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Peter H. Burnett. Recollections And Opinions of an Old Pioneer. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880. (Portion of Chapter 3)


I returned with my family to Fort Vancouver on the 26th of November, 1843; and, as we passed the place of our encampment on the sand-beach below the Cascades, the Canadian boatmen pointed toward it and laughed.

When we arrived at the Cascades on our return voyage, we carried our baggage upon our shoulders three fourths of a mile, when we reloaded and then "jumped" the rapids below. Until we had passed these rapids on our downward voyage I had no adequate conception of the dangers we had passed through on the voyage from Walla Walla to the Dalles. During that perilous passage I was one of the oarsmen, and sat with my back to the bow of the boat, thus having no fair opportunity to observe well. My attention was mainly confined to my own portion of the work, and I had but little time to look up. But, in running the rapids below the Cascades, I had nothing to do but look on. It was almost literal "jumping."

There was then an Indian tradition that about a hundred years before the Cascades did not exist, but that there was a succession of rapids from the Dalles to where the Cascades are now. The whole volume of the Columbia is now confined to a narrow channel, and falls about thirty feet in the distance of a quarter of a mile. This tradition said that the river gradually cut under the mountain, until the projecting mass of huge stones and tough clay slid into the river and dammed up the stream to the height of some thirty feet, thus producing slack water to the Dalles. And I must say that every appearance, to my mind, sustains this view.

The Columbia, like most rivers, has a strip of bottom-land covered with timber, on one side or the other; but at the Cascades this bottom-land is very narrow, and has a very different appearance from the bottoms at places on the river above and below. The mountain on the south side of the river looks precisely as if a vast land-slide had taken place there; and the huge rocks that lift their gray, conical heads above the water at a low stage go to prove that they could not have withstood that terrible current for many centuries. In the winter, when the water is at its lowest stage, immense masses of thick ice come down over these Cascades, and strike with tremendous force against the rocks; and the consequent wearing away must have been too great for those rocks to have been in that position many centuries.

But there is another fact that seems to me to be almost conclusive. As we passed up the river, the water was at a very low stage; and yet for some twenty miles above we could see stumps of various sizes standing as thick beneath the water as trees in a forest. The water was clear, and we had a perfect view of them. They were entirely sound, and were rather sharp in form toward the top. It was evident that the trees had not grown in the water, but it had been backed up over their roots, and the tops and trunks had died and decayed, while the stumps, being under water, had remained substantially sound; and the reason why they were sharp at the top was, that the heart of the timber was more durable than the sap-wood, which had decayed. Another reason for the sharpness of the stumps at the top is, the abrasion caused by the floating masses of ice.

It was the opinion of Governor Fremont that these stumps had been placed in this position by a slide, which took them from their original site into the river. But I must think that opinion erroneous, because the slide could hardly have been so great in length, and the appearance of the adjacent hills does not indicate an event of that magnitude. It is much more rational, I think, to suppose that the slide took place at the Cascades, and that the Indian tradition is true. Another reason is, that the river at the points where these stumps are found is quite wide, showing an increase of width by the backing up of the water over the bottoms.

I procured a room for my family at Vancouver, until I could build a cabin. General M. M. McCarver and myself had agreed that we would select a town site at the head of ship navigation on the Willamette River. The General, having no family with him, arrived at the fort some time before I did, and selected a spot on the Willamette, about five miles above its mouth, at what we then supposed to be the head of ship navigation.

Here we laid out a town, calling it Linnton for Dr. Linn. It was a fair site, except for one small reason: it was not at the head of ship navigation, which subsequent experience proved to be at Portland, some miles above. I had a cabin built at Linnton, and lived there with my family from about the middle of January until the first of May, 1844. We performed a considerable amount of labor there, most of which was expended in opening a wagon-road thence to the Tualatin Plains, over a mountain, and through a dense forest of fir, cedar, maple, and other timber. When finished, the road was barely passable with wagons. Our town speculation was a small loss to us, the receipts from the sale of lots not being equal to the expenses.

I soon found that expenses were certain and income nothing, and determined to select what was then called "a claim," and make me a farm. I knew very little about farming, though raised upon a farm in Missouri, and had not performed any manual labor of consequence (until I began to prepare for this trip) for about seventeen years. I had some recollection of farming; but the theory, as practiced in Missouri, would not fully do for Oregon. Mr. Douglas told me that I could not succeed at farming, as there was a great deal of hard work on a farm. I replied that, in my opinion, a sensible and determined man could succeed at almost anything, and I meant to do it. I did succeed well; but I never had my intellect more severely tasked, with a few exceptions. Those who think good farming not an intellectual business are most grievously mistaken.


Some time in April, 1844, I went to the Tualatin Plains, and purchased a claim in the middle of a circular plain, about three miles in diameter. The claim was entirely destitute of timber, except a few ash-trees which grew along the margin of the swales. The plain was beautiful, and was divided from the plains adjoining by living streams of water flowing from the mountains, the banks of which streams were skirted with fir and white-cedar timber. The surface of this plain was gently undulating, barely sufficient for drainage. I purchased ten acres of splendid fir timber, distant about a mile and a half, for twenty-five dollars. This supply proved ample for a farm of about two hundred and fifty acres.

These swales are peculiar winter drains, from ten to thirty yards wide, and from one to two feet deep. In the winter they are filled with slowly running water; but in summer they are dry, and their flat bottoms become almost as hard as a brick. No vegetation of consequence will grow in these swales; and the only timber along their margins is scattering ash, from six to eight inches in diameter and from twenty to twenty-five feet high, with wide, bushy tops. The land on both sides of these swales being clean prairie, the rows of green ash in summer give the plain a beautiful appearance.

During the five years I remained in Oregon, the rainy season invariably set in between the 18th of October and the 1st of November, and continued until about the middle of April, with occasional showers to July. In 1845 there were showers in August sufficient to sprout wheat in the shock. Always about the 10th of September we had frost sufficient to kill bean and melon vines. The season for sowing wheat and oats extended from the commencement of the rains until the first of May; and the harvest began about the 20th of July. We had snow every winter but one while I was in Oregon. At one time it was from six to eight inches deep, and remained upon the ground about ten days. The Columbia River was then frozen over at Vancouver; but this fact is not a true indication of the degree of cold, as this stream heads in a cold region, and the ice forms above and comes down in floating masses; and, when the tide is rising, there is little or no current in the river, and it then freezes over very easily. During the winter, and most generally in February, there is an interval of fine clear weather, which lasts about twenty days, with a cold wind from the north, and hard frosts.

But during most of the rainy season the rains are almost continuous. Sometimes the sun would not be seen for twenty days in succession. It would generally rain about three days and nights without intermission, then cease for about the same period (still remaining cloudy), and then begin again. These rains were not very heavy, but cold and steady, accompanied with a brisk, driving wind from the south. It required a very stout, determined man to ride all day facing one of these rains. They were far worse than driving snow, as they wet and chilled the rider through. The summers, the latter half of the spring, and the early half of the fall, were the finest in the world, so far as my own experience extends. Though the rainy seasons be long and tedious, they are, upon the whole, a blessing. The copious rains fertilize the soil of the fields, and keep them always fresh and productive. In my own best judgment, Oregon is one of the loveliest and most fertile spots of earth. It is destined to be densely populated and finely cultivated. The scenery of her mountains and valleys is simply magnificent. Her snow-clad mountains, her giant forests, her clear skies in summer, and her green and blooming valleys, constitute a combination of the beautiful that can not be excelled.

When we arrived in Oregon, we more than doubled the resident civilized population of the country. J. W. Nesmith, our orderly sergeant, made a complete roll of the male members of the company capable of bearing arms, including all above the age of sixteen years. This roll he preserved and produced at the Oregon Pioneers’ Celebration in June, 1875. I have inspected this roll as published in "The Oregonian," and find it correct, except in the omission of the name of P. B. Reading, who went to California, and including the name of A. L. Lovejoy, who came the year before.

This roll contained 293 names, 267 of whom arrived in Oregon. Of the 26 missing, 6 died on the way, 5 turned back on Platte River, and 15 went to California. He also gives the names of many of the resident male population, and estimates their number at 157. John M. Shively made a complete list of all the emigrants at the crossing of Kansas River, but that list has unfortunately been lost. Judge M. P. Deady, in his address before the Oregon Pioneers in June, 1875, estimated the immigration of 1843, men, women, and children, at nine hundred. My own estimate would not be so high. I have always estimated the number arriving in Oregon as not exceeding eight hundred.

John M. Shively is an engineer, and a plain, unassuming man, but possessed of much greater genuine ability than most people supposed. Justice has never been done him. He was in Washington City in the winter of 1845-’46, and was the originator of the project of a steamship line from New York to this coast by way of Panama.

When we arrived in Oregon we were poor, and our teams were so much reduced as to be unfit for service until the next spring. Those of us who came by water from Walla Walla left our cattle there for the winter; and those who came by water from the Dalles left their cattle for the winter at that point. Even if our teams had been fit for use when we arrived, they would have been of no benefit to us, as we could not bring them to the Willamette Valley until the spring of 1844. Pork was ten and flour four cents a pound, and other provisions in proportion. These were high prices considering our scanty means and extra appetites. Had it not been for the generous kindness of the gentlemen in charge of the business of the Hudson’s Bay Company, we should have suffered much greater privations. The Company furnished many of our immigrants with provisions, clothing, seed, and other necessaries on credit. This was done, in many instances, where the purchasers were known to be of doubtful credit. At that time the Company had most of the provisions and merchandise in the country; and the trade with our people was, upon the whole, a decided loss, so many failing to pay for what they had purchased. Many of our immigrants were unworthy of the favors they received, and only returned abuse for generosity.

I remember an example, related to me by Captain James Waters, an excellent man, possessed of a kind heart, a truthful tongue, and a very patient disposition. As before stated, most of our immigrants passed from the Dalles to the Cascades on rafts made of dry logs. This was not only slow navigation, but their rafts were utterly useless after reaching the Cascades; and they were compelled to remain there for some days, before they could descend the river to the fort. In the mean time their supplies of provisions had been consumed. Captain Waters was among the first of our immigrants to arrive at Vancouver, having no family with him; and he at once applied to Dr. McLoughlin for supplies of provisions for the immigrants at the Cascades, but had nothing wherewith to pay. The Doctor furnished the supplies, and also a boat to take them up, with the understanding that Captain Waters would navigate the vessel, and sell the provisions to the immigrants at Vancouver prices. This was done; but many of the purchasers never paid, contenting themselves with abusing the Doctor and the Captain, accusing them of wishing to speculate upon the necessities of poor immigrants. The final result was a considerable loss, which Dr. McLoughlin and Captain Waters divided equally between them. I met Waters myself with the boat laden with provisions going up, as I passed down the river the first time; and there can be no doubt of the truth of his statement.

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