THE JOURNEY TO OREGON OVER THE OREGON TRAIL, 1852
One Family's Story
Thomas Esson Ewing
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In 1852 Hanson and Lavina Stevens, 37 and 33 years old respectively, with their seven children Isaac (12), Rebecca (11), Rispa (9), Christina (7), Sarah (5), Millard (3), and Mary (15 months) left their home in Keokuk, Iowa for Oregon. On arriving in Oregon, they settled on a donation land claim near Silverton/Mt. Angel in the Willamette Valley. Their motives for leaving are unknown.
Over the years the family changed. Lavina died in 1859 from breast cancer. She was buried in Bethany Cemetery, a few miles from the family farm. A cutting of a rose which the family brought with it from Keokuk was transplanted at the burial site; it continues to flourish. Hanson remarried. The stepmother had a difficult relationship with the girls, which hastened their departure. Hanson and his wife eventually moved to another part of the Valley. He died in 1883. Isaac stayed on the farm. The remaining children moved on.
In 1891 Hanson and Lavina's children held a reunion at the original family farm, their first in many years. The experience was so pleasant that they decided to do it again. It began a tradition that continues with their descendants even to today (the sole exception was one reunion missed in the First World War). The family purchased a leather bound journal with over 500 blank pages to record the minutes of each meeting. In 1990, the 100th anniversary, a new journal had to be purchased.
There's some frustration reading the journal: The subject of the Trail came up frequently at reunions, particularly the early ones. At the first Isaac was commissioned to write a history of the trip. He didn't. In later reunions the issue of writing a history came up again, but nothing was done. The journal's minutes recite routinely that a member of the original family recounted a Trail event but rarely were any details provided. As a result, we the descendants of Hanson and Lavina know little of their experience.
In preparation for the 100th anniversary of the reunion, the family decided to privately publish a history of the Stevens, Stevens Family History. A History of the Children of Hanson and Lavina. For my part, in addition to writing a history of Christina (my great-grandmother), her husband and their children, I decided that we needed to know more about the Oregon Trail. This led me to write both a history and a "composite" diary of the Trail in 1852. To read the diary click here http://oregontrail1852.webstarts.com/diary_of_oregon_trail_1852.html. I must emphasize that this is the Stevens story. Therefore I haven't described any part of the Trail (for example, the Barlow Road across the Cascade Mountains) not taken by my family.
Finally, this history was originally written for Stevens family members. Thus, there was a fair amount of "insider" information interesting to them but probably not to others. I've tried to cull some of that out, but it was not completely possible or even desirable because I hope that this website will be valuable to my cousins and not just to aficionados of the Oregon Trail.
Founding of the Oregon Trail
By the 1830s a continuous trail had been marked out from the Missouri to the mission station of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman at the mouth of the Walla Walla River on the Oregon-Washington border. It began in 1804-06 with the explorations of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who thought they had found the most practical route to the Pacific. They had not.
The more important contribution came from the "Astorians". In 1810 John Jacob Astor, intent on establishing a fur-trading enterprise at the mouth of the Columbia River, sent a party overland (a second by sea) from St. Louis. It erected Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River, the first permanent settlement in Oregon. In 1812 one of its members, Robert Stuart, with five companions made a journey east to St. Louis. The route he took—through the Blue Mountains, up the Snake and down the Sweetwater and Platte Rivers—roughly tracked what later became the Oregon Trail. His discovery of a 20-mile gap in the Rocky Mountains, the South Pass, enabled wagon traffic later.
Mountain men followed, trapping beaver for hats until they went out of style in the late 1830s. There were also explorers. In 1832 Captain B.L.E. de Bonneville took the first wagons through the South Pass. In 1842-43 John C. Fremont explored the Oregon Trail. The west was becoming better known. Scientists, writers, explorers and missionaries had penetrated the Great American Desert, crossing the Rocky Mountains and journeying beyond. Their journals, especially those of Lewis and Clark and Fremont, excited much interest. As early as 1818 boosters were celebrating the Oregon Country. The "Oregon Fever" began; in 1851, one emigrant recalled, it had become "an epidemic."
The emigrations, 1840s to 1890s
The first emigration to Oregon was in 1841 with the Bidwell-Bartleson Company of 81 persons. They split off at Fort Hall, as did later companies, 32 going to California and the rest to Oregon. A second occurred in 1842. The next year was the "Great Migration" with over 100 wagons, 5,000 cattle, and 800 persons. The population of Oregon (which then included Washington) swelled to 1,200, resulting in the formation of a provisional government. In 1845 another 2,000 persons settled in Oregon; 1,000 in 1846; and 3,000 in 1848. By 1850 there were about 13,300 people in the Oregon Territory (present-day Oregon and Washington).
The discovery of gold in California on January 28, 1848, profoundly reshaped the Oregon Trail in terms of the character of the emigrants, their destination, and their numbers. Before 1848 emigrants were principally missionaries and farmers intending to settle in Oregon. Afterwards, pioneers included adventurers and gamblers—questionable travel companions in the minds of farming families going to Oregon. One popular anecdote of the 1850s had it that at one of many junctions of the Trail there was a pile of gold-bearing quartz marking the road to California. Beside it was a sign marking the road to Oregon and bearing the words "To Oregon." Those who could read, according to the story, headed for Oregon.
Between 1840 and 1848, an average of perhaps 1,200 people a year went to Oregon and 270 to California. In 1849, 450 emigrants went to Oregon but 25,000 to California; in 1850, 6,000 to Oregon, 44,000 to California; in 1851, 3,600 to Oregon and 11,000 to California; in 1852, the year of the largest migration, 10,000 to Oregon and 50,000 to California. Thereafter, the pace of emigration diminished although preferences did not: in 1853, 7,500 went to Oregon and 20,000 to California; in 1854, 6,000 to Oregon and 12,000 to California. Over the next six years, an average of 1,300 people traveled to Oregon and 7,600 to California.
Some emigrants of 1840s rejoiced in the journey, one of 1847 described it as a "long picnic;" another of 1845 wrote that he had "never passed a more pleasant, cheerful and happy summer in [his] whole long life," a trip without sickness or loss of a single animal. This was not, however, the common experience. An emigrant of 1842 wrote of difficulties and dissensions on the Trail, of having to travel blindly without guides or guidebooks, of overloaded wagons and inadequate provisions. Early emigrants had no idea how far it was to Oregon or how hard the journey. They came with little money and little food. Emigrants in 1844, when they reached the Blue Mountains, were starving and their cattle dying.
During the 1840s there were very few trading posts or ferries, and little military presence on the Trail. The gold rush changed that too. In succeeding years, new commercial opportunities presented themselves for entrepreneurs with the large number of emigrants. Forts were established to guard against Indians, leading to the creation of supply towns nearby. By the early 1850s, commercial ferries were established, albeit over just a few rivers. Cash became important for Trail services, especially ferries.
By the 1860s, a decade later, the journey resembled that of earlier years in name only. This is not to minimize the hardships. There was still sickness. Mary Louisa Black (1864) wrote: "The flux [dysentery] is not so frequent but when I have actions I am puped [pooped] out." There were the same accidents, heat, dust, mosquitoes, Platte River storms, and the ceaseless hunt for grass, water, and fuel. But the perils and privations of later years were distinctly less. There were now hundreds of support facilities on the route. Rarely did an emigrant travel more than 25 to 30 miles without encountering at least one habitation. The overland stage, which operated in the 1860s, with stations every 10 to 20 miles was a major factor in the change. These stations had to be supplied with feed for horses. This meant that emigrants now could obtain oats for their animals. Better feed meant that emigrants' wagons could be pulled by mules, much faster than oxen, reducing the trip's duration and with it cost and distress.
By the late 1850s to early 1860s towns had sprung up along the Trail. One diarist wrote while traveling along the Platte River in 1862: "A person can hardly realize that they are traveling on the plains as emigration teams are to be seen almost any time & three or four times a day we pass a ranch stage station, grocery or blacksmith shop."
The decades of the 1870s and 1880s brought even greater changes. Emigrants were able to camp at towns; if a town were not present, then at railroad stations. They were able to send and receive mail along the way. The trip could take on the aspect of a sight-seeing journey. Lucy Ide (1878) visited a cheese factory at Elkhorn and attended church at Kearney (something earlier emigrants sorely missed). Instead of buffalo on the plains, she saw only vast herds of cattle. Most telling, her company met a group of college students from Princeton, New Jersey, hunting for fossils. The glory years of the Trail ended with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Travel greatly diminished after that, but it did not end—a correspondent in western Wyoming reported that many wagons crossed the South Pass in 1893-95.
Why did emigrants come to Oregon
No doubt, as in the nature of things, each emigrant had a different reason, perhaps a mix of them, for wishing to move to Oregon. Climate was one. Most emigrants came from the midwest, where they endured torrid heat in the summer and almost arctic conditions in winter. Commerce ended with the first freeze. Lakes and rivers were ice-bound, and almost everyone hibernated until the opening of navigation again in the spring. Ezra Meeker (1852) recalled that the winter of 1851 in Iowa was the coldest in living memory. He vowed to leave.
Slavery motivated others, especially those from Missouri, which contributed a disproportionately large number of emigrants. Some wanted to escape its iniquity; others were in constant dread of a "negro insurrection"; yet others wanted to leave a society where, in order to be recognized as a social equal, slave-holding was required.
Another reason was economic. By 1852 settlement of the midwest had hardly begun. Iowa was sparsely populated and without a market—no railroads or wagon roads, no cities, no meeting houses, and no schools. In the early 1850s prices were high but farming commodities brought relatively little return. This contrasted with stories from Oregon, many of them fabulous, for example, that pigs roamed pre-cooked with knives and forks stuck in their bodies for the benefit of the hungry. Emigrants had heard of Oregon's temperate climate, the productivity of its soil, and the ease with which a farmer could till the ground to produce an abundance of crops. One emigrant of 1852 wrote to his brother in Wisconsin, telling of a farmer who grew onions so large they could not fit into a pocket; he had several hundred bushels, which he sold for $4 to $5 per bushel (evidently a good price). "All that he did to them was to plough the ground, sow the seed, and scratch it in. They sow wheat here once in two or three years only, and it is altogether beyond any that I ever saw in the States in quality."
Health was a very important motivation. Victorians obsessed over it. Pioneer diaries reflected that obsession. The lowlands drained by the Mississippi produced a veritable lexicon of diseases: scarlet fever, influenza pandemics, meningitis and smallpox. The dreaded "milk sickness" or "puking fever", caused by eating tainted meat, had a mortality rate as high as 25 percent. But more deadly than passing epidemics were tuberculosis and, worse, malaria (also known as "fever and ague"), the result of periodic flooding of lowlands where malaria-laden mosquitoes flourished. Entire communities were abandoned along the Missouri, Illinois, and upper Mississippi Rivers. Again, this contrasted with stories of the amazing healthfulness of Oregon. A pioneer of 1852 recalled one of them: An old man had migrated to the Willamette Valley. After a few years, his age being very great, he wished to die. But he could not in Oregon, and so persuaded his sons to take him back east. After a time, he died. His sons, desiring to bury him at home, returned his body to Oregon. But he revived. They were compelled to take him back east again, where he died and remained.
But probably the greatest, most powerful lure was free land. In September 1850 Congress passed the Donation Land Law. It gave a half a section (320 acres) to every single male over the age of 21 who resided in Oregon as of that date (if married before December 1, 1851, the wife was entitled to 320 acres). Males who settled in Oregon between December 1, 1850 and Dec. 1, 1853 (later extended to 1855) received 160 acres; females, if married, were entitled to another 160 acres. Two things were extraordinary: Nowhere else in the United States could land be obtained for free, and women for the first time were able to hold real property in their own right. Eventually, more than 2.5 million acres were given away to over 7,000 claimants. This may have been the principal catalyst for the 1852 emigration to Oregon: the census of 1850 showed a population of 13,300 in the Oregon Territory; by the end of 1853, it was over 35,000.
Background of the emigrants
Emigrants came principally from the western border states of Arkansas, Iowa, and especially Missouri. By 1850 they accounted for 23 percent of the Oregon Territory's population of over 13,000. Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana were next, accounting for 21 percent; then Kentucky and Tennessee with 9 percent; few emigrants came from the deep south. There was a profile to these pioneers. They were restless, moving from one state to another, always pushing westward. Individualism, independence, and matchless confidence distinguished them.
Preparations for the journey
A journey to Oregon was not lightly undertaken. One historian conservatively estimated the total cost at $1,500 (wages were less than $1.50 a day and land was $3 to $6 an acre). Emigrants needed wagons and animals to pull them, provisions for a 5-month journey, and tents, stoves, and other equipment. In addition, cash was required for expenses on the road. An emigrant of 1853 recorded that between Council Bluffs and Oregon City he spent $202 on bridge and ferry tolls and paying men to swim his animals across rivers, $16 for supplemental food and clothing, and $440 for replacing worn-out oxen and other purchases. Emigrants had to sell everything they owned; what could not be sold was abandoned or given away.
The "prairie schooner" was the wagon of choice. It measured 5 feet wide and 12 to 13 feet in length; with tongue and yoke, its length doubled to about 23 feet. It weighed around 1,300 pounds empty, 2,500-3,000 loaded. This wagon was ideally suited to the journey. The canvas top, often two thicknesses for better protection, was waterproofed with an oil-base paint or linseed oil. Sometimes slogans were painted on the sides. Construction of the wagon was critical. It had to be made of the best and most perfectly seasoned hardwood, for in the hot dry weather of the plains and then the Rocky Mountains, wood tended to shrink resulting in the loosening of metal tires. In such circumstances, the tires had to be cut, shortened, and welded—without bellows or forge. Axles and wagon tongues were particularly susceptible to breakage, but the presence of thousands of abandoned wagons on the Trail allowed emigrants to cannibalize. The wagon could be made water-tight—generally by calking the splits between the wood with tar—and easily dismantled for repairs or for setting on rafts at river crossings.
There was a lively debate in the 1840s and 1850s whether horses, mules, or oxen were best suited to pull wagons. Horses were the fastest but they were expensive, able to pull less heavy loads, and needed more feed. Mules were certainly faster than oxen and were able to pull heavy loads, but like horses they were expensive and their temperament made them difficult to handle. In 1852 oxen were the draught animals of choice (this was to change in later years when the plains became more populated and fodder was available). Marietta Cumming (1852) counted passing 96 teams one day, all but two drawn by oxen. Although they could make only one to two miles an hour, they were docile, able to pull tremendous loads, less expensive (in 1853 six oxen cost about $200 compared with $350 to $600 for the same number of horses or mules), and required less fodder. Generally, a wagon would be pulled by two to four yoke of oxen.
These were more than brute animals to emigrants. Col. George B. Currey (1853) wrote how women would weep piteously when their ox died. In a Stevens Family Journal entry, Mary told of the death of "Old Buck," their favorite ox, and how the children mourned his death. One guidebook writer advised: "Never maltreat them, but govern them as you would a woman, with kindness, affection and caresses, and you will be repaid by their docility and easy management." Peter Burnett (1843) recalled that the “subject of the greatest and most painful anxiety to us was the suffering of our poor animals. We could see our faithful oxen dying inch by inch, every day becoming weaker, and some of them giving out, and left in the wilderness to fall prey to the wolves. . . . On such a trip as ours one becomes greatly attached to his oxen, for upon them his safety depends.”
There was the question of provisions. The following recommendations from one travel guide (for three people) were typical: three rifles, five barrels of flour (1,080 lbs.), 600 pounds of bacon, 100 pounds of coffee, 10 pounds of saleratus (baking soda), 50 pounds of lard, five pounds of tea, 150 pounds of sugar, 75 pounds of rice, 50 pounds of dried fruit, and 50 pounds of salt and pepper. Other supplies were needed: clothing, bedding, a tent, axes, saws, augers, spades, hoes, a plough, a Dutch oven, tin plates, cups and bowls, coffee pot, and so forth. There was, however, a problem: On the one hand emigrants needed to bring sufficient supplies--food, to last five months and tools to begin farming in Oregon. On the other hand, they needed to travel lightly in order to make the best possible time. Guidebooks and pioneers who had traveled the Trail before urged them to bring only the essentials. This advice, repeatedly given, was repeatedly ignored. It was distressing to leave behind possessions acquired over a lifetime. Too often they yielded to their hearts.
Hanson Stevens prepared for the trip by, among other things, butchering a flock of chickens, cutting and frying them, and finally packing them in crocks or barrels sealed with melted lard. They were eaten as long as they lasted. Farming and carpentry tools were placed in the bottom of the wagon with their wooden handles removed to reduce weight; tucked among the tools were cuttings of a favorite rose along with small packets of vegetable and flower seeds. Over all of this they laid clothing and then on top of that bedding for Lavina and the children; Hanson and Isaac slept under the wagon. Lavina insisted on bringing her spinning wheel.
During the months preceding departure, emigrants prepared for the journey: mending clothes; selling off property, real and personal; purchasing, building, or repairing wagons; buying other supplies. On the day of departure, wagons loaded, the emigrants left their homes. Often, remaining family members and neighbors accompanied the train for a distance, wanting to delay goodbyes until the last moment. John Kearns (1852) wrote: "We bade them what we thought a final farewell and with heavy hearts proceeded upon our almost endless journey, casting as we went a last lingering glance upon our old and much beloved friends and also over the beautiful little town in which we had spent many a pleasant hour. As we went, the wind seemed to repeat the lonesome sound, Farewell, Farewell, Farewell, forever."
The "jumping off" points
Since at least 1832, Independence, Missouri, was the principal "jumping off" point for all westward expeditions. In time, however, other towns to its north—Westport, St. Joseph, and finally Kanesville (also known as Council Bluffs)—eclipsed Independence. The bulk of emigrants increasingly came from the northern states of Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. It was inconvenient for them to travel south to Independence and then up again to the Platte River. Independence was left to service the Santa Fe Trail, the road over which heavy wagons delivered goods to the southwest. By 1852 Kanesville was the port of entry to the west favored by most emigrants. Without doubt, Hanson and Lavina Stevens went there, the shortest route from their home in Keokuk, Iowa.
From Keokuk to Kanesville
According to Rebecca, the Stevens left Keokuk in April, probably the middle or latter part. The journey to Kanesville was likely unpleasant. The Mississippi River bottom was awakening from winter. The ground was thawing. That plus spring rains transformed roads into pure mud. Wagons frequently became mired, requiring extra teams to pull them out, with men cutting poles to pry the wheels loose. They encountered the cold, often freezing winds of the plains. There were streams and rivers to cross—some served by ferries or bridges, others not. Even the bridges, such as they were, often had to be repaired by emigrants. There were dangers—to be repeated over and over again on the Trail—crossing these rivers. Polly Coon (1852) recalled coming to a ferry over the Iowa River. She saw one ferry transport three yoke of oxen that were not chained to the boat. The oxen became disturbed, shifting the weight of the boat; it sank, drowning three men, one an emigrant boy of 16 years. "I have never felt more sympathy for any distress than for the emigrants, who stood on the bank and saw one of their number sink in the rapid water without being able to render any assistance. A father, mother, brothers, and sisters bewailing their loss."
The grass was thin, leaving little forage for animals. Emigrants depended on local farmers for hay for their animals and food for themselves. But Iowa was sparsely settled, especially the further west they traveled. Emigrant diaries universally remarked on how desolate the region was. Entire days would pass without seeing a single farm. If they did, corn and other provisions were expensive. Whenever possible, they would stay overnight at local farmers' homes, cook on their stoves, sleep on their floors. Some farmers were generous. Others were not. Polly Coon told of one farmer charging 30 cents per yoke for hay. "I record this as a demonstration of the depth of heartlessness to which the human heart is capable of arriving." Further on, their train came to a farm with a well. The owner, "having a little too much of the swine's nature for a specimen of humanity," refused to allow them to draw.
Western Iowa may have been lacking regular habitation, but no emigrant was alone. Most of the time other wagons were visible, all bound for Kanesville. One diarist of 1852 wrote: "For long distances, the throng was so great that the road was literally filled with wagons as far as the eye could reach." This was to be true for the next five months. The solitary train was rare indeed.
Kanesville and crossing the Missouri River
Most emigrants reached Kanesville (now Council Bluffs) in May, well pleased to be rid of Iowa. The town did not impress them. There was but one street with somewhat dilapidated buildings, most made of logs. One emigrant described it as "not worth anything except for making money off the emigrants." Kanesville was founded in 1846 by the Mormons. Brigham Young had led them there after a mob killed their leader Joseph Smith. They spent the cold months at their "winter headquarters" on the west bank of the Missouri River opposite Kanesville (near present-day Omaha). Some 200 persons died during that winter.
A thousand Mormons were living there in 1852, when word came that all the faithful should go to Utah. Farms, cabins, and stores were immediately sold to the incoming settlers; prices were low. Their presence added to both congestion and fear, for many emigrants were as much afraid of Mormons as they were of Indians. The town was full of emigrants. Wagons were coming and going. It had the "atmosphere of a country fair." This was the place where last purchases were made: wagons, oxen, cattle, horses, and foodstuffs, often at very high prices (only whiskey was cheap). Letters were written to home.
Despite the rigors of the journey to reach the Missouri River, emigrants were still in good spirits. They now had to cross the river itself. There were three ferry crossings across the Missouri from eight to twelve miles from Kanesville. Timing was critical. All emigrants shared a sense of urgency to cross the river quickly, wanting to reach their destinations before winter set it. Moreover, the throng of animals was rapidly denuding the area of grass.
Emigrants had been crossing the Missouri since April, when they could count on finding grass on the plains; the crossings continued into June. Lucy Cooke, having arrived at Kanesville on May 1, was told that already a large number of emigrants had crossed the river. Clarence Bagley (1852) congratulated himself on his comparatively early start on May 24; he wrote that thousands came after him. By May 10, 1852, there were thousands of wagons waiting to be ferried over. Wagon tongues were all pointed to the river's landing. There was a center train; on both sides other trains were arranged on parallel courses, gradually fanning out the farther back from the river one went. Several hundred wagons were thus closely interlocked. Some emigrants, on seeing the swarm of humanity, decided to return home. All around were camps of every kind, many intent on merrymaking, others engaged in devotional services. It was a city of tents. At one ferry landing there were only two scows, or flatboats, pulled by men with oars to ferry the emigrants with their wagons across the river. The ferrymen charged $4 a wagon. Each was limited to taking no more than two wagons and some cattle.
Crossing the Missouri River was a dangerous enterprise. The current was swift, and the water full of snags and driftwood. There were accidents and drownings daily. Eliza Ann McAuley (1852) wrote on May 11 of a "dreadful" accident. A boat tipped when the cattle rushed to one end, and in a moment there was a "mass of struggling men and animals in the water." One man drowned. On May 14 another boat sank, but happily no one died. Despite the dangers, emigrants were desperate to cross. They squabbled among themselves and with the ferrymen to be the first on board. Tensions were high. "The emigrants are pushing and crowding and frequently quarrelling and even fighting to get aboard the scows as quickly as they touch the shore, so great is their haste to resume their trip across the continent." E.W. Conyers (1852). The situation improved considerably by May 18, when a steamboat arrived. On May 19 the ferry charged $10 a wagon; two days later it was $14. The steamboat was able to take a dozen or more wagons at a time together with animals, making a dozen or more trips during the day and as many at night. Martha Read's (1852) company, for example, arrived in Kanesville on May 19; two days later it was able to take the steamboat across.
Forming emigrant companies
Emigrants would generally form themselves into companies for mutual protection. This might occur back home before departing, or at jumping-off points, or within a couple of days of crossing the Missouri River and venturing into Indian country. In the 1840s such companies were tightly organized affairs. Members of local communities would establish "emigrating companies" to study the feasibility of the trip and recruit other members. Organized along military lines, the men would elect a captain (if the company were large enough: a "colonel" or a "general") with other officers such as lieutenants, sergeants, quartermasters. They wrote by-laws clearly fixing the responsibilities of the officers and duties of the company members (only men) on the trip. They would engage a pilot or guide.
By the end of that decade, circumstances had changed. The Trail was now well marked. Guidebooks were available. Many families dared to make the trip alone. There were still some formally organized companies in 1852, but most were more loosely structured affairs, the core perhaps consisting of family or neighbors who traveled together from their homes, others joining more on the basis of chance. A captain was generally elected and duties defined, but not to the formal lengths of earlier emigrating companies. Some companies had no organization at all. Col. George B. Currey (1853) recalled that his company had no captain, only a common understanding that each member would do his part.
Sizes of companies varied. They had to be large enough for self-protection but not so large that the animals would compete with one another for scarce grass, water and fuel along the Platte. Ezra Meeker (1852) estimated that generally six animals pulled a wagon, and for every animal under a yoke there were another three loose ones: horses, cows (useful for fresh milk along the trail), and sheep. John Hailey (1853) recalled that he and his father had four ox teams and about 100 head of loose cattle. Sometimes cows were called upon to pull the wagons when the oxen tired. A typical company consisted of 10 to 20 wagons with 20 to 30 men, women and children. The Stevens family joined a particular company (there is no information what connection, if any, the family had with the company). But its members soon realized, probably not long after crossing the Missouri River, that the company was too large and needed to be split up. They held an outdoor meeting. A Mr. Dickson stood at one side and a Mr. Moser at another. Emigrants were invited to join up with one or the other. Hanson chose Dickson as his captain. The company had 23 wagons.
Membership of companies was fluid. Rarely did one remain intact throughout the journey. The trip always began harmoniously enough. But as hardships mounted, patience, discipline, and goodwill diminished proportionately. James David (1852) recorded at Chimney Rock, 12 days into the trip, that there was quarreling in every train. "Men are more irritable here than any place in the world." The causes of disintegration were several: people not doing their share of work, disagreements over the selection of camping sites, allocation of responsibility for care of the teams, or dissatisfaction with the pace of the trip. In many instances, the question was whether they should travel on Sundays. For the religious, this was deeply unsettling; some had even organized into "Sabbath-keeping" companies. But in time the realities of the journey became plain, and even they abandoned the practice. Company members preferring to "lay by" for a day to "recruit" (rest) their oxen or, all too frequently, to minister to their sick or bury their dead were also common sources of dissension--the others wanted to press on; after all emigrants had been advised repeatedly to move quickly, their lives depending on crossing the Cascades before the snows. W. Wadsworth, The National Wagon Road Guide (1858), wrote:
"It is astonishing to see how ‘nature will out’ [sic] upon the plains. Selfishness predominates; but character in every phase shows itself, and as to good judgment, in relation to matters of daily routine, every man knows his own to be best; that he is right, if all the rest differ from, and all they, with one another. One wants to rest on Sundays, another doesn’t; one drives too fast, another too slow; one would start early in the morning, another late; one will stop at noon, others will not; and to such an extent are these differences carried, it is no unusual circumstance to see the matter settled by division of the entire outfit, animals, tent, provisions, and even the wagon, by being cut in the middle and made into carts, and each party of two persons goes on its way rejoicing, perhaps; but quite likely, in less than two days the party of two will disagree, when one of them, with a well directed blow with an ax, will smash in a wheel of the cart; then follows another division . . ."
But even as companies disintegrated, they would soon reform into others—the need to travel in groups for protection was paramount.
There was a settled routine on the Trail. Toward late afternoon the company's captain would ride ahead to find a camping ground. Three things were essential: grass, fuel and water. Those at the front of the migration had the easiest time. Those who followed, the bulk of the emigration, often had to search one, two, or three miles off of the road to find grass. Frequently several trains camped at the same watering place, forming a transient village of several hundred people and a thousand or more cattle.
When emigrants stopped for the night, wagons were arranged in a large circle or corral, secured to one another by yokes and chains. Tents might be pitched between the wagons to elongate the circle if animals were to be placed inside the corral. The animals were then unharnessed, watered, and turned loose to feed and range at will with a lariat attached to each. Fires were lit (with wood if available, “buffalo chips” (dried buffalo feces) or sagebrush if not) and supper prepared. Before dark, the animals were brought into the corral and picketed within the enclosure; other companies allowed their stock to graze outside the camp but near it; still others might permit the animals to be one to two miles away. The men and larger boys took turns guarding the cattle and camp. While on the Platte River, emigrants were serenaded nightly by coyotes. At 3:00 in the morning, it then being daylight on the plains, the animals were moved outside the corral to feed until 5:30. At 4:00 or 4:30 everyone was up, breakfast prepared, tents struck, and the oxen brought in and yoked. By 6:00 the company was moving. In late morning, someone from the company would be sent ahead to find a suitable spot to "noon." At 11:00 or 12:00, the company would stop for an hour or two to allow the animals to graze and the company members to eat lunch. They pressed on again until evening.
Emigrants made the trip on foot. They generally did not ride in their wagons unless sick. Isaac Stevens walked barefoot, accompanied by his dog. As the sun beat hotter, drivers walking by the sides of the teams tried to escape the sun by taking a sidewise seat on the wagon tongue. Children, when tired, would also ride on the wagon tongue, often at their peril. The sick rode in wagons on feather beds. Both women and men often went barefoot, or wore moccasins after their shoes disintegrated from the grind of dry sand and heat. Women on the Oregon Trail in 1852 wore bloomers, favored because they enabled them to walk through sagebrush. These bloomers were made of short skirts and pants reaching to the shoe tops. “Slatted sunbonnets” were used for cover from the sun and dust. The bonnets came well over the face, and were made of gingham, seersucker, or some other material with thin wooden strips woven into the material for strength and ease of folding. “These old-fashioned sunbonnets may not have been beautiful, but they were a godsend to women on that long journey.” (Lucia Williams, 1851). Men wore flannel shirts with trousers of wool or linen (denim did not come into existence until the 1870s). If it rained, emigrants wore oilskin ponchos or umbrellas, and walked on.
First, the fire: Matches were often unavailable. The fortunate emigrants who had them in 1852 used friction matches, called "Lucifers," which were ignited by being pulled through folded sandpaper. Safety matches that ignited on the box they came in and made of phosphorous did not appear until the 1860s. Lucifers came in a block of wood split lengthwise into about 100 sticks, not separated entirely but each attached to one end of the block and broken off when needed. The block was coated for a half inch with sulphur and then tipped with a fulminating compound that would ignite by friction. To save their matches, emigrants frequently borrowed fire from their neighbors. The last resort was to rub a strip of cotton in gunpowder and then shoot it with a gun—quick but dangerous. At the conclusion of the evening's supper, the coals were covered and then reused in the morning.
Baking was the common cooking system on the Trail. The simplest method was merely to make a dirt hole, about six inches in diameter, push a rod into the dirt to create an air tunnel, and then insert wood or buffalo chips. The most popular cooking utensil was the Dutch oven, set over coals on short legs with coals laid on top of the lid. Another was the reflector oven, a tin cylinder either open in the back or with a door in the front. Utensils—pots, pans, kettles, cups, saucers, coffee pots—were made of tin. By the 1840s tinsmiths could be found in every town. Tin peddlers traveled throughout the country selling and repairing tinware. Although easy to clean, it rusted quickly and chipped easily.
Bread was the most commonly eaten food on the Trail. "Quick bread," or "mountain bread," baked in a Dutch oven, was a mixture of flour and water, fried in buffalo grease or lard. Emigrants used “saleratus” (baking powder) as the rising agent (saleratus, sold in packages, had become commercially available by 1840). After bread came bacon in popularity, often eaten twice a day. “Bacon” in the 19th century referred to a broad category of meat from a hog, including the sides and hams. But it spoiled easily and was one of the first provisions to be discarded. Beans and rice were popular. Beans were especially easy to prepare because they needed only to be simmered overnight and could keep for several days. Parched corn and cornmeal were also easy to cook and preserved well. Emigrants made porridge from cornmeal. Unrefined brown sugar was carried in large quantities. Produced in both the Caribbean area and southern states, it was sold in loaves resembling conical hats. Emigrants also brought dried fruit and vegetables. The coffee they drank was made of green coffee beans, which had to be roasted in a skillet and then ground (pre-roasted coffee, which preserves the flavor, did not appear until the Civil War). The least desired food was hardtack, sometimes called "sea biscuits" or "pilot bread," often dipped in coffee. It was a mixture of flour and water rolled into dough one half inch thick and then baked slowly in an oven. It kept for years, and was the only food available when it rained. Crackers were similar to hardtack, but lighter because of a leavening agent.
Meals were simple. Pancakes were favored at breakfast. They were easy to make, requiring only flour, water, baking soda and a skillet. Also common in the morning were beans, well greased with slab bacon and slowly simmered overnight. In addition to bread, emigrants ate soda biscuits, muffins, or cornmeal “johnnycakes.” A typical breakfast and dinner included (besides bread) fried bacon (or buffalo meat or antelope if available), tea or coffee. The noon meal was a simple affair. Coffee was served every morning. Service was plain, perhaps a board placed over ox yokes or an oil cloth laid on the ground with ox yokes as seats. Butter was also available. Milk cows were often tied to the tailgates of the rolling wagons. The milk was placed in a container and allowed to sit. The cream, after rising to the top, was placed in a churn carried in or attached to the side of the wagon. As the churn bounced over the rough road, the cream turned into butter. But, as the emigrants pushed further along the Platte River and the grass became more scarce, cows produced less milk until none at all.
On crossing the Missouri, emigrants had left the United States and were now in Indian country. There followed a true clash of cultures. Indians treated the emigrants with a mix of begging, intimidation, extortion, thievery, and heroism. Emigrants regarded the Indians with a mix of pathological fear, contempt, anger, suspicion, gratitude, respect, and sometimes sadness. The relationship was complex.
Indians on the Platte River impressed the emigrants differently. Martha Read's (1852) company, having just crossed the Missouri, was visited by Omahas, whom she described as "more civilized" because they had a missionary to instruct them. But, a year earlier Amelia Hadley (1851) described them as the most "filthy, thievish set and are mostly naked." The Omahas for Lucia Williams (1852) were a "beggarly set." She thought better of the Pawnees, "the tallest, strongest and most savage, also the noblest looking of any of the tribes I have seen." To John McAllister (1852) the Pawnees were a "lazy, begging tribe of Indians." The Sioux commanded the most respect: "a tall, athletic and symmetrical tribe. The squaws are quite pretty. They seem too proud to beg as their brother redskins the Pawnees do," (Marietta Cummings, 1852); a “smarter race than either the Omahas or Pawnees,” (Harriet Buckingham, 1851); a “kind and hospitable, and the most polite and cleanest tribe on the road,” (Amelia Hadley, 1851).
Emigrants were constantly on the alert for Indian attacks. Their guns were always cocked and loaded—itself the cause of many accidents, for the mishandling of firearms, after drowning, was most common cause of accidental deaths. This fear was much exaggerated in 1852. The United States government had entered into a treaty with the Indians at Horse Creek (35 miles east of Fort Laramie) in 1851. Representatives of the federal government met with over 10,000 plains Indians. The treaty established tribal boundaries, secured peaceful relations among the tribes themselves, authorized the construction of military posts in Indian territory, and provided for the punishment of any depredations committed by either Indians or whites and the restitution of property. The treaty involved only Indians east of the South Pass. For those west of it, Indian agents traveled annually over the Trail beginning in 1852 to keep the peace. The treaty lasted only three years, but that was long enough to protect the 1852 emigration.
Emigrants, however, knew nothing of the treaty. Even had they known, likely they would not have been comforted. They were constantly on edge and ready for a fight. In times of danger, real or perceived, and certainly every evening, they would circle their wagons for protection. Attacks, when they did occur, were rarely against encircled wagons. More frequently, emigrants were killed while hunting or otherwise away from the train, while on guard duty, when chasing Indians to recover a stolen animal, in heated altercations at "toll" bridges, or when tribute demanded by Indians was refused. Stories of Indian attacks in the 1840s and 1850s were vastly exaggerated. One authority estimated an average of perhaps 27 emigrants killed per year in the 1850s. Forty-five occurred in 1852, almost all west of the South Pass, principally along the Snake and Humboldt Rivers to California and on the Applegate Trail to southern Oregon. The latter was perhaps the single most dangerous stretch. The Stevens' route for the most part avoided these areas. Nonetheless, there was an active rumor mill on the Trail. A bloodless confrontation between emigrants and Indians miles up the road mutated into a massacre miles below.
In 1852 trouble between Indians and emigrants began almost immediately, even before emigrants had crossed the Missouri. In May, while waiting to cross the river, Indians on the far side of the river were seen signaling to their fellows on the United States side. Convinced that they were killing and scalping emigrants who had succeeded in getting across, an excited mob began shooting their rifles across the river. "It was a terror. Everyone who had a shooting iron was doing his level best [to shoot Indians]."
On crossing the river, emigrants saw a throng of Pawnees, thousands of them, on the river bottom and on the bluffs where Omaha now stands. They swarmed into emigrant camps to beg, steal or trade. At the Elkhorn River, within a day or so of crossing the Missouri, Pawnee Indians commandeered a pontoon bridge of willow rushes constructed days earlier by emigrants. The Indians demanded payment to cross, perhaps a steer for each team or from a dime to five dollars for each wagon. Many emigrants refused to pay, regarding the toll as exorbitant, and offered instead flour, rice, sugar, or less money. In one incident near Fort Laramie, a party of 15 well-armed Indians blocked the path of Martha Read's (1852) company, not allowing it to pass until the emigrants gave them something. In such circumstances, sometimes the emigrants did; sometimes they did not. On this occasion, the emigrants, feeling secure in their 17 wagons, did not. The Indians left. There were many such confrontations, each vexing but bloodless.
If in 1852 Indians posed little threat, their begging and thievery truly challenged the emigrants. It began as soon as they crossed the Missouri. A small group of Indians was bold enough to ride into a herd of oxen, separate one, and drive it off as the emigrants gave chase. The day saw other similar raids. Often, when emigrants "nooned" or camped for the night, Indians would wander into the camp begging for food, generally, albeit reluctantly, provided by emigrants just to keep the peace. If emigrants were not watchful—and they always were—Indians would rummage through a wagon to find something to take. The sum of these experiences left a dismal impression: "I have been much disappointed in what I have seen of the Indians. I thought when I got away from the white man's settlements, where they could roam at will and live uncontaminated by society, that we should see some of those noble qualities that have been attributed to them by so many writers. But Oh dear, what a contrast. Filthy, degraded, deceitful and treacherous. They seem to me to be but a little above the brute creation."
But there were also encounters of a different kind. Throughout the journey, emigrants would trade ("swap," as the Indians called it) with the Indians, most often for moccasins (sand and rocks took a toll on emigrants' shoes), buffalo robes, salmon on the Snake River when emigrants' provisions were running desperately low, or horses and potatoes obtained from the Cayuse and Nez Perce in the Oregon Territory. Occasionally, Indians offered to purchase an emigrant child (producing shock and horror from the parents) or an emigrant wife (arousing much humor from the husband). Indian assistance was crucial at dangerous river crossings—especially on the Snake, Deschutes, and Columbia Rivers—to assist in ferrying people and property, and driving livestock across. More than once an Indian risked his own life when the crossing went wrong, jumping in the river to save an emigrant.
Having crossed the Missouri, emigrants found themselves in a "veritable sea of tents." It seemed as though they were in one great train, never out of sight of each other. Spirits were high. This was always the way at the beginning. Peter Burnett (1843), years earlier, recalled how their journey began in “sunshine and song, in anecdote and laughter, but these all vanished before we reached its termination.” "Music, singing and merrymaking can be heard in all directions," E.W. Conyers (1852) recorded in his diary. "At one camp, they are dancing after the inspiring strains of the violin. At the adjoining camp, they are holding a religious meeting. And still at another, many families are seated around a large campfire, prepared by the young men of that train, for a special evening chat. Everyone seemingly happy. No fear of being attacked by Indians." James David's (1852) impression was less approving but in substance no different. The conduct of the men having just crossed the Missouri was "wild and boisterous." A few days later, he described a "very disagreeable evening; all confusion; women scolding, men swearing, children crying; dogs barking; cattle bellowing; wolves howling; fiddles in almost every camp; boys eyeing and ogling the girls cooking; some laughing; some praying; some crying; coyotes yipping; guns cracking."
Within days, however, the mood darkened. There was the tedium of the prairie landscape—flat, treeless, hot and dry. Walking every day in the heat impressed upon the emigrants the weariness of the journey. But it was the outbreak of cholera that produced the greatest effect. Originating in India, cholera first appeared in the United States in 1832-34. Few communities, however remote, were safe. It then disappeared, reappearing fifteen years later in New York in December 1848, brought by a ship with infected passengers. By May of 1849, some 5,000 people in the city had died. Carried by railroad and inland waterway steamers, the disease made its way west. It reached the port of New Orleans and from there up the Mississippi River. It ravaged the Mississippi Valley. St. Louis lost a tenth of its population; Cincinnati suffered as badly. The disease flourished in those infant cities with their inadequate water supplies, primitive sanitation, and crowded, transient populations. In Belleville, Illinois, for example, there were 20 new cases a day at the height of the epidemic. Every store closed and business stopped. Bonfires were lit, their smoke to purify the air.
Cholera is caused by a motile bacterium, which enters the human intestine, producing an acute disease. It required decades for medical science to understand this. Prior to 1854 scientists had noted that the disease seemed to flourish in crowded communities with decaying filth and stench. They concluded that the cause lay in the air, a "miasma." For the pious in 1849, however, just as earlier, cholera was seen as chastisement of a nation sunk in materialism and sin. Understanding the disease came slowly: in 1854 it was discovered that cholera is in fact water-borne; by the second half of the 1860s the need to boil drinking water and to disinfect clothing and bedding were understood; the bacterial organism was finally identified in 1883.
Cholera struck the Oregon Trail in 1849 and 1850, but for some reason the emigration of 1851 was spared. It struck again in 1852, fiercely. The worst occurred on the Platte River portion of the Trail, diminishing (although without disappearing) by the time the overlanders reached the higher elevation of the Laramie Mountains west of Fort Laramie. The presence of thousands of emigrants on the plains made for unsanitary campsites, especially in the use of water. The Platte River flowed over a sandy bottom, carrying with it a great amount of silt. Undrinkable, emigrants added corn meal, others alum, to the water; in 20 minutes the silt had settled to the bottom, and the water on top became reasonably clear. More commonly, though, emigrants dug small wells, hundreds of them, two to three feet deep, from which they drew their water. These wells were then reused by emigrants who followed. Cholera bred in them. Some emigrants in 1852 did intuitively recognize the link between these wells and the disease, and thus avoided them. Most did not.
Medical science in 1852 was quite rudimentary. Most states had repealed legal restrictions on the practice of medicine; others never had them. Requirements for graduation from medical school were rudimentary—in Iowa six months of reading medicine were sufficient. The graduate then bought a pound of calomel (a chalky mercury compound used as a cathartic but often given in doses large enough to produce mercury poisoning), an ounce of quinine, some morphine, and he was ready to practice. To build their practice, physicians advertised in local newspapers with extravagant claims of their medical practice and their mastery of secret cures. They relied on the nostrums of the past, such as bloodletting and calomel. Laudanum (an opium derivative) was freely dispensed. During the first invasion of cholera in 1832, the President of the New York State Medical Society recommended that the rectum be plugged with beeswax or oilcloth to check the diarrhea. In 1849 The Gazette of Davenport, Iowa, proposed the following antidote to cholera: personal cleanliness; keeping regular hours; being temperate in ones drinking; eating beef, mutton, poultry, rice and bread but avoiding fresh pork, veal, fresh fish, oysters and crude vegetables.
There was no lack of home remedies. Most involved whiskey (or some alternate distilled liquor), recommended for treating everything from snakebite and sore throat to burns and rheumatism. Emigrants would take five to 10 gallons per wagon. Some added it to poor water as a purifier. To stretch the whiskey, molasses was added, making “skullvarnish.” One emigrant recalled how he and his brother came down with cholera. Their mother gave them hot whiskey to drink; she then soaked flannel cloth in the heated liquor and placed it on their stomachs. He reported that they were cured. Another emigrant recommended pouring brandy into a dish, adding sugar, and then setting it on fire; when all the alcohol had burned, water was added to the residue and given to the patient. He described this as a "popular and effective" remedy. W. Wadsworth, author of The National Wagon Road Guide, endorsed brandy as the “best available remedy upon the plains.” He recommended drinking a little bit every day as an antitoxin for snakebite, surmising, perhaps tongue in cheek, that the brandy might even kill the snake. There were other popular remedies: calomel, very popular, often with liberal doses of laudanum; cayenne pepper; sulphur; turpentine used as a disinfectant; powdered alum; and vinegar (an all-purpose tonic, even for sick cattle).
The first symptoms of cholera—diarrhea, acute spasmodic vomiting, and painful cramps—appeared without warning. Dehydration followed, often accompanied by cyanosis, giving the suffering a characteristic appearance of a blue and pinched face and cold, darkened extremities. Vomiting, usually coming last, frequently proved fatal. While some people lingered for days, most died within hours, and always in great pain. Untreated, cholera kills one-half of all those infected. One historian estimated that in 1852 nine of 10 people who died on the Trail perished from cholera.
The effects of cholera on emigrants were devastating: “The scourge of cholera on the Platte in 1852 is far beyond my power of description. In later years I have witnessed panics on shipboard, have experienced the horrors of the flight of a white population from the grasp of Indians, but never before nor since witnessed such scenes as those in the thickets of the ravages of cholera. It did seem that people lost all control of themselves and others. Whole trains could be seen contending for the mastery of the road by day.” Ezra Meeker (1852). Rare indeed is the diary that is silent on the subject. While on the Platte River, not long after beginning his journey, E.W. Conyers (1852) wrote: "The sound of the violin and merrymaking has been seldom heard during the past week, and pleasure has given way to mourning and lamentation. Many new-made graves are to be seen by the roadside as we pass along." Another emigrant of 1852 recalled: "We were always passing camps where the people had pulled to the side of the road to bury their dead. You could follow the Oregon Trail by watching for newly made graves. There were hundreds and hundreds of them."
Almost every family had a tragic story to tell. One emigrant remembered years later passing a company that had buried six of its members during the night with six more in the camp waiting burial; another company had buried a family of seven in one grave in one day and night; and in yet another 40 people died in two nights and one day. Willis Boatman (1852) wrote of the anguish experienced by one family on the loss of a son: "Oh, the agonizing cry of that mother has never left my memory." One day later, it lost a second. A few days afterwards, the father was not feeling well in the evening; at 10:00 the next morning, he bid his family goodbye, advising them to return home. They did. Many other emigrants did the same. Ezra Meeker (1852) was deeply affected upon meeting 11 wagons turning back, not a man among them. Happily, cholera did not strike the Stevens family.
Diseases were not unknown on the Oregon Trail—smallpox, mountain fever, measles, and others. Scurvy appeared in the latter part of journey after several months of salt pork and pancakes. But cholera was different. It struck terror among the emigrants. Some lost their heads, driving their teams furiously believing they could outrun the sickness. There was a veritable stampede, "a strife for possession of the road to see who should get ahead." Whole trains were in competition, and often with bad blood. Companies disintegrated. Isaac Constant (1852) wrote of many people who had turned off the Trail, ministering to their sick or burying their dead. But other members of the company, either unwilling or afraid to wait, pressed ahead. This brought out the best and worst in people. "Some of our teams left us, not wishing to stay, not thinking him sick enough to lay by. We thought hard of them." James David (1852). Only three wagons remained with the family.
Ezra Meeker (1852) recalled the "pathetic thought" that came upon the emigrants as they trudged along, realizing that all the graves they saw were recent ones, graves from earlier years having disappeared. They were to bury their loved ones in the empty plains, no trace left. Some emigrants marked the graves. One diarist recorded the pathos of coming across the following marker, etched only with a pen knife: "Our only Child, Little Mary, Four Years Old."
Most emigrants did not mark the graves. They feared that either wolves or Indians (for clothes) would dig them up. They were correct about the wolves but not the Indians. The most common method of burial was to dig the grave in the middle of the road, relying upon the thousands of wagons that followed to erase any evidence. Or, the company's animals might be corralled over the grave during the night. There are only a handful of gravesites on the Trail known today. The issue of a casket was difficult. The preference was to place the body in a coffin. But wood was scarce along the Platte, so emigrants cannibalized from nearby abandoned wagons, generally using the double bottom. In lieu of a casket, the body would be wrapped in a blanket or bedclothes, and then perhaps covered with the sideboards of a wagon. A brief service followed—a hymn, a passage from the Bible, the Lord's Prayer, and a few words of exhortation. The emigrants then sadly moved on.
The Platte River
After crossing the Missouri, the immediate destination was the Platte River, a little more than a day away from Kanesville. Emigrants from Kanesville followed the north side of the river known as the "Mormon Trail,” opened in 1847. Those coming from St. Joseph picked up the Platte River at Grand Island; they followed the southern bank of the river, the original Oregon Trail. The Stevens undoubtedly took the Mormon Trail. That is the route we shall describe.
The journey on the "Great Platte River Road" took about 45 days. The Mormon Trail itself roughly paralleled the Platte but frequently departed from it, always to connect again at some point (to the immense pleasure and relief of emigrants). It was a difficult 45 days. Ezra Meeker (1852) wrote of the change in attitude shortly after crossing the Missouri: “The whole atmosphere, so to speak, seemed changed. Instead of the discordant violin and more discordant voices, with the fantastic night open-air dances, with mother earth as a floor, there soon prevailed a more sober mien, even among the young people, as they began to encounter the fatigue of a day’s drive and the cares of a night watch.” As the trip up the Platte progressed, the road became increasingly sandy, inches deep, forcing the yoked animals to pull hard. The thousands of animals, both yoked and not, kicked up so much dust as to blind and choke the emigrants (this was a problem for much of the journey). “It was no fool of a job to be mixed up with several hundred head of cattle, and only one road to travel in.” (Amelia Knight, 1853). When it rained, the emigrants had to deal with mud. The heat was oppressive. Mosquitoes almost devoured them, sometimes so thick that horses had to wear nets.
The first river emigrants on the Mormon Trail had to cross was the Elkhorn, eight feet deep and twelve feet wide. They employed a variety of methods to cross this and other rivers. Sometimes they built rickety bridges. At other crossings, enterprising fellows ferried emigrants across, always for a charge (generally about $3 or $4 per wagon). If neither was available, and often neither was, the size of the river determined the method of crossing. The prairie schooner was designed for river crossings. If the river were not too deep, the wagon bed could be blocked up a few inches to keep the water from seeping in. If the river were running particularly fast, a rope would be tied to the axle—or perhaps to the axles of several wagons—and then pulled across with ropes, the teamsters wading on the downstream side of the animals to steady them. If trees were available, a raft of logs would be built, the wagon partially disassembled and the wheels removed, and then the wagon rafted across. Or, two logs would be cut and dug out, then constructed like a catamaran with cross poles, and wagon wheels placed in the dug-out portions. In the worst case, the wagon could be disassembled altogether, leaving only the box, which then operated as a boat. These boxes were tightly constructed for this very purpose. The boards were caulked as further assurance against leakage, or green buffalo hides would be sewed together, two per boat, stretched tightly over the wagon beds and then left in the sun to dry. A rope was attached to the boat at both ends, and people and gear ferried across.
Past the Elkhorn emigrants had "deep, miry" sloughs to cross. They then came to Loup Fork, a branch of the Platte. In 1852 there was a ferry, quite an ordinary one of the day—a boat with a rope suspended over the river. The charge was $3 per wagon. Some took the ferry; others forded the river. The fording was safe, but it required care in crossing because of the quicksand at the bottom. The wagon bottoms had to be raised. It was here that Cecelia Adams (1852) saw her first "curiosity" of the plains, the horned toad, which emigrants incorrectly believed to be poisonous.
The Platte River basin, flat and treeless, produced strange optical effects. Distances deceived. Natural monuments, miles away, seemed close enough to touch. Wagons in the distance, only the covers showing, appeared double their actual size. Sometimes the surface of the plains a mile away seemed to be a lake, its waters rolling like waves. But most intriguing was how objects in the distance appeared inverted. W. Wadsworth, The National Wagon Road Guide (1858), on a trip in 1852, recalled a Sabbath morning when he saw a funeral procession of nine persons on the banks of the Platte suspended in the air and all upside down “as if moving on their heads”.
The Platte River was wide, perhaps a half-mile or more across, but shallow, in some places only a few inches deep. Its bottom was of quicksand, dangerous if wagons or animals paused while crossing. The only wood available was cottonwood and willow on the timbered islands. Otherwise, there was nothing but barren bluffs and sandy hills. Alkali was everywhere, and emigrants took special care to prevent their animals from drinking the alkali ponds and lakes. They were not always successful, and the animals often died.
What timber was available grew along the banks of the Platte or on its many islands. By the second week of their journey, however, timber became more scarce. Emigrants gathered up what wood they could find, for they knew there would be no more as they moved further west. They now used buffalo chips which littered the plains. When camped for the evening, the women (and children), sacks in hand—some wearing gloves, others not—scoured the plains picking up the chips for cooking. The fuel was generally satisfactory, for it burned hot and without a smell (to the surprise of the emigrants). Further on, near Fort Laramie, they used sagebrush which grew in abundance on the plains. Like buffalo chips, it burned hot but quickly, still generally serving the purpose, however. On those occasions when neither was available, dinner was served cold, often consisting only of "sea biscuits" (hardtack).
All emigrants experienced the unforgettable Platte River storm. One occurred on June 2, described in several diaries; another on June 14; and another on June 18. Dark clouds appeared. Rain followed, in torrents. There were hailstones large as eggs. The wind blew away tents and even wagons, at least those not anchored down. Eliza Ann McAuley (1852) wrote on June 2: "I had lain down on a pile of bedding in the tent, and when I awoke the bed was nearly afloat, and two of the boys were trying to hold the tent up. Finding the attempt useless, they abandoned the tent and all took to the wagons, which were anchored to stakes driven in the ground." Amelia Knight described a storm in 1853:
"We had a dreadful storm of rain and hail last night and very sharp lightening. It killed two oxen for one man. We have just encamped on a large flat prairie, when the storm commenced in all its fury. Every brute was gone out of sight, cows, calves, horses, all gone before the storm like so many wild beasts. I never saw such a storm. The wind was so high I thought it would tear the wagons to pieces. Nothing but the stoutest covers could stand it. The rain beat into the wagons so that everything was wet. In less than two hours the water was a foot deep all over our campgrounds. As we could have no tents pitched, all had to crowd into the wagons and sleep in wet beds, with their wet clothes on, without supper."
The men found the stock four miles away. When Harriet A. Loughary (1864) heard thunder indicating an approaching storm:
"[e]very man and woman and child was working, yelling, screaming, unyoking oxen, unhooking horses, driving stakes, pounding oxen over the head to subdue them, digging holes in the ground to bury the wagon wheels. Meanwhile, down came the hail followed by blinding sheets of rain, lighting, sharp peals of thunder, drenching both man and beast, added to all darkness closed down upon us, fireless, tentless, and supperless. Yet the guards must go on in their order, cold, wet, and hungry, while all others crouched in or under wagons and waited, like Paul, for day. This is only a faint description of a Platte Storm."
The monotony of the trip was occasionally broken by the sight of buffalo, an animal that emigrants had only read about. On seeing them, men jumped on their horses and gave chase. But buffalo were very tough to kill—they were shy, difficult to approach, and fast. And it took several bullets to bring one down. When they did, emigrants enjoyed a feast. Often there was more than enough meat for the company; it would be shared with neighboring camps. Buffalo could present a threat as much as a thrill. Easily stampeded, they would race over the plains in huge herds. The only notice of their approach was dust clouds in the distance and sound like thunder. Emigrants either raced to get out of the way or quickly circled the wagons and shot the lead buffalo in order to divide them around either side of the wagons. Rebecca Stevens described one scene: "One day we saw a big cloud of dust, and through the dust we could see hundreds of Indians riding toward us. We stopped the train, corralled the wagons and got ready to defend ourselves. When the cloud of dust got nearer, we discovered that instead of Indians on horseback it was a big herd of buffalo. The men folks went out on horseback after them and killed enough that we all had all the buffalo meat we needed."
Emigrants' own animals presented another danger. Near Fort Hall at the break of dawn, Elizabeth Wood (1851) was awakened by a disturbance among the cattle, frightened by a dog barking: “They ran against the wagons, broke the wheels and tongue of ours, and bawled and pitched around till they finally got loose and ran off in a stampede. They kept on running until something in the distance frightened them back again, and they returned as furious as they went, when the men with great difficulty managed to stop them.” The captain ordered all the dogs shot; some refused, threatening retaliation if their dogs were killed. The issue unresolved, the wagons started off, but for some reason the cattle stampeded again. The remaining dogs were killed. This experience was not unique to Wood’s company.
The journey was not without its diversions. The landscape of the plains, unfamiliar to the emigrants, revealed its own natural wonders—"curiosities," as emigrants called them. There were prairie dog towns and prickly pears (an edible cactus plant with flat, fleshy pads) "enough to astonish anyone in the States," wrote Abigail Scott (1852). About three to four weeks into the journey they came upon the natural rock formations of the Platte: Ancient Bluff Ruins; then Castle Rock; after that Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock, both visible for days; a day later Scott's Bluffs; and several days later Independence Rock. All (except Independence Rock on the Sweetwater) were on the south side of the river, although easily visible from the north. Emigrants would visit these formations (those from the north fording the river on their horses), climbing them either to chisel or write their names with paint or tar, or to search for the names of family and friends who had passed by earlier.
There was a tremendous throng on both sides of the Platte. At Fort Kearney (about two weeks into the journey) John Kerns (1852) counted 5,000 wagons in sight. Clarence Bagley (1852) could see a constant procession of wagons on both sides of the river for “hundreds" of miles. Abigail Scott (1852) climbed a bluff on horseback, the highest she could find, and saw emigrant wagons, cattle, and horses in either direction "as far as the eye could reach." The throng thinned out the further it traveled up the Platte—some
emigrants pushing on as quickly as they could to escape the congestion and cholera, others lagging behind. But no emigrant company was ever alone.
Within a month, in the region of Chimney Rock and Fort Laramie, the grass was becoming even more scarce and the sand deeper. Chimney Rock was considered the end of the prairie and the beginning of mountainous part of the Trail. Emigrants were already ascending toward the Rocky Mountains. E.W. Conyers (1852) noted that the animals were "beginning to suffer and lag." The oxen were becoming lame from trudging over the hot, sandy, and stony roads (a common treatment was to cut pieces of hide from dead oxen beside the road, dry them, and then wrap the leather around the ox's hoof). Emigrants were abandoning their wagons or their property to lighten the load: first a table, a cupboard, a bedstead, or a cast-iron stove; then bedding; and soon their provisions (especially flour and bacon). Sometimes a sign would invite all to take what they wanted; other emigrants destroyed their food—if they could not keep it, no one else should have it. Ezra Meeker (1852) recalled hundreds of abandoned wagons and hundreds of tons of food. On July 27, 1852, Captain Howard Stansbury, a surveyor with the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, while on the North Platte, noted: “The road has been literally strewn with articles that had been thrown away. Bar-iron and steel, large blacksmiths’ anvils and bellows, crow-bars, drills, augers, gold washers, chisels, axes, lead, trunks, spades, ploughs, large grindstones, baking ovens, cooking stoves without number, kegs, barrels, harness, clothing, bacon, and beans were found along the road.” Some called it “Camp Sacrifice” because of the massive unloading of wagons.
Justice on the Trail
The Trail was not free of crime, including murder. The most common offense was neglect of guard duty, which might be punished by expulsion from the company. The penalty for stealing was whipping with a long ox lash. Murder was more complicated.
Several diarists of 1852 mentioned an incident that occurred around the Sweetwater River. An older man and his young employee were constantly quarreling. Finally, the older man killed the other while hunting. He confessed but boasted that the company would not find the body. It did. A jury was empanelled, and the killer condemned to death. Two or three wagons were run together with their tongues raised in the shape of a fork. The condemned was made to stand on boxes with a rope around his neck. The boxes were kicked out from under him. Origen Thomson (1852) was eminently satisfied with the process: “This is the way in which justice is meted out on the Plains—without impediment of legal proceedings.”
Colonel William Thompson (1852) recalled an incident. Two men, unknown to the company, traveled with it for protection but kept to themselves, even camping separately. Some of the company thought they were Mormons; others believed them merely "selfish." One day near Independence Rock the company noted that one of the two was missing. On being questioned, the other gave an evasive explanation. He seemed anxious to move on and quickly left the company, making a night's drive. The company decided to investigate. It sent two men on horseback back down the road. They found the body beneath the ashes of a camp fire, buried in a shallow grave. They rode all night to rejoin the company. A party was sent after the murderer. He was soon overtaken. When the company caught up with the group, a council was held. Perhaps a hundred wagons were halted for the proceeding. The man was convicted, and at that point confessed, begging for mercy. There being no trees, three wagons were run together, their tongues raised to form a tripod. A rope was attached to the center and then a noose placed around the neck of the "trembling, writhing, begging wretch. But he had committed a cruel, cold-blooded murder and his crime could not be condoned." He was placed on the back of a horse, and "the wretch was swung into eternity." The company buried him. His property was sold and the money distributed to the "proper owners." "Such was the swift but terrible justice administered on the plains. Without law or officers of the law, there was no other course to pursue consistent with safety to the living."
About 35 days into the journey, emigrants came to Fort Laramie, just two miles south of the Platte on the Laramie River. Fort Laramie was built in 1846 by the American Fur Company. Three years later the company sold it to the United States government, and the fort became a military post. Emigrants welcomed the sight of trees there, the first they had seen for a long time. They welcomed too the sight of buildings. Sioux Indians, peaceful enough, lived nearby. "Trading posts," often no more elaborate than a tent with Indian tepees nearby, sold moccasins for emigrants' sore feet. In the summer of 1852 one trading operation was maintained by a Frenchman in a wagon with his Indian wife and several children. Fort Laramie boasted its own trading store, surprisingly well stocked according to Lucy Cooke (1852), but the prices were exorbitant. Nevertheless, Lucy's husband purchased two bottles of lemon syrup, a can of preserved quince, 24 Seidlitz Powders (a laxative), soda, candy, and a bottle of ink.
Beyond Fort Laramie, the Platte River forked into the North and South Platte Rivers. The Mormon Trail followed the North Platte. Just east of the Laramie River, the North Platte was about 100 feet wide and five to six feet deep. A ferry charged $5.00 per wagon, an enormous price to emigrants. Here, emigrants on the north side had to make a choice: either they continued along the North Platte as it took a broad loop north and then headed southwest directly to the Sweetwater River, or they crossed the North Platte and traveled through the Laramie Mountains four miles beyond Fort Laramie (known to emigrants as the "Black Hills" because of the scrubby pine and cedar, giving a black appearance). Those traveling on the south side of the North Platte either went through the Laramie Mountains or followed the southern bank of the North Platte skirting the north side of the mountains. Moving directly through the mountains was shorter (three days in all) but much rougher. Horn's Overland Guide (1852) recommended the north bank of the North Platte because the road was better and water more plentiful. E.W. Conyers (1852) and Clarence Bagley (1852) reported that many emigrants on the south side crossed to the north and followed the North Platte.
Emigrants then came to the Sweetwater River, a cool, beautiful stream presenting a welcome change from the silty water of the Platte River. The scenery changed dramatically. It was rough, romantic country with wild flowers in abundance. This too was welcome after the monotony of the flat, dreary plains. "We have now made the last camp on the Platte River, and are glad of it. I hope that I shall never see it again." (John Kerns, 1852). But the road was more difficult than before. It twisted and turned up and down hills and along cliffs 100 to 300 feet high. It was so steep and "sideling" that Jane Kellogg (1852) and her sister had to walk along the lower side of the road, pushing the wagon with all their strength to prevent it from tipping. The rocky road was hard on oxen and wagon wheels. At places, the sand was so deep that teams could hardly advance. They also passed a number of alkali beds, dangerous to cattle. Progress was slow.
They came to Register Rock, formed of sandstone, where emigrants carved their names or messages to family and friends behind; then to Independence Rock, perhaps the most significant monument of the Trail, over a mile in circumference and 136 feet tall. Emigrants would clamber up the rock to record their names—a visitor in 1860 estimated that it carried 40,000 to 50,000 inscriptions. It was symbolically important to reach Independence Rock by July 4, as it assured emigrants (correctly or not) that they were on schedule. Polly Coon (1852), who arrived two days later, commented on the "multitude" of people climbing over the rock. Someone had erected the American flag for a July 4 celebration, "a cheering symbol of American Freedom to the many weary, toiling emigrants." Six miles beyond was Devil's Gate, where the Sweetwater shoots through a granite rock. Polly Coon (1852) counted some 500 people marveling at it. There was game to hunt: antelope, deer, sage hens. There were also gooseberries, which the women picked and made into pies: "What a treat it did seem to do a bit of cooking again."
Emigrants followed the Sweetwater River for ten days, fording it nine or ten times until it became a mere creek. For some weeks now the emigrants had imperceptibly been ascending into the Rocky Mountains: Fort Laramie was 4,235 feet in altitude, Independence Rock almost 6,000, and the South Pass through the Rocky Mountains 7,085 feet. Nights were becoming colder. Ice was only a few inches below ground. There were snow banks, one was five feet deep, a marvel to the emigrants as it was July. Days continued to be hot. The landscape was treeless. Grass was even more scarce than before. "Nothing but sage, sage." (Esther Hanna, 1852). Abandoned wagons lined the road, consisting now of deep sand. "And the dust—how can I give any idea of it. We are almost blinded by it, my eyes are very sore. We all have to wear either veils or goggles, some wear handkerchiefs over their faces, and with all we are almost choked and blinded; it tries my patience worse than anything else." (Esther Hanna, 1852).
As the emigrants left the Platte River and moved into higher altitudes, cholera diminished. But there were other diseases to contend with, especially “mountain fever” (most likely a tick-borne infection now known as Colorado tick fever). Scurvy also became a problem after several months of pancakes. The oxen were giving out, often just falling down and dying in their yokes. Many diarists blamed these deaths on poisoning from alkali in the water. Surely simple fatigue and the absence of forage contributed mightily. Abigail Scott (1852) noted that the air was filled with the stench of dead oxen. Esther Hanna (1852): "We see more or less every day some of them in a state of putrefaction, which renders the air very offensive." On June 29 Hanna recorded that one of their oxen had died, and the rest were near death. On the next day they cut their wagon in two, fashioning it into a "car." They used the remainder of the wagon for fuel. Only four oxen were left; their cows were now yoked into service. The summer sun and the dryness of the air at the high latitude of the South Pass took a fearful toll upon the woodwork of wagons. Every bolt had to be tightened to the shrunken wood, and various techniques were employed to keep the tires on the wagon wheels.
Emigrants crossed the Rocky Mountains at the South Pass. They were surprised at the barrenness of the landscape, having supposed it to be covered with impenetrable forests. On the contrary, “all is bleak, barren, and desolate, save here and there, around some high mountain spring, within a sheltered nook, a small clump of stunted cedars or dark colored pines, manage to eke out an existence.” The ascent had been gradual, almost imperceptible. The pass itself was a plain 20 miles wide. Nothing especially marked this as the continental divide other than a marshy bog called Pacific Springs, about three miles into the plain, where the emigrants could see waters flowing west toward the Pacific Ocean. "It was a grand sight," wrote Jane Kellogg (1852). "We could look back where all streams emptied into the Mississippi river and forward all into the Pacific Ocean." More meaningful to emigrants was the fact that the Springs marked the eastern border of the Oregon Territory. They were now closer to their destination.
Just beyond South Pass, there were several alternate routes. Emigrants could take the Salt Lake City Road to the Little Sandy and Big Sandy rivers, and then to Fort Bridger (and Salt Lake City beyond). At the confluence of the Green and Big Sandy Rivers, they could take the Kinney Cutoff over a desert without grass or water. An alternate route, Sublette's Cutoff, ran directly west from the South Pass to the Bear River. It was a grueling trip, 50 miles across waterless land, but it shaved 80 miles and five days or so off the journey. Emigrants who chose the latter route often traveled by night, breaking camp at 2:00 in the morning and navigating by "head lights" (lanterns carried by boys walking ahead of the wagons).
Having reached the top of South Pass, they then began a gradual descent, faintly noticeable. The journey became even rougher. Elizabeth Wood (1851) wrote of the trip past Pacific Springs: “Came to bad roads after a while and found worse hills going down the Rocky Mountains than when ascending. We had hills to climb so steep we could hardly get up and so sidelong that we have to tie a rope to the underside of the wagon, let it extend over the top, and then walk on the hill above and hold on to the rope. When we gain this summit, we then have to go down one a great deal steeper; everything that is not tied in the wagon falls out.”
Clarence Bagley (1852) believed that the truly hard work of the Trail began after South Pass: long drives from one watering place to another; mountains to cross; little and often no grass for long distances; volcanic ash that filled the nose and the eyes. Indeed, the dust was so thick that wagon wheels sometimes sank to their hubs. Emigrants could not see even the wagons next to them. Col. George B. Currey's (1853) description was more graphic:
"From the South Pass, the nature of our journey changed, and assumed the character of a retreat, a disastrous ruinous retreat. Oxen and horses began to perish in large numbers, often falling dead in their yokes in the road. The heat-dried wagon, striking on rocks or banks, would fall to pieces. As the beasts grew weaker and the wagons more rickety, teams began to be doubled and the wagons abandoned. Whatever of strength of the jaded animals had to be forced out. Everything of weight not absolutely necessary must be abandoned. There was no time to pause and recruit the hungry stock because of the approaching autumn storms which on the high mountains meant impassable snow. The road was strewn with dead cattle, abandoned wagons, discarded cooking utensils, ox yokes, harness, chairs, mess chests, log chains, books, heirlooms. Clothing not absolutely required at present was left on the bare rocks of the rugged canyons. One set of wheels was left and a cart constructed. Men, women, and children walked beside the enfeebled teams, ready to give an assisting pushing up a steep pitch."
Esther Hanna (1852) thought the Green River, no doubt bloated by melting snows from the Rockies, the most dangerous she had yet encountered. A ferry was available, costing $2 to $3 a wagon with emigrants swimming their own livestock across. The hills for the next two days were terrible, worse in emigrants' opinions than the Laramie Mountains. They were steep to climb and to descend. At times, they had to double-team their wagons going up, and at the summit unhitch the oxen and let the wagons down over steep and sliding rocks by ropes wound around trees. Eliza McAuley (1852) noted that some trees were nearly cut through by these ropes.
Finally they came to the Bear River, 10 days from the South Pass. The small vexations continued: mosquitoes “so large and thick we could not see without goggles” and scorpions with exceedingly painful stings (emigrants carefully checked their clothing every morning). The Indians were back. For Abigail Scott (1852), the Shoshone were as "loathsome spectacles as one might wish to behold." Despite emigrants' fears, these Indians proved friendly, visiting often and bringing fish, berries, moccasins and beads to trade. At Ham's Fork, Cecelia Adams and Parthenia Blank (1852) came across an Indian village of 40 to 50 tents covered with buffalo skins. At the Bear River, Esther Hanna (1852) wrote of passing 200 Indians who surrounded them, wanting something to eat and begging for everything they saw.
While on the Bear River, they were still in the mountains. The going was very tough but the scenery magnificent. A few days more brought them to another "curiosity," Soda Springs. These were alkali springs bubbling through mineral cones, from two to 20 feet tall, all emitting hissing noises. The water boiled out over the cones, leaving a mineral sediment producing the conical formations. There were about 10 or 12 of them; only one remains today. A favorite sport of children was to place their faces over the powerful vapors to see how long they could hold them—not long. Emigrants invariably commented on what a fine soda drink the water made when acid or vinegar was added. A little beyond was Steamboat Spring, a favorite of the emigrants, about three feet high, which discharged water a couple of feet high with a kind of puffing sound similar to a steamboat. They passed a Shoshone village, a trading "station" and blacksmith "shop" (more likely tents).
Six miles from Soda Springs was a junction, one of several on the Trail: the road on the left led to California and on the right to Fort Hall and Oregon beyond. Those going to Oregon crossed the Portneuf River, easily forded by raising wagon beds, and then to Fort Hall. Founded in 1834 by American fur traders, Fort Hall was sold in 1837 to the Hudson's Bay Company. After Oregon became a United States territory in 1849, Hudson's Bay abandoned it, to be occupied again by traders. Esther Hanna (1852) noted the presence of a trading post and store, with provisions being sold "as reasonably as could be expected". A mail service connected to Salt Lake City, and Hanna left letters there. The fort, constructed of sunburnt bricks, was little larger than a barn. There were other buildings around. Diarists frequently commented on the presence of 50 to 100 rotting wagons, all marked with the letters "U.S." Emigrants rested and refitted for the journey up the Snake River.
By the time they reached Fort Hall, emigrants were thoroughly demoralized. Worse, the oxen were worn out ("jaded"). So many had already perished that some emigrants were forced either to cut their wagons down to carts or to yoke their cows. Food was perilously short. “We now take up our march for a long and weary journey of which seems as if there is no end. Toiling on and on, nothing out of day's occurrence happening to be worth mentioning, only tired and foot sore, all most wishing at times that we had not been carried away with fairy stories told by moneymakers of the far western country.” (Mary Ann Boatman, 1852).
The journey had grown incrementally more difficult ever since leaving the Missouri River. But now they were to face the most difficult and dangerous stretch of all. About two days past Fort Hall, emigrants came to the Snake River, which they were to follow for a month. They traveled on the south side to American Falls, and a few days later to Salmon Falls. The water at American Falls fell 40 feet over a mass of rocks, making a roaring noise heard for miles. Salmon Falls, smaller than American Falls, consisted of a series of falls for several miles. Neither exists any more, submerged by dams built much later. Here, the Shoshone Indians, clad only in a loincloth (to the disgust of Esther Hanna (1852)), caught salmon, which they traded with the emigrants. For many, this was their first taste; Hanna was fascinated by the color of the fish. On reaching the mouth of the Raft River, the Trail divided again: those going to California took the left fork to the Humboldt River and then over the Sierra Nevada; those to Oregon continued along the Snake.
Most of the Snake River coursed through a deep chasm some 500 or more feet deep. The road ran along its bluffs. The water was visible but inaccessible. At those few points where the river was accessible, animals had to be led down long, steep, narrow paths to reach it. Some could not make it back up. Polly Coon (1852) wrote of thirsty animals toiling for miles in the heat and dust with the sound of water in their ears, but neither man nor beast able to reach it. There was no water for cooking. Near the present town of Glenn's Ferry (Three Island) the bluffs declined, enabling the emigrants to cross the river if they chose. The northern route took them to the Boise River valley, where there was better grass, wood and timber. The southern route was dry and the bluffs so high that it was near impossible to reach the river.
The question of which route to take did not answer itself. The river was deep and swift, and the crossing one of the most dangerous of the Trail. Emigrants swam their horses and cattle over to islands in the river. Some animals sank without a struggle; men were lost in the same way, victim to the undercurrent. It required great nerve to undertake the danger. Many did not. Those who did disassembled their wagons, and then crossed in wagon boxes pulled by ropes. There were also ferrymen charging $6 per wagon and another $2 to tow the cattle and horses across. Having crossed the river, emigrants headed northwest to the Boise River (near the present-day city of Boise), a 5-day or more journey Both the northern and southern routes converged at Fort Boise, located at the mouth of the Boise River. Those who took the northern route had to cross the Snake River again. A ferry close by charged $5 per wagon.
When emigrants reached the Snake River, cholera struck again. They also had to deal with scurvy and mountain fever. "There is an immense sight of sickness on the road." (Martha Read, 1852). Clarence Bagley (1852) counted 120 graves in one day. The route was a virtual desert ever since leaving Fort Hall. Esther Hanna (1852), who took the southern route, noted how barren was the landscape, except for sagebrush: "Hundreds and thousands of acres with no vestige of anything but this hateful weed." The road was filled with rocks, which often damaged the wagons. Frequently, they were hemmed in between rocky bluffs on one side and the river's precipice on the other. Two or three men would have to hold the wagons to prevent them from crashing into the river. There were tough hills to climb and descend. The sand was fine as flour, and in some places wagons sank to the top of the forewheels. People were covered with it. "The dust is the greatest hardship to endure we have found on our whole journey." Polly Coon (1852). Cecelia Adams (1852) declared that the dust stirred up by the livestock and wagons was so thick "you cannot see ten feet and have to shut your eyes and go it blind."
Two days past Salmon River (following the north side of the Snake River) emigrants came to Bridge Creek, the worst crossing that Amelia Knight (1853) had experienced yet. Wide enough only for one person at a time, it was a natural bridge with water roaring 10 to 15 feet below. They unloaded the wagons and packed everything across by hand to an island. They had to stay all night on the island, waiting their turn to cross as there were so many people ahead of them. The water roared on either side of the island, with no room to pitch a tent. The next day they climbed down six feet of rocks, and then used a wagon bed, fastened with chains and ropes, to reach across from rock to rock. The empty wagons, cattle, and horses were taken further up the river, crossing by means of chains and ropes.
Most emigrants were on the Snake in August. The sun was scorching. There was no shade. Many traveled at night to escape the heat. James Akin's (1852) company laid by until sundown, then traveled until 2:00 in the morning; they stopped and slept until daylight; they then traveled until breakfast, stopped to allow their animals to graze (if they could find grass), and were off again. The oxen were exhausted, without grass or water. The air was filled with the stench of dead animals. "Dead cattle strewed in every direction, some lying in the road just where they fell." (Esther Hanna, 1852). On one occasion, Hanna's group chose to camp on the deep hot sand rather than go down to grass by the river and suffer the smell of dead cattle lying there.
As the oxen gave out, emigrants abandoned wagons and then yoked their remaining animals to their remaining wagons. More belongings, including food, were thrown away. Emigrants were exhausted. A day past American Falls Esther Hanna (1852) wrote: “We have the most awful roads today, steep rocky hills, and where it is a little level the sand is over shoe-mouth [sic] deep. Every step and scorching hot with the hot sun. Have to walk down and up the hills, they are so precipitous as to render them very dangerous." John Kerns (1852): "Bad luck to the man who is such a sinner as to have to seek refuge in such a country as this."
Emigrants were desperate and predators were eager to take advantage of them. At one Snake River crossing a trader talked emigrants into selling their cattle "for a song," according to Ezra Meeker (1852). He told them that they could float the Snake River all the way to The Dalles, only four days away he said. He promised a pleasant trip. One emigrant wrote that emigrants "bit like fish." Years later, Mary Ann Boatman (1852) explained:
"Now readers, just pause for a moment and give it one thought. People tired, footsore, provisions almost gone, cattle fatigued, lame foot, sore scarcely able to draw the empty wagon—at the very shortest time to make the end of the journey would be by land two months with jaded teams. Knowing nothing of the rapids and falls of the river and the narrow canyons its course traveled, and supposing those white men, more despicable than the Indians they lived with, had told them the truth, at once embarked in the frail, make-shift of the boat and gone a few miles down the rapid stream with its abrupt falls and steep banks on both sides. It was an impossibility to turn back. In that way, most all that started down were lost."
Hides were taken from dead cattle carcasses and stretched around wagon boxes to make them watertight. The trip was fine for the first few miles, but the chasm narrowed and the water ran faster. They shot through so quickly that they had no time to recognize their danger. The next few miles saw a succession of rapids, each followed by still water. Often women and children were placed ashore while men with ropes let the boats down over the rapids. But the river changed for the worse. The banks became so steep in places that it was impossible to manage the boats from the shore, so men had to jump into the water, in many places neck deep. They did this for days. Quite often they had to portage their boats around the especially dangerous rapids. Those who survived wanted no more of the river. Entirely destitute, they struggled to find the road again. One man was out for seven days, living only on berries and crickets. They became "objects of charity," according to Ezra Meeker (1852).
Having crossed the Snake River near Fort Boise, emigrants were now in modern-day Oregon. They struck a northerly course, fording the Malheur River and two days later Birch Creek. One day more brought them back to the Snake River. This would be their last sight of the river, today known as Farewell Bend. It would be another eight days from Farewell Bend to Grand Ronde (today La Grande). Five were spent on the Burnt River, which they had to cross several times, and another three on the Powder River. The route from Farewell Bend was a difficult one. John Kerns (1852) described it as "the roughest road we have encountered on the journey, being up and down the sideling mountains, into the brush and across the creek every 200 or 300 yards and over stony places enough to hide all despairing sinners."
The descent, 1,300 feet, into the Grand Ronde valley, was circuitous and rocky—for Esther Hanna (1852) the most difficult yet experienced (it can be seen today from the Charles H. Reynolds Rest Area). Sarah Sutton (1854) described it as the “longest and trickiest one we have had all the way.” Wagon wheels were double-locked and ropes tied to the tops of wagons, with several men walking along on the upper side of the road to keep them from tipping. "The rocks so filled the road that anyone who had not begun to 'see the elephant' would have been afraid to have attempted the descent." (Abigail Scott, 1852).
The valley was a welcome sight. Grass was luxuriant and water plentiful. It was a hive of activity. Esther Hanna (1852) wrote on August 21: "Wagons are pouring in by the dozens, and the whole valley appears alive with cattle and Indians galloping about in every direction. We have not had a minute to ourselves, being visited by men, squaws, and papooses." The Indians were the Nez Perce. They generally impressed the emigrants with their fine clothing, their skill with horses, and the number of horses they owned. John Kerns (1852) described them as "more intelligent, clean and sociable than any Indians I ever saw." Indian men were anxious to "swap" their ponies for cows or clothing (they were not interested in oxen); a pony went for two cows. Indians brought dried berries, peas, and cherries to trade for tinware or clothing. By mid-September, however, the Indians had left the valley for their winter quarters.
Emigrants now faced the Blue Mountains, an ascent of over 1,300 feet. Mountain timber was a welcome sight after weeks in the desert, and emigrants would halloo to hear their echo. The journey took three days of endless climbing and descending. There was a steep descent to the Grand Ronde River (near Hilgard State Park), then an ascent to the summit of the mountains again. It was a rough road. The mountains were thick with pine, spruce, tamarack and fir trees, so dense that in some places the road had to twist around them. Loose cattle often strayed into the timber. There was little water or grass. Finally, they came to a spot, known today as Emigrant Hill, where they could see the grass prairies of the Umatilla valley below them and Mt. Hood in the distance.
They came down into the Umatilla valley, a long descent which Amelia Knight (1853) thought would never end. "It looked lovely," wrote Esther Hanna (1852), "stretching out covered with grass. The valley and prairie for miles looked like grain fields ready for the sickle. I never enjoyed so rich a sight before." They passed agricultural fields tilled by the Cayuse (the Whitmans had taught the Indians how to farm, albeit with limited success). The Cayuse raised corn, potatoes, peas and other vegetables, which they sold to the emigrants. Jane Kellogg (1852) bought potatoes about the size of walnuts. "We thought them delicious, we were so hungry for vegetables." The Cayuse, like the Nez Perce, were anxious to trade with emigrants—at very high prices, of course. But, according to Charles Stevens (1852), they "will steal all the horses and cattle they can get".
At the present-day town of Echo they passed the Indian Agency, a small framed house, one story high, built the year before to serve local tribes. It was not yet occupied (the Cayuse burned it three years later during the Yakima War of 1855-58). This was the first framed building that emigrants had seen since the Platte River, and it was a welcome and hopeful sight. They expected to re-provision themselves here, but either the prices were too high or there was not enough food available. Traders were present to buy up weak, lame, and exhausted animals. They followed the Umatilla River, then west to the John Day River, a two-day trek, much of it without water. For Amelia Knight (1853) the dust seemed worse than ever, so thick that she could barely see the yoked oxen. There was a trading post at the John Day River. Having crossed the John Day, they had to ascend a hill, which several emigrants described as the worst yet (the further west emigrants moved and the more tired they became, every challenging hill or river crossing seemed worse than the last). At the top, the road forked: The left led to the Barlow Road, blazed in 1846, crossing the Cascade Mountains south of Mt. Hood; the right led to the Columbia River and then to The Dalles.
The Stevens went to The Dalles. They were there in mid- or late September. Most emigrants chose the Barlow Road, some 60 miles due south. Although those who took this route experienced the worst part yet of the Trail (especially descending Laurel Hill), it was preferred over the Columbia River, which was regarded as particularly dangerous. It was also more difficult: wagons had to be disassembled at The Dalles and placed on flatboats; families then split up, women floating down the river and men driving livestock through the Columbia River Gorge. Generally, weather dictated the choice. It was critical for emigrants to cross the mountains before the snows came. In 1852 the snows were early, falling in September. Doubtless, the Stevens feared being caught in the mountains. They took the river.
It was two days from the John Day to the Columbia River, where emigrants could trade for salmon caught by the Indians. They followed the south side of the Columbia to the mouth of the Deschutes River, which emptied directly into the Columbia. The river crossing, about 150 yards wide, was dangerous as the water came crashing down over large rocks. Nathan Olney, who had a house nearby—the first inhabited dwelling emigrants had seen since Fort Laramie—ran a ferry, charging $2.50 to $3.00 per wagon, emigrants having to swim their animals over. Most did not have the money to pay, and were forced to take the ford about one-quarter to one-half mile above the river's mouth. Two islands at that point assisted in the crossing. But some livestock, exhausted and without the strength to swim across, were washed down into the Columbia. Enterprising Walla Walla Indians—"Pretty shrewd fellows for money, but very civil," (Cecelia Adams and Parthenia Blank (1852))—either piloted or ferried emigrants across the river. Once across the river, there was yet another tough, long, and steep hill to climb.Calamity and starvation
If the situation of the emigrants while on the Snake was desperate, it was calamitous by the time they reached Oregon proper. Dust continued to suffocate. "I cannot give an adequate description of the dust, which seemed to get deeper and more impalpable every day." Ezra Meeker (1852). Meeker recalled that, after crossing the Snake, it became a serious question for many which would give out first: their food or their oxen. More wagons were abandoned. They were facing starvation. On September 17 Martha Read (1852), while on the Burnt River, wrote: "It looks like misery along here. The cattle are dying off and people are getting out of provisions, and a great many sick and some are dying." Crossing hills and mountains, especially the Blue Mountains, took its toll. While at the Indian Agency on September 11, John Kerns (1852) wrote: "Some of the emigrants are about to suffer for want of provisions. Three men came into our camp this morning, about starved; had not had a mouthful for three days, and footing it, too, to get along." Some packers who overtook Cecelia Adams and Parthenia Blank (1852) on the Burnt River about September 28 reported that few emigrants behind had more than five days of provisions. It had been 15 days from the Blue Mountains to The Dalles. James Akin (1852) recorded that five of them were without grass or very little and six without water or very little.
In mid-summer The Oregonian
, a weekly newspaper in Portland, reported with pleasure on the large immigration making its way to Oregon, which would bring with it a sizeable number of stock animals. "We are glad to learn that they are chiefly of the class of people who come with the idea of becoming substantial tillers of the soil, not as too often has been the case heretofore thinking that it is merely necessary to enrich themselves with the gold [Oregon] contains." On July 24 it announced the arrival of the first emigrants to the valley, eight mule teams that had crossed the Cascades following the Barlow Road. Other emigrant wagons were ten days behind. By mid-August they were arriving in the valley every day. But the emigration stretched a long way east. In mid-August, for example, Esther Hanna had just left Fort Boise; E.W. Conyers, Martha Read, Abigail Scott and John Kerns were at various points on the Snake; John McAllister had just struck that river; and Cecelia Adams and Parthenia Blank were still at Soda Springs in Idaho. In a letter to The Oregonian
dated September 13, a writer reported that, based on the best information available, there were still 1,000 to 2,000 wagons east of the Grand Ronde.
By early September, however, news coming into the Willamette Valley became more ominous. In its September 4 edition, The Oregonian
carried a letter to the editor from an emigrant at Barlow's Gate, the entry point for crossing the Cascade Mountains on the Barlow Road, reporting that the main trains were no farther advanced than Fort Hall. There was no grass on the Snake, so many emigrants were losing their teams; others were destitute of provisions. The writer estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 wagons were west of Fort Hall, and the Grand Ronde was swarming with speculators.
In a separate article that same day, the newspaper told of emigrants' animals dying by the hundreds and thousands, and emigrants leaving their wagons to travel on foot. In its next issue of September 11, the newspaper reported a "vast army" of emigrants on its way to the Valley, some having already arrived on foot. On September 18 the paper carried stories from emigrants arriving in Portland "of anguish and want on the part of hundreds behind." On October 2 the newspaper printed a letter from the town of Cascades on the Columbia that the houses there were filled with the sick. "I cannot describe the wants, but money to obtain help for the sick and coffins for the dead must be had." On October 9, rather belatedly, the Oregon Statesman
(Salem), also a weekly, took up the cry. Under the headline "The Immigration—Suffering, &c.," the paper reported that relief parties had been sent from several points but that the provisions taken were still inadequate. "We trust the call will be responded to in every part of Oregon. Let us give from our abundance, and gladden the hearts of our suffering brothers." In its October 16 issue, a letter to the editor urged "those who have friends on the road to give them immediate relief."
These reports galvanized the citizens of the Willamette Valley. On September 4, The Oregonian
called upon citizens, especially those with friends on the Trail, to go out to find them. "Immigrant relief" meetings were held to solicit money and supplies. On September 15, citizens of Portland met at the Methodist church to hear a "thrilling narrative" from emigrants recently arrived of the sufferings between Fort Boise and the John Day River. At the meeting Captain Roberts of the steamship Multnomah
offered to haul all donated provisions up the Columbia for free. Another meeting in Portland collected sugar, flour, meat, tea, coffee, molasses and other foodstuffs, which were sent up the Columbia on the steamboat for distribution to the destitute. Portland citizens organized a circus, raising $300 in relief aid. The citizens of Lafayette (Yamhill County) held a relief meeting collecting $1,027 in cash and 1,450 pounds of flour, three head of cattle, and 12 pack horses to carry the provisions. On September 21 an immigrant relief meeting was held in Lebanon (Linn County). Other communities responded similarly.
On October 2, The Oregonian
carried a letter to the editor, dated September 13, reporting that a Mr. Smith of Portland took some fat oxen to his friends, but on finding them discovered they needed the oxen to eat, not to haul their wagons. He killed one a day, but even that did not half meet their needs. Lot Whitcomb, a leading citizen of Milwaukie, arrived at The Dalles on October 6 with 4,000 pounds of flour and other groceries. There were "many sick and dying". He took three wagons out to eastern Oregon; most emigrants were out of flour; 32 people at one camp entirely out of food and living off cattle which died on the wayside. In a letter to The Oregonian
dated November 1, Whitcomb stated that there were yet 500 people to arrive at The Dalles, 100 without food, clothing or money. This will close the emigration, he declared.
There were others, however, who saw in misery an opportunity for profit. When emigrants reached the Burnt River, the grass had burned off. They suspected, correctly or not, that this was the work of ruthless speculators to force emigrants into selling their animals at bargain prices. The Oregon Statesman
reported on October 21 that one person, entrusted by a relief meeting to take provisions to the destitute and distribute them gratuitously to the emigrants, sold the goods instead.
Traders made their way to the Umatilla, Grand Ronde, and other spots on the Trail to sell goods at the highest prices possible or to buy animals at the cheapest. John Kerns (1852) reported the presence of a trader near the John Day River, there "to cheat the emigrant" by asking 50 cents per pound for flour. Cecelia Adams and Parthenia Blank (1852) told of a trader from Fort Walla Walla selling six pints of corn for a dollar, "and it sells fast". The Cayuse Indians were killing some very fat livestock, and selling the beef at 15 to 20 cents a pound. James Aikin (1852) paid 35 cents per pound at The Dalles. James Richey (1852) wrote in a letter that at The Dalles, Cascades, and other points there were people ready to take advantage of the pressing necessities of emigrants, charging enormous prices for everything and for any assistance rendered. “They were as bad as the pirates on the high sea, ready to prey on the sick or dying, willing to take the last dollar.”
The Dalles consisted of government barracks, a Catholic mission, one blacksmith shop, one or two small houses, and two stores which, at least in early September, were well stocked with provisions, dry goods, and other articles. The goods were selling at a very high price. The river's bank was crowded with tents and emigrants, all waiting for transportation down the 45 miles to the Cascades (at the present-day Bonneville Dam) and then beyond. Every few hours more stragglers, begrimed, came in from the dusty road, but the constant arrivals and departures did not materially change their numbers. For many, it was a welcome opportunity to rest and recover. Charles Stevens (1852) described his family's condition on finally making it to The Dalles: "We were worn out, tired out, starved out, and almost ready to give out." He noted that there were hundreds in worse condition than they.
In 1852 steamboats did not ply the waters above the rapids at the Cascades. Emigrants took bateaux, scows or Chinook canoes, propelled by paddles, able to accommodate 20 persons (some had sails). Many of these vessels were manned either by French Canadians (former employees of the Hudson's Bay Company) or by Indians. Boats and canoes were running up and down the river. But there were far fewer vessels than eager passengers, so there was a wait. Some restless emigrants built their own rafts. The Stevens took a scow manned by Indians. These scows were flatboats without railings, capable of holding 30 to 40 disassembled wagons, James Aiken (1852), who took a canoe, paid the Indians $20 in cash and a large tent. Emigrants piled their belongings, which according to Ezra Meeker (1852) "made but a very small showing," and their disassembled wagons. Meeker's scow contained a dozen families, mostly women and children, the men driving livestock down the river.
These river craft did not carry livestock. Emigrants had three choices: sell them at The Dalles, leave them in the care of a herdsman to be retrieved the next spring, or drive them over the mountains. James Akin (1852) told of four families, whose men were too sick to make the arduous mountain trek, contracted with a man to take care of the animals at $1.50 per head per month. The following spring, they returned but the cattle were gone, either having perished from the terrible winter of 1852-53 or having been stolen. The Adams and Blank families did the same, paying $6 a head. According to a July 16, 1939, entry in the Stevens Family Journal (no source cited), Hanson had by trade and purchase acquired quite a herd of cattle on the Trail, but he was told that he could not bring them down the Columbia River. He decided to "abandon" them at The Dalles, but Lavina said "No!" She insisted that he and Isaac drive the cattle around the mountains.
Hanson and Isaac drove the animals. Their route, commonly described as a "packer's trail" probably used by the Hudson's Bay Company, led through the Cascade Mountains north of Mount Hood hewing closely to the Columbia River, then crossing to the north side of the river east of the Cascade rapids, portaging around the rapids, and continuing down to a spot opposite the mouth of the Sandy River, where they crossed again to the south side of the river.
The trek, three to four days, was difficult. Beginning with a number of steep ascents, the trail's surface consisting of loose gravel slipped under foot, making it very difficult on the weakened animals. They then crossed Dog River (now Hood River). John McAllister (1852) was detained there for a half-day collecting livestock which had become lost in the thick brush. After that was a descent down a mountain "hardly passable for mountain goats". Further were constant ascents and descents up and down and across steep ridges, side canyons, and tributary streams. The rains, the fierce wind of the Columbia Gorge, and the mud created by thousands of livestock hooves added to the misery. At the "upper ferry" (near present-day Wyeth), some seven to eight miles upstream from the Cascades, the trail became very dangerous. It abutted the river. One misstep and man or animal fell to their death. Many animals did, and their carcasses could be seen from the ridge above. The trail then led to the "lower ferry," still east of the Cascades (near the town of Stevenson). The river was three-quarters of a mile wide and the current quiet. Here emigrants swam their livestock to the northern (Washington) side of the river. Another three or four miles along a trail brought them to the upper landing. Emigrants who had taken boats down the River disembarked to portage around the rapids. Lavina and the younger children would have been waiting there for Hanson and Isaac.
Lavina and the children were able to find transport from The Dalles in an open scow (described by Rebecca as a "flatboat") paddled by Indians. For most people in September 1852, the trip down the Columbia in an open boat was miserable. It had to have been particularly so for Lavina: Sarah had burned herself when she walked into a campfire near present-day Pendleton, and Rebecca, Christina, and Mary were sick with mountain fever. Sarah composed a little ditty, which has been passed down through the family: "Tina's sick, Mary's sick, and Becky's sicker too."
The mountains on either side of the river gradually narrowed, creating strong winds, sometimes of gale force. Upstream winds severely delayed progress; storms forced travelers to find a landing. In either event, soaked emigrants slept on the river bank in wet bedding and ate wet food, if they had anything to eat at all. Emigrants might take shelter in their disassembled wagons on the flatboat, but often the covers had to be taken off because they caught too much wind. On a good run, it took three days from The Dalles to the Cascades, but for Jane Kellogg (1852) it required two weeks because of unfavorable winds. All this and dealing with sickness. John Spencer (1852), who drove his animals over the pack trail, described the plight of his family on arriving at the Cascades: "All stuff had been lying in the wet for near two weeks. All was wet in the tent. All were sick. I was fatigued almost to death. Wet clothes, wet beds, rain, mud, cold, bad wood, and poor fire, with little to eat, and too crowded. All sick, myself and family. All hard work up to me." Lydia Allen Rudd (1852) wrote:
"Oct. 7. Made another start in our frail bark early this morning. The weather calm. Our company is rather interesting, making the time pass very agreeably. The scenery on the shore to the river is very wild and picturesque . . . . The wind again caused us to go on shore about three o'clock. Very anxious to reach the Cascade falls tonight. Within nine miles, stopped about two hours, and again started, the wind still blowing violently. Not quite safe. It was now getting dark, and the wind increasing, and ran so high the waves washed over the canoe and as high as my head, completely drenching us with water. Our dark companions [Indians] then tried to make for the shore but were unable to manage the canoe. Fortunately there were more oars on the boat, and our men assisted all they could. And after a long time, we safely made the shore, which was more than we expected. Glad to lay down on the sand in our wet clothes and on our wet bed. One Lady was very much alarmed, screaming every breath as loud as she could possible. A sorry time."
At the Cascade falls (today, Cascade Locks) the river narrowed to two-thirds its normal width, rushing over huge rocks creating white water rapids. At this point the river fell 45 feet over five miles. According to Indian legend, two mountains on either side of the river had engaged in a battle, throwing rocks at one another. These rocks fell into the river, forming the "Bridge of the Gods". Emigrants disembarked east of the rapids on the northern side. They reassembled their wagons. Men (including Hanson and Isaac) who had guided their animals over the mountain trail, now reunited with their families, yoked up their animals to the wagons and drove them about five miles around the rapids. Emigrants then hiked a hilly, rocky road to the lower part of the rapids, a road which Origen Thomson (1852) described as the worst yet he had faced. Those without wagons used a small car which traveled over a wooden tramway pulled by a mule and guided by two men. It was the first "railroad" in Oregon. The car took only baggage, no people (except perhaps the sick); the charge was $1.00 to $1.25 (per 100 weight?) and $5 per wagon. Walking along the path, emigrants passed an Indian burial site with a mass of bones scattered randomly.
They walked by the town of Cascades (also known as the "Lower Cascades," across the river from the present-day town of Bonneville on the Oregon side)—two stores and one dwelling. This was the end of the portage line. Some dismissed the citizens as speculators and “sharpies”. The citizens, however, thought better of themselves as saviors to these distressed immigrants because of the assistance they rendered. A hospital had been set up there to succor the sick (Stuart Richey (1852) wrote that most of the people at the Cascades were ill). At the end of the five-mile portage, emigrants had to lower their goods by rope down a perpendicular face 50 to 150 feet (sources vary) to a steamboat landing below. Those who traveled by wagon had to unload their goods and disassemble the wagons once again to be put on boats.
The Stevens would have joined a crowd at the landing, all hoping to find a craft to take them down the river. They had a number of choices. In the fall of 1852 the steamboats Multnomah
and James P. Flint
plied the waters of the Columbia, hauling people (and even some animals) to Portland (in late September the Flint
hit a rock and sank). It was not cheap. Stuart Richey and James Akin paid $107 (apiece?) in 1852, regarded by both as a horrendous price, for their families to take a steamboat from the Cascades to Portland. Scows were also available. Willis Boatman (1852) recalled his situation: "Our supplies were about gone, and our appetites were not good after the fever. It was hard to eat the little stale and moldy food we had left. We were in this plight, hardly about to move, wondering what to do, how best to get down the Columbia to Portland, when a kind-hearted settler, a James Stevens, came up to meet the train with a whole scow load of fresh vegetables." According to a July 21, 1946, entry in the Stevens Family Journal, Lavina and the younger children took a scow to the Sandy River, where they disembarked.
Trail through the Blue Mountains
Probably after ensuring that passage had been found for his family, Hanson with Isaac continued along the Washington side of the river, driving the animals through the mountains, another three-day trudge to present-day Washougal, across from the mouth of the Sandy River. It was easier going from The Dalles to the Cascades, but challenging nonetheless: muddy trails, stream fordings, steep ascents and equally deep descents—at one point a hill was so steep that animals had to slide down. Two ferries, in active competition, operated on the Columbia at the Sandy hauling people and animals across the river. Hanson and Isaac Stevens would have crossed at that point, rejoining their family. It was late September, according to Rebecca. Reassembling their wagons, they drove through the thick forests on a road to Oregon City and then onto what was to become their donation land claim .
The Stevens Family Journal of July 16, 1939, tells a brief but intriguing story (again, no source cited): Lavina Stevens had a “relative.” In a dream one night he saw Lavina and her children alone and in trouble. Gathering food, he started out on horseback to look for them somewhere between Oregon City and Salem. When found, the Stevens's wagon had broken down and the family was without food.
The story may be true. Citizens in the valley were of course much agitated over the plight of emigrants. Friends and relatives of the emigrants often knew of their coming from earlier letters. They frequently set out to find them, packing their animals with food. The interesting question is: who was this "relative"? The connection may be with Elizabeth Simmons (1830-1907). Elizabeth was born in Indiana, as was Lavina. In 1845 at the age of 15, Elizabeth came across the plains with her parents (Samuel Simmons the father) and her five brothers. The Simmons settled on Howell Prairie. In 1847 she married Wesley Shannon (1819-1890), who with his brothers Davis and Milton had also taken the Trail in 1845. Wesley served in the Cayuse War of 1847, and was elected to the Territorial Legislature in 1849. After the war, Wesley and Elizabeth acquired a farm on Howell Prairie (near Silverton), living there until 1862, when they moved to Salem and then to Eugene in 1872.
Several facts, albeit circumstantial, point to the Shannons. First, but most tenuously, both Lavina and Elizabeth came from Indiana. Second, the Stevens took their Donation Land Claim in November 1852, only shortly after arriving in the valley, a claim no more than five miles from the Shannon farm. The normal pattern for emigrants arriving in the fall was first to find shelter for the winter and then to begin looking for a place to settle in the spring. The best lands in the upper part of the Willamette Valley had already been taken in the 1840s; by the latter part of that decade immigrants had to travel farther and farther south. But the Stevens were able to find their Donation Land Claim immediately. They may have been told about it by Wesley Shannon. Third, and most importantly, there was an extraordinarily close relationship between the Stevens, especially Christina and her children, and the Shannons: Christina moved in with Wesley and Elizabeth at their farm after Lavina died in 1859. Wesley offered his farm to Christina and her husband Alexander Esson when he and Elizabeth moved to Salem. Inez Esson, Christina's daughter, lived with Davis Shannon to care for him; she later married Grover Simmons, Elizabeth's nephew. Rebecca and her husband rented Davis Shannon's place in 1861. Ida Esson lived with Elizabeth in Eugene for a time while attending college. Alexander and Christina named several of their children after the Shannons.
The Stevens's new home
The Stevens arrived in the "Silverton Country" in early October and took possession of their 320 acre donation land claim (a month later Hanson filed his claim in Oregon City). But their troubles were far from over. According to the Stevens Family Journal, they arrived in the Willamette Valley with only $5 to their name. Hanson found that wheat was selling for $5 a bushel and potatoes for $3. After building a log cabin, he went to work splitting rails. Their first winter was so cold that there was no feed for his cattle; he lost them all.
This brief story is consistent with the historical record. Until the California gold rush, the Oregon economy was in the doldrums. There was little money. The principal currency was wheat; other transactions were by barter. The gold rush brought changes. On learning of the discovery of gold in California, men left their farms and businesses in droves to prospect, bringing back large amounts of gold dust. Oregon commodities—especially lumber and farm products—commanded high prices in California. All of this contributed to inflation in Oregon. With the arrival of so many emigrants in 1852, there was further demand for goods, and consequently pressure on prices. Charles Stevens (1852) wrote: “The country is so full of people wanting employment that it is hard for any to get anything to do, and wages have fallen considerably since we came. Flour is now $15 a hundred pounds. My wife and daughters take in washing and make pies. We get 25 cents for washing large things and 12.5 cents for small. We’ve done about 50 cents worth this week."
Few emigrants arrived in the valley with much money. They had spent it all on the Trail. It was impossible to sell their livestock, thin and exhausted, except at ruinous prices. Yet they all needed supplies. Jobs were hard to find, but an absolute necessity to do so. Cutting rails for fences and hewing timber were almost the sole employment opportunities. Hanson may have had an advantage for he was a cooper by trade. J.C. Moreland (1852) recalled how 1852 was a year of hardship. Flour was selling for $28 a barrel and potatoes $4 a bushel. A man without means, he wrote, had a hard struggle to maintain a family of five children. Fortunately, his neighbors were kind and hospitable and were willing to share. James Richey (1852) wrote that emigrants had to work for their daily subsistence, the men hiring out in and near Portland cutting wood and doing other hard work to earn money for flour and necessities, always at "extravagant" prices.
For some emigrants the speculative plunder they experienced in eastern Oregon followed them. James Richey (1852) wrote in a letter that when his family reached Portland, having spent almost all its money on the journey, there were plenty of extortionists there to take advantage. Those having flour and other provisions demanded the most exorbitant prices. Richey hired a man to haul him and his family in a wagon from Milwaukie eight miles to Pleasant Valley for the enormous sum of $30. “I have thought that it would serve the cause of justice if the names of those human vultures of twenty years ago or more old be published on a black scroll of infamy in every paper in Oregon.”
The winter of 1852-53 was a terrible one. It started snowing in December; in the Portland area it was two feet deep. Livestock perished without protection. Col. William Thompson (1852) wrote:
"[The winter of 1852/53] will forever be memorable in the annals of pioneer days in Oregon. Indeed, nothing comparable had been experienced by immigrants in former years. Deep snows encompassed us from without, and while we were sheltered from the storms by a comfortable log cabin, and were supplied with a fair amount of provisions such as they were, a gloom settled over all. Cattle and horses were without forage and none could be had. Reduced to skin and bone by the long and toilsome journey across the plains, they were ill prepared to stand the rigors of such a winter."
But despite the loss of their livestock, the Stevens had a least found a home. They were fortunate. Rebecca related that there was an old squatter's "cabin" already on the farm. They lived in that while Hanson and Isaac built a more permanent structure. Early cabins, made of unhewn logs with shake roofs of split cedar and dirt floors, required several weeks to build. Typically, they were 12 by 16 feet wide and up to 20 or 30 feet long, requiring 30-40 logs for walls. These were primitive affairs, with windows made of cloth nailed to window frames; for insulation, an assortment of materials was used to cover the walls: cedar shakes, straw, quilts and blankets, or newspapers (many pioneers recalled learning by “reading the wall”). They were sparsely furnished, for most of the emigrants' furniture lay back on the Trail. Beds, chairs and tables were made by hand. Tables might consist of no more than cedar shakes set on stakes in the ground. The more prosperous family perhaps had a single rocking chair, a cupboard, or some other family treasure, but seldom anything else. And then there was the question of food. New arrivals were frequently without salt, sugar, fresh produce and flour. They were saved by the presence of wild game: deer, geese, ducks, grouse, pheasants and quail. In early spring a garden would be planted, with potatoes, cabbage, peas, turnips, onions, parsnips, tomatoes, and carrots. Life for the Stevens became easier in time.
Five months on the Oregon Trail, in whatever year, had its share of hardship and loss. Louisa Cook described her journey in 1862:
“This is one of the greatest old trips that was ever heard of, and we had the full sight of the Elephant [extreme difficulty] you may be sure. Only think of not sleeping in a bed for six or seven months, not eating at a table drinking out of tin cups, eating on tin plates spread on the ground, no letters from home, no news about the war or the country, wandering for weeks among the mountains, teams nearly worn out, provisions nearly gone, and then talk about seeing the elephant.”
Peter Burnett (1843), writing 19 years earlier, conceded that his group did not face the Indian attacks or stolen animals of later years. Nonetheless, he characterized the journey as one of "ten thousand little vexations continually recurring, which could not be foreseen before they occurred, nor fully remembered when past, but were keenly felt while passing."
The Oregon Trail defined all who took it. It produced heroes and villains. Ezra Meeker (1852):
"There did seem instances that would convert the most skeptical to the Presbyterian doctrine of total depravity, so brutal and selfish were the actions of some men; brutal to men and women alike; to dumb brutes, and in fact to themselves. And yet alongside of this, it is a pleasure to record that there were numerous instances of noble self-sacrifice, of helpfulness, of unselfishness, to the point of imperiling their own lives. It became a common saying that to know one’s neighbor, they must be seen on the Plains."
Peter Burnett recalled that in the competition among emigrants for the best camps, wood and water, "the worst traits of human nature were displayed, and there was no remedy but patient endurance. At the beginning of the journey there were several fisticuff fights in camp; but the emigrants soon abandoned that practice, and thereafter confined themselves to abuse in words only.”
I conclude with an episode from the diary of E.W. Conyers (1852). His company encountered a dying father, mother and four small children alone on the road, without wagon or livestock. They had hired on with an employer to drive his team to Oregon. But when the father became sick, the employer turned on them, refusing to allow the children to ride in the wagon, despite the fact that their feet were wrapped in rags, swollen, and covered with sores from the long walk over the rocks and hot sand. The owner emptied the wagon of what few belongings they still possessed (most having been abandoned along the Trail), and left them with two days of provisions. "This circumstance is only one of the many that has happened this season in crossing the continent. If there is any meanness in a man, it makes no difference how well he has it covered, the plains is the place that will bring it out. Such is life on the plains."
Conyers and his company saved this family, proving that goodness thrived on the plains as well.
From the 25th reunion of the Stevens family, July 19, 1916 at the home of Ellis Stevens, North Howell.
Standing (left to right): Millard Stevens, Sarah (Stevens) McCubbins, Mary (Stevens) Smith, Martha "Mattie" (Stevens) Cahill
Seated (left to right): Isaac Stevens, Rebecca (Stevens) Mount, Rispa (Stevens) Ringo, Christina (Stevens) Esson