FIRST EMIGRANT TRAIN ACROSS SOUTH PASS
[The Tombstone Epitaph, May, 1991; June, 1991; July, 1991; August, 1991]
In May of 1841, in accordance with an agreement reached the year before, there gathered on the banks of the Missouri a group of sixty-nine men. Their purpose? To organize themselves before undertaking a plunge into the unknown (to them) territory between themselves and California. One characteristics above all set this group apart from previous travelers-four of the men proposed to take their families with them, turning this group into the first bona fide emigrant wagon train to travel what subsequently came to be called The Oregon-California Trail. Left to their own devices, however, is is unlikely that this history-making party would have successfully negotiated the trip. Its members were, after all, solid middle-class farmers and businessmen, not explorers and adventurers; thus, the country which they proposed to traverse was completely unknown to them, as were many of the dangers and difficulties which they would of necessity confront.
A solution to this dilemma presented itself in the form of information that a party headed by two priests, on a mission to the Flathead Indians, had secured the services of a one-time mountain man as their guide. It was agreed that the two parties would join forces at least as far as Fort Hall on the Snake River. Fortunately for the members of the Bidwell-Bartelson Party, the guide employed by Fathers Nicholas Point and Pierre Jean DeSmet (the pioneer priests) was Thomas Fitzpatrick, rated by Bernard DeVoto with Kit Carson and Jim Bridger as the best of the mountain men. As John Bidwell subsequently acknowledged, Fitzpatrick's expertise was literally invaluable, "for otherwise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience. Afterwards when we came in contact with the Indians, our people were so easily excited that if we had not had (Fitzpatrick) with us. . .the result would certainly have been disastrous."
Thus, when the wagons of the combined party finally rolled west they headed into country long familiar to Fitzpatrick but totally alien and new to his companions. The trail they traversed followed/crossed a series of rivers, beginning with the Kansas and Blue Rivers at the eastern terminus and ending on either the Columbia or the Sacramento; the territory between was marked by literally dozens of creeks, streams and rivers, principal among which were the Platte, the North Platte, the Sweetwater, the Green and the Snake. Before the century reached its three-quarter mark, perhaps half a million people would follow in their footsteps.
To celebrate the historical process of the great migration begun by the Bidwell-Bartelson party, a brief historical retrospective seems appropriate. What follows, then, is a brief recounting of some of the typical (and not so typical) events which involved trail travelers in the years after 1841, many of them attached to geographic sites which also figured in the journey of that historic first emigrant group-an approach which, to steal the title of a contemporary movie, seems similar to that of "Back to the Future".
Unlike the Bidwell-Bartelson Party, which had had the better part of a year to make its preparations for the journey, those who traveled in their wake had relatively short time frames within which to acquire needed supplies as well as to decide just how much they could carry west with them in their frequently overloaded wagons. Six years later, Mrs. Elizabeth Dixon Smith (1847), passing through St. Joseph, picked up not only flour, cheese and crackers, but also medicine, noting that "no one should travle this road without medicine for they are almost sure to have the summer complaint." ". . .each family," she went on, "should have a box of phisic pills and a quart of caster oil a quart of the best rum and a large vial of peppermint essence."
Most families did not do such a good job of limiting the cargo with which the trip was initiated. Thus, it was not surprising that much material goods/equipment simply had to be abandoned later on. No one has described the results of such abandonment better than Richard Owen Hickman in the spring of 1852. Along the banks of the North Platte River, according to Mr. Hickman, there were to be found ". . .old clothes of every description, . . . towels, gowns and hairpins strewed all along the road from the time we struck till we left the river, and books of every sort and size from Fanny Hill to the Bible."
Of course, many possessions were left behind, some with bitter tears at the loss thereby incurred. And sometimes there was additional heartbreak. The Scott family, heading west in 1852, decided that the family dog should not make the trip. Consequently, when the party boarded the ferry to cross the Illinois River at Peoria, the father put the dog back on land and told him to "Go back home. . .& stay with Grandfather." Six months later, having reached Oregon, the family received "a letter to the effect that the poor Canine went back (Our Grand Father Scot lived near our old Home) to the Family Home & refused food & in a short time he died!"
The Big Blue River posed no particular problem for the Bidwell-Bartelson party, but those who followed in their footsteps were not always so fortunate. Near the end of May five years later, Jim Reed's mother-in-law, 70-year old Mrs. Sarah Keyes, was buried on its banks by the members of the Donner Party. Why was she making the trip? The old woman, given only a few months to live by her doctors, had wanted to see her son in Oregon for one last time; he was to meet her at Fort Hall.
On to the Platte, then to its forks near the 100th meridian-this portion of the trip was only marginally difficult for most trains. But there were exceptions, and that to which Mary Jane Long (1852) belonged certainly qualifies as such, because reaching the Platte was accompanied by the outbreak of cholera. It is perhaps difficult for contemporary readers to imagine the terror engendered by this "scourge of the trail", not only because of its potentially deadly effect, but also because of the devastating speed with which its onset could be followed by fatal results.
In the case of the Long's, the danger from cholera was even further enhanced because "Uncle Silas' family (was) not. . . strong after measles". Uncle Silas was stricken and "lived only a short time"; after his demise, according to Ms. Long, "we had to make a rough box from planks taken out of the wagons and we wrapped his body in bed clothes and buried him. It was sad to see his family leave the lonely grave never to see it again." Within a day or so, two of Uncle Silas boys also were stricken and shortly expired; "One little fellow died and we buried him as we did his father; but several miles apart; the other one lingered a few days longer and before death released him, he went blind." The situation was made even more traumatic for the survivors because an elderly doctor traveling with the train had dictated that neither boy be allowed to have even a drop of water. The "last night the boy crawled out of bed and around the tent begging for water; my mother had left him for a moment to see how the girl was getting along." Little wonder that Mary Jane later wrote "it was most distressing to hear their pitiful begging for water, and such suffering I hope I may never see again." Now Mary Jane's mother took a hand in the treatment of the surviving girls in the afflicted family, doctor or no doctor! When one of the girls began begging for water, "mother said: 'Just as soon as the teams stop at noon I will steal and bring you water from our wagon'." So desperate was the cholera victim that, when the wagon cover was dampened by a shower of rain which fell while the train was stopped at noon, the "poor girl. . .had gotten ahold of the wagon cover and was sucking it and her face was black and dirty from the cover." The mother's stubbornness in resisting the doctor's "prescription" proved to be justified. "Mother gave her a table spoonful of water just as if it were medicine, and she was the only one that recovered."
While a form of "self-medication" proved to be magnificently rewarding in the instance just noted, such was most assuredly not always the case. Lucy Ann Henderson, who went to Oregon with her family in 1846, vividly remembered the tragedy which befell her younger sister, Salita Jane. Lucy and a girlfriend happened onto a bag which her mother had hung on the sideboard of their wagon. As children will, Lucy and her companion sampled the contents of a bottle which they found therein, found them to be foul tasting and took no more. Watching them, Salita Jane, of course, wanted to have a taste too, but the older girls told her she couldn't have any. As soon as Lucy and friend turned their attention elsewhere, Salita Jane got the bottle out of the bag and drank all of the contents. In later years, Lucy, now Mrs. Matthew P. Deady, retained this bitter memory.
Presently she came to the campfire where mother was cooking supper and said she felt awfully sleepy. Mother told her to run away and not bother her, so she went to where the beds were spread and lay down. When Mother called her for supper she didn't come. Mother saw she was asleep, so didn't disturb her. When mother tried to awake her later she couldn't arouse her. Lettie had drunk the whole bottle of laudanum. It was too late to save her life. Before we had started father had made some boards of Black walnut that fitted along the side of the wagon. They were grooved so they would fit together, and we used them for a table all the way across the plains. Father took these walnut boards and made a coffin for Salita and we buried her there by the roadside in the desert.
Happier incidents also marked this part of the trail. Seventeen-year-old Eliza Ann McCauley got a small antelope for a pet when some men in her party caught it while out hunting. Eliza and sister Margaret tamed the little animal and, for several weeks, it accompanied one or both of them everywhere. Sadly, about six weeks after acquiring her new companion, Eliza Ann lost her pet. On Bear River, dogs belong to a camp of Indians chased and killed the antelope. The action was not deliberate on the part of the dogs' owners. In fact, "The Indians tried to rescue her, but could not. They then offered to pay for in skins and robes. We told them it was an accident and they were not to blame, but they immediately packed up to go, saying they were afraid the men would shoot them when they came."
Most parties from Independence and St. Joseph briefly followed the South Platte beyond the fork, then crossed over to the North Platte at Ash Hollow. The Bidwell-Bartelson Party had no easier a time of it getting into Ash Hollow than did any of those who came later. The descent into Ash Hollow required negotiating a steep hill that is still popularly called "Windlass Hill" even though there is no evidence that such a lowering device was ever used by emigrants. Not that a windlass would not have been useful. A Irishman named Dougherty aptly summarized a common reaction when he surmised that the descent was so steep that the "road hangs a little past the perpendicular". In 1855, William Keil paid a wonderfully backhanded compliment to the region. "Many people complain that Ash Hollow is the entrance to hell and Devil's Gate its exist," he wrote, "But I maintain that Devil's Gate is the entrance."
Crossing over the tableland to Ash Hollow, the Bidwell-Bartelson group became the first emigrants to experience an all-too-frequently repeated tragedy. It was described by John Bidwell in his diary.
"A young man by the name of Stockwell, while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew up the muzzle toward him in such a manner that it went off and shot him in the heart. He lived about an hour and died in the full possession of his senses. . .He was buried in the most decent manner our circumstances admitted of after which a funeral service was preached by Mr. Williams. . . ."
Another kind of historical development may also be traced to the vicinity of Ash Hollow. On BlueWater Creek, about six miles northwest of the Hollow, General Harney and his troops shattered the village of Little Thunder's Brulé Dakota in retaliation for the so-called Gratten "Massacre" which occurred the preceding summer of 1854. The "path" here established was followed for almost a third of a century, from BlueWater Creek to Sand Creek, to the Little Big Horn, to Wounded Knee.
It ought to be emphasized, however, that Indians fought each other more bitterly and for a much longer time than that encompassed by actions against whites. The Sioux and Pawnee, for instance, were enemies of long standing. And the hills and plains from central Nebraska to Ash Hollow rang with the vigor of the conflict. East of Fort Kearny, for example, Francis Sawyer (1852) saw a "large party of Pawnee Indians. . .going on to their hunting grounds after buffalo, and this afternoon we met them returning."
They had met a party of Sioux, and the result was a battle took place. The Sioux had whipped them, killing and scalping two of the party and wounding several others. The Pawnees were very angry and badly frightened. some were armed with bows and some with guns. I met some ladies that saw the fight, and they said they were scared almost to death themselves. The Pawnees had made a poor fight. There were only thirteen Sioux and they whipped sixty or seventy Pawnees. When we came to where the battle had been fought, Mr.Sawyer and I drove off the road a short distance to see one of the Indians who had been killed. It was the worst horrible sight I ever saw. Four or five arrows were sticking in his body and his scalp was gone, leaving his head bare, bloody and ghastly. I am sorry I went out to look at him. I have had the blues ever since. . .
Rufus Sage came through Ash Hollow that same year as the Bidwell-Bartelson party. He reported that a full fledged battle had taken place between the Sioux and the Pawnee six years earlier. The conflict resulted, according to Sage, in sixty Pawnee dead and forty-five Sioux fatalities. "The evidences of this cruel death-harvest were yet scattered over the prairie, whose bones and sculls (sic.) looked sad indeed. One of the latter was noticed, near camp, with a hug wasp's nest occupying the vacuum once filled by the subtle organs of intellect. Strange tenant, truly, of a human scull-but, perhaps, not an unfit antitype of the fierce passions that whilom (sic.) claimed it as their dwelling place."
The North Platte country, of course, generated hundreds and hundreds of stories in the years following the passage of the Bidwell-Bartelson party. The experience of Esther M. Lochart in 1851 is typical of many which related to the uncertainty of the weather. In her reminiscence, Mrs. Lockart recalled that her party "camped on a grassy rise of ground with the silvery river flowing serenely along just below us." This idyllic scene was shattered near morning "by a furious storm of wind and rain." "Looking out", Mrs. Lockhart recalled, "we discovered to our alarm, that we were on an island, with madly-rushing waters swirling all around us." Pandemonium reigned as women and children screamed, dogs barked, horses whinneyed, cattle bellowed and men shouted. "It was evident," Mrs. Lockhart continued, " that we were experiencing one of the tornadoes for which that region has since become famous."
Everything that was not securely fastened down blew into the water. All the tents were thrown to the ground. Our blankets, pillows, mattresses, tubs, buckets and tin pans floated away and were rescued with difficulty. Several serious accidents were narrowly averted. The carriage in which Mrs. Williams and her three children road was overturned and its occupants slightly injured. My sister, my baby and I were in our wagon. Suddenly it was caught by a fierce blast and whirled rapidly down the incline. Just as it was about to plunge into the eddying waters, it was caught and held by several strong men. . . . Gradually, the high waters receded. The wind calmed down and the sun shone out warm and bright and we partially dried our wet clothing and bedding. Horsemen rode through the water to ascertain its depth. Although it reached the hubs of our wagon wheels, we resumed our journey about two o'clock that afternoon. We could not afford to linger longer than was absolutely necessary.
The references above to screaming women and strong men should not be taken by the reader as evidence of the frailty of the former. A case in point was recounted by Lydia Milner Waters in 1855. Opposite their camp on the Platte one afternoon were a herd of buffalo so numerous that "the hills. . .were perfectly black with them." A few of the animals crossed the river, and five of them approached the camp, threatening to run over the tents. Far from screaming and running away, the women of the party shook "their aprons and sun bonnets, and shouted at them which made them turn to avoid us."
The country of the Platte Valley was also the site of unnumbered celebrations. Two years after Bidwell and Bartelson passed this way, an 1843 party which included William Sublette, Sir William Drummond Stewart (the peripatetic English nobleman who eventually inherited Dunsinane Castle) and Matthew Field (a reporter for the New Orleans Picayune) got drunk on apple brandy given them by William's brother, Solomon, as they waited out storm and cold at Ash Hollow. Three years later, the Donner Party celebrated July 4th "at bever criek" according to young Virginia Reed, who then described the celebration which ensued in a letter written later at Independence Rock and dated July 12, 1846. ". . .several of the Gentemen in Springfield gave paw a botel of licker and said it shoulden be opend tell the 4 day of July and paw was to look to the east and drink it and thay was to look to the West and drink it at 12 oclock paw treted the company and we all had some lemonade."
A final story associated with the territory through which flowed the North Platte actually involved the Bidwell-Bartelson party itself. It seems that a young man named Nicholas Dawson, away from camp for purposes of hunting, encountered a party of Cheyennes who, according to John Bidwell, "were pleased to strip him of his mule, gun and pistol, and let him go." Mr. Dawson, of course, rapidly returned to camp where he attempted to convince his companions that they were about to be set upon by a very substantial portion of the Cheyenne nation! In fact, it turned out that "there were but 40, perfectly friendly, (who) delivered up every article taken, but the Pistol." Dale Morgan, in writing about the incident, concluded in fact that the Cheyennes had disarmed Dawson in the first place because his agitated manner suggested he might hurt himself or someone else. It is no surprise that Dawson was thereafter known as "Cheyenne" Dawson.
Beyond Ash Hollow, emigrants began to encounter the wind-eroded rock formations which so set this country apart from that further east. Court House Rock and Chimney Rock, obviously so named because their appearance reminded travelers of structures "back home", were the first. The Pawnees have a legend about the first. According to a story handed down from one generation to another, one of their parties was trapped on the top of the rock by Sioux warriors. The Pawnees escaped because one of them had a vision which showed them a hidden trail down the back side. A few old men were left behind to sing and to keep the fires burning so that the Sioux, camped below, would think that their trap was still tightly shut. There is a legend that, if you camp at Court House Rock, some time during the night you will hear the old ones still singing. Near the dirt road that has been gouged at the base of the north side of the rock, remnants of fire pits and broken buffalo bones can still be found. And, at night, sounds do seem to be coming from the top - but, of course, it is only the wind.
On June 28, 1853, on the north side of the river, opposite Court House Rock, Rachel Taylor acquired an unhappy memory of her trip. Over night, her favorite horse "had become twisted up in the Lariet ropes, and had broken his leg." With no chance of recovery, the horse was shot, which "threw a damper upon our feelings to think of our favorite thus coming to an untimely end and some tears were shed as we left him on the plains."
William Chandless, nearing Chimney Rock on his way west in September of 1855, reported "an alarm of Indians coming over the
Bluffs on our side, four or five miles ahead." The wagons were circled and ammunition distributed as preparations were made to withstand an attack. It was all for naught, however. "After waiting the best part of an hour," Chandless wrote, "the supposed Sioux turned out to be a troop of cavalry scouring the country: so much for a cheap telescope."
Scott's Bluff, of course, bears the name of ill-fated trapper Hiram Scott. An employee of William Sublette's company, Scott had become sick at rendezvous; two men were assigned to accompany him back to the "States". As Scott's situation worsened, his companions abandoned him to save themselves. He is supposed to have crawled to the spot at the base of bluff which now bears his name where subsequently his bones were found. On a much happier note, Phoebe Judson (1853) baked some bread in her Dutch oven during a stopover in this vicinity. Putting the bread out on the grass to cool, she was shortly distressed to find her daughter and a friend using her culinary efforts as a ball. A neighbor left bread dough in a pan to rise, only to return from a stroll to find her little boy wallowing in the pan up to his knees in the dough.
The last establishment before the continental divide at South Pass lay about 60 miles beyond Scott's Bluff-Fort Laramie. Jacque LaRamee, according to the story, had trapped the region in the early years of the 19th century. One thing is for very certain; he left the anglicized version of his name on a river, a peak and a mountain range as well on the most famous military post on the northern plains. Founded in 1834 by Robert Campbell and William Sublette, the post was originally called Fort William (after Sublette). Its name was changed to Fort John by the American Fur Company which acquired the establishment, then to Fort Laramie by the U.S. Government which purchased the area in 1849. Thomas Fitzpatrick, the Bidwell-Bartelson guide, had in fact briefly been a part-owner of the post in the mid-1830's. Those readers who would like a greater detailing of some of the stories associated with this legendary fort might wish to consult the May, 1984, and November, 1981, issues of The National Tombstone Epitaph for articles which more fully treat this subject.
One story at least must be told however. It was related by Charles Ferguson (1850) as a result of a stopover at the post. Several hours prior to Ferguson's arrival, a trooper had stolen the colonel's horse and struck out for the gold fields of California. A horse worth $175 was not an insignificant piece of property, but the colonel nonetheless did not send out a expedition in pursuit of the deserter/thief, observing to Ferguson "Let him go, it won't be long before he will be back". Two days beyond the fort, the colonel's prediction was borne out. Ferguson's train, camping for the night, "saw at some distance a solitary horseman, coming on a little diminutive brute of a horse." It was, of course, the deserter, now completely naked except for a buffalo robe. The erstwhile soldier had encountered a band of Crow Indians who "took his provisions, every stitch of his clothing, and his horse, saddle and bridle, gave him the buffalo rug, some jerked buffalo meat and the poorest pony they had and told him to go back." Ferguson concluded his account thusly.
This with the Crows is not deemed robbing or stealing, but a pure business transaction, not unlike, though in a humbler degree, a modern Wall street operation, though in the latter instance, the winning party rarely contributes even a blanket to cover the nakedness of the party fleeced. The Crows call it swapping. They say the Sioux are mean and will steal-but Crows, "they good Indian, they swap." When they swap, they are pretty sure to get the best of the bargain, especially when they have an opportunity to corner the market, as they did when they dealt with the Laramie soldier.
Between Fort Laramie and the big bend of the North Platte River the trail west passed/crossed a number of streams, many of which were quite pretty but all of which posed potential problems. The first was LaBonte, called after a trapper who had built a cabin in the valley drained by the stream. It proved to be an unfortunate location because, as told by George Keller (1850) "This stream is so called, from a hunter and trapper of the same name, whose companions were killed, and his wife Yute-chil-co (the reed that bends), carried away captive by the Arapahoes." Phoebe Judson (1853) had an equally important, but totally positive, memory of a serene Sabbath dawn in what she termed to be a romantic location. She would always remember June 26 for "the day was made memorable to me by the birth of a son." "In commemoration of the birthplace on La Bonta Creek, in the Platte valley," the newest emigrant was named Charles LaBonta Judson.
Monday morning our party were so considerate of my welfare, and that of the "new emigrant", that they proposed remaining in camp for a day or two. I assured them that we were both very comfortable, and, though reluctant to leave this most beautiful spot (the romantic birthplace of our baby boy) I urged them to proceed with the journey.
LaPrele was the name attached to the next flowing water. It is important to this writer for a reason unconnected with the great migration west. In the earlier years of this century my father herded sheep through this part of Wyoming.
The year 1864 was marked by tragedy in the vicinity of Box Elder Creek. The Kelly-Larimer party of 11 persons was attacked by the Sioux; three members were killed and two badly wounded. Fanny Kelly and her five-year-old adopted daughter along with Sarah Larimer and her eight-year-old son were captured by the Oglala. Mrs. Kelly slipped her daughter "off the horse in the night and directed (her) to back to the emigrant road", according to the report written by George Forman. "The child did so," Forman continued, "but two Indians followed her and killed and scalped her. Mrs. Kelly was a captive all that year and taken far north, and was ransomed the next year by Gen. Sully. . .Mrs. Larimer escaped from the Indians with her little boy about 40 miles north of us, and was back at Deer Creek when we got there a day after this."
On July 17, 1864, Forman's party nooned at the site of the attack. On a hill near Box Elder Creek, their dogs "found the body of the little girl about 5 years old. . .When we got there the dog was tearing its limbs. It had been tomahawked and scalped and had lain there in the hot sun four or rive days and full of maggots & flies. There were two steel pointed arrows in its body with the feathers sticking out. We buried it, about 18 inches of dirt being thrown over it where it lay, and no coffin, mountain fashion. Other trains had actually passed that child before this and heard it crying but were afraid to go to it thinking it was an Indian decoy." A short distance further another sight unfolded. "Beside the side of the Road ," Forman noted, "was a dead man, his body full of arrows, looking like a brush heap with the feather end of the arrows out. He was stripped and scalped and was black with the Sun and the maggots rolling in billows from his mouth and nose. He had been there about 5 days and had strayed from his train hunting probably and been killed by the Indians."
Both Mrs. Kelly and Mrs. Larimer later wrote accounts of their experiences, then compounded the tragedy by becoming involved in litigation concerning the publication of these memoirs. For what it was worth, Mrs. Kelly won the suit, but the dispute was settled out of court and court costs were never paid.
About a month prior to the appearance of George Forman's train, that to which Harriet Loughary (1864) belonged passed through this region. The party, finding grass and water, stopped at 8 o'clock. ". . .the first object that met our eyes was a newly made grave by the roadside with the following notice written on a slip of paper and tacked on (a) piece of bark at the head of the grave. 'Killed by Indians last night, beware'." The dead man's "faithful dog which had not been captured was watching the grave and could not be induced to leave with food or coaxing." Mr. Loughary's party stopped for a couple of hours to feed their stock and eat their own breakfast, then moved on. One can only speculate as to the ultimate fate of the faithful furry friend whose loyalty could not be compromised even by death.
A potential tragedy near Box Elder ultimately had a happy ending for Mrs. Maria A. Belshaw (1853). Two boys went to get a horse and one got lost by taking a wrong turn. After about a half an hour he was missed and a "30 to 40 man search party hunted until sunset." As the search was called off, the frantic parents were relieved when "a man came to our wagon at sunset with the news that the child was safe in a camp nine miles from us." The child had found his way back to the road and had been picked up by the occupants of a passing wagon who "took him in and treated him kindly."
Captain Albert Tracy, an officer in the so-called "Utah" or "Mormon" War, passed Box Elder in April of 1860. While there he learned of a man who had been charged with mule-stealing, tried by a jury and "summarily executed, by hanging". Captain Tracy's description of the execution is sufficiently unusual to merit a complete rendering. The execution was carried out by means of "a couple of wagon tongues, elevated from their front wheels, and lashed at top, forming the neat and sufficient derick, or gallows, whereon to do the judgment-the culprit depending at the end of a lariat, as a species of central figure, between the two outer lines of an isosceles triangle."
A considerably less dangerous and deadly "accident" was reported by Wm. G. Johnston on June 2nd, 1849. Mr. Johnston, thinking to do his laundry in Deer Creek, found he had forgotten his soap. He put his clothes "in the stream, (and secured). . .them with care by putting on top some boulders of goodly size and then went up to the camp for soap." "On my return," he reported, "I discovered what might be thought to be a hole in the wash tub, for a considerable part of the clothes was gone." "It was a loss not easily to be borne, but there remained, nevertheless, some consolation," he commiserated, "disliking laundry work, I had less of it to perform."
Most emigrants had to cross the North Platte at what quickly came to be universally called the Upper Platte Crossing. Danger and difficulty attached to this portion of the trail, even after a ferry and a bridge were added by enterprising emigrants for purposes of turning a profit. By this point of the trip, animals as well as humans were beginning to wear thin if not out. The day before reaching the Upper Platte Crossing, the Mormon train with which Patty Sessions (1847) was traveling "camped on a flatt the water poison 2 catle died there. . ." But a bit of luck did turn up. One of the Sessions' team had a sore neck, and they were able to replace the animal with "a big bull (which) came down the hill in the road to us we caught him. . ." A little girl with the party had even better luck; wandering "down to the river", she "found a ten dollar gold piece at the edge of the water."
Polly Coon (1852) found ample evidence of the dangers posed at this point by trail travel. Several days before reaching the Upper Platte Crossing, "We stopped to noon near the river where were 3 graves which a tree in the neighborhood stated were the graves of a Man woman & boy who were found near there with their throats cut from ear to ear, the cause or the perpatrators (sic.) of so bad a deed were unknown." The very next day, they "passed a company from which 2 men had just been drowned in trying to swim their cattle over the river", and very shortly thereafter they "came to a grove of trees where a man had just been hung by his Co for shooting his brotherinlaw." It is hardly surprising that Mrs. Coon concluded "It seems that there are some demon spirits near us & the reflection is not very pleasing."
Three years later, in almost exactly the same place, "An Indian galloped up, asked for the 'captain'" of the Lydia Milner Waters' train, "and after they had shaken hands and as soon as the 'captain's' back was turned, he shot him through the heart." The Indian "galloped to the hills again and escaped". "The 'captain' was buried at the crossing" with no cause of the fatal incident being specified.
Beyond the Upper Platte, the trail approached Red Buttes, frequently remarked upon by diarists both because of its color and because at this point trains finally left the North Platte River and cut across to its principal tributary, the Sweetwater. Passing through this region in 1834, William Marshall Anderson commented plaintively on one of the Sweetwater Valley's most noticeable characteristics. "How I long for a timbered country," he wrote, "In a thousand miles I have not seen a hundred acres of wood." "All that comes near to aborification is a fringe of cotonwood and willows along the banks of creeks and rivers." "These everlasting hills," he complained," have an everlasting curse of barrenness."
Such barrenness was, however, the least of the worries for many travelers. Mrs. Waters (1855) reported another incident with Indians which, happily, turned out better than the one at the Upper Platte. Camped near Willow Springs, for some reason "there was so much talking in the train that no one slept."
Luckily, for about three o'clock in the morning a band of Indians tried to surprise us. Being awake we were ready. They then galloped toward a small train of Irishmen who had a drove of cattle and always camped a few rods from us for protections. They fired a pistol or two and the Indian left. We counted sixteen against the eastern sky as they went over the top of a hill. We had been aware that (a) party of Sioux had been following us for two weeks, but this was the last we saw of them, except a war party up the Sweetwater.
Several years earlier in June of 1851, Amelia Hadley "came to a grave" the day before before reaching Willow Springs. The occupant's name was Glenette, he had died in 1849 and been "burried in a canoe." "The wolves had made a den down in his grave," Mrs. Hadley reported. "They dig up everyone that is burried on the plains as soon as they are left. It looks so cruel I should hate to have my friends or myself burried here. which all may be." The following year Mariett Foster Cummings (1852) "Passed Bitter Cottonwood Creek, on the banks of which they were burying a woman" whose "children were sitting in the wagon, and the husband at the head of the grave, weeping bitterly over the uncoffined burial."
Well into the Sweetwater Valley, perhaps 60 miles beyond the Upper Platte Crossing and Red Buttes, stand two of the most famous landmarks of the entire Oregon-California Trail--Independence Rock and Devil's Gate. Both edifices had been well known to trappers for a decade and a half before the Bidwell-Bartelson party came this way. The former, according to most authorities, was christened by William Sublette on July 4, 1830. The event was witnessed by "an audience of eighty men, most of them seated in the first wagons to reach the crest of the continent" in the words of J. Cecil Alter, biographer of Jim Bridger. When the Devil's Gate acquired its nom de plume is not known. Matthew Field, the New Orleans reporter referred to earlier, did record an Indian legend. According to that legend, an evil spirit had taken the form of a great beast with huge tusks for the purpose of ravaging the Sweetwater Valley. An Indian prophet urged upon his people the Great Spirit's requirement that the beast/spirit be destroyed. The warriors responded by surrounding the beast and filling it with arrows. Under attack and unable otherwise to escape its tormentors, the great beast snorted, pawed the ground, then ripped a gap in the mountain with its tusk. Through the opening thus created this personified evil spirit disappeared, never to be seen again. White men have called the gap "Devil's Gate" ever since. It might also be worth noting, should you wonder about the destination toward which the beast fled through the gap, that Matthew Field also refers to Devil's Gate as "The Gates of Hell".
Complete descriptions of the notable events and incidents which were in some way connected with these two landmarks would likely an entire issue of The National Tombstone Epitaph. Since that amount of space is not available, let me offer several random samples. The year after the Bidwell-Bartelson party passed by Independence Rock and Devil's Gate, Elijah White reported an incident which was extremely frightening for the two men involved. These two men, Hastings and Lovejoy by name, remained behind when their train moved on to finish carving their names in Independence Rock. About ten minutes after the train left the location, a party of Sioux came upon the two men, captured them, then "stripped them of most of their effects, and made strong demonstrations of an intention to kill Lovejoy." After holding the two for considerable time, the Sioux approached the wagon train with their captives. The emigrants, of course, circles their wagons and prepared for the attack they were certain would come. The train's guide "went forward to meet them, making demonstrations of peace. . .(but) they rode steadily onward, till nearly within gun-shot, when they suddenly halted, apparently intimidated by the array." A short time later, Hastings and Lovejoy were released. The guide whose action very likely contributed to the Indians' decision to release the two men was Thomas Fitzpatrick. The "Hastings" involved was indeed Lansford Hastings whose proposed new route to California contributed so heavily to the tragedy of the Donner Party four years later. One may speculate as to how history would have differed had Hastings not survived this confrontation.
In mid-June of 1852, Richard Owen Hickman "arrived at Sweetwater on Friday last. . .(and) found a company there from Iowa." In this company it seems that a man named Prouty had been instrumental in a husband and wife separating. The couple was brought back together through the conciliation efforts of members of their party. And the fate of Mr. Prouty, the cause of the temporary disaffection? "On yesterday (June 18th)", Mrs. Hickman reported, "this old Prouty. . .was seized with the cholera and died and was buried at Devil's Gate."
An unusual kind of accident in 1855 involved the wagon of Mrs. Lydia Milner Waters who was driving her team past the Saleratus Lake near Independence Rock. A male member of her party, unable to get a shot at an antelope, put his loaded and cocked weapon in the bow of her wagon. In moving, the skirt of her dress caught the trigger and the gun, of course, discharged. "Our horses," Mrs. Waters recorded in her diary, "were tied with long roped behind, and luckily the whole charge raked only one side of the horses. They broke loose and ran away. We were the last of the train, so no one was shot." The wagon, however, was set aflame by the exploding gun powder, and the wind was very strong. "Someone ran to a forward wagon for water", but before they could return Mrs. Waters "thought of the leaves in the teapot, and filling my hands with them patted on the fire." The damage caused by the accident, while not fatal, were severe enough. Mrs. Waters' hands "were so scorched that they did not get well for two months" and one of the horses "was so well peppered. . .the slugs did not all work out until five months afterward."
Here as elsewhere on the trail, of course, there were remembered events much more pleasurable in tone. One was noted by Lucy Rutledge Cooke when her train stopped near Devil's Gate on their way to California in June of 1852. "The young men all amused themselves with dancing after super in which Wm. [her husband] joined as hearty as any." On the evening of June 10, however, the dancing took on a somewhat different aspect. It seems that that day the cook of a nearby train had found discarded "a bundle of woman's clothing which he had put on & had worn it all day, sun bonnet & all." Thus attired, he had "caused considerable merriment all along the road." That night, "when dancing came off there was such a demand for this lady for a partner that Wm. came for my saque dress & sun bonnet to wear Oh what guys the 2 did look but seemed well to enjoy themselves I sat looking at them till long after dark."
Beyond Devil's Gate the trail led on up the Sweetwater to South Pass. The river itself had to be forded nine times, three times in such close succession that the site quickly earned the name of "Three Crossings". South Pass itself did not fit the popular image of a pathway across the Continental Divide. To the contrary, the approach to the dividing point of the continent was so gradual yet steady that the "pass" itself was virtually indistinguishable from the terrain on either side. That characteristic had, of course, been one of the principal reasons why South Pass became a "gateway" to the development of the frontier and the population of the west coast. The potentiality of South Pass as a viable wagon road across the Divide had been recognized as early as 1824 by a party headed by Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick. And the record breaking migration which followed the Bidwell-Bartelson party full vindicated their judgment. In the minds of most of those who composed this great movement, "Oregon" lay on the west side of South Pass. It is little wonder that the first spring encountered after crossing it quickly came to be labeled "Pacific Spring" since its water (unless it evaporated) would eventually flow into the Pacific Ocean.
Jean Rio Baker's party (1851) crossed South Pass and camped at Pacific Spring without incident. But the next night, September 10, they stayed in camp all day mending broken wagons. In addition, "one of Brother Norton's daughters had her leg broken by a kick from a cow, while milking." In the absence of a doctor, her father set the bone in the leg, and she was reported as doing well.
Beyond Pacific Spring the country became more difficult to traverse. In July of 1851, Elizabeth Wood described the trail at "the top of the mountains" being "as level as the streets of Peoria". As the train proceeded further, however, they "found worse hills going down the Rocky Mountains than when ascending."
We had hills to climb so steep we could hardly get us, and so sidelong that we have to tie a rope to the underside of the wagon, let it extend over the top, and then walk on the hills above and hold on to the rope. When we gain this summit, we then have to go down one a great deal steeper; everything that is not tied in the wagon falls out, and it would be amusing for a disinterested person to stand at the top with a spy glass and witness the descent of a train down one of these terrible looking hills. You would see the women and children in advance seeking the best way, some of them slipping down, or holding on to rocks, not taking an "otter slide," and then a run till some natural obstacle presents itself to stop their accelerated progress, and those who get down safely, without a hurt or a bruise, are fortunate indeed. Looking back to the train, you would see some of the men holding on to the wagons, others slipping under the oxen's feet, some throwing articles out of the way that had fallen out, and all have enough to do to keep them busily occupied. Often the teams get going so fast down hill it is difficult to stop them to double lock, and when, at a still steeper place, there is no stopping them at all, the driver jumps on the near wheel ox and the whole concern goes down with a perfect rush until a more level place is reached. So you see we have some "hair breadth" escapes, and a jolly time of it if we could only think so.
There were now a series of rivers to cross-Little Sandy, Big Sandy and finally the Green River. At Little Sandy, the party with which Sarah Davis traveled in July of 1851 "stoped for the day. . .to grase our catle we had to drive them five miles to grase". While the males of the train were gone with the cattle, another large train "come in one miles of us and camped". Very shortly after the arrival of the second train, sounds of violence reached the Davis' camp, involving "what quareling I never heard the like". It turns out that "they were whiping a man for whiping his wife he had whiped her every day since he joined the company and now they thought it was time for them to whip him and they caught him and striped him and took the ox gad to him and whiped him tremendous she screamed and hollerd for him till one might have hare him for three miles."
Green River was the site of many dangers and difficulties, trials and tragedies experienced in practically all of their manifestations by wagon train emigrants who followed after the Bidwell-Bartelson party. The story of ten-year-old Johnny Williams, which amply illustrates the shattering depth of the worst of those tragedies, was summarized with agonizing brevity by Lucia Loraine Williams in a letter she wrote to her mother. Dated Milwaukee, (Oregon), September 16, '51, the letter began with these two sentences: "We have been living in Oregon about 2 weeks, all of us except little John, and him we left 12 miles this side of Green River. He was killed instantly by falling from a wagon and the wheels running over his head."
It was the morning of June 20, 1851, Esther M. Lockhart later recalled in her reminiscences. Young Johnny had asked for and gotten permission to ride, not in the carriage his father (the newly-elected captain of the train) provided for the family, but with Edwin Fellows who drove the baggage wagon. According to Mrs. Williams, the oxen were frightened by a horse tied to the wagon ahead of them. Spooked, they started to run, as did a couple of other teams. Apparently, Johnny had been in the back of the wagon, but came forward to find out what was happening. He grabbed hold of the driver and the driver held onto him, but the violent swaying of the wagon tore them apart and Johnny was thrown from the wagon, landing under its wheels. In the words of Esther Lockhart, "The heavy wagon wheels had passed directly over his forehead and face, and death must have been instantaneous. The innocent victim never knew what had happened to him. . ." By the time his parents got back to the wagon their son was dead. The boy's father, Elijah Williams, was "beside himself with grief and anger". In this state "He ran for his gun and was about to shoot the unfortunate driver when four men overpowered him and took his weapon away. Later, when reason and calm judgment returned to the distraught father, he was thankful he had been restrained from committing a heinous crime."
It is quite possible that Mr. Fellows, who Esther Lockhart described as being "broken-hearted over the tragedy", might have willingly submitted to his own execution, In any event, "He did not recover from the effects of this deplorable accident during the remainder of the journey." The casket for the boy was a large trunk belonging to his mother. Hymns were sung, prayers were offered, a headstone was implanted.
Then, with many regretful tears. . .we drove sadly away, leaving him alone in the wilderness, in his last long sleep." "We buried him there by the road side, by the right side of the road, about one-half mile before we crossed the Fontonelle, a little stream. We had his grave covered with stones to protect it from wild beasts and a board with his name and age and if any of our friends come through I wish they would find his grave and if it needs, repair it.
From Green River, wagon trains continued west, either taking the Sublette Cut-off to Fort Hall or dropping down into what became the Fort Bridger Valley two years after the Bidwell- Bartelson party passed by. It was in this valley, of course, that legendary mountain man Jim Bridger constructed his trading post, which opened for business in 1843. Readers interested in stories of Fort Bridger during its almost fifty-year history might wish to consult the November, 1985, issue of The National Tombstone Epitaph which carried an article entitled "Fort Bridger: Glimpses of the Past".
After leaving Ham's Fork and Black's Fork of the Green River, the next major river encountered was Bear River in present-day Idaho. Here, in 1854, Sarah Sutton commented on two forms of animal life. The first was universally encountered--and detested.
Sunday, July 2nd. . .as soon as we stoped we were attack'd with the most savage warlike enemy and they gave us the alarm by the sound of their horn, and they had prepared themselves, and were well armed with a long sharp spear to meet us for war, and as soon as we met there was heavey battles fought, but on our side there was some blood shed it is true, but no lives taken, but on the enemys side hundreds kill'd and wounded and none missed. they were of the Musqueto tribe, and well known the world over.
The day before Mrs. Sutton also took note of another form of animal life, one indeed indispensable to those who traveled the road west-the ox. Draft animals suffered all of the privations and pain of the pioneers themselves, and perhaps more because, in fact, they did most of the heavy work. And, as Mrs. Sutton points out, "here man and beast meet with the same fate. yonder is a grave, of one who spent their last days, in Jolting over the rock, and Jumping off places through the mountains. there lies a dead ox who have lost their lives in trying to drag people across the plains." Sarah Sutton proved her own point; she, too, died before reaching the "promised land" of Oregon.
Soda Springs was termed by many emigrants as a "curiosity", and indeed it was. The terrain was volcanic in appearance and the water quite different from that earlier encountered in streams and rivers. Some liked the water, others detested it; many noted its potentially purgative effects. Nearby Steamboat Spring was even more unusual, the thermal qualities of the underlying rock resulting in geyser-like spouts similar to those found in Yellowstone National Park. In July of 1852, one R.I. Doyle gave evidence of one of the most unusual reactions of all trail history to the sighting of Steamboat Springs. As reported by E.W. Conyers, Mr. Doyle made a bet with some of his companions "that he could stop the flow of water from this spring by sitting on the crevice." Why he thought he could accomplish such a result, indeed why he wanted to accomplish such a result remain permanent mysteries. Mr. Doyle removed his pants and positioned himself on the crevice, waiting for the water-flow to begin again-and it did! Slowly at first, then with increasing vigor the stream came; "Doyle soon began bobbing up and down at a fearful rate." Now several of his companions thought to assist him in his efforts by holding him down on the crevice. The result? ". . .the more weight they added to Doyle the more power the spring seemed to have, and Doyle kept on bobbing up and down like a cork." With a combination of frustration and desperation, Doyle finally shouted: "Boys, ther is no use trying to hold the divil down. It can't be did, for the more weight you put on the more the devil churns me. I am now pounded into a beefsteak."
Fort Hall had been founded by Nathaniel Wyeth as a means of distributing his trade goods which had been refused at the mountain man rendezvous of 1834. Not surprisingly, it became a customary stopover on the road to Oregon and California, but not for the Bidwell-Bartelson party. At Soda Springs the party which had left Westport Landing together split up. Fathers Point and DeSmet (along with Thomas Fitzpatrick) went on to Fort Hall. John Bartelson led his now-reduced party southwestward toward the Humboldt and California. Of the 69 members who had begun the trip, only 32 continued on the California. An equal number decided to go on to Fort Hall, four members had quit the train back down the trail, and one had killed himself near Ash Hollow.
Of those who, in the years after the Bidwell-Bartelson party, did go on to Fort Hall, Betsey Bayley (1849) related one of the more unusual incidents. While at the fort, Indians came to her camp for the purpose of trading. Among other things, it seems that "They trade horses for wives" and Betsey's husband jokingly "asked a young Indian how many horses he would give for Caroline." The Indian responded by offering three horses and Mr. Bayley countered with the statement "give me six horses and you can have her". He was, of course, joking, but the Indian apparently was not for "The next day he came after her. He followed our wagons for several days and we were glad to get rid of him without any trouble." It is little wonder that Betsey added "The Indians never joke, and Mr. Bayley took good care ever after not to joke with them."
In 1845, Andrew Chambers' father was seriously proffered a similar transaction. At the time Andrew's sister, Mary Jane, was a good-looking girl about 16 years old and "Indian chiefs offered father fifty horses and a hundred blankets for her; they didn't care whether the girl was willing. . . This scared Mary Jane, and she didn't want to show herself when the Indians were around." Comparing the proposed cost of six horses versus one hundred, it is apparent that "mountain prices" applied to more than trade goods!
Let us close this retrospective look at what was started by the Bidwell-Bartelson party in 1841 with three stories, collectively illustrating the cost exacted by "westering", the compassion that was truly almost never totally absent and the occasional cooperative efforts involving different peoples from different cultures that illustrate an all-too-frequently overlooked common thread of humanity.
The cost of making the trip has been reflected again and again in the material presented above. Camping near the Portneuf River in July of 1853, Sarah (Sally) Perkins provides a final heart-rending example. In her diary entry for July 25, Mrs. Perkins noted simply that "George (her husband) lost his child". A later biography added detail: "While they were on the plains their little two-year-old boy accidentally fell into a kettle and was scalded, dying soon afterward."
Almost all of those who went "westering" showed compassion for each other, but Amelia Knight's (1853) compassion went beyond humans. Crossing the Burnt River, one of their oxen "dropt dead in the yoke (we) unyoked and turned out the odd ox, and drove round the dead one, and so it is all along this road"
we are continually driving round the dead cattle, and shame on the man who has no pity for the poor dumb brutes that have to travel, and toil month after month, on this desolate road. I could hardly help shedding tears, when we drove round this poor ox who had helped us along thus far, and had even given us his very last step.
The cooperative effort referred to above was described by Mrs. Inez Eugenia Adams Parker in her reminiscences. She remembered, while coming west with her parents in 1848, a particular incident which occurred as their wagon train was descending the mountainous country of the Cascades. Mrs. Parker's mother took her nine-month-old sister to the bottom of the hill "leaving me at the top, and set her in an open spot, far enough from the road, she thought, to be perfectly safe, and hastened back for me." During her return trip, however, the young mother encountered about a dozen mounted Indians. "Terrified for her babe, she flew, caught my hand, and hastened back at her best speed." As she once again neared the bottom of the hill she could see the Indians, still on horseback, surrounding her infant daughter "apparently trampling it." With that combination of self-sacrificing courage and fanatic ferocity found in the female of many species when their young are threatened, the youthful mother ran to the spot where she had left her baby. To her unutterable relief, she found that the warriors were "gathered in a circle around the baby protecting it till her return!" Weak with relief, out of breath and unable to speak, "she motioned her thanks, and they nodded, smiled, and rode away."
It has now been 150 years since the great migration along the Oregon-California Trail began. Hundreds of thousands followed the trail traversed by Bidwell, Bartelson, Point, DeSmet and Fitzpatrick. All were pursuing individual dreams and each was sustained by private hopes as they undertook the gruelling trip in search of a better life for themselves and for their children. But out of these thousands and thousands of individual efforts came a collective entity that still stands. It is called the United States of America.
Copyright Robert Munkres 1981-2009 All Rights Reserved