Determined For Oregon in 1843

  By Peter Hardeman Burnett

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

Oregon Trail pioneers, painting by William Henry Jackson

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 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.


Ox Teams

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 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. 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 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 should adopt either the criminal laws of Tennessee 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.

Elm Grove camp, Kansas

Elm Grove camp, Kansas

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 but two trees, both elms, and some 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 being 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.

Osage Warrior

Osage Warrior

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 war party of Kansas and Osage Indians, 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 not only good advice but, 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 very 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 in 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. Antelopes, like most wild game, 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.

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