Determined For Oregon in 1843

Cheyenne Chief by Edward S. Curtis

Cheyenne Chief by Edward S. Curtis

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 had used his cannon, killing some of the 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 into camp the foot of a very rare carnivorous animal, 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.

The Rocky Mountains

The Rocky Mountains

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. On the margins of this stream, there are extensive groves of small cottonwood-trees, about nine inches in diameter, with low and brushy tops. These trees are cut down by the hunters and trappers in winter, for the support of 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, Idaho

Fort Hall, Idaho

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.</style=”margin-top:>

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. We have consequently 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.

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