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. There he 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 in reference to 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 both Great Britain and the United States; so that the most ready 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 being able to pay my debts. I did a good practice, and was able to pay about a thousand dollars a year; but, with the accumulation of interest, it would require many years’ payments to square the account. 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 yoke 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 in which 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 for 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 to 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 a prey to the wolves. In one or two instances they fell dead under the yoke, before they would yield. We found, upon a conclusive trial, 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 before them, some 1,700 miles of travel. 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. Our emigrants, on the first portion of the trip, 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 every one to eat who stood around at meal times, ultimately found out that they were feeding a set of loafers, and gave up the practice.