Crossing the Great Plains in Ox-Wagons

Covered Wagon

Covered Wagon

By Harriet Scott Palmer, 1939

Although I was but a girl of 11 years, I distinctly remember many things connected with that far-off time when all of our western country was a wilderness. We were six months in crossing the plains in ox-wagons.

In our home in Illinois, in the early 1850s, there was much talk and excitement over the news of the great gold discoveries in California — and equally, there was much talk concerning the wonderful fertile valleys of Oregon Territory and an act of Congress giving settlers 640 acres of land.

My father, John Tucker Scott, with much of the pioneer spirit in his blood, became so interested that he decided to “Go West.” The spring of 1852 ushered in so many preparations and great work of all kinds. I remember relations coming to help sew, of tearful partings, little gifts of remembrances exchanged, the sale of the farm, the buying and breaking in of unruly oxen, the loud voices of the men, and the general confusion.

The first of April came — 1852. The long line of covered wagons, so clean and white but oh so battered, torn and dirty afterward. The loud callings and hilarity — many came to see us off. We took a last look at our dear homestead as it faded from our view. We crossed the Illinois River on a ferry. We looked back and saw our old watchdog (his name was Watch) howling on the distant shore. Father had driven him back, saying, “Go back to Grandfather, Watch!” But, he never ate afterward and soon died. We stopped at St. Joseph, Missouri, to get more provisions. We had never before seen Negroes, and all along this state, we saw many negro huts and went into one to see some little negro babies. My remembrance of the state was muddy roads, muddy water, and a sort of general poverty — of course, this was over 70 years ago.

Potawatomi Camp

Potawatomi Camp

When we crossed into Nebraska, it seemed such a wide stretch of plain. We got our first sight of Indians — a group of them passing along, single file. They were the Potawatomi, dressed in buckskins, beads, and leading their ponies. An open country was now before us. The melting snow had made the streams high, the roads nearly impassable. The Platte River, swift and swollen, didn’t seem to have any banks. We had heard of the danger of quicksands. My father had, with the help of his drivers, raised the beds of his wagons so as not to dip water. When everything was in readiness, all of us were tucked inside the wagons. My father put me, last of all, inside the back end of the last wagon, and told me to keep still and not be afraid. The loud voices of the drivers as they yelled and whipped up the oxen, the jogging of the wagons through the surging waters and over the quicksands, the memory is with me yet. When they got over the river, all were accounted for, but they couldn’t find me. Finally, I was pulled out from under the bows, nearly smothered. There were nine of us children, ranging from four years to my eldest sister, who was about 19.

My mother kept the two youngest with her always in “Mother’s wagon.” Her health was not very good, and she had dreads and fears, but hoped she would live to get to Oregon. Fate willed it otherwise, and being frail and weary with the long journey, she fell victim to cholera, so prevalent that year on the plains, leaving her sorrowing family to grieve for her. When we reached Wyoming, in the Black Hills, this side of Fort Laramie, the passing of that dear, beloved mother was a crushing blow to all our hopes. We had to journey on and leave her in a lonely grave — a feather bed as a coffin, and the grave protected from the wolves by stones heaped upon it. The rolling hills were ablaze with beautiful wild roses — it was the twentieth of June, and we heaped and covered mother’s grave with the roses, so the cruel stones were hidden from view. Her grave is lost. No one was ever able to find it again.

The old emigrant trail holds many hard experiences. Coming to the Snake River, and for many miles along, it was impossible to reach it to get water for the oxen. We had to travel all night at times. On one occasion, the camp was made after dark, and there was such a stench in the air. Early daylight found us camped close between two dead oxen on one side and a dead horse on the other — so we had to move before breakfast.

American Falls, Idaho

American Falls, Idaho

About two miles above the great American Falls, we could get the cattle down to drink. It so happened that after the yokes of the oxen were removed and the oxen were driven into the water, an old headstrong bull plunged into the river and swam across, the rest of the cattle following, except two cows that our man was able to keep back. Our company was in great peril. My father, generally equal to any emergency, decided that any one or more of the men who were good swimmers should go above our camp, swim over and drive the cattle back. This was attempted by two young men, one of whom swam over first on one of our mares; the other was drowned, and as we, with agonized eyes, watched the stream, we saw the white face of our old mare “Sukey” bobbing up and down in the boiling waters. She was such a loved old mare that we could not bear to leave her at home in Illinois. A third man tried and got safely over. We could see his naked form over the river among the hot, burning rocks. It was impossible for him alone to drive the cattle back. My father made a mighty effort to get across. Then he ordered the calking of one of the wagon beds to make a boat. In this, three more paddled over and took some clothing to cover the poor sunburnt men on the rocks — he was over there in that awful predicament for three days; his skin all peeled off, and he nearly lost his mind from his awful experience. They got the cattle safely over the river again, but the two cows that stayed behind ate something poisonous and died during the night.

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sand hills, painting by William Henry Jackson

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sand hills,
painting by William Henry Jackson

On and on, we journeyed — averaging 15 miles a day over cactus, sagebrush, and hot sand. Everybody’s shoes gave out, and we bartered with Indians for moccasins, but that didn’t help much about the prickly pears. One by one, the oxen fell by the way. We came to Burnt River — a most desolate country. Here, our baby brother, Willie, fell sick. It was in the heat of August. The train was halted so that the darling child of four years could be better cared for, but he became unconscious and passed away. The soil here was thin and full of rocks. My poor father, broken-hearted, had the men cut a cavity out of the solid rock jutting out of Burnt River Mountain, and here, the little form was sealed beside where the only living thing was — a little juniper tree. My brother Harvey found it twenty years later, and he peeled some of the bark off the juniper tree and brought it back to my father. My father had carved Willie’s name on the tree.

August passed. We were nearing the Cascade Mountains. The oxen were worn out, and the wagons were in poor condition to cross the mountains. Some wagons had to be left; some oxen were poisoned, eating mountain laurel. Our provisions were exhausted by this time, and for three days, we had only salal berries and some soup made by thickening water from flour shaken from a remaining flour sack. My uncle Levi Caffee, a great joker, looked at the poor mess and said to his wife, “Why Ellen, ain’t there a little bread or something.” “Oh no,” she said, “we are all starving together.” It so happened a man overtook us on horseback, and father bought some of the flour he had in a sack behind his saddle. He paid $1.00 a pound. It proved to be bitter with mildew and unfit to eat. My sister, having charge of the two smaller children, and my aunt, whose youngest was seven, saved and hid in their pockets the same biscuits they doled out to the three littlest children from time to time.

We came to the old Barlow Road and a station called Barlow’s Gate in the Cascade Mountains, where we found provisions and some fruit — apples and peaches and plenty of bread. It was not long now until we reached the valley settlements and found relatives who had come the year before.

Before we reached Oregon City, my father was fortunate enough to buy two pounds of butter. The hungry crowd was so great that before we smaller ones had our turn at the improvised table, the butter had all been eaten up. There were six of us smaller children who did not get a taste of butter, and the thought of that rankled in us for years.

It was my duty to keep up the loose stock in crossing the plains, and I was given charge of an old sorrel mare with one eye. Her name was “Shuttleback” on account of the shape of her back. She was a big powerful animal, and when she’d get a whiff of an Indian, she would kick and plunge and, many a time, would throw me off. One day we had traveled long in the heat, and both Shuttleback and I needed water. I was about a mile behind the train, and off at the side of the road was a grove of willows. It looked like water might be there, and there was — a little tributary of the Snake River. I gladly got off the saddle with no horn on it, and first, let the mare drink. It was a steep place. The mare began to plunge, and I soon saw she was in quicksand. I held on tightly to her rein, and yelled with all my might, knowing there was a man behind me also driving the stock. He heard me and rushed to my assistance, telling me to hold on and not to be afraid; he would bring help. He rushed ahead and brought back my father and three other man, and with ropes and a long pole pried her out of the quicksand and floated her down the stream where she finally landed on her feet. I fully expected punishment, but my father just picked me up, sat me down on the wet, muddy saddle, slapped the mare, and said, “Now, go on!” Poor old Shuttleback got lost in the Cascade mountains one night. About a year afterward, a man reported her roaming near Mr. Hood. My father went after her and brought her back with a fine black colt he named Black Democrat.

Then we reached Laurel Hill in the Cascade Mountains. Oh, that steep road! I know it was fully a mile long. We had to chain the wagon wheels and slide the wagons down the rutty, rocky road. My aunt Martha lost one of her remaining shoes, it rolled down the mountainside. I can hear her now as she called out in her despair, “Oh, me shoe, me shoe!” How can I ever get along?” So she wore one shoe and one moccasin for the rest of the journey.

As we started down the road, my father said: “Jump on the wheel and hang on, Fanny!” It was an awfully dangerous thing to do and he didn’t realize what he was telling her to do. Poor sister Margaret fell and rolled down and down. When she picked herself up, Uncle Levi was there with his humor, “Maggie, ain’t this the damndest place you ever saw?” “Yes, it is.” “Well, you swore, and I’m going to tell your father.”

One day our “Salon Wagon” as we called the wagon that served as a parlor, overturned. My sister Fanny, as soon as she could extricate herself, poked her head out of the hooded wagon and cried, “Oh Lord, come here quick.” My uncle came running up and said, “Fanny, hadn’t you better call on some of the company?”

Fort Walla Walla, Washington

Fort Walla Walla, Washington

When we came to Fort Walla Walla, we saw a crowing rooster on a rail fence. Oh, how we all cried. There we stood, a travel-worn, weary, heart and homesick group, crying over a rooster crowing.

Account given by Harriet Scott Palmer, 1939. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated November 2023.

Part of the Life Histories from the Folklore Project, WPA Federal Writers’ Project of 1936-1940, this information, written by Harriet Scott Palmer, was collected and copied by Sara Wrenn in January 1939. The writing as it appears here is not entirely verbatim, as minor editing has occurred. However, the context remains essentially the same.

Also See:

Danger and Hardship on the Oregon Trail

Federal Writer’s Project – Real Life Stories

Oregon Trail – Pathway to the West

Pioneer Recollections