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.
On September 7, 1843, we arrived at the Salmon Falls on Snake River, where we purchased from the Snake Indians dried and fresh salmon, giving one ball and one charge of powder for each dried fish. We found several lodges of Indians here, who were very poorly clad, and who made a business of fishing at the falls. The falls were about eight feet perpendicular at that stage of water, with rapids below for some distance. The stream is divided upon the rapids into various narrow channels, through which the waters pass with a very shallow and rapid current so that the fisherman can wade across them. The salmon are compelled to pass up these channels, and readily fall a prey to the quick, sharp spear of the Indian fisherman. This spear consists of a strong, smooth pole, 10-12 feet long and an inch and a half in diameter, made of hard, tough wood, upon one end of which there is fastened a piece of sharp-pointed buck-horn, about four inches long. The larger end of this piece of buck-horn is hollowed out to the depth of about three inches and fastened on the end of the pole, which is tapered to fit into it. ToTheres securely fastened a thong or string of sinew, to the middle of this buckhorn, the other end of which is firmly attached to the pole about one foot above the buck-horn, leaving a considerable slack in the string. With this spear, the Indian fisherman lies down or sits close to one of these narrow channels, with the point of his spear resting near where the fish must pass. In this position he remains motionless until he sees a fish immediately opposite the point of the spear, as the fish slowly ascends the rapid current; when, with the quick motion of a juggler, he pushes his spear clear through the salmon before this powerful fish can dodge it. The buck-horn at once slips off the end of the pole, on the other side the fish, the first flounce he makes, but he is securely held by the thong attached to the pole. No spear could be more skillfully designed or more effectually used than this.
One of our emigrants, having been informed before he started on the trip that the clear, living waters of the Columbia River and its tributaries were full of salmon, had brought all the way from Missouri a three-pronged harpoon, called a gig. The metallic portion of this fishing instrument was securely riveted on the end of a smooth, strong pole, about ten feet long and two inches by a wonderful instinct, ascend to the upper branches, where they can deposit their numerous spawn in a place secure from enemies. The waters of these mountain-streams are so clear as to remind one of Dryden’s description “Of shallow brooks, that flowed so clear, The bottom did the top appear.”
In the pebbly bottoms of these tributary streams, the female salmon hollows out a cavity of sufficient depth to form an eddy, in which she can deposit her spawn without the danger of their being swept away by the current. The one we killed was doubtless in her nest, which she refused to quit.
From all the information I obtained while residing in Oregon, grown salmon that once leave the ocean never return. This was the opinion of Sir James Douglas, which was confirmed by my own observation. But there seems to be a difference of opinion on the question. I have lately conversed with B. B. Redding upon this subject, and it is his opinion that about ten percent. return alive to the ocean, as about that proportion are caught in the Sacramento River on the upper side of the gill-nets used by the fishermen. This may be the correct opinion.
On the 14th of September, we passed the Boiling Spring; its water is hot enough to cook an egg. It runs out at three different places, forming a large branch, which runs off smoking and foaming. It rises half a mile from a tall range of hills, covered with basaltic rock, and the plains around are covered with round rocks of the same kind. The water is clear and rises at the head of a small ravine.
On September 20th, we arrived at Fort Boise, Idaho, then in charge of Mr. Payette, having traveled from Fort Hall, Idaho, 273 miles in 21. Mr. Payette, the manager, was kind and very polite. On the 21st, we re-crossed the Snake River by fording, which was deep but safe. On the 24th, we reached Burnt River, so named from the many fires that have occurred there, destroying considerable portions of timber. It hardly deserves to be called a river, being only a creek of fair size. The road up this stream was then a terrible one, as the latter runs between two ranges of tall mountains, through a narrow valley full of timber, which we had not the force or time to remove.
On September 27th, we had some rain during the night, and the next morning left Burnt River. On that day, we saw many of the most beautiful objects in nature. In our rear, on our right and left, were ranges of tall mountains, covered on the sides with magnificent forests of pine, the mountain-tops being dressed in a robe of pure snow; and around their summits, the dense masses of black clouds wreathed themselves in fanciful shapes, the sun glancing through the open spaces upon the gleaming mountains. We passed through some most beautiful valleys, and encamped on a branch of the Powder River, at the Lone Pine.
This noble tree stood in the center of a most lovely valley, about 10 miles from any other timber. It could be seen, at the distance of many miles, rearing its majestic form above the surrounding plain, and constituted a beautiful landmark for the guidance of the traveler. Many teams had passed on before me, and at intervals, as I drove along, I would raise my head and look at that beautiful green pine. At last, on looking up, as usual, the tree was gone. I was perplexed for the moment to know whether I was going in the right direction. There was the plain beaten wagon road before me, and I drove on until I reached the camp just at dark. That brave old pine, which had withstood the storms and snows of centuries, had fallen at last by the vandal hands of men. Some of our inconsiderate people had cut it down for fuel, but it was too green to burn. It was a useless and most unfortunate act. Had I been there in time, I should have begged those woodmen to “spare that tree.”
On the 29th and 30th of September, we passed through rich, beautiful valleys, between ranges of snow-clad mountains, whose sides were covered with noble pine forests. On October 1st, we came into and through Grande Ronde, one of the most beautiful valleys in the world, embosomed among the Blue Mountains, which are covered with magnificent pines. It was estimated to be about a hundred miles in circumference. It was generally rich prairie, covered with luxuriant grass, and having numerous beautiful streams passing through it, most of which rise from springs at the foot of the mountains bordering the valley. In this valley, the camas root abounds, which the Indians dried upon hot rocks. We purchased some from them and found it quite palatable to our keen appetites.
On October 2nd, we ascended the mountain-ridge at the Grande Ronde River and descended on the other side of the ridge to a creek, where we camped. These hills were terrible. From October 3-6, we passed through the Blue Mountains, arriving at their foot on the 6th and encamping upon a beautiful stream of water. On the morning of the 5th, there was a snowstorm on the mountain. We had great difficulty finding our cattle during our passage through the Blue Mountains, and the road was very rough in many places. Our camp was about three miles from the Indian village, and from the Indians, we purchased Indian corn, peas, and Irish potatoes, in any desired quantity. I have never tasted a greater luxury than the potatoes we ate on this occasion. We had been so long without fresh vegetables that we were almost famished, and consequently, we feasted this day excessively. We gave the Indians, in exchange, some articles of clothing, which they were most anxious to purchase. When two parties are both as anxious to barter as were the Indians and ourselves, it is very easy to strike a bargain.
On October 10th, we arrived within three miles of Dr. Whitman’s mission and remained in camp until the 14th. The exhausting tedium of such a trip and the attendant vexations greatly affect the majority of men, especially upon those of weak minds. Men, under such circumstances, become childish, petulant, and obstinate. I remember that while we were at the mission of Dr. Whitman, who had performed much hard labor for us and was deserving of our warmest gratitude, he was most ungenerously accused by some of our people of selfish motives in conducting us past his establishment, where we could procure fresh supplies of flour and potatoes. This foolish, false, and ungrateful charge was based upon the fact that he asked us a dollar a bushel for wheat and forty cents for potatoes.
As our people had been accustomed to sell their wheat at from 50-60 cents a bushel, and their potatoes at from 20-25 cents, in the Western States, they thought the prices demanded by the Doctor amounted to something like extortion; not reflecting that he had to pay at least twice as much for his own supplies of merchandise, and could not afford to sell his produce as low as they did theirs at home.
They were somewhat like a certain farmer in Missouri, at an early day, who concluded that 20 cents a bushel was a fair price for corn and that he would not sell for more nor less. But experience soon taught him that when the article was higher than his price, he could readily sell, but he could not sell at all when it was lower. He came to the sensible conclusion that he must avail himself of the rise in order to compensate him for the fall in prices. So obstinate were some of our people that they would not purchase from the Doctor. I remember one case particularly, where an intimate friend of mine, whose food supplies were nearly exhausted, refused to purchase, though urged to do so by me until the wheat was all sold. The consequence was that I had to divide provisions with him before we reached the end of our journey.
On the 16th of October, we arrived at Fort Walla Walla, Washington, then under the charge of Mr. McKinley; having traveled from Fort Boise, Idaho, 202 miles in 24 days, and from the rendezvous, 1,691 miles, between May 22nd and October 16th, being 147 days. Average distance per day, eleven and a half miles.
A portion of our emigrants left their wagons and cattle at Walla Walla and descended the Columbia River in boats; while another, and the larger portion, made their way with their wagons and teams to the Dalles, where they descended to the Cascades on rafts, and thence to Fort Vancouver, Washington in boats and canoes. William Beagle and I had agreed at the rendezvous not to separate until we reached the end of our journey. We procured from Mr. McKinley, at Walla Walla, an old Hudson’s Bay Company’s boat, constructed expressly for the navigation of the Columbia River and its tributaries. These boats are very light yet strong. They are open, about 40 feet long, five feet wide, and three feet deep, made of light, tough materials, and clinker-built. They are made in this manner so that they may be carried around the falls of the Columbia River and let down over the Cascades. When taken out of the water and carried over the portage, it requires the united exertions of 40-50 Indians, who take the vessel on their shoulders, amid shouts and hurrahs, and thus carry it sometimes three-fourths of a mile, without once letting it down. At the Cascades, it is let down by means of ropes in the hands of the Canadian boatmen.
We employed an Indian pilot, who stood with a stout, long, broad paddle in the bow of the boat, while William Beagle stood at the stern, holding a long steering-oar, such as were used upon flat-bottoms and keel-boats in the Western States. I remember that my friend Beagle before we left Walla Walla, expressed great confidence in his skill in steering, as he had often passed the Ohio rapids at Louisville. But these rapids were nothing to those on the Columbia River. I have seen Beagle turn as pale as a corpse when passing through the terrible rapids on this river.
Our Indian pilot was very cool, determined, and intrepid, and Beagle always obeyed him, right or wrong. On one occasion, I remember, we were passing down a terrible rapid, with almost the speed of a race-horse, when a huge rock rose above the water before us, against which the swift and mighty volume of the river furiously dashed in vain, and then suddenly turned to the right, almost at right angles. The Indian told Beagle to hold the bow of the boat directly toward that rock as if intending to run plump upon it, while the rest of us pulled upon our oars with all our might to give her such a velocity as not to be much affected by the surging waves. The Indian stood calm and motionless in the bow, paddle in hand, with his features set as if prepared to meet immediate death; and, when we were within from 20-30 feet of that terrible rock, as quick almost as though he plunged his long, broad paddle perpendicularly into the water on the left side of the bow, and with it gave a sudden wrench. The boat instantly turned upon its center to the right, and we passed the rock in safety.
While passing through these dangers, I was not much alarmed, but I could never think of them after they were passed without a sense of fear after they were passed. Three of our emigrants were drowned just above the Dalles, but we reached them in safety, sending our boat through them while the families walked around them on dry land. These Dalles are a great natural curiosity, but they have often been described that I deem it unnecessary to attempt any description myself.
When we arrived at the Methodist mission, located at the foot of the Dalles, I saw at once that there must someday grow up a town there, as that was the head of safe steam navigation. From there to the Cascades, a distance of about 50 miles, the river is entirely smooth and without a rapid. There is a portage to be made at the Cascades, but, once below them, and there is nothing but smooth water to the ocean. I determined at once to settle at the Dalles. After consultation with Mr. Perkins, the minister in charge, I left my family there and proceeded to Vancouver, where I arrived about November 7, 1843.
At Fort Vancouver, I found Governor John C. Fremont, then Lieutenant Fremont, who had been there a few days. He had left his men and animals at the Dalles. He had descended the river to the fort to purchase supplies to make the trip overland to California during that winter. The preceding year, he had made an exploring trip to the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains; but, this was his first journey to Oregon and California.
The Hudson’s Bay Company furnished him, on the United States’ credit, all the supplies he required and sent them up the river in one of their boats, such as I have already described, and three Chinook canoes. These canoes are substantially of the same model as the clipper-ship and most probably suggested such a form of marine architecture. They are made out of a solid piece of white-cedar timber, which is usually one-quarter of the first cut of a large tree. It is a softwood but very tough. This timber grows upon the banks of the Columbia River, below Vancouver, to a very large size. It is easily split with wedges. The Indians manage to cut and burn down the tree, cut and burn off a part of the trunk, and split it into quarters. Then they hollow out the inside of the canoe, mostly by burning. For this purpose, they kindle small fires along the whole length of the canoe, which they keep steadily burning, and, by careful and constant watching, they cause the fires to burn when and how they please. The outside they shape with their tomahawks; and, before these were introduced, they used sharp flint-stones for axes. These canoes are usually about thirty feet long, three feet wide, and two feet deep, and are sharp at both ends, with a gradual taper from near the center. No craft could have a more handsome model or run more swiftly. They are light, strong, elastic, and durable and are propelled by paddles. The boat was navigated by Canadian French, and the canoes by Indians.
Dr. McLoughlin and Mr. Douglas, then chief factors at the fort, advised me to go for my family and settle in the lower portion of Oregon and kindly offered me a passage up and down on their boat. We left the fort about the 11th of November in the evening, while it was raining. It came down gently but steadily. We reached the foot of the rapids, three miles below the Cascades, before sundown on the third day. We found that the Indians could propel their canoes with paddles much faster than we could our boat with oars. We ascended the river to the distance of about one mile above the foot of the rapids, and just before dark, we encamped upon a sand-beach, the only spot where we could do so without ascending higher up the rapids.
The Indians, with the three canoes, had passed on farther up the river, and, although we fired signal shots, they could not be induced to return. They had the sugar and tea with them and the Indian lodge, composed of buffalo-skins, neatly dressed and sewed together. This lodge was in a conical form, about fourteen feet in diameter at the base and eighteen feet high, with a hole at the base of about two by three feet for a door and one in the top to escape the smoke. A deer-skin formed the door-shutter, and the fire was built in the center, around which we sat with our backs to the lodge; and when we lay down, we put our feet to the fire and our heads from it. In this way, we could be warm and comfortable and free from the effects of the wind and rain, without being at all incommoded by the smoke from our small fire, as it rose straight up and passed out through the hole in the top of the lodge. The lodge was supported by long, strong, smooth poles, over which it was tightly stretched. It was far superior to any cloth tent I ever saw.
When we encamped, it was cloudy but not raining, and we were very hungry after our day’s hard work; but our bill of fare consisted of salt salmon and cold bread. From the appearance of the thickening but smooth clouds, we knew that we should most likely have a rainy night. The lower portion of Oregon lies between the tall Cascade range of mountains and the ocean. This range runs almost parallel with the Pacific Ocean and about 125 miles from it. The clouds in the rainy season break upon this range, and the Cascades are at the point where the mighty Columbia cuts at right angles through it. We had been told that it rained oftener and harder at the Cascades than at almost any other point in Oregon, and, to our injury, we found it true.
Supper being ended, we laid ourselves down before a large fire. Governor Fremont wrapped himself in his cloak, keeping on all his clothes, and lay down upon a blanket. For myself, I had with me two pairs of large, heavy blankets, one pair of which I put folded under me and covered myself with the other pair. Soon after we had lain down, the rain began to fall gently but continued steadily to increase. At first, I thought it might rain as much as it pleased, without wetting through my blankets; but before day, it came down in torrents, and I found the water running under me and into the pockets of my pantaloons and the tops of my boots. It was a cold rain, and the fire was extinguished. I could not endure all this, and I sat up during most of the remaining portion of the night upon a log of wood, with one pair of blankets thrown over my head to fall all around me. In this way, I managed to keep warm, but the weight of the wet blankets was great, and my neck, at last, rebelled against the oppression. I finally became so fatigued and sleepy that just before day, when the rain had ceased, I threw myself down across some logs of wood, and in that condition, slept until daylight. As for Governor Fremont, he never moved but lay and slept and if in comfortable quarters. My position was in a lower place on the beach than his, which was why the water ran under me and not under him.
The next morning we rose fresh and fasting and ascended to the Indian encampment, where the Governor found our Indians comfortably housed in the lodge, cooking breakfast. He was somewhat vexed and made them hustle out in short order.
It took us some days to make the portage, it raining nearly all the while. At the head of the Cascades, there were several large, projecting rocks, under one side of which the Indians could lie on the clean, dry sand, secure from the rain. They would build a fire in front and sit or lie under the projecting rocks, and, as they were at home with their kindred and families, they were in no hurry to go forward and were not much disposed to go out in bad weather. There is a celebrated salmon fishery at the Cascades, where the Indians then lived in considerable numbers, supporting themselves in the summer upon fresh, and in the winter upon dried salmon.
We were anxious to proceed, as Governor Fremont had still to make the perilous journey to California, but there were only five to eight whites to several hundred Indians. But the cool, determined, yet prudent Fremont managed to command our Indians and induce them to work. When nothing else would avail, he would put out their fires. Finding it necessary to work or shiver, they preferred to work.
When we had reloaded our craft, we set forward for the Dalles; and we had not gone more than ten miles before we could see clear out and beyond the clouds, into the pure blue sky. We were almost vexed to think we had been so near to a sunny region all the time we had been suffering so much from the rain. We soon reached a point on the river above where there had been no rain, and from that point to the Dalles, we had cold, clear, frosty nights. We arrived at the Dalles in about ten days after leaving Vancouver. I went with the Governor to his camp of about forty men and one hundred animals.
I was with Governor Fremont for about ten days. I had never known him personally before this trip. I knew he was on the way, but he usually traveled with his own company. He did not mingle much with the emigrants, as he could not properly do so, his men being under military discipline, and our emigrants not. He was then about thirty years old, modest in appearance and calm and gentle in manner. His men all loved him intensely. He gave his orders with great mildness and simplicity, but they had to be obeyed. There was no shrinking from duty. He was like a father to those under his command. At that time, I thought I could endure as much hardship as most men, especially a small, slender man like Governor Fremont; but I was wholly mistaken. He had a small foot and wore a thin calf-skin boot, and yet he could endure more cold than I could with heavy boots on. I never traveled with a more pleasant companion than Governor Fremont. His bearing toward me was as kind as that of a brother.
I returned with my family to Fort Vancouver on the 26th of November, 1843, and, as we passed the place of our encampment on the sand beach below the Cascades, the Canadian boatmen pointed toward it and laughed. When we arrived at the Cascades on our return voyage, we carried our baggage upon our shoulders three-fourths of a mile when we reloaded and then “jumped” the rapids below. Until we had passed these rapids on our downward voyage, I had no adequate conception of the dangers we had passed through on the voyage from Walla Walla to the Dalles. During that perilous passage, I was one of the oarsmen and sat with my back to the bow of the boat, thus having no fair opportunity to observe well. My attention was mainly confined to my own portion of the work, and I had but little time to look up. But, in running the rapids below the Cascades, I had nothing to do but look on. It was almost literal “jumping.”
here was then an Indian tradition that about a hundred years before the Cascades did not exist, but a succession of rapids from the Dalles to where the Cascades are now. The whole volume of the Columbia is now confined to a narrow channel and falls about 30 feet in the distance of a quarter of a mile. This tradition said that the river gradually cut under the mountain until the projecting mass of huge stones and tough clay slid into the river and dammed up the stream to the height of some thirty feet, thus producing slack water to the Dalles. And, I must say that every appearance, to my mind, sustains this view.
The Columbia, like most rivers, has a strip of bottom-land covered with timber, on one side or the other. Still, this bottom-land is very narrow at the Cascades and has a very different appearance from the bottoms at places on the river above and below. The mountain on the south side of the river looks precisely as if a vast land-slide had taken place there, and the huge rocks that lift their gray, conical heads above the water at a low stage go to prove that they could not have withstood that terrible current for many centuries. In the winter, when the water is at its lowest stage, immense masses of thick ice come down over these Cascades, and strike with tremendous force against the rocks; and the consequent wearing away must have been too great for those rocks to have been in that position many centuries.
But there is another fact that seems to me to be almost conclusive. As we passed up the river, the water was at a very low stage; and yet for some 20 miles above we could see stumps of various sizes standing as thick beneath the water as trees in a forest. The water was clear, and we had a perfect view of them. They were entirely sound and were rather sharp in form toward the top. It was evident that the trees had not grown in the water. Still, it had been backed up over their roots, and the tops and trunks had died and decayed, while the stumps, being underwater, had remained substantially sound; and the reason why they were sharp at the top was, that the heart of the timber was more durable than the sap-wood, which had decayed. Another reason for the sharpness of the stumps at the top is the abrasion caused by the floating masses of ice.
Governor Fremont’s opinion that these stumps had been placed in this position by a slide took them from their original site into the river. But I must think that opinion erroneous because the slide could hardly have been so great in length, and the appearance of the adjacent hills does not indicate an event of that magnitude. I think it is much more rational to suppose that the slide took place at the Cascades and that the Indian tradition is true. Another reason is that the river at the points where these stumps are found is quite wide, showing an increase of width by the backing up the water over the bottoms.
I procured a room for my family in Vancouver until I could build a cabin. General M. M. McCarver and I had agreed that we would select a townsite at the head of ship navigation on the Willamette River. Having no family with him, the General arrived at the fort sometime before I did and selected a spot on the Willamette, about five miles above its mouth, at what we then supposed to be the head of ship navigation.
Here, we laid out a town, calling it Linnton for Dr. Linn. It was a fair site, except for one small reason: it was not at the head of ship navigation, which subsequent experience proved to be at Portland, some miles above. I had a cabin built at Linnton and lived there with my family from about the middle of January until the first of May 1844. We performed a considerable amount of labor there, most of which was expended in opening a wagon road thence to the Tualatin Plains, over a mountain, and through a dense forest of fir, cedar, maple, and other timber. When finished, the road was barely passable with wagons. Our town speculation was a small loss to us, the receipts from the sale of lots not being equal to the expenses.
I soon found that expenses were certain and income nothing, and determined to select what was then called “a claim” and make me a farm. I knew very little about farming, though raised upon a farm in Missouri, and had not performed any manual labor of consequence (until I began to prepare for this trip) for about 17 years. I had some recollection of farming, but the theory, as practiced in Missouri, would not fully do for Oregon. Mr. Douglas told me that I could not succeed at farming, as there was a great deal of hard work on a farm. I replied that, in my opinion, a sensible and determined man could succeed at almost anything, and I meant to do it. I did succeed well, but I never had my intellect more severely tasked, with a few exceptions. Those who think good farming is not an intellectual business are most grievously mistaken.
Sometime in April 1844, I went to the Tualatin Plains and purchased a claim in the middle of a circular plain, about three miles in diameter. The claim was entirely destitute of timber, except a few ash trees that grew along the swales’ margin. The plain was beautiful and was divided from the plains adjoining by living streams of water flowing from the mountains, the banks of which streams were skirted with fir and white-cedar timber. The surface of this plain was gently undulating, barely sufficient for drainage. I purchased ten acres of splendid fir timber, distant about a mile and a half, for $25. This supply proved ample for a farm of about 250 acres.
These swales are peculiar winter drains, from 10-30 yards wide and one to two feet deep. They are filled with slowly running water in the winter, but in summer, they are dry, and their flat bottoms become almost as hard as a brick. No vegetation of consequence will grow in these swales, and the only timber along their margins is scattering ash, from six to eight inches in diameter and from 20 to 25 feet high, with wide, bushy tops. The land on both sides of these swales being clean prairie; the rows of green ash in summer give the plain a beautiful appearance.
When we arrived in Oregon, we more than doubled the resident civilized population of the country. J. W. Nesmith, our orderly sergeant, made a complete roll of the male members of the company capable of bearing arms, including all above the age of sixteen years. This roll contained 293 names, 267 of whom arrived in Oregon. Of the 26 missing, six died on the way, five turned back on Platte River, and 15 went to California.
When we arrived in Oregon, we were poor, and our teams were so much reduced as to be unfit for service until the next spring. Those of us who came by water from Walla Walla left our cattle there for the winter, and those who came by water from the Dalles left their cattle for the winter at that point. Even if our teams had been fit for use when we arrived, they would have been of no benefit to us, as we could not bring them to the Willamette Valley until the spring of 1844. Pork was ten and flour four cents a pound, and other provisions in proportion. These were high prices considering our scanty means and extra appetites. Had it not been for the generous kindness of the gentlemen in charge of the Hudson’s Bay Company business, we should have suffered much greater privations. The Company furnished many of our immigrants with provisions, clothing, seed, and other necessaries on credit. This was done, in many instances, where the purchasers were known to be of doubtful credit. At that time, the Company had most of the provisions and merchandise in the country; and the trade with our people was, upon the whole, a decided loss, so many failing to pay for what they had purchased. Many of our immigrants were unworthy of the favors they received and only returned abuse for generosity.
Peter Hardeman Burnett and his family remained in Oregon for five years until the California Gold Rush began. He then moved the family south to take part in the rush in January 1848. After modest success in getting gold, Burnett envisioned a career in law in San Francisco, a rapidly-growing boomtown thanks largely to the Gold Rush. On the way to the Bay Area, Burnett met John Augustus Sutter, Jr., son of German-born Swiss pioneer John Sutter. Selling his father’s deeded lands in the near vicinity of Sutter’s Fort, the younger Sutter offered Burnett a job in selling land plots for the new town of Sacramento. Over the next year, Burnett made nearly $50,000 in land sales in Sacramento.
Afterward, he turned his eye to politics and became California’s first state governor, serving from December 20, 1849, to January 9, 1851. One year after leaving the governorship, Burnett was finally able to repay the heavy debts he had incurred in Missouri nearly two decades before. He then entered several careers, serving briefly as a justice in the California Supreme Court between 1857 and 1858, the Sacramento City Council, becoming a San Jose-based lawyer, and then the president of the Pacific Bank of San Francisco.
He died May 17, 1895, at the age of 87 in San Francisco, and is buried in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery at Santa Clara, California.
About This Article: This article was originally written by Peter Hardeman Burnett and included as a chapter n his book, Recollections and Opinions of an Old Pioneer, published in 1880. Though the content remains basically as he originally wrote it, the text has been heavily edited and truncated for inclusion on Legends of America’s pages.
Crossing the Great Plains in Ox Wagons (Historic Text from 1939)
An Early Sketch of Oregon (Historic Text from 1857)