The Souvenir of Western Women/Sketch from the Life of a Pioneer Minister

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REV. J. A. Hanna

Sketch from the Life of a Pioneer Minister


I MARRIED a handsome and accomplished young lady in the city of Pittsburg, Penn., at 6 o'clock a. m., and at 7 of the same day took the advice of Horace Greeley, "Go West, young man, go West." Having advertised for a company to go as a Presbyterian colony to Oregon, we rendezvoused in St. Joseph, Mo., and on the 5th day of May, 1852, we crossed the Missouri River and were on Indian territory. We journeyed continuously, except on the Sabbath day, which we observed religiously, for four and a half months, when we arrived in Oregon City September 20. Here we received our first mail from home. After a welcome rest we resumed our journey up the Willamette Valley, and located in Benton County, thanks to Uncle Sam, who gave us all a farm.

Now comes the home life. We obtained rough lumber at a sawmill ten miles distant and erected our little cottage on the prairie, where we lived without doors or windows for one year. By the fireplace, which, with the chimney, was made of mortar only, the good wife did all of her baking and cooking. But, you ask, what did you have to eat? Flour at $10 per hundred pounds, potatoes at $3 per bushel, beef 25 cents per pound, and butter $1 a pound. Sadder still, we had no money to buy with.

Owing to the generosity of the government in giving such large donation claims, neighbors were remote from each other, but they were kind and obliging. Earlier pioneers remembered that they, too, were pilgrims and strangers, and how much they enjoyed the kindness and assistance given them in time of need, and each newcomer soon learned how to show Western hospitality.

There were a great many old bachelors among the early settlers of the country. They were required to live on their claims to hold them. Lonely and disconsolate, they sighed for the joys and comforts of a real home. The married man could double his possessions, as the government gave the wife also, in her own name, one-half of a section of land. Hence on each fresh arrival of immigrants these anxious bachelors were on the lookout for a fair young lady to share their comforts and increase their possessions. Too often they married in haste and soon parted. And yet, as a rule, marriages were of the type that are made in heaven, each loving pair laboring diligently to build up a permanent and happy home.

We were a contented people, as we should be, holding such possessions in a goodly county, with a mild climate, rich and productive soil, conditions that never fail to produce crops sufficient to meet the demands of every industrious laborer.

Oregon Territory enjoyed the distinction of being a prohibition district. The constitution prohibited the importation, manufacture or traffic of distilled liquors. The saloons had not yet commenced their deadly work. The country was new and healthy; no prevailing epidemic. There were few accidents, and fewer murders. When death did visit a family the neighbors came to their assistance, comforted the bereaved, made the coffin, dug the grave, and conveyed the remains to its final resting place. The minister of the gospel directed the mourners to the true source of all comfort. Thus we assisted and comforted one another without compensation or cost. Now it requires a great deal of money to die and receive a Christian burial.

The first work of the pioneer was to build a house to shelter the family. But soon the schoolhouse was erected, and for lack of churches the ministers preached in the schoolhouses, and very often in the log cabin homes of the people. The different denominations were well represented even in pioneer days and their ministers were intelligent, well educated and godly men devoted to the Master's work. They traveled everywhere on horseback, swam rivers and endured hardships to establish the Christian religion. These brave men continued in their work, organized churches and established and strengthened them.

Soon it became necessary to erect houses of worship, and in this as in all other things the minister must take the lead. Let me give one case as an illustration. The congregation wished to build a house of worship. They insisted that the pastor should head the subscription list, which he did by subscribing 10,0U0 feet of clear lumber from the mountain mills fifteen miles distant (and lumber cost money in those days). Then he hauled all this lumber with his own team when it required twelve hours to make the trip. Also 5,000 feet of lumber was purchased and brought by raft and tied up to the river bank. A call was made for volunteer help to bring the lumber from the river to the church lot. The minister with his team and a merchant of the town alone appeared. They took the lumber and delivered it on the church grounds, and when the work was done they looked more like longshoremen than pastor and merchant. After great sacrifice and long delay the house was finished. The work was all done by hand, as there was not a planing mill or sash and door factory in the country. It was dedicated free from debt, and it yet accommodates a large congregation after nearly a half century's service.

And what sacrifices the minister must make! A church member may be absent from service on account of storm or flood, but never the minister; he must be there, rain or shine. I know one minister who, during the decade from 1850 to 1860, was immersed twelve times, each time having a good horse under him. On one occasion in January, after swimming a stream and being wet to the shoulders, he rode twenty-five miles and preached that night and twice on Sunday in the same wet clothes. And he still lives and loves to tell of the arduous work of those days. Those pioneer ministers frequently traveled two hundred miles on horseback to attend special meetings or conferences, and were of necessity absent from home a great deal. And yet they continued in the work at less than half pay. Many of them have ceased from their labors and entered into their everlasting rest. "Well done, good and faithful servants." A few are yet living, though "honorably retired," and they look back with pleasure on the grand results as they contrast those feeble churches with the strong and well supported ones of the present day, and rejoice in the great things God has done for us on this coast.