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. At the Cascades, there is a celebrated salmon fishery, 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 some 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 traveled usually with his own company and 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 that there was 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 thirty 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; but at the Cascades, this bottom-land is very narrow, 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 twenty 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, but 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.
It was the opinion of Governor Fremont that these stumps had been placed in this position by a slide, which 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. It is much more rational, I think, 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 of 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. The General, having no family with him, 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 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 which grew along the margin of the swales. 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 from one to two feet deep. In the winter they are filled with slowly running water, 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 business of the Hudson’s Bay Company, 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 a number of careers, serving briefly as a justice in the California Supreme Court between 1857 and 1858, the Sacramento City Council, as well as 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)