By Peter Hardeman Burnett
Peter Hardeman Burnett (1807-1895) was determined to go to Oregon from Missouri in 1843. He would later write of his experience in a book entitled Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer, published in 1880. Burnett spent his early years in Tennessee and Missouri, serving as a district attorney in the latter state. In 1843 he joined an emigrant party bound for Oregon, where he became a prominent and controversial lawyer, judge, and politician in the new territory. In 1848, he went to California in search of gold and soon became a business and political leader of that territory and would serve as the first California governor.
In the fall of 1842, I moved to Weston, Missouri, in Platte County, having purchased an interest in the place. During the winter of 1842-43, the Congressional report of Senator Appleton about Oregon fell into my hands, and I read it with great care. This report contained a very accurate description of that country. At the same time, there was a bill pending in Congress, introduced in the Senate by Dr. Linn, one of the Senators from Missouri, which proposed to donate to each immigrant 640 acres of land for himself, and 160 acres for each child. I had a wife and six children and would, therefore, be entitled to 1,600. There was a fair prospect of the ultimate passage of the bill.
I saw that a great American community would grow up, in the space of a few years, upon the shores of the distant Pacific; and, I felt an ardent desire to aid in this most important enterprise. At that time, the country was claimed by Great Britain and the United States, so that the readiest and peaceable way to settle the conflicting and doubtful claims of the two governments was to fill the country with American citizens. If we could only show, by a practical test, that American emigrants could safely make their way across the continent to Oregon with their wagons, teams, cattle, and families, then the solution of the question of title to the country was discovered. Of course, Great Britain would not covet a colony settled by American citizens.
The health of my wife, Harriet, had been delicate for some three years, and it was all we could do to keep her alive through the winter in that cold climate. Her physician said the trip would either kill or cure her. I was also largely indebted to my old partners in the mercantile business. I had sold all my property, had lived in a plain style, had worked hard, and paid all I could spare each year, and still, the amount of my indebtedness seemed to be reduced very little.
Putting all these considerations together, I determined, with the consent of my old partners, to move to Oregon. I, therefore, laid all my plans and calculations before them. I said that if Dr. Linn’s bill should pass, the land would ultimately enable me to pay up. In staying where I was, I saw no reasonable probability of ever paying my debts. I did a good practice and was able to pay about a thousand dollars a year, but it would require many years’ payments to square the account with the accumulation of interest. I was determined not to go without the free consent and advice of my creditors. They all most willingly gave their consent and said to me, “Take what may be necessary for the trip, leave us what you can spare, and pay us the balance when you become able to do so.”
I followed their advice and set to work most vigorously to organize a wagon company. I visited the surrounding counties, making speeches wherever I could find a sufficient audience, and succeeded even beyond my own expectations. Having completed my arrangements, I left my house in Weston, Missouri on May 8, 1843, with two ox wagons, and one small two-horse wagon, four yokes of oxen, two mules, and a fair supply of provisions; and arrived at the rendezvous, some twelve miles west of Independence, Missouri, just beyond the state line on May 17th.
A trip to Oregon with ox teams was, at that time, a new experiment and was exceedingly severe upon the temper and endurance of people. It was one of the most conclusive tests of character and the very best school to study human nature. Before the trip terminated, people acted upon their genuine principles and threw off all disguises. It was not that the trip was beset with very great perils, for we had no war with the Indians and no stock stolen by them. But, there were ten thousand little vexations continually recurring, which could not be foreseen before they occurred, nor fully remembered when past, but were keenly felt while passing. At one time an ox would be missing, at another time a mule, and then a struggle for the best encampment, and a supply of wood and water; and, in these struggles, the worst traits of human nature were displayed, and there was no remedy but patient endurance. At the beginning of the journey, there were several fisticuff fights in camp; but the emigrants soon abandoned that practice and thereafter confined themselves to abuse in words only. The man with a black eye and battered face could not well hunt up his cattle or drive his team.
But, the subject of the greatest and most painful anxiety for us was the suffering of our poor animals. We could see our faithful oxen dying inch by inch, every day becoming weaker, and some of them giving out and left in the wilderness to fall prey to the wolves. In one or two instances, they fell dead under the yoke before they would yield. Upon a conclusive trial, we found that the ox was the noblest of draft-animals upon that trip and possessed more genuine hardihood and pluck than either mules or horses. When an ox is once broken down, there is no hope of saving him. It requires immense hardship, however, to bring him to that point. He not only gathers his food more rapidly than the horse or mule, but he will climb rocky hills, cross muddy streams, and plunge into swamps and thickets for pasture. He will seek his food in places where other animals will not go. On such a trip as ours, one becomes greatly attached to his oxen, for upon them, his safety depends.
Our emigrants were placed in a new and trying position, and it was interesting to see the influence of pride and old habits over men. They were often racing with their teams in the early portion of the journey, though they had 1,700 miles of travel before them. No act could have been more inconsiderate than for men, under such circumstances, to injure their teams simply to gratify their ambition. Yet the proper rule in such a case was to allow any and everyone to pass you who desired to do so. On the first portion of the trip, our emigrants were about as wasteful of their provisions as if they had been at home. When portions of bread were left over, they were thrown away, and, when anyone came to their tents, he was invited to eat. I remember well that, for a long time, the five young men I had with me refused to eat any part of the bacon rind, which accordingly fell to my share, in addition to an equal division of the bacon. Finally, they asked for and obtained their portion of the bacon rind, their delicate appetites having become ravenous on the trip. Those who were in the habit of inviting everyone to eat who stood around at mealtimes ultimately found out that they were feeding a set of loafers and gave up the practice.
I kept a concise journal of the trip as far as Walla Walla, Washington.
On May 18th, the emigrants at the rendezvous held a meeting and appointed a committee of seven to inspect wagons and one of five to draw up rules and regulations for the journey. At this meeting, I made the emigrants a speech, an exaggerated report of which was made in 1875, by ex-Senator J. W. Nesmith of Oregon, in his address to the Pioneers of that State. The meeting adjourned to meet at the Big Springs, Kansas, on May 20th. On that day, I met Colonel John Thornton, Colonel Bartleson, Mr. Rickman, and Dr. Marcus Whitman. At this meeting, rules and regulations were adopted, and one man from Tennessee proposed that we adopt either Tennessee’s criminal laws or those of Missouri for our government on the route. William Martin and Daniel Matheny were appointed a committee to engage Captain John Gant as our pilot as far as Fort Hall, Idaho. He was accordingly employed, and it was agreed in the camp that we all should start on Monday morning, May 22nd. However, we delayed our departure because we thought the grass too short to support our stock. The spring of 1843 was very late, and the ice in the Missouri River at Weston, Missouri, only broke up on the 11th of April.
On May 22nd, a general start was made from the rendezvous, and we reached Elm Grove, Kansas, about 15 miles distant, at about 3:00 p.m. This grove had two trees, elms, and a few dogwood bushes, which we used for fuel. The small elm was most beautiful in the wild and lonely prairie, and the large one had all its branches trimmed off for firewood. The weather was clear, and the road as good as possible; the day’s journey was most delightful. The white-sheeted wagons and the fine teams, moving in the wilderness of green prairie, made the most lovely appearance. The place where we encamped was very beautiful, and no scene appeared to our enthusiastic visions more exquisite than the sight of so many wagons, tents, fires, cattle, and people, as were here collected. At night the sound of joyous music was heard in the tents. Our long journey thus began in sunshine and song, in anecdote and laughter; but, these all vanished before we reached its termination.
On the 24th, we reached the Wakarusa River, where we let our wagons down the steep bank by ropes. On the 26th, we reached the Kansas River, and we finished crossing it on the 31st. At this crossing, we met Fathers De Smet and De Vos, missionaries to the Flathead Indians.
On June 1st, we organized our company by electing Peter H. Burnett as Captain, J. W. Nesmith as Orderly Sergeant, and nine councilmen. On the 6th, we met a Kansas and Osage Indians war party, numbering about 90 men. They were all mounted on horses, had their faces painted red, and had with them one Pawnee scalp, with the ears to it, and with the wampum in them. One of them, who spoke English well, said they had fasted three days and were very hungry. Our guide, Captain Gant, advised us to furnish them with provisions; otherwise, they would steal some of our cattle. We deemed this good advice and good humanity and furnished these starving warriors with enough provisions to satisfy their hunger. They had only killed one Pawnee but had divided the scalp, making several pieces, some with the ears on and part with the cheek.
None of us knew anything about a trip across the Plains, except our pilot Captain Gant, who had made several trips with small parties of hired and therefore disciplined men, who knew how to obey orders. But, my company was composed of very different materials; and our pilot had no knowledge that qualified him to give me sound advice. I adopted rules and endeavored to enforce them, but found much practical difficulty and opposition; all of which I at first attributed to the fact that our emigrants were green at the beginning, but, comforted myself with the belief that they would improve in due time; but, my observation soon satisfied me that matters would grow worse. It became doubtful whether so large a body of emigrants could be practically kept together on such a journey. These considerations induced me to resign on June 8th, and William Martin was elected as my successor.
On the 12th of June, we were greatly surprised and delighted to hear that Captain Gant had killed a buffalo. The animal was seen at the distance of a mile from the hunter, who ran upon him with his horse and shot him with a large pistol, several shots being required to kill him. We were all anxious to taste buffalo meat, never having eaten any before; but, we found it exceedingly poor and tough. The buffalo was an old bull, left by the herd because he was unable to follow.
On the 15th of June, one of our party killed an antelope. This is perhaps the fleetest animal in the world except for the gazelle and possesses the quickest sight, excepting the gazelle and the giraffe. The antelope has a large black eye, like those of the gazelle and giraffe, but has no acute sense of smell. For this reason, this animal is always found in the prairie or very open timber and will never go into a thicket. He depends upon his superior sight to discern an enemy and upon his fleetness to escape him. I have heard it said that when wolves are much pressed with hunger, they hunt the antelope in packs, the wolves placing themselves in different positions. Like most wild game, Antelopes have their limits, within which they range for food and water; and, when chased by the wolves, the antelope will run in something like a circle, confining himself to his accustomed haunts. When the chase commences, the antelope flies off so rapidly that he leaves his pursuers far behind; but, the tough and hungry wolf, with his keen scent, follows on his track; and, by the time the antelope has become cool and a little stiff, the wolf is upon him, and he flies from his enemy a second time.
This race continues, fresh wolves coming into the chase to relieve those that are tired, until at last the poor antelope, with all his quickness of sight and fleetness of foot, is run down and captured. As soon as he is killed, the wolf that has captured him sets up a loud howl to summon his companions in the chase to the banquet. When all have arrived, they set to eating the carcass, each wolf taking what he can get, there being no fighting, but only some snarling, among the wolves. This statement I do not know to be true of my own knowledge, but, think it quite probable. It seems to be characteristic of the dog family, in a wild state, to hunt together and devour the common prey in partnership.
When an antelope once sees the hunter, it is impossible to stalk the animal. On the trip to Oregon, I tried the experiment without success. When I saw the antelope, upon the top of a small hill or mound, looking at me, I would turn and walk away in the opposite direction until I was out of sight of the animal; then I would make a turn at right angles until I found some object between the antelope and me, behind which I could approach unseen within rifle-shot; but, invariably the wily creature would be found on the top of some higher elevation, looking at me creeping up behind the object that I had supposed concealed me from my coveted prey. The only practical way of deceiving an antelope is to fall flat upon the ground among the grass and hold up on your ramrod a hat or handkerchief while you keep yourself concealed from his view. Though exceedingly wary, the curiosity of the animal is so great that he will often slowly and cautiously approach within rifle shot.
On the 16th of June, we saw a splendid race between some of our dogs and an antelope, which ran all the way down the long line of wagons, and about 150 yards distant from them. Greyhounds were let loose but could not catch it. It ran very smoothly, making no long bounds like the deer or horse, but seemed to glide through the air. The gait of the antelope is so peculiar that, if one was running at the top of his speed over a perfectly smooth surface, his body would always be substantially the same distance from the earth.
Lindsey Applegate, a pioneer known for blazing the Applegate Trail, an alternative end of the Oregon Trail, gave this amusing and somewhat exaggerated account of a race between a very fleet greyhound and an antelope. The antelope was off to the right of the road half a mile distant and started to cross the road at right angles ahead of the train. The greyhound saw him start in the direction of the road and ran to meet him, so regulating his pace as to intercept the antelope at the point where he crossed the road. With the attention of the antelope being fixed upon the train, he did not see the greyhound until the latter was within twenty feet of him. Then the struggle commenced, each animal running at his utmost speed. The greyhound only ran about a quarter of a mile when he gave up the race and looked with seeming astonishment at the animal that beat him, as no other animal had ever done before. In strong hyperbolical language, Applegate declared that “the antelope ran a mile before you could see the dust rise.”
After crossing the Kansas River we traveled up the Blue River. On June 17th, we reached our last encampment on the river, and here, saw a band of Pawnee Indians returning from a buffalo hunt. They had quantities of dried buffalo meat, of which they generously gave us a good supply. They were fine-looking Indians who did not shave their heads but cut their hair short like white men.
On the 18th of June, we crossed from the Blue River to the Great Platte River, making a 25-30 miles journey about the greatest distance we ever traveled in a single day. The road was splendid, and we drove some distance into the Platte River bottom and encamped in the open prairie without fuel. The next morning we left very early, without breakfast, having traveled 271 miles from the rendezvous, according to the estimated distance recorded in my journal.
We traveled up the south bank of the Platte River, which was from a mile to a mile and a half wide at the point where we struck it. Though not so remarkable as the famed and mysterious Nile, the Platte is still a remarkable stream. Like the Nile, it runs hundreds of miles through a desert without receiving any tributaries. Its general course is almost as straight as a direct line. It runs through a formation of sand of equal consistency, anwhich is whyts course is so direct.
The Platte River valley is about 20 miles wide, through the middle of which this wide, shallow, and muddy stream makes its rapid course. Its banks are low, not exceeding 5-6 feet in height, and the river bottoms on each side seem to the eye a dead level, covered with luxuriant grass. Ten miles from the river, you come to the foot of the tablelands, which are also apparently a level sandy plain, elevated some 150 feet above the river bottoms. On these plains grows the short buffalo grass, upon which the animal feeds during a portion of the year. As the dry season approaches, the water, which stands in pools on tablelands, dries up, and the buffalo are compelled to go to the Platte for water to drink. They start for water about 10:00 a.m. and always travel in single file, one after the other, in parallel lines about 20 yards apart, and go directly to the river. They invariably travel the same routes over and over again until they make a path some ten inches deep and twelve inches wide. These buffalo paths constituted quite an obstruction to our wagons, which were heavily laden at this point in our journey. Several axles were broken. We had been apprised of the danger in advance, and each wagon was supplied with an extra axle.
In making our monotonous journey up the smooth valley of the Platte through the warm, genial sunshine of summer, the feeling of drowsiness was so great that it was extremely difficult to keep awake during the day. Instances occurred where the drivers went to sleep on the road, sitting in the front of their wagons, and the oxen, being about as sleepy, would stop until the drivers were aroused from their slumber. My small wagon was only used for the family to ride in, and Mrs. Burnett and I drove and slept alternately during the day.
One great difficulty on this part of the trip was the scarcity of fuel. Sometimes we found dry willows, sometimes we picked up pieces of driftwood along the way, which we put into our wagons and hauled them along until we needed them. At many points of the route up the Platte, we had to use buffalo chips. By cutting a trench some ten inches deep, six inches wide, and two feet long, we were enabled to get along with very little fuel. At one or two places the wind was so severe that we were forced to use the trenches in order to make a fire at all.
On the 20th of June, we sent out a party of hunters, who returned on the 24th with plenty of fresh buffalo meat. We thought the flesh of the buffalo the most excellent of all flesh eaten by man. Its flavor is decidedly different from that of beef and far superior, and the meat more digestible. On a trip like that, in that dry climate, our appetites were excellent, but, even making every reasonable allowance, I still think buffalo the sweetest meat in the world.
The American buffalo is a peculiar animal, remarkably hardy, and much fleeter of foot than anyone would suppose from his round short figure. It requires a fleet horse to overtake him. His sense of smell is remarkably acute, while those of sight and hearing are very dull. If the wind blows from the hunter to the buffalo, it is impossible to approach him. I remember that, on one occasion, while we were traveling up the Platte River, I saw a band of some 40 buffalo running obliquely toward the river on the other side from us, and some three miles off; and, the moment that their leader struck the stream of tainted atmosphere passing from us to them, he and the rest of the herd turned at right angles from their former course, and fled in the direction of the wind.
On one occasion five of us went out on fleet horses to hunt buffalo. We soon found nine full-grown animals, feeding near the head of a ravine. The wind blew from them to us, and their keen scent was thus worthless to them, as the smell will only travel with the wind. We rode quietly up the ravine until we arrived at a point only about 100 yards distant, when we formed in line, side by side, and the order was given to charge. We put our horses at once to their utmost speed, and the loud clattering of their hoofs over the dry hard ground at once attracted the attention of the buffalo, which raised their heads and gazed at us for an instant, and then turned and fled. By the time they started, we were within 50 yards of them. The race was over a level plain, and we gradually gained upon the fleeing game; but, when we approached within 20 yards of them, we could plainly see that they let out a few more links and ran much faster. I was riding a fleet Indian pony and was ahead of all my comrades except Mr. Garrison, who rode a blooded American mare. He dashed in ahead of me and fired with a large horse pistol at the largest buffalo, giving the animal a slight wound. The moment the buffalo felt wounded, that moment he bore off from the others, they continuing close together, and he running by himself.
I followed the wounded buffalo, and my comrades followed the others. The moment I began to press closely upon the wounded animal, he turned suddenly around and faced me with his shaggy head, black horns, and gleaming eyes. My pony stopped instantly, and I rode around the old bull to get a shot at his side, knowing that it would be idle to shoot him in the head, as no rifle-ball will penetrate to the brain of a buffalo-bull. But the animal would keep his head toward me. I knew my pony had been trained to stand wherever he was left, and I saw that the wounded bull never charged at the horse. So I determined to dismount and try to get a shot on foot. I would go a few yards from my horse, and occasionally the buffalo would bound toward me, and then I would dodge behind my pony, which stood like a statue, not exhibiting the slightest fear. For some reason, the wounded animal would not attack the pony.
Perhaps the buffalo had been hit through the lungs. The moment he felt the shot, he turned and fled, and after running a quarter of a mile fell dead. The shot through the lungs is the most fatal to the buffalo, as he soon smothers from the effects of internal hemorrhage. It is a singular fact that, before a buffalo is wounded, he will never turn and face his pursuer but will run at his best speed, even until the hunter is by his side. But the moment a buffalo-bull is wounded, even slightly, he will quit the band, and when pressed by the hunter will turn and face him. The animal seems to think that, when wounded, his escape by flight is impossible, and his only chance is in combat.
On the 27th of June, our people had halted for lunch at noon and rest the teams and allow the oxen to graze. Our wagons were about 300 yards from the river and were strung out in line to the distance of one mile. While taking our lunch, we saw seven buffalo bulls on the opposite side of the river, coming toward us as if they intended to cross the river in the face of our whole caravan. When they arrived on the opposite bank they had a full view of us; and yet they deliberately entered the river, wading a part of the distance, and swimming the remainder. When we saw that they were determined to cross at all hazards, our men took their rifles, formed in line between the wagons and the river, and awaited the approach of the animals. So soon as they rose the bank, they came on in a run, broke boldly through the line of men, and bore to the left of the wagons. Three of them were killed, and most of the others wounded.
On the 29th of June, we arrived at a grove of timber, on the south bank of the South Fork of the Platte River. This was the only timber we had seen since we struck the river, except on the islands, covered with cottonwoods and willows. From our first camp upon the Platte to this point, we had traveled, according to my estimates recorded in my journal, 173 miles, in eleven days.
On July 1st, we made three boats by covering our wagon-boxes or beds with green buffalo-hides sewed together, stretched tightly over the boxes, flesh side out, and tacked on with large tacks; and the boxes, thus covered, were then turned up to the sun until the hides were thoroughly dry. This process of drying the green hides had to be repeated several times. From July 1st to the 5th, we were engaged in crossing the river. On the 7th we arrived at the south bank of the North Fork of the Platte, having traveled a distance of 29 miles from the South Fork. We had not seen any prairie chickens since we left the Blue River. On the 9th, we saw three beautiful wild horses. On the 14th we arrived at Fort Laramie, Wyoming where we remained two days, repairing our wagons. We had traveled from the crossing of South Fork 141 miles in nine days. Prices of articles at this trading post were: Coffee, $1.50 a pint; brown sugar, the same; flour, unbolted, 25 cents a pound; powder, $1.50 a pound; lead, 75 cents a pound; percussion-caps, $1.50 a box; calico, very inferior, $1 a yard.
At the fort, we found the Cheyenne chief and some of his people. He was a tall, trim, noble-looking Indian, aged about thirty. The Cheyenne, at that time, boasted that they had never shed the blood of the white man. He went alone very freely among our people, and I happened to meet him at one of our camps, where there was a foolish, rash young man who wantonly insulted the chief. Though the chief did not understand the insulting words, he clearly comprehended the insulting tone and gestures. I saw from the expression of his countenance that the chief was most indignant, though perfectly cool and brave. He made no reply in words, but walked away slowly; and, when some 20 feet from the man who had insulted him, he turned around, and solemnly and slowly shook the forefinger of his right hand at the young man several times, as much as to say, “I will attend to your case.”
I saw there was trouble coming, and I followed the chief, and by kind earnest gestures made him understand at last that this young man was considered by us all as a half-witted fool, unworthy of the notice of any sensible man; and that we never paid attention to what he said, as we hardly considered him responsible for his language. The moment the chief comprehended my meaning, I saw a change come over his countenance, and he went away perfectly satisfied. He was a clear-headed man; and, though unlettered, he understood human nature.
In traveling up the South Fork, we saw several Indians, who kept at a distance and never manifested any disposition to molest us in any way. They saw we were mere travelers through their country, and would only destroy a small amount of their game. Besides, they must have been impressed with a due sense of our power. Our long line of wagons, teams, cattle, and men, on the smooth plains, and under the clear skies of Platte, made a most grand appearance.
They had never before seen any spectacle like it. They, no doubt, supposed we had cannon concealed in our wagons. A few years before, a military expedition had been sent out from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to chastise some of the wild prairie tribes for depredations committed against the whites. General Bennett Riley, then Captain Riley, had command and had with him some cannon. In a skirmish with the Indians in the open prairie, he used his cannon, killing some Indians at a distance beyond rifle-shot. This new experience had taught them a genuine dread of big guns.
The Indians always considered the wild game as much their property as they did the country in which it was found. Though breeding and maintaining the game cost them no labor, yet it lived and fattened on their grass and herbage, and was as substantially within the power of these roving people and skillful hunters as the domestic animals of the white man.
On the 24th of July, we crossed the North Fork of the Platte River by fording, without difficulty, having traveled the distance of 122 miles from Fort Laramie in nine days. On the 27th, we arrived at the Sweetwater River, having traveled from the North Fork 55 miles in three days. On the 3d of August, while traveling up the Sweetwater, we first came in sight of the eternal snows of the Rocky Mountains. This, to us, was a grand and magnificent sight. We had never before seen the perpetually snow-clad summit of a mountain. This day, William Martin brought the foot of a very rare carnivorous animal into camp, much like the hyena, and with no known name. It was of a dark color, had very large teeth, and was thought to be strong enough to kill a half-grown buffalo.
On August 4th, Mr. Paine died of fever, and we remained in camp to bury him. We buried him in the wild, shelterless plains, close to the new road we had made, and the funeral scene was most sorrowful and impressive. Mr. Garrison, a Methodist preacher, a plain, humble man, delivered a most touching and beautiful prayer at the lonely grave.
On the 5th, 6th, and 7th we crossed the summit of the Rocky Mountains, and on the evening of the 7th, we first drank of the waters that flow into the great Pacific. The first Pacific water we saw was that of a large, pure spring. On the 9th, we came to the Big Sandy River at noon. On this day, Mr. Stevenson died of fever, and we buried him on the sterile banks of that stream. On the 11th we crossed Green River, so-called from its green color. It is a beautiful stream containing fine fish. There are extensive groves of small cottonwood trees, on the margins of this stream about nine inches in diameter, with low and brushy tops. These trees are cut down by the hunters and trappers in winter to support their mules and hardy Indian ponies. The animals feed on the tender twigs, and on the bark of the smaller limbs, and in this way manage to live. Large quantities of this timber are thus destroyed annually.
On the 12th of August, we were informed that Dr. Whitman had written a letter stating that the Catholic missionaries had discovered, by the aid of their Flathead Indian pilot, a pass through the mountains by way of Fort Bridger, Wyoming, which was shorter than the old route.
We, therefore, determined to go by the fort. There was a heavy frost with thin ice this morning. On the 14th we arrived at Fort Bridger, situated on Black’s Fork of Green River, having traveled from our first camp on the Sweetwater River, 219 miles in 18 days. Here, we overtook the missionaries. On the 17th we arrived on the banks of Bear River, a clear, beautiful stream, with an abundance of good fish and plenty of wild ducks and geese. On the 22d, we arrived at the great Soda Springs when we left Bear River for Fort Hall, Idaho, at which place we arrived on the 27th, having traveled 235 miles from Fort Bridger, Wyoming, in 13 days.
Fort Hall was then a trading post, belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and was under the charge of Mr. Grant, who was exceedingly kind and hospitable. The fort was situated on the south bank of Snake River, in a wide, fertile valley, covered with luxuriant grass, and watered by numerous springs and small streams. This valley had once been a great resort for buffalo, and their skulls were scattered around in every direction. We saw the skulls of these animals for the last time at Fort Boise, Idaho, beyond which point they were never seen. The Company had bands of horses and herds of cattle grazing on these rich bottomlands.
Up to this point, the route over which we had passed was perhaps the finest natural road, of the same length, to be found in the world. Only a few loaded wagons had ever made their way to Fort Hall and were there abandoned. Dr. Marcus Whitman, in 1836, had taken a wagon as far as Fort Boise, by making a cart on two of the wheels, and placing the axletree and the other two wheels in his cart.
We here parted with our respected pilot, Captain John Gant. Dr. Marcus Whitman was with us at the fort and was our pilot from there to the Grande Ronde Valley, where he left us in charge of an Indian pilot, whose name was Stikas, and who proved to be both faithful and competent. The doctor left us to have his gristmill put in order by the time we should reach his mission.
We had now arrived at a most critical period in our most adventurous journey; and we had many misgivings as to our ultimate success in making our way with our wagons, teams, and families. We had yet to accomplish the untried and most difficult portion of our long and exhaustive journey. We could not anticipate at what moment we might be compelled to abandon our wagons in the mountains, pack our scant supplies upon our poor oxen, and make our way on foot through this terribly rough country, as best we could. We fully comprehended the situation; but, we never faltered in our inflexible determination to accomplish the trip, if within the limits of possibility, with the resources at our command. Dr. Whitman assured us that we could succeed and encouraged and aided us with every means in his power. I consulted Mr. Grant as to his opinion of the practicability of taking our wagons through. He replied that, while he would not say it was impossible for us Americans to make the trip with our wagons, he could not himself see how it could be done. He had only traveled the pack trail, and certainly, no wagons could follow that route; but, there might be a practical road found by leaving the trail at certain points.
On the 30th of August, we left Fort Hall, many of our young men having left us with pack trains. Our route lay down Snake River for some distance. The road was rocky and rough, except in the dry valleys; and these were covered with a thick growth of sage or wormwood, which was from two to three feet high, and offered a great obstruction to the first five or six wagons passing through it. The soil where this melancholy shrub was found appeared to be too dry and sterile to produce anything else. It was very soft on the surface and easily worked up into a most disagreeable dust, as fine as ashes or flour.
The taste of the sage is exceedingly bitter; the shrub has a brown somber appearance and a most disagreeable smell. The stem at the surface of the ground is from one to two inches in diameter, and soon branches, so as to form a thick brushy top. The texture of the stem is peculiar, and unlike that of any other shrub, being all bark and no sap or heart, and appears like the outside bark of the grape-vine. How the sap ascends from the roots to the branches, or whether the shrub draws its nutriment from the air, I am not able to decide. One thing I remember well, that the stems of the green growing sage were good for fuel and burned most readily, and so rapidly that the supply had to be continually renewed showing that they were not only dry but of very slight, porous texture. Had the sage been as stout and hard as other shrubbery of the same size, we should have been compelled to cut our wagon way through it, and could never have passed over it as we did, crushing it beneath the feet of our oxen and the wheels of our wagons.
The geographical features of the Pacific coast are Asiatic in their appearance, being composed of mountains and valleys. Our hills swell to mountains, and our valleys are to the eye a dead level, yet they generally descend about nine or ten feet to the mile. Consequently, we have very little gently undulating land, such as is generally found in the great Mississippi Valley.
Colonel Mercer of Oregon delivered a lecture in New York City on April 6, 1878, in which he set forth the wonderful fertility of the sage-brush lands, which until recently had been supposed to be valueless. The sage-brush lands through which we passed in 1843 appeared to be worthless, not only because of the apparent sterility of the soil but for the want of water. With plentiful irrigation, I think it quite probable that these lands, in most places, might be rendered fruitful. Water is a great fertilizer, and nothing but experiment can actually demonstrate how far these wilderness plains can be redeemed.