, and the stench from the dead cattle was appalling. The watering places along the Snake were contaminated by the stock that had perished. As soon as they reached the Blue Mountains their stock was safe from starvation, but the exertion required of their way-worn and weak oxen on the steep grades now before them was the last straw often that these creatures now could not bear. They could not let them recruit; the season was as far advanced towards winter; they must press on.

Data for determining the numbers that came across the plains to Oregon during the successive years are as yet very unsatisfactory. The estimates given below for 1842 and 1843 are well founded, but the others, especially from 1847 on, are from no very tangible basis. At the close of 1841 the Americans in Oregon numbered possibly four hundred.

The immigration of 1842 estimated from
105 to 137
The immigration of 1843 estimated from
875 to 1,000
The immigration of 1844 estimated about
The immigration of 1845 estimated about
The immigration of 1846 estimated about

The above figures are taken quite closely from those given by Elwood Evans in his address before the Pioneer Association in 1877. I make the immigration of 1844, however, seven hundred, instead of four hundred and seventy-five, as he gives it.

The immigration of 1847 between
4,000 and 5,000
The immigration of 1848 about
The immigration of 1849 about
The immigration of 1850 about
The immigration of 1851 about
The immigration of 1852 about

No doubt this one summer on the plains was an ordeal under which some sensitive natures were strained and weakened for life. It may be, too, that living for five or six months, as families, on the simplest, barest necessities of life, fixed standards of living lower than they otherwise would have been. The effect, however, on strong, resourceful natures of these months on the plains could not have been other than salutary. The pioneers, when they started, were most distinctively American in their characteristics. As such they needed to be socialized. No better school could have been devised than the organization and regimen of the trip across the plains for socializing their natures.


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16.—The "Three Crossings" of the Sweetwater.