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CROSSING THE PLAINS IN 1846
AS TOLD BY Mrs. MARY  ELIZABETH MUNKERS ESTES
WHILE SITTING BY HER FIRESIDE CHRISTMAS EVE 1916
 
     From nearby Liberty, Missouri, in early April 1846, about fifty families prepared to make the journey to the far away Oregon Territory, which then included what is now the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and part of Nevada.  My father, Benjamin Munkers, was among them.  His family was composed of an invalid wife, three married sons and one married daughter, besides five younger children, the youngest a boy of five years.  I was then ten years old and still have quite a clear memory of the journey and of conditions of the early days spent in Oregon.

     All the way across, Mother was unable to do anything, even having to be lifted in and out of the wagon.  She made the entire ride on a bed.  It was my work to help brother's wife, who managed the cooking for our camp.

     The Munkers family started out with five wagons drawn by oxen; three yoke to each wagon, thirty head of oxen, fifty head of roan Durham cows and five saddle horses.  These made up our herd.  Most all the company drove through some stock but I think no other family had so many as we.

     When we left Missouri, there was a train of about one hundred wagons but that was found to be too large a party to travel together as the teams must be kept up by grazing by the way.  So they scattered out under leaders or train captains, as we called them.  When we started, a man by the name of Martin was our Captain.  Later when our train was much smaller, Ben Simpson, father of Sam L. Simpson, was our head man.  The future Poet of Oregon was then Baby Sam of the camp.  Many a time I cared for him while his mother was doing the family wash.

[Note: Benjamin F. Simpson was the son of my great great great grandfather William Simpson, who was also with this wagon train.  There is a photo of Ben and wife Nancy, and one of adult Sam on one of my other web pages.  Click on their names.  Cecil]
     After we left Missouri, all the buildings I remember seeing were Forts Laramie, Bridges and Hall.  As this was but the second year of "Crossing the Plains", the way before us was much of it through a wilderness and over a trackless plain.  There were no bridges, no ferries and a stream too large to be forded was crossed by means of rafts, if there could be found timber along its banks to make rafts. If not, our wagon beds were used for flat boats.

     We had no trouble with the Indians but we did have one awful scare.  It was when we were in Utah.  All at once our train seemed to be surrounded on all sides by mounted Indians!  It was a war party going out to fight another tribe.  I do believe there were ten thousand of them and we thought it was the last of us, but when they had seen us all they wanted to, they gave a whoop and a yell and away they clattered!

     Of those long weary months I cannot clearly tell.  I know it was April when we started and October when we reached the place that was to be our home in Oregon.  Sometimes we stopped several days in camp where we found plenty of water and good grazing and while the teams rested and fed up, the men fixed up the wagons and helped the women wash and prepare food for the next drive ahead.  Then there were days we toiled over the arid plains till far into the night to reach the life-giving water that was a necessity to us and to our trains.  The children of the company walked many many miles....sometimes I think I walked half of the way to Oregon!  Some days it was very hard to find fuel enough for our camp fires.  Many a time our simple meals were cooked over a fire of buffalo chips and sage brush.  The weather did not cause as much trouble.  I recall but one real storm.  It was on the Platte River in Nebraska.  We were in camp on the bank of the river when it came on.  The wind blew a hurricane!  Thunder roared and lightening flashed!  It was a dark as Egypt.  The rain poured like it was being emptied from buckets.  I will never forget that night!  Every tent was blown down.  No one was seriously hurt, though a babe was narrowly missed by a falling tent pole.  The men chained the wagons together to hold them from being blown into the river.  Our camp belongings were blown helter skelter over the country around about and our stock was stampeded 'till it took all the next day to get them rounded up.

     But after all, we had but few hardships compared with some of the emigrant trains.  Some years, you know, there was Cholera that wiped out entire families and trains that were raided by Indians and too, there were times when the oxen were diseased and died leaving families stranded on the plains.  Yes, we were very lucky!

     In the early Autumn we reached the Columbia River and we drove down through the Barlow Pass and came into the Willamette Valley.  We made camp there where the Swartz place is now.  Father was anxious to secure a place where he could have shelter for the invalid mother and when he found a chance to buy out a homesteader (a man by the name of Anderson) he was glad to pay him his price ($1000) and take possession at once.  The place was on Mill Creek, four miles East of Salem.  There was a comfortable log house of two rooms, a log barn and ten of the 640 acres was farmed.  Thus, before the winter rains came on we were snugly settled.  Father brought in what supplies he could for the house and for our stock, but most of the cattle were turned on the range.
The first winter's work was making rails with which to fence the farm.  Then followed sod breaking and seeding, thus adding some acres each year to our fields.  Father set out an orchard of apple and peach trees in the spring of 1850, I think it was.  I don't remember where he got the nursery stock.

     He brought a half bushel of peach stones from Missouri.  The orchard grew nicely and I think it was in the autumn of 1855 that father had 100 bushels of apples to sell.  Fourteen dollars was the price he got per bushel.  I do not often hear it spoken of now, but there was a time in the settlement where we lived when peas and wheat were currency.  I cannot now say what the face value was, but I think one bushel either represented $1.00 in debit or credit.  Peas were much used for coffee and often the only sweetening to be had was molasses.

     Oh no, we were not poor!  Father brought $10,000 to this country.  How?  In gold and silver.  You know mother was brought on a bedstead set right into the wagon.  Well, underneath her bed was a box of bedding and in that box, the money was cached.  Yes, we soon had pretty good homes started but the stampede to the gold mines in California in 1849-50 was a bad thing for our families.  Four of my brothers went (Thomas, 14 years old / Ben, 16 years old / Riley, 19 years old and Marion).  Marion later died there.  They would all have gotten ahead faster had they stayed home.

     Where did I go to school?  I did not have much chance to go to school after we came here.  One winter the neighbors got up a school.  There was a vacant house and they hired a man to teach the children awhile.  I went.  That was about all the schooling I had after I came to Oregon.  Yes, I've been here a long time.  Seventy years!  I've seen Oregon grow up!

     What became of those who crossed the plains in our train?  Well, the Crowleys settled in Polk County and the Fullerson's also as well as Glenn Burnett, our train preacher.  The Browns, the Blakelys the Finleys and the Kirks settled in Linn County.  Ben Simpson and family lived in Salem.  Yes, I know most all the old timers.  L.F. Grover, afterward Governor of Oregon and US Senator, was a guest at my wedding.  Reverend Roberts, one of the early pioneers of Methodism performed the ceremony.

[Note: Captain James Blakely was my great great grandfather; Hugh Leeper Brown was his uncle.  James platted a city, and named it Brownsville.  Cecil]
     Do I remember the hard winter and the great flood of 1861 & 1862?  Yes!  What was the worst winter and the greatest flood in all the years I've lived here.  Much of Salem was under water.  The Court House was full of people who had been driven from their homes.  Near the old Bennett house, the water was swimming to a horse.  The Willamette was a mighty river...miles in width, sweeping houses, barns, bridges and everything in its course.  No, of course the river hadn't been bridged then, but then all the small streams were adding wreckage to the Willamette.  The flood was in December '61.  In January came the deep snow which lasted for six weeks and pretty nearly finished what the flood had left.
 

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