Reminiscences of a Pioneer
Farewell to the Old Southern Home.
I have often wondered, when viewing a modern passenger coach, with its palace cars, its sleeping and dining cars, if those who cross the "Great American Desert," from the Mississippi to the Pacific in four days, realize the hardships, dangers and privations of the Argonauts of fifty-eight years ago. The "Plains" were then an unbroken wilderness of three thousand miles, inhabited by hordes of wild Indians, and not too friendly to the white man journeying through his country.
The trip then required careful preparation - oxen, wagons, provisions, arms and ammunition must be first of all provided. These were essentials, and woe to the hapless immigrant who neglected these provisions. To be stranded a thousand miles from the "settlements" was a fate none but the most improvident and reckless cared to hazard.
It is to recount some of the trials, adventures, hardships, privations, as I remember them, that these lines are written. For truly, the immigrants of the early 50's were the true "Conquerors of the Wilderness." Cutting loose from home and civilization, their all, including their women and children, loaded into wagons, and drawn by slow-moving ox teams, they fearlessly braved three thousand miles of almost trackless wilderness.
As a small boy I remember the first mention of California, the land of gold. My father returned from New Orleans in January. On board the steamer coming up the Mississippi river, he had fallen in with some gentlemen "returning to the States." They had given him a glowing description of the "land of gold," and almost the first words spoken after the family greetings were over was, "We are going to California in the spring." My mother was more than agreeable and from that time nothing was talked or thought of but the journey to California. The old refrain was sung from morning to night,
"In the spring we 're going to journey,
Far away to California."
My chum, Tant, a negro boy of my own age, and I seriously discussed the prospects and dangers of the journey. Direful tales of the tomahawk and scalping knife were recounted by the older children. But Tant's fears were allayed by the assurance that the "Injuns" would not kill and scalp a black boy with a woolly head. For once in my life I envied that imp of darkness.
In February a gentleman came to our home and after dinner he and my father rode over the plantation. The next morning they rode over to Bolliver, the county seat. Returning in the evening my father announced that the plantation was sold. Then began the real preparations for the journey. My father was constantly in the saddle. Oxen, wagons, ox yokes, ox bows, cattle, covers for wagons, arms, ammunition and provisions were purchased and brought to the plantation. All was hurry and excitement. Two shoemakers came to our home to make up the leather purchased at St. Louis or from neighboring tanneries. Meantime Aunt Ann and the older girls of the family were busy spinning and weaving. Every article of wearing apparel must be made at home. "Store clothes" were out of the question in those days. Wool must be carded and spun into thread for. Aunt Ann's old wooden loom. The cloth was then fashioned into garments for clothing to last a year after we should reach our goal far out on the Pacific shores. The clank of the old wooden loom was almost ceaseless. Merrily the shuttle sang to an accompaniment of a camp meeting melody. Neighbors also kindly volunteered their services in weaving and fashioning garments for the family. All was bustle and hurry.
At last all was in readiness for the start. Spring with all its beauty and glory was with us, and friends from the country round and about had come to bid us a final farewell - friends, alas, we were destined never to meet again. The parting I remember as the first real sorrow of a life that has experienced most of the hardships, dangers, privations and sufferings of a wild frontier life. It was a beautiful morning early in April, 1852, that the leaders were pointed to the west and a start was made. Four wagons were drawn by five yoke of oxen each, while the fifth, the family wagon, was drawn by three yoke.
The first weeks of our journey were passed without anything happening worthy of note. At Caw river we were detained several days by high water. Here we began falling in with others, who, like, ourselves, were bound for the golden shores of the Pacific. And it was here that we made the acquaintance of families, and friendships formed that were to survive not only the privations of the plains but were to last a life time. Men were drawn together on the plains as in the everyday walks of life, only the bonds were closer and far more enduring. The very dangers through which they passed together rendered the ties more lasting. "Our train" henceforth consisted of my father's, Littleton Younger, John Gant, "Uncle" Johnny Thompson and a party of five Welsh gentlemen, under the leadership of a gentleman named Fathergill, and a prince of a gentleman he was. At that time there was not a cabin in what is now the great and populous State of Kansas. Only vast undulating plains, waving with grass, traversed here and there with timberskirted streams. Game was abundant, consisting mostly of antelope and prairie chickens. Our Welsh friends, being bachelors and having no loose stock, were the hunters for the train, and supplied us with an abundance of fresh meat.
As we proceeded westward more immigrants were met, and often our camp resembled a tented city. All was then a pleasure trip - a picnic, as it were. No sooner was camp struck than a place was cleared and dancing began to the sound of the violin. Many of these young ladies were well dressed - actually wore "store clothes!" But alas, and alack, I was destined to see these same young ladies who started out so gay and care-free, in tattered dresses, barefooted and dusty, walking and driving the loose cattle. Too many excursions and pleasure jaunts had reduced their horses to skeletons before the real trials of the journey had fairly begun. But the women of '52 and '53 were not of the namby-pamby sort. When the trials came they were brave and faced privations and dangers with the same fortitude as their stronger brothers.
At Fort Laramie we crossed the Platte river by fording. The stream, as I remember it, was near a mile wide, but not waist deep. Thirty and forty oxen were hitched to one wagon, to effect the crossing. But woe to the hapless team that stalled in the treacherous quicksands. They must be kept going, as it required but a short stop for the treacherous sands to engulf team and wagon alike. Men wading on either side of the string of oxen kept them moving, and soon all were safely on the north side of the Platte river.
We soon began to see great herds of buffalo. In fact, at times the hills were black with the heaving, rolling, bellowing mass, and no meal was served for many days without fresh buffalo. As we wended our way up the valley of the Platte one could look back for miles and miles on a line of wagons, the sinuous line with vari-colored wagon covers resembling a great serpent crawling and wriggling up the valley. Fortunately for "our train" we were well in advance and thus escaped the sickness that later dotted the valley of the Platte with graves.
On and on. Independence Rock, Sweet Water, and Devil's Gate were passed. Members of our train had observed two men who traveled with us, yet held themselves aloof. They appeared to prefer their own company, and while they traveled along with us, probably for protection, they always camped by themselves. Some said they were Mormons, while others asserted they were merely a selfish pair. One day one of the men was missing. The other on being questioned gave evasive and very unsatisfactory replies. His actions excited the suspicions of our men. He appeared anxious to get ahead and left us, making a long night drive. It was then determined to make an investigation. Two of our party mounted good horses and started back on the trail. Each camp was carefully examined until they were rewarded by finding the body of a murdered man beneath the ashes of a camp fire, buried in a shallow grave. By riding all night they overtook the train, before starting back burying the body of the unfortunate traveler. The news spread rapidly and a party followed the murderer. He was soon overtaken and halted at the muzzles of rifles. When the train came up a council was held. Probably a hundred wagons were halted. It was determined to give the man a trial. The evidence was conclusive, and after conviction the miserable wretch confessed all, but begged for mercy. He said the murdered man had picked him up out of pity and was taking him through for his company and his help. There being no trees, three wagons were run together, the wagon tongues being raised to form a tripod and to answer for a gallows. To the center of the tripod a rope was attached with the other end around the neck of the trembling, writhing, begging wretch. But he had committed a cruel, cold-blooded murder and his crime could not be condoned. He was stood on the back of a horse, and a sharp cut being given the animal the wretch was swung into eternity. A grave had been dug and into this the body of the murderer was placed. The property of the murdered man was taken through to the settlements. His relatives were communicated with, the property sold and the proceeds sent to the proper owners. Such was the swift but terrible justice administered on the plains. Without law or officers of the law, there was no other course to pursue consistent with safety to the living.
July 4th, 1852, we reached Green river. Traders had established six ferry boats at the crossing. In order to keep down competition, five of the boats were tied up and the sum of $18 was demanded for each and every wagon ferried over the stream. They had formed a kind of "trust," as it were, even in that day. The rate was pronounced exorbitant, unfair, outrageous, and beyond the ability of many to pay. Train after train had been blocked until a city of tents had been formed. On the morning of the 4th a meeting of immigrants was called to discuss the situation. A few counseled moderation, compromise, anything to prevent a clash with the traders, who boasted that they could turn the Indians loose on us. The great majority defied both traders and Indians and boldly announced that they would fight before they would submit to being robbed. Many fiery speeches were made, and about 10 o'clock a long line of men, with shouldered rifles flashing in the sun, marched down and took possession of the ferry boats. The traders fumed and threatened, and Indians with war-whoops and yells mounted horses and rode off from the opposite side. The traders said they were going after the tribe to exterminate the entire train. They were plainly told that the first shot fired by traders or Indians would sound their own death knell - that they, the traders, would be shot down without mercy.
The ferry boats were then seized and the work of crossing the river began. As fast as the wagons were crossed over they were driven down the river, one behind another, forming a corral, with the open side facing the river in the form of a half wheel. When the wagons had all been crossed, the loose stock was swum over into the opening. There was no confusion, but everything proceeded with almost military precision. A committee had been appointed to keep tally on the number of wagons crossed on the boats. The traders were then paid $4 for each and every wagon. Still they fumed and threatened. The faces of the more timid blanched and a few women were in tears. I beheld the whole proceedings with childish wonder. But the circumstances of that 4th of July and the execution of the murderer were burned into my brain with letters of fire, never to be effaced while memory holds her sway.
Every man was under arms that night. Horses were tied up and the work oxen chained to the wagons, a strict guard being kept on the traders in the mean time. The next morning the long string of wagons started out on the road. Two hundred men rode on either side to defend the train, while scouting parties rode at a distance to guard against surprise. This formation was kept up for several days, but seeing neither traders nor Indians the different trains separated and each went its way unmolested.
Bear river and Soda Springs were next passed. A few miles this side of Soda Springs the roads forked, one going to California and the other to Oregon. Here a council was held. A portion of "our train" wanted to take the California road. Others preferred the Oregon route. A vote was taken and resulted in a majority for Oregon, and association and friendship being stronger than mere individual preference, all moved out on the Oregon road.
Snake river was finally reached, and here the real trials of the journey began. From some cause, not then understood, our oxen began to die. The best and fattest died first, often two and three in one camp. Cows were drawn into the yoke and the journey resumed. But it soon became evident that loads must be lightened. Wagons loaded with stores and provisions were driven to the side of the road and an invitation written with charcoal for all to help themselves. To add to the difficulties of our situation, the Snake Indians were surly and insolent to a degree. Gradually a gloom settled over all. No more of laughter, of dancing and song. And faster and faster the oxen died. Camping places were almost unbearable on account of the dead and decaying cattle. And then the terrible mountains of which we had heard so much were before us. Would we ever reach the settlements? This was a question that began to prey upon the minds of many. A few of the young men shouldered a blanket and some provisions and started on foot to reach the valley. Others began to despair of ever reaching the promised land. If those who cross the continent now in palace cars and complain of the tediousness of the journey could take one look at the wreck and desolation that lined the poisoned banks of Snake river, they would hide their heads in very shame.
As our situation became more desperate it appeared the Indians became more sullen and mean. Guards were kept night and day, the women and children driving the teams and loose cattle and horses in order that the men might get some rest. At one point the danger seemed imminent. The men on night guard reported that the horses were snorting and acting as if Indians were about. Mr. Fathergill's mule appeared especially uneasy. The cattle and horses were then all driven to camp, the horses tied up and the oxen chained to the wagons. The next morning moccasin tracks were discovered within a hundred yards of our camp, showing plainly that only extreme caution and foresight had saved us all from massacre. After that camps were selected with a view to defense. A point was finally reached where we were to bid farewell to the dread Snake river. Several trains camped there that night. Among them was a man named Wilson, a brother of ex-Senator Henry Wilson of Colusa county. Cattle had been rounded up and oxen placed under the yoke. Wilson became involved in a quarrel with a young man in his employ. Suddenly both drew revolvers and began firing at each other. The duel ended by Wilson falling from his mule, a dead man. The young man rode away and was seen no more. A grave was dug, the dead man buried and within two hours the train was in motion. There was no time for tears or ceremonies. Winter was coming on, and the terrible mountains must be crossed. Besides the dread of an Indian attack was ever present.
After leaving Snake river we lost no more cattle. We crossed the Blue Mountains without any mishap. We met several settlers coming out with teams to help any that might be in distress. They were told to go on back, as others were behind far more in need of assistance than we. On reaching the Columbia river we found the Indians very friendly and obtained an abundance of fresh salmon. Trifles were traded for salmon and wild currants, which formed a welcome addition to our bill of fare. The dreaded Cascade Mountains were finally reached. A storm was raging on the mountain and we were advised by settlers whom we met coming out to assist the immigrants, to wait for better weather. Some disregarded the advice and paid dearly for their temerity, losing many of their cattle, and only for the help rendered by the settlers might themselves have perished.
As soon as the storm spent its force a start was made and the dreaded mountains passed in six days, and without any serious mishap. On reaching the valley we were everywhere greeted with genuine western hospitality. Vegetables were plentiful and cheap - in fact could be had for the asking. But while wheat was abundant there were no mills to grind it into flour, and we soon discovered that that very necessary article could not be had for love or money. We were therefore soon reduced to a daily diet of boiled wheat, potatoes, pumpkins and wild meat, the latter requiring but little exertion to secure. But we were as well off as anybody else, and with the remnants of clothing saved from the wreck of the desert and plains passed the winter in health and some degree of comfort.