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THE OREGON TRAIL SESQUICENTENNIAL

[This article, and the material following, appeared in The Tombstone Epitaph in April, May, June, July, August, September, October, and November of 1993]

 

In a very real sense, the process by which the United States of America became a transcontinental nation began in the early 1840's as an initially small but ever-growing stream of emigrants flowed west toward the Pacific coast. Before this approximately thirty-year mass migration (one of the largest in recorded history) drew to a close, perhaps half a million people had walked and/or ridden the hundreds and hundreds of miles that separated the Missouri River and the territory bordering the great western ocean. The Oregon-California Trail became the link which increasingly bonded the territories of California, Washington and Oregon to that union of states heretofore restricted to the area east of the Missouri River, located in the middle of the continent. In 1841, the first bona fide wagon train, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, made the trek to California. Two years later, in 1843, emigrant travel began on what is arguably the most famous trail in the western hemisphere--The Oregon Trail--whose sesquicentennial we this year celebrate.

How did this great migration come to pass? There were two great incentives which attracted such a massive response: land and gold. The travel of those who pursued the latter was concentrated in a handful of years surrounding the discovery of precious metal in California (1849), Colorado (1858) and Montana (1862) . Land, however, had a more permanent attraction and the population which was drawn to it, more stable and permanent than were the "gold rushers", built a nation.

How may one characterize these tens of thousands of individuals who collectively composed this great migration? For the most part, they reflected the composition of the population left behind in "the States". The gold seekers represented that "get-rich-quick" element found in any large population. Daring, impatient, mostly male, they defined "fortune" narrowly and wanted it immediately. What about the remainder of those who traversed the road west between 1841 and 1869 (when the railroad replaced the wagon train)? They were, for the most part, quite solidly middle class in economic status and social outlook, though a few qualified as wealthy and some were poor. One thing is quite clear, though. These were not society's "drop-outs", fleeing from failure. They were farmers and business people, men and women bringing their children to a new land where they hoped to build a better future. Travel on the road to Oregon (and to a lesser degree to California), then, tended to be a family affair. Single men, of course, also made the trip, frequently working their way west as a "hired hand" working for a family. Given the social mores of the day, it is hardly surprising that very few single women attempted the journey.

This road to Oregon had, of course, not originally been "laid out" for the purpose of emigrant travel. The trail was initially blazed by a relatively small group of intensely individualistic beaver hunters who came to be known as the Mountain Men. Long before the first emigrant left home, these hearty "Paladins of the High Country" had located and followed the principal (and some not quite so principal!) ways of passage across the plains and through the mountains, mostly by following a series of rivers-the Platte, the North Platte, the Sweetwater, the Snake and finally the mighty Columbia. It is not at all surprising that, when the beaver trade ended in the early 1840's, a number of "graduates" of the high country's "survival school" served as guides for emigrant wagon trains as well as occasional military expeditions. Among the more famous members of this mountain clan to so occupy themselves were Christopher ("Kit") Carson, "Black" Harris and Thomas Fitzpatrick.

From wherever they came, and for whatever purpose they traveled, travelers "officially" began their trek west at the Missouri River. The three most frequently used departure points were Kanesville/Council Bluffs (present-day Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa), St. Joseph and Independence (Westport Landing), both in Missouri. Most trains left their "debarkation" point on the Missouri sometime during the month of May, but certainly not all. In the spring of 1851, Harriet Talcott Buckingham, Amelia Hadley and Susan Amelia Cranston began their westward journeys on May 4, May 7 and May 8 respectively. In 1850, a year earlier, Margaret A. Frink and Sarah Davis crossed the Missouri at St. Joseph, the former on May 8 and the latter on May 23. A year later in 1852 Polly Coon ferried the great river about May 21 while, on the same day, Martha S. Read crossed near Kanesville. By way of contrast, Sophia Lois Goodridge (1850) started from Kanesville on June 7, Lucena Parsons (1850) crossed the river on June 13, Patty Sessions (1847) left Mormon Winter Quarters in eastern Nebraska on June 22 and, finally, Jean Rio Baker (1851) left Kanesville on July 7.

One additional factor must be pointed out. Since practically none of the emigrants were originally even semi-permanent residents of Missouri River towns, it follows that the journey west had actually begun further east and some time earlier. Jean Rio Baker (1851), referred to immediately above had one of the longest journeys. She had come by ship from England, then by steamer up the Mississippi, then cross-country to Kanesville before departing for the "New Zion" in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Teen-ager Sallie Hester left Bloomington, Indiana with her family on March 20, 1849; about a month and a half later, on May 13, they left St. Joseph for California. Bound for Oregon, Mrs. E.D.S. Smith departed from La Porte, Indiana on April 12, 1847, passed through St. Joseph on June 3 and crossed the river on June 4. Finally, the Scott family (1852), also heading for Oregon, packed the belongings from their Illinois home and headed for the ferry across the Illinois River at Peoria on April 2; approximately five weeks later, on May 10, they crossed the Missouri. Behind them they left grandparents and "Watch", their faithful watch dog. The children later remembered the dog howling as they left him on the eastern bank of the Illinois River. Sometime after they arrived in Oregon a letter arrived from the grandparents. "Watch", it seems, did not return to the grandparents house, preferring the now-abandoned home of his owners where he refused food and drink until he died.

Some trains, particularly those of the "49ers" headed for the gold fields, left much earlier and/or traveled much faster. Charles Ferguson's party (1850), for instance, left the Missouri at the end of May, but by April 29 arrived at Fort Laramie, "having made a journey of a little over seven hundred miles in twenty-nine days". In the same year, George Keller, camping on La Bonte creek in east central Wyoming on the night of May 6, recorded in his diary an explanation of how La Bonte came to acquire its name. The companions of one Pierre La Bonte were killed by Arapahos while he was on a trapping expedition and his Indian wife was taken captive. For years after wards, the area was called the valley of La Bonte's cabins, and finally just La Bonte. Captain Albert Tracy (1860), headed for Utah as part of the aftermath of the so-called "Mormon War", provides a final example. On April 16 he camped on Box Elder Creek, not that far from La Bonte, where he heard from others present of a summary execution which had taken place a few weeks earlier. It seems that a man, found guilty of mule-stealing by a jury composed of travelers, had been hanged. Lacking the usual facilities required for such an execution, the members of the "court" elevated two wagon tongues from their front wheels and lashed them at the top, thereby "forming the neat and sufficient derrick, or gallows, whereon to do the judgment-the culprit depending at the end of a lariat, as a species of central figure, between two outer lines of an isosceles triangle."

Regardless of the day or month of departure, every individual or family heading west had to make preparations for the journey. At a minimum, such preparation necessarily included the outfitting of a wagon (or pack animal) and the acquisition of supplies. On the 22nd of March in the year 1850, Margaret Frink had the family wagon packed and ready for departure. The wagon had been specially constructed so that it could serve not only as a baggage carrier, but also as their bedroom. This dual purpose was served by dividing the bottom of the wagon "into little compartments or cupboards" into which provisions and other possessions would be stored; a floor was then "constructed over all, on which our mattress was laid." The Frink's provided themselves with a degree of comfort somewhat out of the ordinary by carrying both an India-rubber mattress ("that could be filled with either air or water, making a very comfortable bed") and a "feather bed and feather pillows". In similar fashion, fourteen-year-old Sallie Hester (1849) reported having "a cooking stove made of sheet iron, a portable table, tin plates and cups, cheap knives and forks (best ones packed away), camp stools, etc. We sleep in our wagons on feather beds; the men who drive for us in the tent". Lucy Ann Henderson's (1846) father "made some boards of Black walnut that fitted along the side of the wagon. They were grooved so they would fit together, and we used them for a table all the way across the plains." Before the journey was completed, however, tragedy forced the family to use them for another purpose. Lucy Ann's younger sister got hold of a bottle of laudanum; to young to know what the medicine was, she drank the whole bottle. When her mother went to rouse her for supper, the little girl was dead. "Father took these walnut boards and made a coffin for Salita and we buried her there by the roadside in the desert."

Supplies were laid on before leaving the Missouri, then replenished as required along the way. What kind of supplies. Once again, young Sallie Hester (1849) provides a partial answer: "We live on bacon, ham, rice, dried fruits, molasses, packed butter, bread, coffee, tea and milk as we have our own cow." In addition, Mrs. Elizabeth Dixon Smith has left us an equally succinct description. ". . . passed through St Joseph on the bank of the Missouri," she wrote on June 3, 1847, where her party "laid in our flour cheese and crackers and medicine for no one should travle this road without medicine for they are almost sure to have the summer complaint each family should have a box of phisic pills and a quart of caster oil a quart of the best rum and a large vial of peppermint essence." Finally, Margaret Frink (1850) reminds us of a little-noted potential danger. Mrs. Frink purchased a small quantity of acid to be used for the purpose of avoiding the onset of scurvy.

Finally, of course, some had to make provision for disabilities present at the time the journey was undertaken. A young girl named Leonora Gaylord (1853), for example, had broken her leg before her train "had passed out of the settlements". As a result, a doctor had to set the leg and give her parents instructions for her care while the limb healed. Thus, when the party moved out between the bows of the wagon top swung a small box just large enough to hold the child whose broken leg was encased in a smaller box. While they traveled "one lady would sit at the foot of the little bed and one at the head and prevent any swinging jars from the motion of the traveling wagon, day after day for weeks and at night time, too, to administer to the wants of the child."

Thus equipped, supplied and prepared, wagon train emigrants undertook the arduous trip to what they hoped would be their new homes. On the occasion of its sesquicentennial, let us journey with a selected sample of these unsung heroes of national expansion and development on their way west along the Oregon Trail. One word of warning for the reader. Events and happenings will not be carefully organized and presented in recognizable patterns, nor will they be labeled with subject headings to alert the reader to their importance. Rather, a sample of trail life will be presented to you in the same way it happened to them-day by day and mile by mile, in the words of the song, "Down the Oregon Trail".

Information for this series comes from the following sources:

 

Kenneth L. Holmes (Editor), Covered Wagon Women: Diaries & Letters from the Western Trails 1840-1890. Nine volumes.

Transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association. Microfilm from the Oregon State Historical Society.

The Henderson Collection. Diaries in the collection of the late Paul Henderson of Bridgeport, Nebraska.

Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved