In the 1830s some American politicians began to argue that the United States to absorb all of North America. Lewis Linn, the senator for Missouri, called for the British to be pushed out of Oregon. In an attempt to persuade Americans to settle in Oregon he introduced a bill into the Senate granting free land as a reward for those prepared to travel across the Rocky Mountains to claim it. Other politicians argued that this legislation would result in a war with Britain and the bill was defeated.
There were several reasons why people were willing to risk the long journey to California and Oregon. Emigrants stressed the importance of escaping from the fever-infested swamps of Missouri and Mississippi. Early visitors to the west coast pointed out that the health of people living in this area seemed to be good. Antoine Robidoux claimed that he had never seen anyone in California with the fever or ague.
Francis Parkman, who interviewed a large number of emigrants and claimed that many mentioned a desire to escape from unpleasant weather conditions: "The bad climate seems to have been the motive that has induced many of them to set out."
Stories also circulated about the high quality of the crops that could be grown in California and Oregon. Potential emigrants were told that wheat "grew as tall as a man, with each stalk sprouting seven kernels", clover was so dense that the "farmer could barely get into the field to harvest it" and turnips were "five feet tall".
Another commentator claimed that: "The motives which thus brought the multitude together were, in fact, almost as various as their features. They agreed in one general object - that of bettering their condition." They were spurred on by the comments of Richard Henry Dana. In his book, Two Years Before the Mast, he claimed that people living in California were lazy. He wrote: "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"
The overland journey from the Mid-West to Oregon and California meant a six month trip across 2,000 miles of difficult country. It was also an expensive enterprise. It was estimated that the journey cost a man and his family about $1,000. He would also need a specially prepared wagon that cost about $400. The canvas top would have to be waterproofed with linseed oil and stretched over a framework of hoop-shaped slats. Although mainly made of wood, iron was used to reinforce the wagon at crucial points. However, iron was used sparingly in construction since it was heavy and would slow down and exhaust the animals pulling the wagon.
The wagons were packed with food supplies, cooking equipment, water kegs, and other things needed for a long journey. These wagons could carry loads of up to 2,500 pounds, but the recommended maximum was 1,600 pounds. Research suggests that a typical family of four carried 800 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of lard, 700 pounds of bacon, 200 pounds of beans, 100 pounds of fruit, 75 pounds of coffee and 25 pounds of salt.
The wagon also had to carry a shovel and cooking utensils. Some emigrants took furniture but this was often abandoned on the trip. There was little room in the wagon for people and so only small children or senior citizens rode in the wagon. The rest of the party walked beside the slow moving vehicle or rode on the back of a horse.
The four wheels of the wagon were made of wood (strengthened with iron). The front wheels were usually smaller than those at the back. The wagon train would travel at around two miles an hour. This enabled the emigrants to average ten miles a day. With good weather the 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to California and Oregon would take about five months. However, heavy rains would increase this by several weeks.
These wagons rarely had springs. This was not a major problem for the passengers as the wagon travelled very slowly. Nor did the wagons have brakes and this caused serious problems when travelling downhill. One solution was to use chains to lock at least one wheel. Another strategy was to cut down a tree and haul it behind to supply drag.
The emigrants used horses, oxen and mules to pull their wagons. The most popular animal with emigrants was the ox. It was cheaper, stronger and easier to work than horses or mules. They were also less likely to be stolen by Native Americans on the journey and would be more useful as a farm animal when you reached your destination. Oxen were able to exist on sparse vegetation and were less likely to stray from camp. The main argument against oxen was that they could become reckless when hot and thirsty and were known to cause stampedes in a rush to reach water.
In 1840 John Bidwell established the Western Emigration Society and published news that he intended to take a large wagon train from the Missouri River to California. The idea was very popular and soon the society had 500 names of people who wanted to take part in this momentous event. Missouri shopkeepers, fearing a rapid decline in customers, decided to mount a campaign against the idea. Local newspapers published stories about the dangers of travelling overland to California. A great deal of publicity was given to Thomas Farnham's Travels in the Great Western Prairies. In the book Farnham described in detail the hardships people would face on the journey.
Bidwell later admitted that the party included no one who had ever been to California: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge." So when Bidwell heard that a group of missionaries, led by Pierre-Jean De Smet, and guided by the experienced Tom Fitzpatrick, were also intending to travel to Fort Hall, it was decided to wait until they arrived at Sapling Grove.
Fitzpatrick agreed to take Bidwell's party to Fort Hall. Bidwell later claimed that was a most important factor in the the party's survival: "it was well we did (wait for Fitzpatrick), for other wise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience". Even with Fitzpatrick's leadership the wagon train suffered considerable problems on the journey and of the 69 people in Bidwell's party who set out from Sapling Grove, only 32 people reached California.
Between 1840 and 1860 more than half of the animals used to pull the wagons were oxen. Probably the major reason for this was that an ox cost $25 in the 1840s whereas mules were $75. During the early stages of this migration, mules were the second most popular animal with the emigrants. Later, horses replaced mules as the second choice for pulling wagons.
When the party stopped for any length of time the wagons were arranged, end to end, in a circular or square compound. This served both as a corral for the animals and as protection against a possible attack from Native Americans.
Emigrants to the West assembled at various outfitting towns in Missouri such as Independence and St. Joseph. Each party would elect a captain who commanded the wagon train and maintain law and order on the journey. Most wagon trains employed guides who knew the journey to California. This usually meant mountain men such as Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Baker, Stephen Meek, Joseph Walker, James Bridger and William Sublette.
Many writers warned against the dangers of going overland to California and Oregon. In 1843, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune wrote: "It is palpable homicide to tempt or send women and children over this thousand miles of precipice and volcanic sterility to Oregon."
Accidental shootings was the main cause of death on the overland trails. The second major problem was drowning. More than 300 people died in this way between 1840 and 1860. Nineteen emigrants drowned crossing the River Platte near Fort Laramie in 1849. The following year forty-nine emigrants drowned at North Fork.
In the years between 1840 and 1848 an estimated 11,512 migrated overland to Oregon and 2,735 to California. One survey showed that only about 50 emigrants returned home before reaching their destination during this period. The main reasons given for this was poor health and fear of Native Americans.
It has been estimated that in 1846 around 250 wagons and 1,500 people assembled at Independence to journey to California and Oregon. This was also the year of the Donner Party, the worst disaster in wagon train history, when forty-two emigrants and two Indian guides died on the journey.
About 3,000 African Americans reached California by 1850. However, the passing of anti-black legislation made them into second-class citizens and most decided to move on to Canada.
In March, 1857, Alexander Fancher and his wagon train left Fort Smith, Arkansas, for California. The party included 50 men, 40 women and 50 children. On 7th September, Fancher's party was attacked by local Native Americans. Fancher corralled their wagons and were able to defend themselves against these attacks. Mormons approached the Fancher party and offered to lead them to safety. However, it was a trick and all the party, except for 17 infants, were murdered. John D. Lee, the Mormon leader, was eventually executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
In 1862 Congress passed the Homesteads Act. This legislation stated that a head of a family could acquire land consisting of 160 acres, settle it, and cultivate it for five years. At the end of the five year period the head of the family was granted the land. The Homesteads Act had a dramatic impact on persuading people to migrate to California and Oregon. By 1890 all available federal land had been settled by these pioneers.
For what, then, do they brave the desert, the wilderness, the savage the snowy precipices of the Rocky Mountains, the weary summer march, the storm-drenched bivouac, and the gnawings of famine? Only to fulfil their destiny! There is probably not one among them whose outward circumstances will be improved by this perilous journey.
Oregon is mountainous and rugged; its plains are dry and barren, nothing but sun in summer; very few fertile valleys, and those of very limited extent, and no navigable rivers to compare with the great watercourses of the Mississippi valley. This is Oregon. In truth, no man of information... in his right mind would think of leaving such a country as this (Missouri) to wander over a thousand miles of desert and five hundred miles of mountain to reach such as that.
The author long having had an anxious desire to visit those wild regions upon the great Pacific, which had now become the topic of conversation in every circle, and in reference to which, speculations both rational and irrational were everywhere in vogue, now determine to accomplish his desired object: for which purpose he repaired to Independence, which place was the known rendezvous of the Santa Fe traders, and the trappers of the Rocky mountains. Having arrived at Independence, he was so fortunate as to find, not only the Santa Fe traders, and the Rocky mountain trappers, but also a number of emigrants, consisting of families and young men who had convened there with the view of crossing the Rocky mountains, and were waiting very patiently until their number should be so increased as to afford protection and insure the safety of all, when they contemplated setting out together, for their favorite place of destination, Oregon territory. The number of emigrants continued to increase with such rapidity, that on the 15th day of May, our company consisted of one hundred and sixty persons, giving us a force of eighty armed men, which was thought ample for our protection. Having organized, and having ascertained that all had provided themselves with the necessary quantum of provisions and ammunition, as well as such teams and wagons as the company had previously determined to be essential, and indispensable, and all things else being in readiness, on the 16th day of May, in the year 1842, all as one man, united in interest, united in feeling, we were, en route, for the long desired El Dorado of the West.
As we pushed rapidly past the wagons, children's faces were thrust out from the white coverings to look at us; while the care-worn, thin-featured matron, or the buxom girl, seated in front, suspended the knitting on which most of them were engaged to stare at us with wondering curiosity. By the side of each wagon stalked the proprietor, urging on his patient oxen, who shouldered heavily along, inch by inch, on their interminable journey. It was easy to see that fear and dissension prevailed among them; some of the men - but these, with one exception, were bachelors - looked wistfully upon us as we rode lightly and swiftly past, and then impatiently at their own lumbering wagons and heavy-gaited oxen. Others were unwilling to advance at all until the party they had left behind should have rejoined them. Many were murmuring against the leader they had chosen, and wished to depose him; and this discontent was fermented by some ambitious spirits, who had hopes of succeeding in his place. The women were divided between regrets for the homes they had left and apprehension of the deserts and the savages before them.
We soon left them far behind, and fondly hoped that we had taken a final leave; but unluckily our companions' wagon stuck so long in a deep muddy ditch that, before it was extricated, the van of the emigrant caravan appeared again, descending a ridge close at hand. Wagon after wagon plunged through the mud; and as it was nearly noon, and the place promised shade and water, we saw with much gratification that they were resolved to encamp. Soon the wagons were wheeled into a circle; the cattle were grazing over the meadow, and the men with sour, sullen faces, were looking about for wood and water. They seemed to meet with but indifferent success. As we left the ground, I saw a tall slouching fellow with the nasal accent of "down east," contemplating the contents of his tin cup, which he had just filled with water.
We had already left the Little Blue and were getting closer to the Platte River. Gradually the luxuriant grass of the regions of the Kansas disappeared; the grass became shorter and was of a different kind. The night before we had camped not far from the Little Blue and hoped to reach the Platte during the day or early the next morning. Ripstein shouldered his rifle and said he wanted to go upstream along the Little Blue River. Maybe he would succeed in bagging a deer or an antelope. He would meet us again somewhere along the road. We warned him about the Indians, for we had been told that somewhere along the Little Blue there was a large camp of Pawnees, whose hostility toward the whites was generally feared. Ripstein was tall, courageous, and strong and an excellent runner, never seeming to tire.
We continued our journey at the usual time through the open prairie and were caught by dusk before coming in sight of the Platte River. Since we had some firewood with us, we made camp near several water holes, which were full of mosquitoes, though we could use the water for coffee and tea after straining it through a clean handkerchief.
A noble sight. The eighteen wagons with their snow white coverings, winding down the long hill, followed by the immense train of horses, mules and cattle of all kind, their drivers walking by their sides, merrily singing or whistling, to beguile their way. As Dr White stood on an elevation, he cast his eyes forward towards the wastes and wilds of the savage world they were to traverse, and back to his own loved, pleasant land, and it need not be enquired whether his reflections were of a very joyous nature.
Now all was high glee, jocular hilarity, and happy anticipation, as we thus darted forward into the wild expanse, of the untrodden regions of the 'western world.' The harmony of feeling, the sameness of purpose, and the identity of interest, which here existed, seemed to indicate nothing but continued order, harmony, and peace, amid all the trying scenes incident to our long and toilsome journey.
About five or six thousand of the Blackfoot Sioux, under a great war chief, appeared. By this immense multitude the train was compelled to halt and be inspected by band after band of the curious savages. They were especially curious to look at the women of the train.
The night of our arrival at Fort Platte was the signal for a grand jollification to all hands ... who soon got most gloriously drunk yelling, screeching, firing, shouting, fighting, swearing, drinking and such like interesting performances, were kept up without intermission... The scene was prolonged till near sundown the next, and several made their egress from this beastly carousal minus shirts and coats - with swollen eyes, bloody noses and empty pockets.
The edge of the wood, for several miles along the river, was dotted with the white covers of emigrant wagons, collected in groups at various camps, where the smokes were rising lazily from the fires, around which the women were occupied in preparing the evening meal, and the children playing in the grass; and herds of cattle grazing about in the bottom, had an air of quiet security, and civilized comfort, that made a rare sight for the traveller in such a remote wilderness.
The boys could not see what was going on in the camp, as a wagon intervened; but soon Billy heard the scream of a child as if in death-agony, and the simultaneous shriek of a woman. Leaping from his entrenchment, he called to Jess to stay there and cover his attack, whilst he sprang away, pistol in one hand and a small Spanish dagger in the other, directly towards the camp. At this moment the Indians essayed to drive them from their defense. Billy met them more than half way and fought his way through a half-dozen of them. He had emptied his revolver, and had no time to load it. Clubbing his pistol he rushed on, and, dodging a blow from a burly Indian, he darted under a wagon and fell on a prairie axe.
Billy afterwards said he believed that his howl of delight frightened those Indians so that he and Jess won the fight. He emerged on the other side of the wagon. A glance showed him the three men and all the women and children but one woman and one little girl, ensconced behind the other two wagons, and partly protected by a jutting rock. One woman and the little girl were lying, apparently lifeless, on the ground. With yell on yell Billy fell among the reds with his axe. He never missed hearing every crack of Jess' rifle, and in three minutes there was not a live Indian in sight. Eight "good" ones slept their last sleep. Billy's face, hands, and clothing, the wagons, the camp furniture, and the grass were bespattered with blood and brains.
Turning to the campers, the boys discovered that the little girl had received a fracture of the skull in an attempt, by an Indian brave, to brain her, and the mother had fainted. All three of the men were wounded. One was shot through the abdomen and in the shoulder. It is doubtful if he survived. The other two were but slightly hurt. Billy had the heel of his boot battered, his gun shot to pieces, and received a wound in the hand.
A few miles before reaching the city, the road again emerges into an open plain. Ascending a table ridge, we spied in an extended valley to the northwest, occasional groups of trees, skirted with verdant corn and wheat fields, with here and there a square block like protuberance reared in the midst. A little further, and just ahead of us to the north, irregular clusters of the same opened to our view. 'Oh, we are approaching the suburbs!' thought I, on perceiving the cornfields, and what I supposed to be brick-kilns scattered in every direction. These and other observations of the same nature becoming audible, a friend at my elbow said, 'It is true these are heaps of unburnt bricks, nevertheless they are houses - this is the city of Sante Fe'.
Five or six days after our arrival, the caravan at last hove in sight, and wagon after wagon was seen pouring down the last declivity at about a mile's distance from the city. To judge from the clamorous rejoicings of the men, and the state of agreeable excitement which the muleteers seemed to be laboring under, the spectacle must have been as new to them as it had been to me. It was truly a scene for the artist's pencil to revel in. Even the animals seemed to participate in the humor of their riders, who grew more and more merry and obstreperous as they descended towards the city. I doubt, in short, whether the first sight of the walls of Jerusalem were beheld by the crusaders with much more tumultuous and soul-enrapturing joy.
The arrival produced a great deal of bustle and excitement among the natives. 'Los Americanos !' - 'Los carros!' - 'La entrada de la caravana!' were to be heard in every direction; and crowds of women and boys flocked around to see the newcomers; while crowds of leperos hung about as usual to see what they could pilfer. The wagoners were by no means free from excitement on this occasion. Informed of the 'ordeal' they had to pass, they had spent the previous morning in 'rubbing up'; and now they were prepared, with clean faces, sleek combed hair, and their choicest Sunday suit, to meet the 'fair eyes' of glistening black that were sure to stare at them as they passed.
There was yet another preparation to be made in order to 'show off' to advantage. Each wagoner must tie a bran new 'cracker' to the lash of his whip; for, on driving through the streets and the plaza pliblica, every one strives to outvie his comrades in the dexterity with which he flourishes this favorite badge of his authority.
Our wagons were soon discharged in the ware-rooms of the Custom-house; and a few days' leisure being now at our disposal, we had time to take that recreation which a fatiguing journey of ten weeks had rendered so necessary. The wagoners, and many of the traders, particularly the novices, flocked to the numerous fandangoes, which are regularly kept up after the arrival of a caravan. But the merchants generally were anxiously and actively engaged in their affairs - striving who should first get his goods out of the custom-house, and obtain a chance at the 'hard chink' of the numerous country dealers, who annually resort to the capital on these occasions.
The arrival of a caravan at Santa Fe changes the aspect of the place at once. Instead of the idleness and stagnation which its streets exhibited before, one now sees everywhere the bustle, noise and activity of a lively market town. As the Mexicans very rarely speak English, the negotiations are mostly conducted in Spanish.
One of the axle-trees of the wagon broke today; was a little rejoiced, for we were in hopes that they would leave it, and have no more trouble with it. Our rejoicings are in vain for they are making a cart of the back wheels this afternoon and lashing the forewheels to it - intending to take it through in some shape or other.
Just after we crossed the bridge, and where there is a sudden turn in the road, as it winds around the mountain, we saw where two men had been killed and two wagons burned last week. The tire became loose on a wheel of the next to the last wagon in a freight train, the men stopped to tighten it, while the rest of the train moved on, not thinking of danger, and was out of sight in a few minutes. An hour later some of the men came back to see what kept them. There they were - dead and scalped - horses gone, and wagons on fire. The Indians had taken all the freight they could use, piled wood under the wagons, and set it on fire. We saw quantities of white beans scattered over the ground, also the irons from the wagons.
The three great trails across the trans-Mississippi West, therefore, before the building of the transcontinental railroads, were the SantaFe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and the California Trail. The Santa Fe Trail continued across from the Rio Grande valley to the Pacific as the Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, the Gila river being a less-used alternative to San Diego. An even more southerly trail was developed from Memphis across Arkansas, the Indian Country (Oklahoma) and Texas to El Paso, Yuma, and San Diego, to be used as the route of the overland stage coaches. The outbreak of the Civil War soon put an end to its usefulness. It was too roundabout ever to have been an emigrant trail. It carried mail, important small-bulk freight, and affluent or expense-account passengers at considerable speed and in great discomfort.
Far distant upon the boundless prairies stretching away toward the setting sun, and over four hundred and fifty miles from the border towns of the Missouri River, this letter is written for the amusement and instruction of your readers. The author, dressed in a soiled suit of corduroy, and with a ventilated slouched hat upon his head, is seated upon the tongue of a wagon, with a five-gallon vinegar-keg for his writing-desk, while at the same moment the first teams of Colonel F. W. Landers South Pass Wagon-road Expedition are entering the water at the crossing of the South Fork of the Platte.
At the present date both banks of the river are lined with the wagons and animals of the emigrants; and the happy owners of those which have successfully "passed over Jordan" may well cast their eyes across the swelling flood and gaze with Christian resignation upon the toiling and struggling pilgrims who have yet to prove their faith and endurance. The water rushing over the wagons, the plunging and kicking of the mules, and the imprecations of the teamsters, render the scene one of peculiar interest; and to add to it, Dog Belly, chief of the Ogallalah band of the Sioux tribe of Indians, with a small party of his braves, are grouped around Colonel Landers carriage, smoking the pipe of peace. Mr. Albert Bierstadt, of Boston, the artist of the expedition, is engaged in sketching their appearance. And it is to his pencil we are indebted for the illustrations accompanying this article.
During the past ten days we have met thousands of the deluded and suffering gold-seekers retracing their steps to the quiet farms of the West. Many of them were in a starving condition, barefooted, ragged, and penniless; and it has caused much delay in the progress of the expedition, and materially diminished our supply of provisions to feed these hungry, home-bound strollers. We counted upon one day ninety-three wagons, and the following one eighty-four, to each of which was attached from six to ten men; and besides these, hundreds of others who were wandering along without any mode of conveyance. Up to this point of our journey we have probably passed five thousand desponding and disappointed men returning to the States, and this number is but small compared to those who have pressed on toward California.
On the Smoky Hill Fork route the suffering has been much more extensive and aggravated. Of one party some twelve or fifteen died in a state of starvation, and in some instances the survivors preserved their own lives by eating the dead bodies of their former companions. I conversed with a returning emigrant who saw and spoke to the insane survivor of three brothers by the name of Blew, from Whiteside County, Illinois, who had eaten the dead bodies of his brethren, and was found by the Indians in a dying state, and by them carried to the nearest passing train. These reports are confirmed by old and reliable mountaineers, and there is no reason to doubt that the full story of the emigrants wrongs and suffering is yet to be told.
Circles of white-tented wagons may now be seen in every direction, and the smoke from campfires is circling upwards, morning, noon and evening. An immense number of oxen and horses are scattered over the entire valley, grazing upon the green grass. Parties of Indians, hunters, and emigrants are galloping to and fro, and the scene is one of almost holiday loveliness. It is difficult to realize that we are in a wilderness, a thousand miles from civilization. I noticed the lupin and a brilliant scarlet flower in bloom.
We shall pass Fort Laramie tomorrow, where I shall leave this to be take to the States. It will probably be the last time I can write until I get to my journey's end, which may take till the middle of October.
We have had uncommon good health and luck on our route, not having had a case of sickness in the company for the last four weeks. Not a creature has died, not a wagon tire loosened, and no bad luck attended us.
The country is becoming very hilly; the streams rapid, more clear, and assuming the character of mountain streams. The air is very dry and clear, and our path is lined with wild sage and artemisia.
We had a fine celebration today, with an address by Mr. Sexton, which was very good; an excellent dinner, good enough for any hotel; and the boys drank toasts and cheered till they are now going in all sorts around the camp.
I often think of home and all the dear objects of affection there: of George; dear Mother, who was sick; and of yourself and poor little Sister. If it were consistent, I should long for the time to come when I shall turn my footsteps homeward, but such thoughts will not answer now, for I have a long journey yet to complete and then the object of the journey to accomplish.
I am hearty and well, far more so than when I left home. That failing of short breath which troubled me at home has entirely left me. I am also more fleshy. Notwithstanding these facts, I would advise no man to come this way to California.
In 1865 we emigrated from our homes in Missourri by the overland route to Virginia City, Montana, taking five months to
make the journey. While on the way the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party, in fact I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missourri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all. Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams, myself on more than one occasion have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself and have had many narow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death, but as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage we overcame all obstacles and reached Virginia City in safety.
Everything was at first weird and strange in those days, but custom made us regard the most unnatural events as usual. I remember even yet with a shiver the first time I saw a man buried without the formality of a funeral and the ceremony of coffining. We were sitting by the camp fire, eating breakfast, when I saw two men digging and watched them with interest, never dreaming their melancholy object until I saw them bear from their tent the body of their corade, wrapped in a soiled gray blanket, and lay it on the ground. Ten minutes later the soil was filled in, and in a short half hour the caravan moved on, leaving the lonely stranger asleep in the silent wilderness, with only the winds, the owls, and the coyotes to chant a dirge. Many an unmarked grave lies by the old emigrant road, for hard work and privation made wild ravages in the ranks of the pioneers, and brave souls gave up the battle and lie ther forgotten, with not even a stone to note the spot where they sleep the unbroken, dreamless sleep of death. There was not time for anything but the ceaseless march for gold.
After a time the hard traveling and worse roads told on our failing oxen, and one day my husband said to me, "Unless we can lighten the wagon we shall be obliged to drop out of the train, for the oxen are about to give out." So we looked over our load, and the only things we found we could do without were three sides of bacon and a very dirty calico apron which we laid out by the roadside. We remained all day in camp, and in the meantime I discovered my stock of lard was out. Without telling my husband, who was hard at work mending the wagon, I cut up the bacon, tried out the grease, and had my lard can full again. The apron I looked at twice and thought it would be of some use yet if clean, and with the aid of the Indian soap-root, growing around the camp, it became quite a respectable addition to my scanty wardrobe. The next day the teams, refreshed by a whole day's rest and good grazing, seemed as well as ever, and my husband told me several times what a "good thing it was we left those things; that the oxen seemed to travel as well again".
I rode through (the canyon) in three days at the risk of my life, on horseback, having lost my wagon and all that I had but the horse I was on. Our families were the first that started through the canyon, so that we got through the mud and rocks much better than those that followed. Out of hundreds of wagons, only one came through without breaking. The canyon was strewn with dead cattle, broken wagons, beds, clothing and everything but provisions, of which latter we were nearly destitute. Some people were in the canyon two or three weeks before they could get through.
Dec. 8th. We met three families packing and one family with a wagon. They tell us they have had nothing to eat today - the children are crying for bread: we let them have fifty pounds of flour.
Dec. 10th. There are three families here that are in a very bad situation; their teams have given out, and they have no provisions. Mr Campbell let them have some flour. I feel for them; it is hard for me to pass them, but when I know there are other helpless families among hostile Indians, I am bound to go on and assist them.
We found the roads hard frozen on setting out in March from the headwaters of the Wabash and the road good at first. We camped at night with settlers and fed our stock well. We also took care that we should be in the best of strength and heart, as well as the stock.
The camp was usually near some water and in the shelter of the woods. Mother cooked the supper and made a potful of steaming coffee while the men cared for the horses, and unyoked the cows and oxen and fed them some of the corn and hay that we had brought from home.
Then all sat down in the genial warmth of the fire and feasted on fried eggs and bacon and piping hot corn bread that had been baked over the coals. There was milk for the coffee, and a cupful for baby sister and each of the boys. What appetites we had after the long cold ride in the lumbering wagons!
We young ones fell asleep almost as soon as supper was over, much as we wanted to keep awake and hear the wonderful stories that would be told by the smouldering camp fire. For several weeks after we started the weather was so cold that we slept in the covered wagons, on mother's soft feather beds.
We found St. Joseph after nearly two months' steady tramp and solid tread of the honest old oxen, a sea of tents. For miles and miles up the Missouri and down were to be seen the white tents, white covered wagons and busy people passing and surging to and fro. It was now the middle of May. The weather was warm and we could sleep in the tents instead of the covered wagons. So we rested here for several days while papa purchased food and other things that we needed.
We had two big heavily laden wagons, with eight yoke of oxen to each, a carriage and two horses for mother and baby sister, and a single horse for the three boys to ride. This was particularly convenient, especially at the crossing of the swollen streams, when all three could climb on together and get lots of fun and often times a little wetting; for we all had learned to swim in the dear old Tippecanoe, and we did not mind a bit if we all rolled off together in the middle of the stream.
Here and there we saw Indians along our route, but only once or twice did they attack us. Most of them were very decent, tall, fine fellows; they stood by or sat their ponies in line and marveled at the continuous stream of people - the innumerable multitude. How feeble and indifferent was our Government fifty or sixty years ago! No sort of assistance or suggestion or information of any sort to this tumultuous mass of world builders. No statistics. No attempt to enumerate them. Why, they were civilized in Europe in the days of Exodus. Moses would have made a better President than the ones we had then, in the early fifties.
The proud and erect Indian men would refuse all presents, but the Indian women, with their babes at their backs refused nothing, although they did not beg at all as they do now.
They were very fond of the white children and all the time wanted to touch and fondle them. Mother seemed afraid they would steal her little girl. She, in her eagerness to learn about the land we were about to traverse, had read a yellow book telling women all about how Indians would steal little girls! The Indian women were all the time trying to lay hands on my little brother Jimmy's great shock of frousy yellow hair, but he would run away from them and hide under the wagons.
The migration of a large body of men, women, and children across the Continent to Oregon was, in the year 1843, strictly an experiment not only in respect to the numbers, but to the outfit of the migrating party.
Before that date two or three missionaries had performed the journey on horseback, driving a few cows with them. Three or four wagons drawn by oxen had reached Fort Hall, on Snake river, but it was the honest opinion of most of those who had traveled the route down Snake river that no large number of cattle could be subsisted on its scanty pasturage, or wagons taken over a route so rugged and mountainous.
The emigrants were also assured that the Sioux would be much opposed to the passage of so large a body through their country, and would probably resist it on account of the emigrants destroying and frightening away the buffaloes, which were then diminishing in numbers.
The migrating body numbered over one thousand souls, with about one hundred and twenty wagons, drawn by six ox teams, averaging about six yokes to the team, and several thousand loose horses and cattle.
The emigrants first organized and attempted to travel in one body, but it was soon found that no progress could be made with a body so cumbrous, and as yet so averse to all discipline. And at the crossing of the "Big Blue," it divided into two columns, which traveled in supporting distance of each other as far as Independence Rock, on the Sweet Water.
From this point, all danger from Indians being over, the emigrants separated into small parties better suited to the narrow mountain paths and small pastures in their front.
A train of wagons were coursing their westward way, with visions of the future bright as our own. Sometimes a single team might be seen traveling alone. Our party were among the many small squads emigrating to the land of promise.
The day on which our doomed family were scattered and killed was the 12th of July, a warm and oppressive day. The burning sun poured forth its hottest rays upon the great Black Hills and the vast plains of Montana, and the great emigrant road was strewed with men, women, and children, and flocks of cattle, representing towns of adventurers.
We looked anxiously forward to the approach of evening, with a sense of relief, after the excessive heat of the day.
Our journey had been pleasant, but toilsome, for we had been long weeks on the road.
Slowly our wagons wound through the timber that skirted the Little Box Elder (tributary of the North Platte), and, crossing the stream, we ascended the opposite bank.
We had no thought of danger or timid misgivings on the subject of savages, for our fears had been all dispersed by constantly received assurances of their friendliness.
At the outposts and ranches, we heard nothing but ridicule of their pretensions to warfare, and at Fort Laramie, where information that should have been reliable was given us, we had renewed assurances of the safety of the road and friendliness of the Indians.
At Horseshoe Creek, which we had just left, and where there was a telegraph station, our inquiries had elicited similar assurances as to the quiet and peaceful state of the country through which we must pass.
Being thus persuaded that fears were groundless, we entertained none, and, as I have mentioned before, our small company preferred to travel alone on account of the greater progress made in that way.
The beauty of the sunset and the scenery around us filled our hearts with joy, and Mr. Wakefield's voice was heard in song for the last time, as he sang, "Ho! for Idaho." Little Mary's low, sweet voice, too, joined in the chorus. She was so happy in her childish glee on that day, as she always was.
She was the star and joy of our whole party. We wended our way peacefully and cheerfully on, without a thought of the danger that was lying like a tiger in ambush in our path.
Without a sound of preparation or a word of warning, the bluffs before us were covered with a party of about two hundred and fifty Indians, painted and equipped for war, who uttered the wild war-whoop and fired a signal volley of guns and revolvers into the air.
This terrible and unexpected apparition came upon us with such startling swiftness that we had not time to think before the main body halted and sent out a part of their force, which circled us round at regular intervals, but some distance from our wagons. Recovering from the shock, our men instantly resolved on defense, and corralled the wagons. My husband was looked upon as leader, as he was principal owner of the train. Without regard to the insignificance of our numbers, Mr. Kelly was ready to stand his ground; but, with all the power I could command, I entreated him to forbear and only attempt conciliation. "If you fire one shot," I said, "I feel sure you will seal our fate, as they seem to outnumber us ten to one, and will at once massacre all of us."
Love for the trembling little girl at my side, my husband, and friends, made me strong to protest against any thing that would lessen our chance for escape with our lives. Poor little Mary! from the first she had entertained an ungovernable dread of the Indians, a repugnance that could not be overcome, although in our intercourse with friendly savages, I had endeavored to show how unfounded it was, and persuade her that they were civil and harmless, but all in vain. Mr. Kelly bought her beads and many little presents from them which she much admired, but she would always add, "They look so cross at me and they have knives and tomahawks, and I fear they will kill me." Could it be that her tender young mind had some presentiment or warning of her horrid fate?
Finally, there appeared before our eyes several high, fenced enclosures (corrals) into which the cattle are driven, either to select them for slaughter or to brand them. And there was a house, too, with two beautiful young American females at the open window. This place belonged to a Scot named Sinclair, who held the position of justice of the peace. One of the women was his wife. This house was near the open banks of the smooth but wide American River, and since we could find no trace of a ferry, we waded through its clear but not deep waters. On the opposite bank we found ourselves on lowland, which is often entirely under water during the rainy season. Farther back from the river we reached higher and drier land, where we came upon a lone Indian sod-covered hut. A quarter of a mile to the left of the road we saw a fairly long, wide adobe structure, the walls of which contained many embrasure like openings. On the east were two small houses and a few steps farther on was a deep pond, which gets its water from the American Fork only during high water. This place was Sutler's sheepfold, with which I had ample opportunity to become acquainted two years later. The land over which the road led was considered unproductive at that time, but to our right not far from the road was a beautiful large piece of bottomland where Sutter had his wheat fields, which yielded magnificent harvests. After we had walked about a mile beyond the river, we saw from a slight elevation the long wished for Fort Sutter or New Helvetia.