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Fifty Years in Oregon

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To many people no part of the story of a State is so interesting as that which pertains to its early settlement. Not only is this true as to the pioneers themselves---those who actually endured the privations necessarily connected with the reaching and subjugation of a region thousands of miles removed from the nearest outposts of civilization---but younger people, those who are fond of history or even of romance, take a delight in hearing of the incidents which constituted the experience of those who "crossed the plains" and formed a part of the immigrant trains which conquered the desert, met the savage Indians without fear, mocked at the roadless mountains, swam the fordless rivers, used "buffalo chips" for fuel, went hungry much of the time at the last end of the trip, and finally reached the promised land destitute, most of them, many of them sick, but all of them brave and hopeful.

For the weakling didn't start to Oregon in the '40's; or, if he did, he soon lost his "grip" and returned to his former home. Many did this. But the pioneers were all of the stuff out of which real men and women are made and the historian doesn't need to draw upon his imagination in order to make his narrative read like a composite story of the old martyrs. For instance, my own mother was thirteen and a half years old when she started across the plains with her parents in April, 1847, but she walked practically all the way from the Missouri River to the Willamette valley. She was the oldest of six children, and as there were some loose horses and cattle every day which would not follow the train unless made to do so, she was required to "trail" behind them and see that none was lost. To be sure, the distance made would not average more than ten or twelve miles a day, but it  [page 132] necessitated walking in the dust caused by hundreds of tramping oxen and horses, besides the duty of keeping the stubborn or contrary or indifferent animals from lagging behind. And her duties were not deemed particularly hard when compared with those assigned to every other member of the train who was old enough to stand alone. Everybody, including "father," was required to work, and the slothful one was not permitted to lag very far before he was made to feel an energetic prod which brought him up standing.

For the purpose of illustrating to the younger generation the suffering experienced by thousands who came to Oregon in the early days, it is deemed well to incorporate here a few pages of extracts from a diary kept by a pioneer woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Smith, who crossed the plains in 1847, and who was afterwards well known in the Willamette valley. She was the mother of Mrs. P. S. Knight, of Salem, and of Judge Seneca Smith, a well-known attorney of Portland. Each night, after her eight children were asleep, she would write her notes for that day. She wrote it in letter form the next year and sent it to some friends in Indiana, who, fifteen years later, sent it to Mrs. Knight. It is now the property of the State Historical Society, where it will be kept permanently as a valuable contribution to the history of Oregon as vividly portraying the hardships endured by those who laid the foundation for one of the greatest States in the Union. Her letter and diary, in part, follow :


May 25, 1848.



Dear Friends,---By your request I have endeavored to keep a record of our journey from "The States" to Oregon, though it is poorly done, owing to my having a young babe and, besides, a large family to do for; and, worst of all, my education is limited.

April 21, 1847. Commenced our journey from La Porte, Ind., to Oregon. Made fourteen miles.  [page 133]

April 22. Made twelve miles. Rain all day.

April 23. Made nineteen miles; traveled till dark. Ate a cold bite and went to bed chilly and cold, which is very disagreeable, with a parcel of children.

April 25. Last night our cattle ran off, consequently, we made only eleven miles.

April 26. Made sixteen miles. Had a view of Mt. Juliett. It is one of the great works of nature. We see a great many admirable works of nature and art as we pass through Illinois.

April 29. Made sixteen miles through a delightful country and camped on the Illinois River. Cold and rainy.

April 30. Made fourteen miles. Passed through Peru. Traveled through a beautiful and fertile country. Cold and rainy.

May i. Made nineteen miles. Passed through Princeton, Bureau County, Ill. Rich soil. Hundreds of acres not owned nor cultivated by any one.

May 2. Made twenty miles. Exceedingly cold for the season.

May 3. Made twenty miles. Cold and dry. All in good spirits.

May 4. Made twenty miles. Pleasant weather.

May 5. Made sixteen miles. Passed through Hendersonville and Galesburg, Knox County, Ill. Good roads. Fine weather.

May 7. Made twelve miles. Rainy weather.

May 8. Crossed the Mississippi River on a ferry. Delayed in Burlington. Made seven miles. In Burlington I saw Percy Mitchell's first wife.

May 9. Passed Augusta, a small village. Ferried Skunk River.

May 10. Fine weather. Laid by to wash.

May II. Laid by for rain.

May 14. Forded the Des Moines River. Made eighteen miles.

May 15. Fell in with several Oregon wagons.

Made eighteen miles.

May 16. Made fifteen miles. Rained all day.

May 17. Laid by for rain.

May 19. Last night one of our cows went back [page 134] one day's journey to see her calf that we had given away that morning.

May 20. Made eighteen miles. Rainy weather, bad roads.

May 21. Made seven miles. Water-bound by a branch of Grand River. Hilly and bad roads.

May 22. Water-bound by a creek called the Muddy.

May 23. Crossed Weldon River, Missouri State. Made seven miles.

May 24. Made twelve miles. Rain all day. Encamped in a marsh. Shoe-mouth deep in water. The men peeled bark, made a floor, built a fire on it to dry themselves and get supper by.

May 25. Made two miles. Water-bound.

May 27. Made fourteen miles. Crossed Big Creek. It has on it one sawmill and one gristmill.

May 28. Made twenty-eight miles. Crossed Samson Creek. Encamped without food or water on a large prairie. Ate a cold bite and went to bed.

May 30. Rained this morning until late. Made eight miles. Crossed a river called Hundred and Two on a dangerous bridge and encamped.

May 31. Laid by to wash.

June 1. Lying by.

June 3. Passed through St. Joseph on the Missouri River. Laid in our flour, cheese, crackers and medicine, for no one should travel this road without medicine, for they are almost sure to have the summer complaint. Each family should have a box of physicing pills, a quart of castor oil, a quart of the best rum and a large vial of peppermint essence.

June 4. Crossed the Missouri River. Doubled teams with difficulty. Ascended a hill or mountain. Traveled three miles and encamped. We are now in Indian Territory.

June 6. Made eighteen miles. Passed seventy Oregon wagons as they were encamped.

June 8. Made twenty miles; crossed one creek. Very high and steep banks. Where I know the names of streams I give them.

June ii. Made eighteen miles. Crossed the Blue  [page 133] Earth River. One wagon turned over just at the water, but happily nobody was hurt.

June 14. Made eighteen miles. We are continually finding elks' horns, buffaloes' skulls and carcasses.

June 1 6. Made seventeen miles. Saw one grave day before yesterday and one to-day by the lonely wayside. Made this spring.

June 17. Made twelve miles. Fell in with eighteen wagons. Broke an axle-tree. Laid by and made a new one. Stood guard all night in the rain.

June 18. Finished the broken axle. Made five miles. Encamped in a circle as is our custom. Put out guards and retired to rest.

June 19. Made twenty miles. Every night when we encamp we make quite a village, but take it up the next day. We have plenty of music with a flute and violin and some dancing.

June 20. Made ten miles. Encamped on the Platte. The ground here is covered with a white surface. Something between salt and salts. The cattle are fond of it.

June 21. Made eighteen miles. Last night had two more horses stolen. One belonged to the same man who lost one of the first ones. It was a fine horse and his last one. Our road along the Platte is beautiful and level. The river is a mile wide or more, and very rily and shallow.

June 22. Made fifteen miles. See antelope every day.

June 23. Made eighteen miles. At present there are one hundred and forty persons in our company. We see thousands of buffaloes, and have to use their dung for fuel. A man will gather a bushel in a minute. Three bushels make a good fire. We call the stuff "buffalo chips."

June 24. Made ten miles. Stopped to kill a buffalo, but did not succeed. Saw hundreds of prairie dogs barking about. They are about as large as a gray gopher. Saw another grave.

June 26. Made ten miles. Killed three buffaloes. Their flesh is generally coarser and drier than beef,  [page 136] but a fat buffalo heifer is as good meat as I would wish to taste.

June 28. Made eighteen miles. Saw thousands of buffaloes. Caught two of their calves. One ran away the other day. The other they drove along with the loose cattle several miles. It finally left them. Nine wagons overtook us.

June 27. Made fifteen miles. Killed four buffaloes. At the least calculation we saw three thousand buffaloes to-day. A buffalo rolls and gallops like a horse.

June 29. This morning eight of our largest and best work oxen were missing, besides two yoke of Welch's, three yoke of Adam Folk's, and about thirty-nine head belonging to the company---all work oxen, right out of our company. Here we are, thousands of miles from any inhabitants, and thus deprived of teams---an appalling situation. We had only one yoke left. We hunted in every direction without success.

June 30. Hunted all day. Our cattle hunters, my husband among them, were so far from camp, some thirty miles, that they staid away all night.

July i. To-day when our hunters came in they brought one dead man; he had shot himself accidentally. He left a wife and six small children. The distress of his wife I cannot describe. He was an excellent man and very much missed. His name was Smith Dunlap, from Chicago, Ill. The hunters found no cattle.

July 2. A trying time. So many of us having to get teams, had to hire, borrow, buy, just as we could. Had to take cows, raw cattle, or anything we could get. Some had to apply to other companies for help. At last we moved off. Made fifteen miles.

July 6. Made eighteen miles. Our cattle are lame. It is plain to my mind what makes their feet wear out. It is the alkaline nature of the ground.

July 7. This country is full of curiosities. Hundreds of acres seem to have been bursted and thrown open by volcanic eruptions. The earth along here is strong with lye. After a shower, if the little ponds were not rily, one could wash linen without soap.

July 8. Made twelve miles. Saw Chimney Rock. It is a curiosity, indeed. A rock, or rather a hard  [page 137] clay, standing alone, towering in the air perhaps three hundred feet. All of the lofty rocks along here are composed of that same material. Some of them resemble old demolished villages, half-sunk in the ground, with the stovepipes sticking out of the ground. To-day we had the most dreadful hail-storm I ever witnessed, in which a young woman and I came near being caught as we went out to the famous Chimney Rock. Fortunately we reached one of the foremost wagons just as the hail began to pelt us. It tore some of the wagon covers off, broke some bows and made the oxen run away---making bad work. They say that about here it is subject to tornadoes.

July 9. To-day we saw by the wayside about two acres of fine white stone, all cut up comparatively in pieces about ten feet square and two feet thick. I ran barefooted to get on them, but got my feet full of stickers and was glad to get back to my wagon. All the herbs in this region are briery and prickly. The sage is dreadful on one's clothes. It grows from one to six feet high and has a stalk like our tame sage or sedge. The leaves are smaller and very narrow. It has a sage taste, but is very bitter, besides. We travel through a shrub called greasewood---generally not so large as the sage. It is very thorny. We have to use it sometimes for fuel. Then there is the prickly pear---step on it any and everywhere. Look out for bare feet. Encamped at Scott's Bluff. Here is starvation. No feed and little water after traveling twenty miles. We chained up our oxen to the wagon wheels and started next morning by sunrise.

July 10. Made twelve miles through a barren, desolate region. Encamped on a creek and found feed and willows.

July 12. Made ten miles. Encamped at a French and Indian residence. As soon as we had corralled, the Indians flocked in and spread their blankets and begged for presents. We gave them meat, flour and beans, for which we afterward suffered.

July 13. This morning five of our work cattle were missing. The men hunted and hired Indians to hunt, but found no cattle. Emptied one wagon and went on. Passed Fort Laramie. Made five miles and  [page 138] encamped. The Indians came as before and sat down in a circle and spread a blanket in their midst and begged for presents. We gave them provisions and they dispersed.

July 14. Laid by. Found the cattle. Paid the Indians fifteen dollars for hunting, although our men found them.

July 15. Made twenty miles through a barren desert. Found wood and water but no feed. Rain to-night. I intend to state all the rain we have.

Poor woman! She little knew when she wrote that sentence how she and her children were going to suffer by reason of the excessive amount of rain during the latter part of their journey. As this diary is a faithful kaleidoscopic presentation of the average experience of those who "pioneered" to Oregon in the early days, I will make a larger requisition upon its contents than was at first intended, since it tells briefly the whole heroic story. It is a volume in a few pages, graphically portraying the increasing dangers which beset the pioneers and the growing necessity on their part for patience and courage.


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2007, J. Kidd.

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