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Fifty Years in Oregon

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By the middle of July the train in which Mrs. Smith and husband were traveling had reached the Black Hills, a region made famous by its mines. On July 25 Mrs. Smith made this record :

Encamped at Willow Springs, a handsome place of grass and willows. To-day we crossed a little muddy branch. Along the sides of it we could have gathered pails of clean saltpeter. Many of our cattle are sick and dying.

July 27. We, on rising this morning, baked a lot of light bread and moved on. Passed Independence Rock.

July 29. Made eighteen miles. I could write a great deal more if I had the opportunity. Sometimes I do not get a chance to write anything for two or three days, and then have to rise in the night when my babe and all hands are asleep, light a candle and write.

July 31. Encamped at the foot of South Pass. Here we found some gooseberries ; they were as smooth as currants and taste much like fox grapes. All the gooseberries this side of the Missouri are smooth. Still we have sage to cook with. I do not know which is best to cook with it---or "buffalo chips." Just step out and pull a lot of sage out of your garden and build a fire in the wind, and bake, boil and fry by it, and then you will guess how we do.

August 1. Passed over the Rocky Mountains, the backbone of America. It is all rocks on top and they are all split up and turned up edgeways. Oh, that I had time to describe this curious country. We wound over the mountains along a very crooked road. Had rain and hail to-day, which made it very disagreeable.

August 3. Encamped on the Little Sandy. Are two days' journey into the Oregon territory and have  [page 140] found no timber except on the streams since we left the Missouri.

August 6. Crossed Green River, a large and beautiful stream, bordered with considerable timber--- quaking asp.

August 7. Encamped on Black's Fork, a small river bordered with willows. This large waste of country, in my opinion, has once been a sea. My husband found on top of a mountain seashells petrified into stone. The crevices in the rocks show the different stages of the water.

August 7. Encamped at Fort Bridger. One of the superintendents traveled with us from Fort Laramie to this place. He is a good and intelligent man. He has a white wife. Long will he remember the captain of our company, Cornelius Smith. They were great friends.

August 12. Still at Fort Bridger. Here we have a good time for washing, which we women deem a great privilege.

August 15. Passed over one high mountain. Made twenty miles and encamped without food, water or fuel.

August 16. Started without breakfast. Made nine miles and encamped on Bear River.

August 22. Saw some of nature's curious works. Here are mounds perhaps forty feet in diameter and ten feet high, composed of shelly stone. In the middle of the mound stands a---I know not what to call it---it looks like a stump about three feet high. It has a hole in the top full of boiling water and running over all the time. It is the water that makes the mounds. The water is blood warm and has a little of the soda taste. A mile or so from here are the Soda Springs. They are not so good as represented. Only one or two of the company like it. It tastes like vinegar with a little saleratus in it. They are generally ten feet across and look like hog wallows more than springs, though I saw one that was clear. About two hundred yards from the Soda Springs is a boiling spring which boils over and foams and runs over thirty barrels in a day. It boils out of the stone. The hole is about as large as a large dinner pot. Every  [page 141] few minutes the water will bounce up three or four feet.

August 23. Made sixteen miles. Encamped with nothing but green sage to cook with. Good feed. This sage is larger than the tame sage, but much like it in appearance. It sometimes grows six feet high.

August 28. Passed Fort Hall. Captain Grant, of the Hudson Bay Company, is not that charitable gentleman we expected to see, but a boasting, burlesquing, unfeeling man.

August 29. Made sixteen miles. You in "the States" know nothing of dust. It will fly so that you can hardly see the horns of the tongue-yoke of oxen. It often seems that the cattle must die for want of breath, and then in our wagons, such a spectacle---beds, clothes, victuals and children all completely covered.

September 4. Made fourteen miles. Camped without feed. Had cedar to burn.

September 7. Nooned at Snake River. Watered our cattle and moved on two miles and camped. Two men were left behind, which was always the case with them, they had such heavy loads. They came up afterwards, and while watering, some of their cattle swam over the river. One of the men swam after them, and before he got across sank to rise no more. He left a wife and three small children. The other came running up to camp to let us know. Some went back and staid with them. By this time another company had overtaken them. Next morning my husband took a horse and went back to swim a horse over after the cattle. The man that owned the cattle took the horse and swam after the cattle, and while coming back by some means got off the horse and sank and was seen no more. He left a wife and six helpless children. My husband stood watching him. It is supposed that there is a whirlpool at the bottom of the river.

September 8. We moved on, for we had neither feed nor water. Camped on Snake River. My husband came up at ten o'clock and told us the shocking news.

September 12. One of our oxen died. The Indians  [page 142] along Snake River go naked except an old rag tied around their hips. They have few horses, no blankets. The immigrants trade them old clothes for fish which were dead, no doubt, when they were caught.

September 14. Blocked up our wagon beds and forded Snake River, which was wide, deep and swift. Camped at a spring with good grass.

September 15. Laid by. This morning our company moved on, except one family. The woman got mad and wouldn't budge nor let the children go. He had the cattle hitched on for three hours and coaxed her to go, but she wouldn't stir. I told my husband the circumstance and he and Adam Polk and Mr. Kimball went and each one took a young one and crammed them in the wagon and the husband drove off and left her sitting. She got up, took the back track and traveled out of sight. Cut across and overtook her husband. Meantime he sent his boy back to camp after a horse he had left, and when she came up her husband said, "Did you meet John?" "Yes," was the reply, "and I picked up a stone and knocked out his brains." Her husband went back to ascertain the truth and while he was gone she set fire to one of the wagons that was loaded with store goods. The cover burnt off with some valuable articles. He saw the flames and came running and put it out, and then mustered up spunk enough to give her a good flogging.

September 19. Made nineteen miles over mountains and dust. Camped on Boise River. Good feed.

September 23. Forded Snake River just before dark. It was waist deep and very cold. It is a large and swift-running river.

September 24. Mr. Kimball's oldest son died last night of typhus fever.

September 25. Buried the corpse. Camped on Burnt River.

September 28. Crossed Burnt River six times. We are all the time either on a hill or in a hollow.

September 29. Made eleven miles. Winding in and between mountains all day.

October 1. A woman of our company died as we were traveling along.  [page 143]

October 4. Camped on north branch of Powder River. Middling feed.

October 5. Camped on head waters of Grand Ronde. Plenty of feed and pine to burn.

October 6. Passed over one difficult and stony mountain. If Grand Ronde was west of the Cascade Mountains, how soon it would be taken up. It is level and covered with grass and watered with brooks and springs. It has a river flowing through it.

October 9. Doubled teams up another mountain. Camped at Pine Creek. To some wagons they put nine yoke of oxen. My husband and I are both sick with summer complaint.

October 11. Made twelve miles. Camped near a branch of the Utilla (Umatilla) River.

October 12. Went three miles. Here our company separated. Some went to Whitman's Mission to winter, and they were murdered in the general massacre, of which I suppose you have already heard. Here my husband bought a beef of the Indians. It was eighteen months old and weighed four hundred and eighty pounds. He paid them with a cow and calf and a new shirt.

October 17. Cold and windy. We made a fire of a little wood that we carried all day yesterday. Made a bite to eat. Our cattle ran off in search of water, which hindered us until late. Camped without wood except a small shrub called greasewood. It burns like greased weeds. I used to wonder why it was said that men must be dressed in buckskin to come to this country, but now I know. Everything we travel through is thorny and rough. There is no chance to save your clothes. Here we found a great hole of water twelve or fifteen feet across. Had to water one hundred and fifty head of cattle with pails. Had to stand out all night in the rain to keep the cattle from drowning each other---after water in this hole.

October 21. Camped on John Day's River. Here we put out a guard for fear of Indians, which we have not done before for three months.

October 22. Traveled up a long, steep ascent between two mountains. The road was so narrow that  [page 144] a wagon could scarcely squeeze along, and very rough at that.

October 23. Camped on the Columbia River. Scarce feed. No wood or shrubs. We had to burn little green weeds.

October 24. Crossed Falls or Shutes River. It was high, rapid and dangerous. The water came clear to the tops of the wagon beds. My children and I, with as many more women and children as could be stowed into a canoe, were taken over by two Indians, which cost a good many shirts. The Indians are thick as hops here and not very friendly. Any-body in preparing to come to this country should make up some calico shirts to trade to the Indians in case of necessity. You will have to hire them to pilot you across the rivers. When we got here my folks were about stripped of shirts, trousers, jackets and "wamusses.'

October 26. Made ten miles over a mountain all the way. Saw oak trees for the first time in Oregon. Camped on the Columbia.

October 27. Passed what is called the Dalles Mission, where two white families live with the Indians. It looks like starvation.

October 28. Here are a great many immigrants camped. Some making rafts, others going down in boats which have been sent up by speculators.

October 29. Rained most all day. Cold weather.

October 30. Rainy day. Men making rafts. Women cooking and washing and babies crying. Indians bartering potatoes for shirts. They must have a good shirt for a peck of potatoes.

October 31. Snow close by on the mountains. We should have gone over the mountains with our wagons, but they are covered with snow and we must go down by water and drive our cattle over the mountains.

November 1. We are lying by waiting for the wind to blow down stream in order that we may embark with our raft.

November 2. We took off our wagon wheels, laid them on the raft, placed the wagon beds on them and started. There are three families of us, Adam Folk,  [page 145] Russell Welch and ourselves, on twelve logs eighteen inches through and forty feet long. The water runs three inches over our raft.

November 3. Still lying by waiting for calm. Cold and disagreeable weather.

November 4. Rain all day. Laid by for the water to become calm. We clambered up a steep hillside among the rocks and built a fire and tried to cook and warm ourselves and children, while the wind blew and the waves rolled beneath.

November 5. Still lying by waiting for calm weather. Mr. Polk is very sick.

November 7. Put out in rough water. Moved a few miles. The water became so rough that we were forced to land. No one to man the raft but my husband and my oldest boy, sixteen years old. Russell Welch and our youngest boys are driving our cattle over the mountains. Here we are lying, smoking our eyes, burning our clothes and trying to keep warm. We have plenty of wood, but the wind takes away the warmth.

November 8. We are still lying at anchor, waiting for the wind to fall. We have but one day's provisions ahead of us here. We can see snow on the tops of the mountains whose rocky heights reach to the clouds at times. A few Indians call on us and steal something from us but we are not afraid of them. Cold weather---my hands are so cold I can hardly write.

November 9. Finds us still in trouble. Waves dashing over our raft and we already stinting ourselves in provisions. My husband started this morning to hunt provisions. Left no man with us except our oldest boy. It is very cold. The icicles are hanging from our wagon beds to the water. To-night about dusk Adam Polk expired. No one with him but his wife and myself. We sat up all night with him while the waves were dashing below.

November 10. Finds us still waiting for calm weather. My husband returned at two o'clock. Brought fifty pounds of beef on his back twelve miles, which he bought from another company. By this time the water had become calm and we started once more,  [page 146] but the wind soon began to blow and we were forced to land. My husband and boy were an hour and a half after dark getting the raft landed and made fast while the water ran knee-deep over our raft, the wind blew and it was freezing cold. We women and children didn't attempt to get out of the wagons to-night.

November n. Laid by most all day. Started this evening. Ran about three miles and landed after dark. Here we found Welch and our cattle, for they could not be driven farther on this side of the mountain. Here was a ferry for the purpose of ferrying immigrants' cattle.

November 12. Ferried our cattle across the Columbia and buried Mr. Polk. Rained all day. We are living entirely on beef.

November 13. We got the ferrymen to shift our load onto their boat and take us down to the falls, where we found quite a town of people waiting for their cattle to pull them around the falls. Rain all day.

November 18. My husband is sick. It rains and snows. We start around the falls this morning with our wagons. We have five miles to go. I carry my babe and lead, or rather carry another, through snow, mud, and water almost to my knees. It is the worst road a team could possibly travel. I went ahead with my children and I was afraid to look behind me for fear of seeing the wagons overturn into the mud and water with everything in them. My children gave out with cold and fatigue and could not travel, and the boys had to unhitch the oxen and bring them and carry the children on to camp. I was so cold and numb that I could not tell by the feeling that I had any feet. We started this morning at sunrise and did not camp until after dark, and there was not one dry thread on one of us---not even on the babe. I had carried my babe and I was so fatigued that I could scarcely speak or step. When I got here I found my husband lying in Welch's wagon very sick. He had brought Mrs. Polk down the day before and was taken sick. We had to stay up all night for our wagons were left halfway back. I have not told half we suffered. I am not adequate to the task. Here were some hundreds  [page 147] camped, waiting for some boats to come and take them down to Vancouver, Portland or Oregon City.

November 19. My husband is sick and can have but little care. Rain all day.

November 20. Rain all day. It is almost an impossibility to cook, and quite so to keep warm or dry. I froze or chilled my feet so that I cannot wear a shoe, so I have to go around in the cold water in my bare feet.

November 27. Embarked once more on the Columbia on a flatboat. Ran all day, though the waves threatened hard to sink us. Passed Fort Vancouver in the night. Landed a mile below. My husband has never left his bed since he was taken sick.

November 29. Landed at Portland on the Willamette, twelve miles above its mouth, at eleven o'clock at night.

November 30. Raining. This morning I ran about trying to get a house to get into with my sick husband. At last I found a small, leaky concern with two families already in it. Mrs. Polk had got down before us. She and another widow were in this house. My family and Welch's went in with them and you could have stirred us with a stick. Welch and my oldest boy were driving our cattle around. My children and I carried up a bed. The distance was nearly a quarter of a mile. Made it down on the floor in the mud. I got some men to carry my husband up through the rain and lay him on it, and he was never out of that shed until he was carried out in his coffin. Here lay five of us bedfast at one time, and we had no money and what few things we had left that would bring money I had to sell. I had to give ten cents a pound for fresh pork, seventy-five cents a bushel for potatoes and four cents a pound for fish. There are so many of us sick that I cannot write any more at present. I have not time to write much, but I thought it would be interesting to know what kind of weather we have in the winter.

January 15, 1848. My husband is still alive, but very sick. There is no medicine here except at Fort Vancouver, and the people there will not sell one bit---not even a bottle of wine.  [page 148]

January 16. We are still living in the old leaky shed in Portland. It is six miles below Vancouver and up the Willamette twelve miles. Portland has two white houses and one brick and three wood-colored frame buildings and a few log cabins.

January 20. Cool and dry. Soldiers are collecting here from every part of Oregon to go and fight the Indians in middle Oregon in consequence of the massacre at Whitman's Mission. I think there were seventeen men killed at the massacre, but no women or children, except Whitman's wife. They killed every white man there except one, and he was an Englishman. They took all the young women for wives. Robbed them of their clothing and everything. The Oregon government bought the prisoners at a dear rate, and then gave the Indians fight. But one white man, I believe, was killed in the war and not many Indians. The murderers escaped.

January 21. Warm and dry.

January 24. Dry in daytime but rain at night.

January 31. Rain all day. If I could tell you how we suffer you would not believe it. Our house, or rather a shed joined to a house, leaks all over. The roof descends in such a manner that the rain runs right down into the fire. I have dipped as much as six pails of water off our dirt hearth in one night. Here I sit up night after night with my poor sick husband, all alone, and expecting him every day to die. I neglected to tell you that Welch moved away and left us all alone. Mr. Smith has not been moved off his bed for six weeks, only by lifting him by each corner of the sheet, and I had hard work to get help enough for that, let alone to get watchers. I have not undressed to lie down for six weeks. Besides our sickness I had a cross little babe to take care of. Indeed, I cannot tell you half.

February 1. Rain all day. This day my dear husband, my last remaining friend, died.

February 2. To-day we buried my earthly companion. Now I know what none but widows know: that is, how comfortless is a widow's life; especially when left in a strange land without money or friends, and the care of seven children.  [page 149]

February 9. Clear and cool. Perhaps you will want to know how cool. We have lived all winter in a shed constructed by setting up studs five feet high on the lowest side. The other side joins the cabin. It is boarded up with clapboards and several of them are torn off in places, and there is no shutter to our door ; but if it was not for the rain putting out the fire and leaking all over the house we would be comfortable.

February 21. Clear and cool. You will wonder that we do not leave this starved place. The reason is this---the road from here to the country is impassable in winter, the distance being twelve miles, and because our cattle are yet very weak.

February 24. Clear and warm. To-day we left Portland at sunrise. Having no one to assist us, we had to leave one wagon and a part of our things for want of teams. We traveled four or five miles, all the way up hill and through the thickest woods I ever saw---all fir, from two to six feet through, with now and then a scattering cedar, and an intolerably bad road. We all had to walk. Sometimes I had to put my babe on the ground and help to keep the wagon from turning over. When we got to the top of the mountain we descended through mud up to the wagon-hubs and over logs two feet through, and log bridges torn to pieces in the mud. Sometimes I would be behind, out of sight of the wagon, tugging and carrying my little ones along. Sometimes the boys would stop the teams and come back after us. Made nine miles. Camped in thick woods. Found some grass. Unhitched the oxen ; let them feed two hours and chained them to trees. These woods are infested with wildcats, panthers, bears and wolves. A man told me he had killed six tigers---but they are a species of wolf. We made us a fire and made a bed down on the wet grass and laid down as happy as circumstances would admit. Glad to think we had escaped from Portland---such a game place.

This was the last record of Mrs. Smith's diary---a story of deprivation, hardships, hunger, danger, destitution and even death---perhaps more harrowing in its  [page 150] details than that of the average family who made the two-thousand-mile trip to Oregon in the '40's. And yet there were thousands who brought upon themselves the same awful difficulties---leaving their lifelong friends, abandoning their native country where plenty abounded and where there were millions of acres of vacant land yet to be had---all for the love of adventure. This accounts for the fact, accepted by everybody who understands early conditions here, that the Oregon pioneers, men and women, were of the stuff which develops into a sturdy citizenship.

The reading of the diary of Mrs. Smith, penned as she wended her way to Oregon in the summer of 1847, cannot fail to impress the average reader with the striking contrast between the manner of journeying from the Mississippi Valley to Oregon then and now. The man who makes the trip now is usually a tourist. He buys a sleeper at Chicago, and within three days is in Portland, a city of over two hundred thousand inhabitants, where Mrs. Smith found upon her arrival one brick building, two white houses and a few log cabins. Instead of living on beef alone for several days, the tourist is supplied three times a day on a "diner" with the best the land affords, while a colored waiter bows and smiles---provided on some previous occasion he has not failed to tip him generously---and for this he pays at least a whole dollar in the coin of the realm. There is no opportunity for him to trade his shirt for a peck of potatoes. After his meal is served, he returns to his upholstered seat and resumes the reading of his favorite book. While enjoying his steak and coffee he travels as far, in the utmost comfort, as Mrs. Smith did in any of the days at the end of which she recorded "made eighteen miles" in suffocating dust, and much of the time with insufficient food. At a station the train stops for a few minutes. The traveler drops his book, steps out on the platform and, with a yawn, says to his companion: 'What a tedious trip ! Let us take a turn or two and stretch our  [page 151] legs. And they say we will get into Portland two hours late. Blast these railroads, anyway !"

On September 2, 1850, two years and a half after the last entry in her diary, which I have quoted, Mrs. Smith wrote a letter to the same two women friends in Indiana, in the course of which occurs this paragraph :

My three boys started to the California gold mines and it was doubtful to me if I ever should see them again. Perhaps you will think it strange that I let such young boys go so far, but I was willing and I helped them off in as good style as I could. Well, after the boys were gone, it is true I had plenty of cows and hogs, and plenty of wheat to feed them on and to make my bread. Indeed, I was well off, if I had only known it, but I lived in a remote place where my strength was of little use to me. I could get nothing to do, and you know I could not live without work. I employed myself in teaching my children ; yet that did not fully occupy my mind. I became as poor as a snake, yet I was in good health and was never so nimble since I was a child. I could run half a mile without stopping to breathe. Well, I thought I would try my fortune again, so on the 24th of June, 1849, I was married to Mr. Joseph Geer, a man fourteen years older than myself, though young enough for me. He is the father of ten children. They are all married but two boys and two girls. He is a Yankee from Connecticut, and he is a Yankee in every sense of the word, as I told you he would be if it ever proved my lot to marry again. I did not marry rich, but my husband is industrious and is as kind to me as I can ask. Indeed, he sometimes provokes me in trying to humor me so much. He is a stout, healthy man for one of his age.

Since the 'Yankee husband" referred to was my grandfather, before mentioned in these pages, it will be appropriate to close this chapter by quoting a part of the postscript to the above letter, which was written by him :  [page 152]


As Mrs. Geer has introduced me to you as her "old Yankee husband," I will add a few words in hopes of becoming better acquainted hereafter. She so often speaks of you that you seem like old neighbors. She has neglected to tell you that she was once the wife of Cornelius Smith. She has told you how poor she became while a widow but has not said one word about how fat she has become since she has been living with her Yankee husband. This is perhaps reserved for her next epistle so I will say nothing about it.

Of her I will say she makes me a first-rate wife, industrious and kind almost to a fault to me, a fault, however, that I can cheerfully overlook, you know.

We are not rich, but independent, and live agreeably together, which is enough. We are located on the west bank of the Willamette River, about twenty miles from Oregon City, about forty yards from the water a very pleasant situation. I intend putting out a large orchard as soon as I can prepare the ground; have about ten thousand apple trees and two hundred pear trees on hand. Apple trees worth one dollar and pears one dollar and fifty cents apiece. I have not room to give you a description of this, the best country in the world, so I will not attempt it, but if you will answer this I will give you a more particular account next time.

Yours respectfully,



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2007, J. Kidd.

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