Crossing the Great Plains in Ox-Wagons

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 of the 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, who was 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 from time to time, doled out to the three littlest children.

We came to the old Barlow Road, and a station called Barlow’s Gate, in the Cascade Mountains, where we found provisions, and actually 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 came 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 who had 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 of. 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 that had 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, 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 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,”

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 Weiser/Legends of America, updated December 2019.

Fort Walla Walla, Washington

Fort Walla Walla, Washington

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

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