Ox-Team Days on the Oregon Trail
Pioneer Life Series
* * * * *
Ox-Team Days on the Oregon Trail
by Ezra Meeker
in collaboration with Howard R. Driggs
Professor of Education in English University of Utah
Illustrated with drawings by F. N. Wilson and with photographs
Yonkers-on-Hudson, New York
World Book Company
WORLD BOOK COMPANY
THE HOUSE OF APPLIED KNOWLEDGE
Established 1905 by Caspar W. Hodgson YONKERS-ON-HUDSON, NEW YORK 2126 PRAIRIE AVENUE, CHICAGO
The Oregon Trail—what suggestion the name carries of the heroic toil of pioneers! Yet a few years' ago the route of the trail was only vaguely known. Then public interest was awakened by the report that one of the very men who had made the trip to Oregon in the old days was traversing the trail once more, moving with ox team and covered wagon from his home in the state of Washington, and marking the old route as he went. The man with the ox team was Ezra Meeker. He went on to the capital, where Mr. Roosevelt, then President, met him with joy. Then he traversed the long trail once more with team and wagon—back to that Northwest which he had so long made his home. This book gives Mr. Meeker's story of his experiences on the Oregon Trail when it was new, and again when, advanced in years, he retraced the journey of his youth that Americans might ever know where led the footsteps of the pioneers. The publication of this book in its Pioneer Life Series carries forward one of the cherished purposes of World Book Company—to supply as a background to the study of American history interesting and authentic narratives based on the personal experiences of brave men and women who helped to push the frontier of our country across the continent.
Copyright 1922 by World Book Company Copyright in Great Britain All rights reserved PRINTED IN U. S. A.
AN INTRODUCTION TO THE AUTHOR
OUT in the state of Washington recently, a veteran of more than ninety years stepped into an aeroplane with the mail pilot and flew from Seattle to Victoria in British Columbia, and back again. The aged pioneer took the trip with all the zest of youth and returned enthusiastic over the adventure.
This youthful veteran was Ezra Meeker, of Oregon Trail fame, who throughout his long, courageous, useful life has ever kept in the vanguard of progress. Seventy years ago he became one of the trail-blazers of the Farther West. In 1852, with his young wife and child, he made the hazardous journey over plains and mountains all the way from Iowa to Oregon by ox team. Then, after fifty-four years of struggle in helping to develop the country beyond the Cascades, this undaunted pioneer decided to reblaze the almost lost Oregon Trail.
An old "prairie schooner" was rebuilt, and a yoke of sturdy oxen was trained to make the trip. With one companion and a faithful dog, the veteran started out. It took nearly two years, but the ox-team journey from Washington, the state, to Washington, our national capital, was finally accomplished.
The chief purpose of Mr. Meeker in this enterprise was to induce people to mark the famous old highway. To him it represented a great battle ground in our nation's struggle to win and hold the West. The story of the Oregon Trail, he rightly felt, is an American epic which must be preserved. Through his energy and inspiration and the help of thousands of loyal men and women, school boys and school girls, substantial monuments have now been placed along the greater part of the old pioneer way.
Two years ago it was my privilege to meet the author in his home city. Our mutual interest in pioneer stories brought us together in an effort to preserve some of them, and several days were spent in talking over the old times and visiting historic spots.
Everywhere we went there was a glowing welcome for "Father Meeker," as he was called by some of his home folks, while "Uncle Ezra" was the name used affectionately by others. The ovation given him when he arose to speak to the teachers and students of the high school in Puyallup—the city he founded—was evidence of the high regard in which he is held by those who know him best.
Other boys and girls and older folk all over the country would enjoy meeting Ezra Meeker and hearing of his experiences. Since this is not possible, the record of what he has seen and done is given to us in this little volume.
The book makes the story of the Oregon Trail live again. This famous old way to the West was traced in the beginning by wild animals—the bear, the elk, the buffalo, the soft-footed wolf, and the coyote. Trailing after these animals in quest of food and skins, came the Indians. Then followed the fur-trading mountaineers, the home-seeking pioneers, the gold seekers, the soldiers, and the cowboys. Now railroad trains, automobiles, and even aeroplanes go whizzing along over parts of the old highway.
Every turn in the Trail holds some tale of danger and daring or romance. Most of the stories have been forever lost in the passing away of those who took part in this ox-team migration across our continent. For that reason the accounts that have been saved are the more precious.
Ezra Meeker has done a signal service for our country in reblazing the Oregon Trail. He has accomplished an even greater work in helping to humanize our history and vitalize the geography of our land, by giving to us, through this little volume, a vivid picture of the heroic pioneering of the Farther West.
HOWARD R. DRIGGS
INTRODUCTION TO THE AUTHOR v
PART ONE—FROM OHIO TO THE COAST
1. BACK TO BEGINNINGS 1
2. BOYHOOD DAYS IN OLD INDIANA 9
3. LEAVING THE HOME NEST FOR IOWA 15
4. TAKING THE TRAIL FOR OREGON 21
5. THE WESTWARD RUSH 33
6. THE PIONEER ARMY OF THE PLAINS 38
7. INDIANS AND BUFFALOES ON THE PLAINS 43
8. TRAILING THROUGH THE MOUNTAIN LAND 49
9. REACHING THE END OF THE TRAIL 57
PART TWO—SETTLING IN THE NORTHWEST COUNTRY
10. GETTING A NEW START IN THE NEW LAND 69
11. HUNTING FOR ANOTHER HOME SITE 78
12. CRUISING ABOUT ON PUGET SOUND 86
13. MOVING FROM THE COLUMBIA TO PUGET SOUND 99
14. MESSAGES AND MESSENGERS 106
15. BLAZING THE WAY THROUGH NATCHESS PASS 115
16. CLIMBING THE CASCADE MOUNTAINS 122
17. FINDING MY PEOPLE 128
18. INDIAN WAR DAYS 135
19. THE STAMPEDE FOR THE GOLD DIGGINGS 141
20. MAKING A PERMANENT HOME IN THE WILDS 146
21. FINDING AND LOSING A FORTUNE 154
22. TRYING FOR A FORTUNE IN ALASKA 160
PART THREE—RETRACING THE OLD OREGON TRAIL
23. A PLAN FOR A MEMORIAL TO THE PIONEERS 165
24. ON THE OVERLAND TRAIL AGAIN 177
25. TRAILING ON TO THE SOUTH PASS 185
26. REVIVING OLD MEMORIES OF THE TRAIL 195
27. A BIT OF BAD LUCK 204
28. DRIVING ON TO THE CAPITAL 212
29. THE END OF THE LONG TRAIL 219
THE WORLD'S GREATEST TRAIL
WORN deep and wide by the migration of three hundred thousand people, lined by the graves of twenty thousand dead, witness of romance and tragedy, the Oregon Trail is unique in history and will always be sacred to the memories of the pioneers. Reaching the summit of the Rockies upon an evenly distributed grade of eight feet to the mile, following the watercourse of the River Platte and tributaries to within two miles of the summit of the South Pass, through the Rocky Mountain barrier, descending to the tidewaters of the Pacific, through the Valleys of the Snake and the Columbia, the route of the Oregon Trail points the way for a great National Highway from the Missouri River to Puget Sound: a roadway of greatest commercial importance, a highway of military preparedness, a route for a lasting memorial to the pioneers, thus combining utility and sentiment.
FROM OHIO TO THE COAST
This map shows the main divisions of North America as they were when Ezra Meeker was born. The shading in the Arctic region shows how much there was still for the explorers to discover.
The Oregon Country is shown as part of the United States, although the whole region was in dispute between the United States and Great Britain. In the United States itself the settled part of the country was east of the dotted line that runs from Lake Ontario to the Gulf of Mexico. West of this line was the Indian country, with only a few forts as outposts of settlement. Several territories had been organized, but Oregon, Missouri, and Nebraska were little more than names for vast undetermined regions.
BACK TO BEGINNINGS
I WAS born in Huntsville, Butler County, Ohio, on December 29, 1830. That was, at this writing, more than ninety years ago.
My father's ancestors came from England in 1637. In 1665 they settled near Elizabeth City, New Jersey, building there a very substantial house which stood till almost 1910. More than a score of hardy soldiers from this family fought for the Colonies in the War of Independence. They were noted for their stalwart strength, steady habits, and patriotic ardor.
Both my parents were sincere, though not austere, Christian people. Father inherited to the full the sturdy traits of his ancestors. I well remember that for three years, during our life in Indiana, he worked eighteen hours a day as a miller. For this hard service he received only twenty dollars a month and bran for the cow. Yet out of the ordeal he came seemingly as strong and healthy as when he entered it.
My mother's maiden name was Phoebe Baker. English and Welsh strains of blood ran in her veins. Her father settled in Butler County, Ohio, in the year 1804, or thereabouts. My mother, like my father, could and did endure continuous long hours of severe labor without much discomfort. I have known her frequently to patch and mend our clothing until very late at night, and yet she would invariably be up in the morning by four to resume her labors.
Small wonder that with such parents and with such early surroundings I am able to say that for fifty-eight years I was never sick in bed a single day. I, too, have endured long hours of labor during my whole life, and I can truthfully say that I have always liked to do my work and that I never watched for the sun to go down to relieve me from the burden of labor. My mother said I was "always the busiest young 'un" she ever saw, by which she meant that I was restless from the beginning—born so.
According to the best information obtainable, I was born in a log cabin, where the fireplace was nearly as wide as the cabin. The two doors on opposite sides permitted the horse, dragging the backlog, to enter at one and then to go out at the other. Of course, the solid floor of split logs defied injury from such treatment.
The skillet and the Dutch oven were used instead of the cook stove to bake the pone or johnny cake, to parch the corn, or to fry the venison which was then obtainable in the wilds of Ohio.
A curtain at the farther end of the cabin marked the confines of a bedchamber for the "old folks." The older children climbed the ladder nailed to the wall to get to the loft floored with loose clapboards that rattled when trodden upon. The straw beds were so near the roof that the patter of the rain made music to the ear, and the spray of the falling water would often baptize the "tow-heads" left uncovered.
Our diet was simple, and the mush pot was a great factor in our home life. A large, heavy iron pot was hung on the crane in the chimney corner, where the mush would slowly bubble and sputter over or near a bed of oak coals for half the afternoon. And such mush!—always made from yellow corn meal and cooked three hours or more. This, eaten with plenty of fresh, rich milk, furnished the supper for the children. Tea? Not to be thought of. Sugar? It was too expensive—cost fifteen to eighteen cents a pound, and at a time when it took a week's labor to earn as much money as a day's labor would earn now. Cheap molasses we had sometimes, but not often, meat not more than once a day, but eggs in abundance.
Everything father had to sell was low-priced, while everything mother must buy at the store was high. Wheat brought twenty-five cents a bushel; corn, fifteen cents; pork, two and two and a half cents a pound, with bacon sometimes used as fuel by reckless, racing steamboat captains of the Ohio and Mississippi.
My earliest recollection, curiously enough, is of my schoolboy days, although I had so few. I was certainly not five years old when a drunken, brutal teacher undertook to spank me because I did not speak a word plainly. That is the first fight of which I have any recollection. I could hardly remember that but for the witnesses, one of them my oldest brother, who saw the struggle. My teeth, he said, did excellent work and drew blood quite freely.
What a spectacle—a half-drunken teacher maltreating his pupils! But then, that was the time before a free school system. It was the time when even the parson would not hesitate to take a "wee drop," and when, if the decanter was not on the sideboard, the jug and gourd served as well in the field or in the house. In our neighborhood, to harvest without whisky in the field was not to be thought of; nobody ever heard of a log-rolling or barn-raising without whisky. Be it said to the everlasting honor of my father, that he set himself firmly against the practice. He said his grain should rot in the field before he would supply whisky to his harvest hands. I have only one recollection of ever tasting any alcoholic liquor in my boyhood days.
I did, however, learn to smoke when very young. It came about in this way. My mother always smoked, as far back as I can remember. Women smoked in those days, as well as men, and nothing was thought of it. Well, that was before the time of matches,—leastwise, it was a time when it was necessary to economize in their use,—and mother, who was a corpulent woman, would send me to put a coal in her pipe. I would take a whiff or two, just to get it started, you know, and this soon developed into the habit of lingering to keep it going. But let me be just to myself. More than forty years ago I threw away my pipe and have never smoked since, and never will smoke again.
My next recollection of school days was after father had moved to Lockland, Ohio, then ten miles north of Cincinnati. It is now, I presume, a suburb of that city. I played hooky instead of going to school; but one day, while I was under the canal bridge, the noise of passing teams so frightened me that I ran home and betrayed myself. Did my mother whip me? Bless her dear soul, no! Whipping of children, both at home and in the school-room, was then about as common as eating one's breakfast; but the family government of my parents was exceptional for that time, for they did not think it was necessary to rule by the rod.
Because my mind did not run to school work and because my disposition was restless, my mother allowed me to work at odd jobs for pay instead of compelling me to attend school. This cut down my actual school days to less than six months. It was, to say the least, a dangerous experiment, and one to be undertaken only by a mother who knew her child better than any other person could. I do not by any means advise other mothers to adopt such a course.
In those days apprenticeship was quite common. It was not thought to be a disgrace for a boy to be "bound out" until he was twenty-one, especially if he was to be learning a trade. Father took a notion he would bind me out to a Mr. Arthens, the mill owner at Lockland, who was childless, and one day he took me with him to talk it over. When asked, finally, how I should like the change, I promptly replied that it would be all right if Mrs. Arthens would "do up my sore toes," whereupon there was such an outburst of merriment that I never forgot it. We must remember that boys in those days did not wear shoes in summer, and quite often not in winter either. But mother put an end to the whole matter by saying that the family must not be divided, and it was not.
Our pioneer home was full of love and helpfulness. My mother expected each child to work as well as to play. We were trained to take our part at home. The labor was light, to be sure, but it was service, and it brought happiness into our lives. For, after all, that home is happiest where every one helps.
Our move to Indiana was a very important event in my boyhood days. This move was made during the autumn of 1839, when I was nine years old. I vividly remember the trip, for I walked every step of the way from Lockland, Ohio, to Attica, Indiana, about two hundred miles.
There was no room in the heavily laden wagon for me or for my brother Oliver, aged eleven. It was piled so high with household goods that little space was left even for mother and the two babies, one yet in arms. But we lads did not mind riding on "Shank's ponies."
The horses walked so briskly that we had to stick to business to keep up with them. We did find time, though, to throw a few stones at the frisky squirrels, or to kill a garter snake, or to gather some flowers for mother and the little ones, or to watch the redheaded woodpeckers hammering at the trees. The journey was full of interest for two lively boys.
Our appearance was what might well be called primitive, for we went barefooted and wore "tow pants" and checkered "linsey-woolsey" shirts, with a strip of cloth for "galluses," as suspenders were at that time called. Little did we think or care about appearance, bent as we were on having a good time—and that we surely had.
One dreary stretch of swamp that kept us on the corduroy road behind the jolting wagon I remember well; this was near Crawfordsville, Indiana. It is now gone, the corduroy and the timber as well. In their places great barns and comfortable houses dot the landscape as far as the eye can reach.
One habit that we boys acquired on that trip stuck to us all our lives, until the brother was lost at sea. When we followed behind the wagon, as we did part of the time, each took the name of the horse on his side of the road. I was "Tip," on the off side; while brother was "Top," on the near side. Tip and Top, a span of big, fat, gray horses that would run away "at the drop of the hat," were something to be proud of. This habit of Oliver's walking on the near side and my walking on the off continued for years and through many a mile of travel.
BOYHOOD DAYS IN OLD INDIANA
WHEN we reached Indiana we settled down on a rented farm. Times were hard with us, and for a season all the members of the household were called upon to contribute their mite. I drove four yoke of oxen for twenty-five cents a day, and during part of the time boarded at home at that. This was on the Wabash, where oak grubs grew, my father often said, "as thick as hair on a dog's back;" but they were really not so thick as that.
We used to force the big plowshare through and cut grubs as big as my wrist. When we saw a patch of them ahead, I would halloo and shout at the poor oxen and lay on the whip; but father wouldn't let me swear at them. Let me say here that I later discontinued this foolish fashion of driving, and always talked to my oxen in a conversational tone and used the whip sparingly.
That reminds me of an experience I had later, in the summer when I was nineteen. Uncle John Kinworthy—a good soul he was, and an ardent Quaker—lived neighbor to us in Bridgeport, Indiana. One day I went to his house with three yoke of oxen to haul into place a heavy beam for a cider-press. The oxen had to be driven through the front dooryard in full sight and hearing of Uncle John's wife and three buxom Quaker girls, who either stood in the door or poked their heads out of the window.
The cattle would not go through the front yard past those girls. They kept doubling back, first on one side and then on the other. Uncle Johnny, noticing that I did not swear at the cattle, and attributing the absence of oaths to the presence of ladies, or maybe thinking, like a good many others, that oxen could not be driven without swearing at them, sought an opportunity, when the mistress of the house could not hear him, to say in a low tone, "If thee can do any better, thee had better let out the word."
My father, though a miller by trade, early taught me some valuable lessons about farming that I never forgot. We—I say "we" advisedly, as father continued to work in the mill and left me in charge of the farm—soon brought the run-down farm to the point where it produced twenty-three bushels of wheat to the acre instead of ten, by the rotation of corn and clover and then wheat. But there was no money in farming at the prices then prevailing, and the land for which father paid ten dollars an acre would not yield a rental equal to the interest on the money. The same land has recently sold for six hundred dollars an acre.
For a time I worked in the Journal printing office for S. V. B. Noel, who published a Free Soil paper. A part of my duty was to deliver the papers to subscribers. They treated me civilly, but when I was caught in the streets of Indianapolis with the Free Soil papers in my hand I was sure of abuse from some one, and a number of times narrowly escaped personal violence from the pro-slavery people.
In the office I was known as the "devil," a term that annoyed me not a little. I worked with Wood, the pressman, as a roller boy, and in the same room was a power press, the power being a stalwart negro who turned a crank. Wood and I used to race with the power press, and then I would fly the sheets,—that is, take them off, when printed, with one hand and roll the type with the other. This so pleased Noel that he advanced my wages to a dollar and a half a week.
One of the subscribers to whom I delivered that anti-slavery paper was Henry Ward Beecher, then pastor of the Congregational Church that faced the Governor's Circle. At that time he had not attained the fame that came to him later in life. I became attached to him because of his kind manner and the gentle words he always found time to give me.
One episode of my life at this time I remember because I thought my parents were in the wrong. Vocal music was taught in singing school, which was conducted almost as regularly as were the day schools. I was passionately fond of music. Before the change of my voice came I had a fine alto voice and was a leader in my part of the class. This fact coming to the notice of the trustees of Beecher's church, an effort was made to have me join the choir. Mother first objected, because my clothes were not good enough. Then an offer was made to clothe me suitably and pay me something besides. And now father objected, because he did not want me to listen to preaching of a sect other than that to which he belonged. The incident set me to thinking, and finally drove me, young as I was, into a more liberal faith, though I dared not openly espouse it.
Another incident that occurred while I was working in the printing office I have remembered vividly all these years. During the campaign of 1844, the Whigs held a gathering on the Tippecanoe battle ground. It could hardly be called a convention; a better name for it would be a political camp meeting. The people came in wagons, on horseback, afoot—any way to get there—and camped, just as people used to do at religious camp meetings.
The journeymen printers of the Journal office planned to go in a covered wagon, and they offered to make a place for the "devil" if his parents would let him go along. This was speedily arranged with mother, who always took charge of such matters. When the proposition came to Noel's ears, he asked the men to print me some campaign songs. This they did with a will, Wood running them off the press after the day's work while I rolled the type for him.
My, wasn't I the proudest boy that ever walked the earth! Visions of a pocketful of money haunted me almost day and night until we arrived on the battle field. But lo and behold, nobody would pay any attention to me! Bands were playing here and there; glee clubs would sing and march, first on one side of the ground and then on the other; processions were parading and crowds surging, making it necessary to look out lest one be run over. Although the rain would pour down in torrents, the marching and countermarching went on all the same and continued for a week.
An elderly journeyman printer named May, who in a way stood sponsor for our party, told me that if I would get up on the fence and sing the songs, the people would buy them. Sure enough, when I stood up and sang the crowds came, and I sold every copy I had. I went home with eleven dollars in my pocket, the richest boy on earth.
In the year 1845 a letter came from Grandfather Baker in Ohio to my mother, saying that he would give her a thousand dollars with which to buy a farm. The burning question with my father and mother was how to get the money out from Ohio to Indiana. They actually went in a covered wagon to Ohio for it and hauled it home, all silver, in a box. This silver was nearly all foreign coin. Prior to that time but a few million dollars had been coined by the United States Government.
Grandfather Baker had accumulated his money by marketing small things in Cincinnati, twenty-five miles distant. I have heard my mother tell of going to market on horseback with grandfather many times, carrying eggs, butter, and even live chickens on the horse she rode. Grandfather would not go into debt, so he lived on his farm a long time without a wagon. He finally became so wealthy that he was reputed to have a barrel of money—silver, of course. Out of this store came the thousand dollars that he gave mother. It took nearly a whole day to count the money. At least one of nearly every coin from every nation on earth seemed to be there, and the "tables" had to be consulted in computing the value.
I was working on the Journal at the time when the farm was bought, but it seemed that I was not cut out for a printer. My inclinations ran more to open-air life, so father placed me on the farm as soon as the purchase was made and left me in full charge of the work there, while he gave his time to milling. Be it said that I early turned my attention to the girls as well as to the farm and married young, before I reached the age of twenty-one. This truly was a fortunate venture, for my wife and I lived happily together for fifty-eight years.
LEAVING THE HOME NEST FOR IOWA
IN the early '50's there lived near Indianapolis two young people. Their fathers were old-time farmers, keeping no "hired man" and buying very little "store goods." The girl could spin and weave, make delicious butter, knit soft, well-shaped socks, and cook as good a meal as any other country girl around. She was, withal, as buxom a lass as ever grew in Indiana. The young man was a little uncouth in appearance, round-faced, rather stout in build—almost fat. He loved to hunt possums and coons in the woods round about. He was a little boisterous, always restless, and not especially polished in manners. Yet he had at least one redeeming trait of character: he loved to work and was known to be as industrious a lad as any in the neighborhood.
These two young people grew up to the age of manhood and womanhood, knowing but little of the world outside their home sphere. Who can say that they were not as happy as if they had seen the whole world? Had they not experienced the joys of the sugar camp while "stirring off" the lively, creeping maple sugar? Both had been thumped upon the bare head by the falling hickory nuts in windy weather; had hunted the black walnuts half hidden in the leaves; had scraped the ground for the elusive beechnuts. They had ventured to apple parings together when not yet out of their 'teens.
"I'm going to be a farmer when I get married," the lad quite abruptly said to the lass one day, without any previous conversation to lead up to the statement.
His companion showed by her confusion that she had not mistaken what was in his mind. After a while she remarked, "Yes, I want to be a farmer too. But I want to be a farmer on our own land."
Two bargains were confirmed then and there when the lad said, "We will go West and not live on pap's farm," and she responded, "Nor in the old cabin, nor any cabin unless it's our own."
So the resolution was made that they would go to Iowa, get some land, and grow up with the country.
About the first week of October, in 1851, a covered wagon drew up in front of Thomas Sumner's house, then but four miles out from Indianapolis on the National Road. It was ready to be loaded for the start.
Eliza Jane, Thomas Sumner's second daughter, the lass already described, was now the wife of the young man mentioned (the author). She also was ready for the journey. She had prepared supplies enough to last all the way,—cake and butter and pumpkin pies, jellies and the like, with plenty of substantials besides. The two young people had plenty of blankets, a good-sized Dutch oven, an extra pair of shoes apiece, cloth for two dresses for the wife, and an extra pair of trousers for the husband.
Tears could not be restrained as the loading progressed and the realization faced the parents of both that the young people were about to leave them.
"Why, mother, we are only going to Iowa, you know, where we can get a home that shall be our own. It's not so far away—only about five hundred miles."
"Yes, I know, but suppose you get sick in that uninhabited country; who will take care of you?"
Notwithstanding this motherly solicitude, the young people could not fail to know that there was a secret feeling of approval in the good woman's breast. After a few miles' travel the reluctant final parting came. We could not then know that this loved parent would lay down her life a few years later in a heroic attempt to follow the wanderers to Oregon. She rests in an unknown and unmarked grave in the Platte valley.
What shall I say of that October drive from the home near Indianapolis to Eddyville, Iowa, in the delightful atmosphere of Indian summer? It was an atmosphere of hope and content. We had the wide world before us; we had good health; and above all we had each other.
At this time but one railroad entered Indianapolis—it would be called a tramway now—from Madison on the Ohio River. When we cut loose from that embryo city we left railroads behind us, except where rails were laid crosswise in the wagon track to keep the wagon out of the mud. No matter if the road was rough—we could go a little slower, and shouldn't we have a better appetite for supper because of the jolting, and sleep the sounder? Everything in the world looked bright.
The great Mississippi was crossed at Burlington. After a few days of further driving, we arrived at Eddyville, in Iowa. Though we did not realize it at the time, this was destined to be only a place to winter, a way station on our route to Oregon.
My first introduction to an Iowa winter was in a surveyor's camp on the western borders of the state. This was a little north of Kanesville, now Council Bluffs. I began as cook for the camp, but very soon changed this position for that of flagman.
If there are any settlers now left of the Iowa of that day, they will remember that the winter was bitter cold. On the way back from the surveying party to Eddyville, just before Christmas, I encountered one of the bitterest of those bitter days.
A companion named Vance rested with me overnight in a cabin. We had scant food for ourselves or for the mare we led. It was thirty-five miles to the next cabin; we must reach that place or lie out in the snow. So a very early start was made before daybreak, while the wind lay. The good woman of the cabin baked us some biscuits for a noon lunch, but they were frozen solid in our pockets before we had been out two hours. The wind rose with the sun, and with the sun two bright sun dogs—a beautiful sight to behold, but arising from conditions intolerable to bear. Vance came near freezing to death, and would have done so had I not succeeded in arousing him to anger and getting him off the mare.
I vowed then and there that I did not like the Iowa climate, and the Oregon fever that had already seized me was heightened. The settlement of the northern boundary by treaty in 1846 had ended the dispute between the United States and Great Britain for ownership of the region north of the Columbia. As a consequence, American settlers were beginning to cross the Columbia in numbers, and stories were coming back of the wonderful climate, the rich soil, and the wealth of lumber. The Oregon Country of that day included the present states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.
It was a special consideration for us that if we went to Oregon the government would give us three hundred and twenty acres of land, whereas in Iowa we should have to purchase it. The price would be low, to be sure, but the land must be bought and paid for on the spot. There were no preemption laws or beneficial homestead laws in force then, nor did they come until many years later.
But what about going to Oregon when springtime came? An event was pending that rendered a positive decision impossible for the moment. It was not until the first week of April, 1852, when our first-born baby boy was a month old, that we could say we were going to Oregon in 1852. It would be a long, hard journey for such a little fellow, but as it turned out, he stood it like a young hero.
TAKING THE TRAIL FOR OREGON
WHEN we drove out of Eddyville, headed for the Oregon Country, our train consisted of but one wagon, two yoke of four-year old steers, and one yoke of cows. We also had one extra cow. This cow was the only animal we lost on the whole journey; she strayed away in the river bottom before we crossed the Missouri.
Now as to the members of our little party. William Buck, who had joined us as partner for the expedition, was a man six years my senior. He had had some experience on the Plains, and he knew what outfit was needed; but he had little knowledge in regard to a team of cattle. He was an impulsive man, and to some extent excitable; yet withal a man of excellent judgment and honest as God makes men. No lazy bones occupied a place in Buck's body. He was scrupulously neat and cleanly in all his ways; courteous to every one; always in good humor and always looking upon the bright side of things. A better trail mate could not have been found.
Buck's skill in camp work and his lack of ability to handle the team naturally settled the division of the work between us. It was he who selected the outfit to go into the wagon, while I fitted up the wagon and bought the team. We had butter packed in the center of the flour, which was in double sacks; eggs packed in corn meal or flour, enough to last us nearly five hundred miles; fruit in abundance, and dried pumpkins; a little jerked beef, not too salt. Last though not least, there was a demijohn of brandy "for medicinal purposes only," as Buck said, with a merry twinkle of the eye.
The little wife had prepared the homemade yeast cake which she knew so well how to make and dry, and we had light bread to eat all the way across. We baked the bread in a tin reflector instead of the heavy Dutch oven so much in use on the Plains.
The butter in part melted and mingled with the flour, yet it did not matter much, as the "shortcake" that resulted made us almost glad the mishap had occurred. Besides, did we not have plenty of fresh butter, from the milk of our own cows, churned every day in the can by the jostling of the wagon? Then the buttermilk! What a luxury! I shall never, as long as I live, forget the shortcake and corn bread, the puddings and pumpkin pies, and above all the buttermilk.
As we gradually crept out on the Plains and saw the sickness due to improper food, or in some cases to its improper preparation, it was borne in upon me how blessed I was, with such a trail partner as Buck and such a life partner as my wife. Some trains were without fruit, and most of them depended upon saleratus for raising their bread. Many had only fat bacon for meat until the buffalo supplied a change; and no doubt much of the sickness attributed to the cholera was caused by bad diet.
I am willing to claim credit to myself for the team, every hoof of which reached the Coast in safety. Four steers and two cows were sufficient for our light wagon and the light outfit, not a pound of which but was useful (except the brandy) and necessary for our comfort. I had chosen steers that had never been under the yoke, though plenty of broken-in oxen could have been had, generally of that class that had been broken in spirit as well as to the yoke.
The ox has had much to do with the settlement of the country. The pioneers could take care of an ox team in a new settlement so much cheaper than a horse team that this fact alone would have been conclusive; but aside from this, oxen were better for the work in the clearings or for breaking up the vast stretches of wild prairie sod. We used to work four or five yoke to the plow, and when dark came we unhitched and turned them on the unbroken sod to pasture for the night.
I have often been asked how old an ox will live to be. I never knew of a yoke over fourteen years old, but I once heard of one that lived to be twenty-four.
On the Plains, oxen were better than horses for getting their feed and fording streams. There was another advantage, and a very important one, to oxen: the Indians could not run them off at night as easily as they could horses.
The first day's drive out from Eddyville was a short one. When we got to plodding along over the Plains, we made from fifteen to twenty miles a day. That was counted a good day's drive, without unusual accidents or delays.
As I now remember, this was the only day on the entire trip when the cattle were allowed to stand in the yoke at noontime, while the owners lunched and rested. When it was near nightfall we made our first camp. Buck excitedly insisted that we must not unyoke the cattle.
"What shall we do?" I asked. "They can't live in the yoke always."
"Yes, but if you unyoke here you will never catch them again," he said.
One word brought on another until we were almost in a dispute, when a stranger, Thomas McAuley, who was camped near by, stepped in. He said his own cattle were gentle; there were three men of his party, and they would help us yoke up in the morning. I gratefully accepted his offer and unyoked, and we had no trouble in starting off the next morning. After that, never a word with the least semblance of contention to it passed between Buck and me.
Scanning McAuley's outfit in the morning, I was quite troubled to start out with him. His teams, principally cows, were light, and they were thin in flesh; his wagons were apparently light and as frail as the teams. But I soon found that his outfit, like ours, carried no extra weight, and he knew how to care for a team. He was, besides, an obliging neighbor, which was fully demonstrated on many trying occasions, as we traveled in company for more than a thousand miles, until his road to California parted from ours at the big bend of the Bear River.
Of the trip through Iowa little remains to be said further than that the grass was thin and washy, the roads muddy and slippery, and the weather execrable, although May had been ushered in long before we reached the little Mormon town of Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), a few miles above the place where we were to cross the Missouri River. Here my brother Oliver joined us, having come from Indianapolis with old-time comrades and friends. Now, with the McAuleys and Oliver's party, we mustered a train of five wagons.
It was here at Kanesville that the last purchases were made, the last letter sent back to anxious friends. Once across the Missouri and headed westward, we should have to cross the Rocky Mountains to find a town again.
We had now come to the beginning of the second stage of our long journey. We had reached the Missouri River. From the western bank of the river we should strike out across the Plains, through what is now Nebraska and Wyoming, to the crest of the continent. We should follow the ox-team trail along the north bank of the Platte, and then up the north fork of the Platte to the mountains. But first we must get across the Missouri.
"What on earth is that?" exclaimed one of the women, as we approached the landing for the ferry which crossed the river to a point a few miles below where Omaha now stands.
"It looks for all the world like a big white flatiron," answered another.
[Illustration: On this page and the following are shown the main trails that stretched across the continent, west of the Missouri, in the years before the building of railroads. The Oregon Trail from Kanesville to Portland is marked with the heaviest line. The lighter line from Huntsville to Kanesville shows Ezra Meeker's early travels; this marks not a trail but a main-traveled road. People starting out from St. Louis for the Oregon Country went by way of the Santa Fe Trail about as far as Fort Leavenworth, then northwest to Fort Kearney on the Platte River, where they joined the trail from Kanesville. The Santa Fe Trail was the earliest trail to be made; trading expeditions had gone from St. Louis to Santa Fe since the early 1800's. The California Trail and the Oregon Trail are the same as far as the big bend of the Bear River, at which point the California Trail goes off to the southwest.]
We drivers had little time for looking and for making comparisons. All our attention had to be given to our teams, for as we neared the landing we found the roads terribly cut up on account of the concentrated travel.
It was indeed a sight long to be remembered. The "white flatiron" proved to be wagons with their tongues pointing to the landing. A center train with other parallel trains extended back in the rear, gradually covering a wider range the farther back from the river it went. Several hundred wagons were thus closely interlocked, completely blocking the approach to the landing.
All about were camps of every kind, some without any covering at all, others with comfortable tents. Nearly everybody appeared to be intent on merrymaking, and the fiddlers and dancers were busy; but here and there were small groups engaged in devotional services. These camps contained the outfits, in great part, of the wagons in line; some of them had been there for two weeks with still no prospect of securing an early crossing. Two scows only were engaged in crossing the wagons and teams.
The muddy waters of the Missouri had already swallowed up two victims. On the first day we were there, I saw a third victim go under the drift of a small island within sight of his shrieking wife. The stock had rushed to one side of the boat, submerging the gunwale, and had precipitated the whole load into the dangerous river. One yoke of oxen that had reached the farther shore deliberately reentered the river with a heavy yoke on, and swam to the Iowa side; there they were finally saved by the helping hands of the assembled emigrants.
"What shall we do?" was the question passed around in our party, without answer. Tom McAuley was not yet looked upon as a leader, as was the case later.
"Build a boat," said his sister Margaret, a most determined maiden lady, the oldest of the party and as resolute and brave as the bravest.
But of what should we build it? While a search for material was being made, one of our party, who had got across the river in search of timber, discovered a scow, almost completely buried, on the sandpit opposite the landing. The report seemed too good to be true.
The next thing to do was to find the owner. We discovered him eleven miles down the river.
"Yes, if you will agree to deliver the boat safely to me after crossing your five wagons and teams, you may have it," said he.
The bargain was closed then and there. My, but that night didn't we make the sand fly from the boat! By morning we could begin to see the end of the job. Then, while busy hands began to cut a landing on the perpendicular sandy bank of the Iowa side, others were preparing sweeps. All was bustle and stir.
Meanwhile it had become noised around that another boat would be put on to ferry people over, and we were besieged with applications from detained emigrants. Finally, the word coming to the ears of the ferrymen, they were foolish enough to undertake to prevent us from crossing without their help. A writ of replevin or some other process was issued,—I never knew exactly what,—directing the sheriff to take possession of the boat when it landed. This he attempted to do.
I never before or since attempted to resist an officer of the law; but when that sheriff put in an appearance and we realized what his coming meant, there wasn't a man in our party that did not run to the nearby camp for his gun. It is needless to add that we did not need to use the guns. As if by magic a hundred other guns came in sight. The sheriff withdrew, and the crossing went on peaceably till all our wagons were safely landed.
We had still another danger to face. We learned that an attempt would be made to take the boat from us, the action being not against us, but against the owner. Thanks to the adroit management of McAuley and my brother Oliver, we were able to fulfill our engagement to deliver the boat safely to the owner.
We were now across the river, and it might almost be said that we had left the United States. When we set foot upon the right bank of the Missouri River we were outside the pale of law. We were within the Indian country, where no organized civil government existed.
Some people and some writers have assumed that on the Plains each man was "a law unto himself" and free to do his own will,—dependent, of course, upon his physical ability to enforce it. Nothing could be farther from the facts than this assumption, as evil-doers soon found out to their discomfort.
It is true that no general organization for law and order was effected on the western side of the river. But the American instinct for fair play and a hearing for everybody prevailed, so that while there was no mob law, the law of self-preservation asserted itself, and the counsels of the level-headed older men prevailed. When an occasion called for action, a "high court" was convened, and woe betide the man that would undertake to defy its mandates after its deliberations were made public!
An incident that occurred in what is now Wyoming, well up on the Sweetwater River, will illustrate the spirit of determination of the sturdy men of the Plains. A murder had been committed, and it was clear that the motive was robbery. The suspected man and his family were traveling along with the moving column. Men who had volunteered to search for the missing man finally found evidence proving the guilt of the person suspected. A council of twelve men was called, and it deliberated until the second day, meanwhile holding the murderer safely.
What were they to do? Here were a wife and four little children depending upon this man for their lives. What would become of his family if justice was meted out to him? Soon there developed an undercurrent of opinion that it was probably better to waive punishment than to endanger the lives of the family; but the council would not be swerved from its resolution. At sundown of the third day the criminal was hanged in the presence of the whole camp. This was not done until ample provision had been made to insure the safety of the family by providing a driver to finish the journey. I came so near to seeing the hanging that I did see the ends of the wagon tongues in the air and the rope dangling therefrom.
From necessity, murder was punishable with death. The penalty for stealing was whipping, which, when inflicted by one of those long ox lashes in the hands of an expert, would bring the blood from the victim's back at every stroke. Minor offenses, or differences generally, were arbitrated. Each party would abide by the decision as if it had come from a court of law. Lawlessness was not common on the Plains. It was less common, indeed, than in the communities from which the great body of the emigrants had been drawn, for punishment was swift and certain.
The greater body of the emigrants formed themselves into large companies and elected captains. These combinations soon began to dissolve and re-form, only to dissolve again, with a steady accompaniment of contentions. I would not enter into any organized company, but neither could I travel alone. By tacit agreement our party and the McAuleys travelled together, the outfit consisting of four wagons and thirteen persons—nine men, three women, and the baby. Yet although we kept apart as a separate unit, we were all the while in one great train, never out of sight and hearing of others. In fact, at times the road would be so full of wagons that all could not travel in one track, and this fact accounts for the double roadbeds seen in so many places on the trail.
THE WESTWARD RUSH
WE crossed the Missouri on the seventeenth and eighteenth of May. The next day we made a short drive, and camped within hearing of the shrill steamboat whistle that resounded far over the prairie.
The whistle announced the arrival of a steamer. This meant that a dozen or more wagons could be carried across the river at a time, and that a dozen or more trips could be made during the day, with as many more at night. Very soon we were overtaken by this throng of wagons. They gave us some troubles, and much discomfort.
The rush for the West was then at its height. The plan of action was to push ahead and make as big a day's drive as possible; hence it is not to be wondered at that nearly all the thousand wagons that crossed the river after we did soon passed us.
"Now, fellers, jist let 'em rush on. If we keep cool, we'll overcatch 'em afore long," said McAuley.
And we did. We passed many a team, broken down as a result of those first few days of rush. People often brought these and other ills upon themselves by their own indiscretion.
The traveling had not progressed far until there came a general outcry against the heavy loads and unnecessary articles. Soon we began to see abandoned property. First it might be a table or a cupboard, or perhaps a bedstead or a cast-iron cookstove. Then feather beds, blankets, quilts, and pillows were seen. Very soon, here and there would be an abandoned wagon; then provisions, stacks of flour and bacon being the most abundant—all left as common property.
It was a case of help yourself if you would; no one would interfere. In some places such a sign was posted,—"Help yourself." Hundreds of wagons were left and hundreds of tons of goods. People seemed to vie with each other in giving away their property. There was no chance to sell, and they disliked to destroy their goods.
Long after the end of the mania for getting rid of goods to lighten loads, the abandonment of wagons continued, as the teams became weaker and the ravages of cholera among the emigrants began to tell. It was then that many lost their heads and ruined their teams by furious driving, by lack of care, and by abuse. There came a veritable stampede—a strife for possession of the road, to see who should get ahead. It was against the rule to attempt to pass a team ahead; a wagon that had withdrawn from the line and stopped beside the trail could get into the line again, but on the march it could not cut ahead of the wagon in front of it. Yet now whole trains would strive, often with bad blood, for the mastery of the trail, one attempting to pass the other. Frequently there were drivers on both sides of the team to urge the poor, suffering brutes forward.
We were on the trail along the north side of the Platte River. The cholera epidemic struck our moving column where the throng from the south side of the Platte began crossing. This, as I recollect, was near where the city of Kearney now stands, about two hundred miles west of the Missouri River.
"What shall we do?" passed from one to another in our little family council.
"Now, fellers," said McAuley, "don't lose your heads, but do jist as you've been doing. You gals, jist make your bread as light as ever, and we'll take river water the same as ever, even if it is most as thick as mud, and boil it."
We had all along refused to dig little wells near the banks of the Platte, as many others did; for we had soon learned that the water obtained was strongly charged with alkali, while the river water was comparatively pure, except for the sediment, so fine as seemingly to be held in solution.
"Keep cool," McAuley continued. "Maybe we'll have to lay down, and maybe not. Anyway, it's no use frettin'. What's to be will be, 'specially if we but help things along."
This homely yet wise counsel fell upon willing ears, as most of us were already of the same mind. We did just as we had been doing, and all but one of our party escaped unharmed.
We had then been in the buffalo country for several days. Some of the young men, keen for hunting, had made themselves sick by getting overheated and drinking impure water. Such was the experience of my brother Oliver. Being of an adventurous spirit, he could not restrain his ardor, gave chase to the buffaloes, and fell sick almost to death.
This occurred just at the time when we encountered the cholera panic. It must be the cholera that had taken hold of him, his companions argued. Some of his party could not delay.
"It is certain death," I said, "to take him along in that condition."
They admitted this to be true.
"Divide the outfit, then," it was suggested.
Two of Oliver's companions, the Davenport brothers, would not leave him; so their portion of the outfit was set aside with his. This gave the three a wagon and a team.
Turning to Buck, I said, "I can't ask you to stay with me."
The answer came back as quick as a flash, "I'm going to stay with you without asking."
And he did, too, though my brother was almost a total stranger to him.
We nursed the sick man for four days amidst scenes of death and excitement such as I hope never again to see. On the fifth day we were able to proceed and to take the convalescent man with us.
The experience of our camp was the experience of hundreds of others: there were countless incidents of friends parting; of desertion; of noble sacrifice; of the revelation of the best and the worst in man.
In a diary of one of these pioneers, I find the following: "Found a family consisting of husband, wife, and four small children, whose cattle we supposed had given out and died. They were here all alone, and no wagon or cattle in sight." They had been thrown out by the owner of a wagon and left on the road to die.
From a nearby page of the same diary, I read: "Here we met Mr. Lot Whitcom, direct from Oregon. Told me a great deal about Oregon. He has provisions, but none to sell; but gives to all he finds in want, and who are unable to buy."
THE PIONEER ARMY OF THE PLAINS
DURING the ox-team days a mighty army of pioneers went West. In the year that we crossed (1852), when the migration was at its height, this army made an unbroken column fully five hundred miles long. We knew by the inscribed dates found on Independence Rock and elsewhere that there were wagons three hundred miles ahead of us, and the throng continued crossing the river for more than a month after we had crossed it.
How many people this army comprised cannot be known; the roll was never called. History has no record of a greater number of emigrants ever making so long a journey as did these pioneers. There must have been three hundred and fifty thousand in the years of the great rush overland, from 1843 to 1857. Careful estimates of the total migration westward from 1843 to 1869, when the first railroad across the continent was completed, make the number nearly half a million.
The animals driven over the Plains during these years were legion. Besides those that labored under the yoke, in harness, and under saddle, there was a vast herd of loose stock. A conservative estimate would be not less than six animals to the wagon, and surely there were three loose animals to each one in the teams. Sixteen hundred wagons passed us while we waited for Oliver to recover. With these teams must have been nearly ten thousand beasts of burden and thirty thousand head of loose stock.
Is it any wonder that the old trail was worn so deep that even now in places it looks like a great canal? At one point near Split Rock, Wyoming, I found the road cut so deep in the solid sandstone that the kingbolt of my wagon dragged on the high center.
The pioneer army was a moving mass of human beings and dumb brutes, at times mixed in inextricable confusion, a hundred feet wide or more. Sometimes two columns of wagons, traveling on parallel lines and near each other, would serve as a barrier to prevent loose stock from crossing; but usually there would be a confused mass of cows, young cattle, horses, and men afoot moving along the outskirts. Here and there would be the drivers of loose stock, some on foot and some on horseback: a young girl, maybe, riding astride and with a younger child behind her, going here and there after an intractable cow, while the mother could be seen in the confusion lending a helping hand. As in a thronged city street, no one seemed to look to the right or to the left, or to pay much attention, if any, to others, all being bent only on accomplishing the task in hand.
The dust was intolerable. In calm weather it would rise so thick at times that the lead team of oxen could not be seen from the wagon. Like a London fog, it seemed thick enough to cut. Then again, the steady flow of wind through the South Pass would hurl the dust and sand like fine hail, sometimes with force enough to sting the face and hands.
Sometimes we had trying storms that would wet us to the skin in no time. One such I remember well, being caught in it while out on watch. The cattle traveled so fast that it was difficult to keep up with them. I could do nothing but follow, as it would have been impossible to turn them. I have always thought of this storm as a cloudburst. Anyhow, in an incredibly short time there was not a dry thread left on me. My boots were as full of water as if I had been wading over boot-top depth, and the water ran through my hat as though it were a sieve. I was almost blinded in the fury of the wind and water. Many tents were leveled by this storm. One of our neighboring trains suffered great loss by the sheets of water on the ground floating away camp equipage, ox yokes, and all loose articles; and they narrowly escaped having a wagon engulfed in the raging torrent that came so unexpectedly upon them.
Fording a river was usually tiresome, and sometimes dangerous. I remember fording the Loup fork of the Platte with a large number of wagons fastened together with ropes or chains, so that if a wagon got into trouble the teams in front would help to pull it out. The quicksand would cease to sustain the wheels so suddenly that the wagon would drop a few inches with a jolt, and up again the wheel would come as new sand was struck; then down again it would go, up and down, precisely as if the wagons were passing over a rough corduroy road that "nearly jolted the life out of us," as the women folks said after it was over, and no wonder, for the river at this point was half a mile wide.
Many of the pioneers crossed rivers in their wagon boxes and very few lost their lives in doing so. The difference between one of these prairie-schooner wagon boxes and that of a scow-shaped, flat-bottomed boat is that the wagon box has the ribs on the outside, while in a boat they are on the inside.
The number of casualties in that army of emigrants I hesitate to guess at. Shall we say that ten per cent fell on the way? Many old plainsmen would think that estimate too low; yet ten per cent would give us five thousand lives as one year's toll paid for the peopling of the Oregon Country. Mrs. Cecilia McMillen Adams, late of Hillsboro, Oregon, kept a painstaking diary when she crossed the Plains in 1852. She counted the graves passed and noted down the number. In this diary, published in full by the Oregon Pioneer Association, I find the following entries:
June 14. Passed seven new-made graves. June 16. Passed eleven new graves. June 17. Passed six new graves. June 18. We have passed twenty-one new graves today. June 19. Passed thirteen graves today. June 20. Passed ten graves. June 21. No report. June 22. Passed seven graves. If we should go by the camping grounds, we should see five times as many graves as we do.
This report of Mrs. Adams's, coupled with the facts that a parallel column from which we have no report was traveling up the south side of the river, and that the outbreak of cholera had taken place originally in this column coming from the southeast, fully confirms the estimate of five thousand deaths on the Plains in 1852. It is probably under rather than over the actual number.
To the emigrants the fact that all the graves were new-made brought an added touch of sadness. The graves of previous years had disappeared, leveled by the storms of wind or rain, by the hoofs of the stock, or possibly by ravages of the hungry wolf. Many believed that the Indians had robbed the graves for the clothing on the bodies. Whatever the cause, all, or nearly all, graves of previous years were lost, and we knew that the last resting places of those that we might leave behind would also be lost by the next year.
One of the incidents that made a profound impression upon the minds of all was the meeting with eleven wagons returning, and not a man left in the entire train. All the men had died and had been buried on the way, and the women and children were returning to their homes alone from a point well up on the Platte, below Fort Laramie. The difficulties of the return trip were multiplied on account of the throng moving westward. How those women succeeded in their attempt, or what became of them, we never knew.
INDIANS AND BUFFALOES ON THE PLAINS
OUR trail led straight across the Indian lands most of the way. The redmen naturally resented this intrusion into their territory; but they did not at this time fight against it. Their attitude was rather one of expecting pay for the privilege of using their land, their grass, and their game.
As soon as a part of our outfits were landed on the right bank of the Missouri River, our trouble with the Indians began, not in open hostilities, but in robbery under the guise of beggary. The word had been passed around in our little party that not a cent's worth of provisions would we give up to the Indians. We believed this policy to be our only safeguard from spoliation, and in that we were right.
Our women folks had been taken over the river with the first wagon and had gone on to a convenient camp site nearby. The first show of weapons came from that side of our little community, when some of the bolder Pawnees attempted to pilfer around the wagons. No blood was shed, however, and indeed there was none shed by any of our party during the entire journey.
Soon after we had left the Missouri River we came to a small bridge over a washout across the road, evidently constructed by some train just ahead of us. The Indians had taken possession and were demanding pay for crossing. Some parties ahead of us had paid, while others were hesitating; but with a few there was a determined resolution not to pay. When our party came up it remained for that fearless man, McAuley, to clear the way in short order, though the Indians were there in considerable numbers.
"You fellers come right on," said McAuley. "I'm goin' across that bridge if I have to run right over that Injen settin' there."
And he did almost run over the Indian, who at the last moment got out of the way of his team. Other teams followed in such quick succession and with such a show of guns that the Indians withdrew and left the road unobstructed.
Once I came very near to getting into serious trouble with three Indians on horseback. We had hauled my wagon away from the road to get water, I think, and had become separated from the passing throng. We were almost, but not quite, out of sight of any wagons or camps.
The Indians came up ostensibly to beg, but really to rob. They began first to solicit, and afterwards to threaten. I started to drive on, not thinking they would use actual violence, as there were other wagons certainly within a half mile. I thought they were merely trying to frighten me into giving up at least a part of my outfit. Finally one of the Indians whipped out his knife and cut loose the cow that I was leading behind the wagon.
I did not have to ask for my gun. My wife, who had been watching from within the wagon, saw that the time had come to fight and handed my rifle to me from under the cover. Before the savages had time to do anything further they saw the gun. They were near enough to make it certain that one shot would take deadly effect; but instead of shooting one Indian, I trained the gun so that I might quickly choose among the three. In an instant each Indian had dropped to the side of his horse and was speeding away in great haste. The old saying that "almost any one will fight when cornered" was exemplified in this incident; but I did not want any more such experiences, and consequently thereafter became more careful not to be separated from the other wagons.
On the whole, we did not have much trouble with the Indians in 1852. The great numbers of the emigrants, coupled with the superiority of their arms, made them comparatively safe. It must be remembered, also, that this was before the treaty-making period, and the Indians of the Plains were not yet incensed against white men in general.
Herds of buffalo were more often seen than bands of Indians. The buffalo trails generally followed the water courses or paralleled them. But sometimes they would lead across the country with scarcely any deviation from a direct course. When on the road a herd would persistently follow their leader, whether in the wild tumult of a stampede or in leisurely grazing as they traveled.
A story is told, and it is doubtless true, of a chase in the upper regions of the Missouri, where the leaders of the buffalo herd, either voluntarily or by pressure from the mass behind, leaped to their death over a perpendicular bluff a hundred feet high, overlooking the river. The herd followed blindly until not only hundreds but thousands lay struggling at the foot of the bluff. They piled one upon another till the space between the river and the bluff was bridged, and the last of the victims plunged headlong into the river.
Well up on the Platte, but below Fort Laramie, we had the experience of a night stampede that struck terror to the heart of man and beast. It so happened that we had brought our cattle into camp that evening, a thing we did not usually do. We had driven the wagons into a circle, with the tongue of each wagon chained to the hind axletree of the wagon ahead. The cattle were led inside the circle and the tents were pitched outside.
Usually I would be out on the range with the oxen at night, and if I slept at all, snuggled up close to the back of my good ox, Dandy; but that night, with the oxen safe inside the enclosure, I slept in the wagon.
William Buck and my brother Oliver were in a tent near by, sleeping on the ground.
Suddenly there was a sound like an approaching storm. Almost instantly every animal in the corral was on its feet. The alarm was given and all hands turned out, not yet knowing what caused the general commotion. The roar we heard was like that of a heavy railroad train passing at no great distance on a still night. As by instinct all seemed to know suddenly that it was a buffalo stampede. The tents were emptied of their inmates, the weak parts of the corral guarded, the frightened cattle looked after, and every one in the camp was on the alert to watch what was coming.
In the darkness of the night we could see first the forms of the leaders, and then such dense masses that we could not distinguish one buffalo from the other. How long they were in passing we forgot to note; it seemed like an age. When daylight came the few stragglers yet to be seen fell under the unerring aim of the frontiersman's rifle.
We were lucky, but our neighbors in camp did not escape loss. Some were detained for days, gathering up their scattered stock, while others were unable to find their teams. Some of the animals never were recovered.
When not on the road, the buffalo were shy, difficult to approach, and hard to bag, even with the long-range rifles of the pioneers. But for over six hundred miles along the trail, a goodly supply of fresh meat was obtainable.
TRAILING THROUGH THE MOUNTAIN LAND
AS the column of wagons passed up the Platte in what is now western Nebraska, there was some relief from the dust. The throng was visibly thinned out; some had pushed on beyond the congested district, while others had lagged behind. The dead, too, had left room upon the road.
When we reached the higher lands of Wyoming, our traveling became still more pleasant. The nights were cooler, and we had clearer, purer water. As we gradually ascended the Sweetwater, life grew more tolerable and discomfort less acute.
We were now nearing the crest of the continent. The climb was so gradual, however, as to be hardly observable. The summit of the Rocky Mountains, through the South Pass, presents a wide, open, undulating country. The Pass offers, therefore, an easy gateway to the West.
Passing Pacific Springs at the summit, we rolled over to Big Sandy Creek. At this point we left the Salt Lake Trail (known also as the Mormon Trail) and took the Sublette Cut-off over to Bear River. This was a shorter trail to the Oregon Country, made by William Sublette, one of the American fur traders of the early days. The earlier emigrants to Oregon went on to Fort Bridger before leaving the Salt Lake route.
The most attractive natural phenomenon encountered on the whole trip was found at the Soda Springs, near Bear River in Idaho. Some of the springs, in fact, are right in the bed of the river. One of them, Steamboat Spring, was spouting at regular intervals as we passed.
Just after leaving Soda Springs our little company of friends separated. The McAuleys and William Buck took the trail to California, while with Oliver and the Davenport brothers we went northwest to Oregon. Jacob, the younger of the brothers, fell sick and gradually grew worse as the journey grew harder. Shortly after reaching Portland the poor boy died.
Thomas McAuley settled in the Hobart hills in California and became a respected citizen of that state. When last I heard of him he was eighty-eight years old.
William Buck has long since lain down to rest. A few years after we had parted on the big bend of the Bear River, I heard from William in a way that was characteristic of the man. He had been back to "the States," as we then called the eastern part of our country, and returning to California by way of the Isthmus of Panama, he had brought fifty swarms of bees. Three of these swarms he sent up to me in Washington. As far as I know these were the first honey bees in that state. William Buck was a man who was always doing a good turn for his friends.
When Snake River was reached, and in fact even before that, the heat again became oppressive, the dust stifling, and the thirst at times almost maddening. In some places we could see the water of the Snake winding through the lava gorges; but we could not reach it, as the river ran in the inaccessible depths of the canyon. Sickness again became prevalent, and another outbreak of cholera claimed many victims.
There were but few ferries, and none at all in many places where crossings were to be made. Even where there was a ferry, the charges were so high that they were out of reach of most of the emigrants. As for me, all my funds had been absorbed in procuring my outfit at Eddyville, in Iowa. We had not dreamed that there would be use for money on the Plains, where there were neither supplies nor people. But we soon found out our mistake.
The crossing of the Snake River, although late in the journey, gave us the opportunity to mend matters. About thirty miles below Salmon Falls the dilemma confronted us of either crossing the Snake River or having our teams starve on the trip down the river on the south bank. We found that some emigrants had calked two wagon beds and lashed them together, and were using this craft for crossing. But they would not help others across for less than three to five dollars a wagon, the party swimming their own stock.
If others could cross in wagon beds, why couldn't we do likewise? Without more ado all the old clothing that could possibly be spared was assembled, and tar buckets were scraped. Old chisels and broken knives were hunted up, and a boat repairing and calking campaign began. Very soon the wagon box rode placidly, even if not gracefully, on the waters of the Snake River.
My boyhood experience at playing with logs and leaky old skiffs in the waters of White River now served me well; I could row a boat. My first venture across the Snake River was with the wagon gear run over the wagon box, the whole being gradually worked out into deep water. The load was so heavy that a very small margin was left to prevent the water from breaking over the sides, and some water did enter as light ripples on the surface struck the Mary Jane—for we had duly named our craft. I got over safely, but after that I took lighter loads, and I really enjoyed the work, with the change from the intolerable dust to the clear atmosphere of the river.
Some people were so infatuated with the idea of floating on the water that they were easily persuaded by an unprincipled trader at the lower crossing to dispose of their teams for a song and to embark in their wagon beds for a voyage down the river. A number of people thus lost everything they had, and some even lost their lives. After terrible hardships, the survivors reached the road again, to become objects of charity. I knew one survivor who was out seven days without food other than a scant supply of berries and vegetable growth and "a few crickets, but not many."
We had no trouble to get the cattle across, although the river was wide. Dandy would do almost anything I asked of him; so, leading him to the water's edge, with a little coaxing I got him into swimming water and guided him across with the wagon bed. The others all followed, having been driven into deep water after the leader. It seems almost incredible how passively obedient cattle will become after long training on such a journey. Indeed, the ox is always patient, and usually quite obedient; but when oxen get heated and thirsty, they become headstrong and reckless, and won't obey. I have known them to take off the road to a water hole, when apparently nothing could stop them till they had gone so far into the mud and water that it was a hard job for them to get out again.
We had not finished crossing when tempting offers came from others to cross them; but all our party said, "No, we must travel." The rule had been adopted to travel some distance every day that it was possible. "Travel, travel, travel," was the watchword, and nothing could divert us from that resolution. On the third day we were ready to pull out from the river, with the cattle rested by the enforced wait.
Now the question was, what about the lower crossing? Those who had crossed over the river must somehow get back. It was less than a hundred and fifty miles to the place where we must again cross to the south side (the left bank) of the river. I could walk that distance in three days, while it would take our teams ten. Could I go on ahead, procure a wagon box, and start a ferry of my own? The thought brought an affirmative answer at once.
With only food and a small blanket for load, I walked to the lower crossing. It may be ludicrous, but it is true, that the most I remember about that tramp is the jack rabbits. Such swarms, as I traveled down the Boise valley, I had never seen before and I never saw again.
I soon obtained a wagon bed, and all day long for several days I was at work crossing people. I continued at this till our teams came up, and for a few days after that. I left the river with a hundred and ten dollars in my pocket. All but two dollars and seventy-five cents of this was gone before I arrived in Portland.
But we could not delay longer, even to make money. I thought I could see signs of failing strength in my young wife and the baby. Not for mountains of gold would we jeopardize their lives.
All along the way the baby and the little mother had been tenderly cared for. We used to clear away a space in the wagon bed for them to take a nap together. The slow swaying of the wagon over smooth, sandy stretches made a rock-a-by movement that would lull them off to dreamland and make them forget the weary way.
When we left the lower crossing, the mother and baby were placed in a small wagon. A sprightly yoke of oxen was hitched to it that they might get an early start and keep out of the dust. What few delicacies the pioneers had were given to them. By this tender care the mother and child were enabled to continue to the end of the long journey, though the brave little mother was frail and weak from the wearisome struggle before we reached a resting place at last.
What became of that baby? He thrived and grew to manhood and he is now living, sixty-nine years of age, in California. Some of his grandchildren are almost grown to manhood and womanhood.
REACHING THE END OF THE TRAIL
AFTER leaving the Snake River we had one of the worst stretches of the trying journey. From the lower crossing of the Snake River at old Fort Boise to The Dalles is approximately three hundred and fifty miles over mountains and deserts. It became a serious question with many travelers whether there would be enough provisions left to keep them from starvation and whether their teams could muster strength to take the wagons in. Many wagons were left by the wayside. Everything that could possibly be spared shared the same fate. Provisions, and provisions only, were religiously cared for. Considering the weakened condition of both man and beast, it was small wonder that some ill-advised persons should take to the river in their wagon beds, many thus going to their death.
The dust got deeper every day. Going through it was like wading in water as to resistance. Often it would lie in the road fully six inches deep, so fine that a person wading through it would scarcely leave a track. And when disturbed, such clouds! No words can describe it.
At length, after we had endured five long months of soul-trying travel and had covered about eighteen hundred miles, counting from the crossing of the Missouri, we dragged ourselves on to the end of the Overland Trail at The Dalles on the Columbia River. From here my wife and I, with the baby, went by boat down the river, while Oliver took the ox team on to Portland by the land way.
The Dalles is a name given to the peculiar lava rock formation that strikes across the Columbia, nearly two hundred miles from the mouth. These rocks throw the great stream into a fury of foaming rapids. An Indian legend says that the Bridge of the Gods was once near The Dalles, but that the bridge broke and fell.
On the September day in 1852 when we reached The Dalles, we found there a great crowd of travel-worn people. This assemblage was constantly changing. It was a coming-and-going congregation.
The appearance of this crowd of emigrants beggars description. Their dress was as varied as pieces in a crazy quilt. Here was a matronly dame in clean apparel, but without shoes; her husband perhaps lacked both shoes and hat. Youngsters of all sizes were running about with scarcely enough clothing to cover their nakedness. Some suits and dresses were so patched that it was impossible to tell what was the original cloth. The color of practically everybody's clothing was that of desert dust.
Every little while other sweat-streaked, motley-dressed homeseekers would straggle up to this end of the long trail. Their thoughts went back to their old homes, or to the loved ones that they had laid away tenderly in the shifting sands of the Plains. Most of them faced the future with fortitude; the difficulties they had met and mastered had but steeled them to meet the difficulties ahead. There was an undercurrent of gladness in their souls with the thought that they had achieved the end of the Overland Trail. They were ready now to go on down the Columbia to find their new homes in this great, unknown Land of Promise.
Almost every nationality was represented among them. All traces of race peculiarity and race prejudice, however, had been ground away in the mill of adversity. The trying times through which these pioneers had just passed had brought all to a kinship of feeling such as only trail and danger can beget.
Friendships, sincere and lasting, came as one of the sweet rewards of those days of common struggle and adversity. Few of the pioneers are now left to talk over the old days; when any of them do meet, the greeting is one of brotherhood indeed.
We camped but two days on the bank of the Columbia River. When I say "we," let it be understood that I mean myself, my young wife, and the baby boy who was but seven weeks old when the start was made from Eddyville.
I do not remember the embarking on the great scow for our trip down the Columbia to the Cascades. But incidents of the voyage come to me as vividly as if they had happened but yesterday.
Those who took passage felt that the journey was ended. The cattle had been unyoked for the last time; the wagons had been rolled to the last bivouac; the embers of the last camp fire had died out. We were entering now upon a new field with new present experiences, and with new expectancy for the morrow.
The scow, or lighter, upon which we took passage was decked over, but without railing, offering a smooth surface upon which to pile our belongings. These, in the majority of cases, made but a very small showing. The whole deck surface of the scow was covered with the remnants of the homeseekers' outfits, which in turn were covered by the owners, either sitting or reclining upon their possessions, with but scant room to change position or move about in any way. There must have been a dozen families or more on the boat, or about sixty persons. These were principally women and children; the young men and some of the older ones were still struggling on the mountain trail to get the teams through to the west side of the Cascade Mountains.
As we went floating down that wonderful old river, the deep depression of spirits that, for lack of a better name, we call "the blues," seized upon us. Do you wonder why? We were like an army that had burned the bridges behind it. We had scant knowledge of what lay in the track before us. Here we were, more than two thousand miles from home,—separated from it by a trackless, uninhabited waste of country. It was impossible for us to retrace our steps. Go ahead we must, no matter what we were to encounter.
Then, too, we had for months borne the burden of duties that could not be avoided or delayed, until many were on the verge of collapse from strain and overwork. Some were sick, and all were reduced in flesh from the urgent toil at camp duty and from lack of variety of food. Such was the condition of the motley crowd of sixty persons as we slowly neared that wonderful channel through which the great Columbia flows while passing the Cascade range.
For myself, I can truly say that the journey had not drawn on my vitality as it had with so many. True, I had been worked down in flesh, having lost nearly twenty pounds; but what weight I had left was the bone and sinew of my system. The good body my parents had given me carried me then and afterwards through many hardships without great distress.
In our company, a party of three, a young married couple and an unmarried sister, lounged on their belongings, listlessly watching the ripples on the water, as did also others of the party. But little conversation was passing. Each seemed to be communing with himself or herself, but it was easy to see what were the thoughts occupying the minds of all. The young husband, it was plain to be seen, would soon complete that greater journey to the unknown beyond, a condition that weighed so heavily upon the ladies of the party that they could ill conceal their solicitude and sorrow. Finally, to cheer up the sick husband and brother, the ladies began in sweet, subdued voices to sing the old familiar song of "Home, Sweet Home," whereupon others of the party joined in the chorus with increased volume of sound. As the echo died away, at the moment of gliding under the shadow of the high mountain, the second verse was begun, but was never finished. If an electric shock had startled every individual of the party, there could have been no more simultaneous effect than when the second line of the second verse was reached, when instead of song, sobs and outcries of grief poured forth from all lips. It seemed as if there were a tumult of despair mingled with prayer. The rugged boatmen rested upon their oars in awe, and gave way in sympathy with the scene before them, until it could be truly said no dry eyes were left nor aching heart but was relieved. Like the downpour of a summer shower that suddenly clears the atmosphere to welcome the bright shining sun that follows, so this sudden outburst of grief cleared away the despondency, to be replaced by an exalted, exhilarating feeling of buoyancy and hopefulness. The tears were not dried till mirth took possession—a real hysterical manifestation of the whole party, ending all depression for the rest of the trip.
On this last stage of the journey other parties had much more trying experiences than ours. John Whitacre, afterward governor of Oregon, was the head of a party of nine that constructed a raft at The Dalles out of dry poles hauled from the adjacent country. While their stock was started out over the trail, their two wagons were put upon the raft. With the women and children in the wagons, perched on the provisions and bedding, the start was made to float down the river to the Cascades.
They had hardly begun the journey when the waves swept over the raft. It was like a submerged foundation upon which their wagons stood. A landing a few miles out of The Dalles averted a total wreck, and afforded opportunity to strengthen the buoyancy of the raft with extra timber carried upon the backs of the men for long distances.
Then the question arose, how should they know when they would reach the falls? Would they be able to discover the falls in time to make a landing? Their fears finally got the better of them and a line was run ashore; but instead of making a landing, they found themselves hard aground out of reach of land, except by wading a long distance. This occurred while they were many miles above the falls, or Cascades. At last they gave up the raft and procured a scow. In this they reached the head of the Cascades in safety.
As we neared Portland we felt that a long task had been completed. Yet reaching the end of the Overland Trail did not mean that our pioneer struggles were over. Before us lay still another task—the conquest of the new land. And it was no easy work, we were to learn, to find a home or make one in the western wilderness.
SETTLING IN THE NORTHWEST COUNTRY
GETTING A NEW START IN THE NEW LAND
ON the first day of October, 1852, at about nine o'clock at night, with a bright moon shining, we reached Portland. Oliver met us; he had come ahead by the trail and had found a place for us to lodge.
I carried my wife, who had fallen ill, in my arms up the steep bank of the Willamette River and three blocks away to the lodging house, which was kept by a colored man.
"Why, suh, I didn't think yuse could do that, yuse don't look it," said my colored friend, as I placed my wife on the clean bed in a cozy little room.
This was the first house we had been in for five months. From April until October we had been on the move. Never a roof had been over our heads other than the wagon cover or tent, and no softer bed had we known than the ground or the bottom of the wagon.
We had found a little steamer to carry us from the Cascades to Portland, along with most of the company that had floated in the scow down the river from The Dalles. The great Oregon Country, then including the Puget Sound region, was large enough to swallow up a thousand such migrations.
Portland was no paradise at that time. It would be difficult to imagine a sorrier-looking place than the one that confronted us upon arrival. Some rain had fallen, and more soon followed. With the stumps and logs and mud and the uneven stretches of ground, it was no easy matter to find a resting place.
The tented city was continually enlarging. People seemed to be dazed; it was hard to find paying work; there was insufficient shelter to house all. The country looked a great field of forests and mountains.
Oliver and I had between us a cash capital of about three dollars. It was clear that we must find work at once, so at earliest dawn next day Oliver took the trail leading down the river, to search for something to do. I had a possible opportunity for work and wages already in mind.
As we were passing up the Willamette, a few miles below Portland, on the evening of our arrival, a bark lay seemingly right in our path as we steamed by. This vessel looked to our inexperienced eyes like a veritable monster, with hull towering high above our heads and masts reaching to the sky. Probably not one of that whole party of frontiersmen had ever before seen a deep-sea vessel.
The word went around that the bark was bound for Portland with a cargo of merchandise and was to take a return cargo of lumber. As we passed her there flashed through my mind the thought that there might be opportunity for work on that vessel next day. Sure enough, when morning came, the staunch bark Mary Melville lay quietly in front of the mill.
Without loss of time my inquiry was made: "Do you want any men on board this ship?"
A gruff-looking fellow eyed me all over as much as to say, "Not you anyhow." But he answered, "Yes. Go below and get your breakfast."
I fairly stammered out, "I must go and see my wife first, and let her know where I am."
Thereupon came back a growl: "Of course, that will be the last of you! That's the way with these newcomers, always hunting for work and never wanting it." This last aside to a companion, in my hearing.
I swallowed my indignation, assured him that I would be back in five minutes, and went post-haste to impart the good news.
Put yourself in my place, you who have never come under the domination of a surly mate on a sailing vessel of seventy years ago. My ears fairly tingled with anger at the harshness of the orders, but I stuck to the work, smothering my rage at being berated while doing my very best. As the day went on I realized that the man was not angry; he had merely fallen into that way of talking. The sailors paid slight heed to what he said. Before night the fellow seemed to let up on me, while increasing his tirades at the regular men. The second and third day wore off. I had blistered hands, but never a word about wages or pay.
"Say, boss, I'se got to pay my rent, and we'se always gits our pay in advance. I doan' like to ask you, but can't you git the old boss to put up somethin' on your work?"
I could plainly see that my landlord was serving notice to pay or move. What should I do? Suppose the old skipper should discharge me for asking for wages before the end of the week? But when I told him what I wanted the money for, the old man's eyes moistened. Without a word he gave me more money than I had asked for, and that night the steward handed me a bottle of wine for the "missus." I knew that it came from the old captain.
The baby's Sunday visit to the ship, the Sunday dinner in the cabin, the presents of delicacies that followed, even from the gruff mate, made me feel that under all this roughness lay a tender humanity. Away out here, three thousand miles from home, the same sort of people lived as those I had left behind me.
Then came this message:
St. Helens, October 7th, 1852.
Dear Brother: Come as soon as you can. Have rented a house, sixty boarders. This is going to be the place. Shall I send you money?
OLIVER P. MEEKER.
The mate importuned me to stay until the cargo was on board. I did stay until the last stick of lumber was stowed, the last pig in the pen, and the ship swinging off, bound on her outward voyage. I felt as if I had an interest in her.
Sure enough, I found St. Helens to be the place. Here was to be the terminus of the steamship line from San Francisco. "Wasn't the company building this wharf?" "They wouldn't set sixty men to work on the dock unless they meant business." "Ships can't get up the Willamette—that's nothing but a creek. The big city is going to be here."
This was the talk that greeted my ears as I went looking about. We had carried my wife, this time in a chair, to our hotel—yes, our hotel!—and there we had placed her, and the baby too, of course, in the best room the house afforded.
One January morning in 1853, our sixty men boarders did not go to work at the dock building as usual. Orders had come to suspend work. Nobody knew why, or for how long. We soon learned that the steamship company had given up the fight against Portland and would thenceforward run its steamers to that port. The dock was never finished and was allowed to fall into decay. With our boarders scattered, our occupation was gone, and our supplies were in great part rendered worthless to us by the change.
Meantime, snow had fallen to a great depth. The price of forage for cattle rose by leaps and bounds, and we found that we must part with half of our stock to save the rest. It might be necessary to provide feed for a month, or for three months; we could not tell. The last cow was given up that we might keep one yoke of oxen, so necessary for the work on a new place.
The search for a claim began at once. After one day's struggle against the current of the Lewis River, and a night standing in a snow and sleet storm around a camp fire of green wood, Oliver and I found our ardor cooled a little. Two hours sufficed to take us back home next morning.