Oregon Trail Pioneer Writes about His Journey’s Progress
Because of the well-established presence in the Oregon Country of the British Hudson’s Bay Company, the entire area from 1818 until 1840 was essentially British territory—despite a joint occupancy agreement between the U.S. and Great Britain. All that changed in the 1840s, when America became obsessed that its “Manifest Destiny” was to extend across the entire continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. What made this expansion possible was the Oregon Trail and the hardy spirit of the American pioneers who followed it to a new life out West.
By 1843 an “Oregon Trail,” entirely passable by wagon, had been created—and that year around 900 settlers made the difficult six-month, 2,000-mile journey from Missouri to Oregon, later called “The Great Migration of 1843.” Over the next several years many more Americans followed, and newspapers increased their coverage of this mass movement—making it seem inevitable that America’s destiny was to settle the entire Oregon Country at the exclusion of the British. Eventually so many Americans poured into the Oregon Country that the British lost their claim to it.
Many of the newspaper articles about the Oregon Trail were positive, stoking the flames of westward expansion and creating new business opportunities for the young nation. Occasionally a letter was published warning about the dangers of the Oregon Trail. Other letters, however, described the confidence and determination of the pioneers, and gave details of camp life, organizing the travelers into a solid company, seeking out good campgrounds each evening, and dealing with the Indians. The following two letters, written by an Oregon Trail pioneer to his brother, were published by the Ohio Statesman (Columbus, Ohio) on the front page of its July 9, 1845, issue:
We have been kindly permitted to publish the following letters from an Oregon emigrant from northwestern Ohio, to his brother. They will be found interesting:
Kaw Village, 13th May.
I improve the present opportunity of giving you a history of our journey so far—it is probably the last I shall have for some time. We left the boundary line on Tuesday, the 6th, drove eight miles and camped—found wood and water plenty. Our company was composed of about 120 wagons. We here split on account of some having too many cattle to the hand. The company I joined numbered about 100 wagons.
7th. Drove four miles—camped at Elm Grove—plenty of water, but no fuel, except a few willows. Here we elected a captain, lieutenant, and some other officers. Some 15 or 20 wagons, having no loose stock, here left us. I broke my wagon tung today, and had to go two miles to a grove to get a stick to make one, as Elm Grove boasts of but one tree, and not a limb on that large enough for a minnow rod.
8th. Drove sixteen miles—camped on Black Jack. This day the last mentioned seceders joined us, and agreed to help drive cattle. Had plenty of water and fuel.
9th. Drove six miles to the west side of Walkarusia—spent half a day in crossing. Last night the Kaw Indians stole Taylor’s mule, which leaves him with but one horse. Had this night a good place for camping. I have traveled the ground this far twice over, as I every morning rode back to the old camp hunting cattle.
10th. Drove 20 miles—camped in the prairie—no fuel short of one mile, but all the better, for on such ground we lost no cattle.
11th. Drove 18 miles—camped on Horse Creek. Smith, a Mr. Strong, and myself left the trail in the morning to hunt cattle—struck on an Indian trail where there was the track of a mule shod before, and, thinking it was Taylor’s, we followed it about ten miles and lost it. We struck the Kansas river about three miles ahead of the company—ascertained they had camped—reached it about sundown, tired and hungry.
12th. Drove three miles to the point on Kansas river that Smith, Strong and I were at yesterday—got about 60 wagons over. The Kaws here stole a yoke of our oxen. We have yet no trace of them.
13th. Got the balance of our teams over, and drove three miles and encamped on the Nebraska, waiting for the company that first left us to cross the Kansas, to hold a general meeting, to choose a captain, pilot, &c., and try to perfect our organization. We have lost about 30 head of cattle. The Kaws are watching for a chance to steal our cattle or horses, and in fact anything they can lay their hands on. They are in almost a state of starvation, begging for provisions, but of that we have none to spare. We are obliged to drive them from the camp every night. One white man can drive 20 of them.
I would advise my friends who are coming over next spring to bring no cattle, except their teams and milk cows, as they are the cause of all our troubles. Take one good horse or mule, and your provisions, and, by so doing, you will get along very comfortably. There is a company of about 40 wagons three days in advance of us, and still one company behind us. We expect to join both. Our company will then number about 250 wagons. The company from the St. Joseph country is two weeks ahead of us. The road is the best that I ever traveled. The prairies are dry and rolling—so much so that it causes us to make a very crooked trail. They would be called hilly in your country. We had a meeting today, and tried to appoint a pilot, but failed.
15th. Taylor recovered his mule last night, also our oxen. I must close, as Mr. Gilpin leaves immediately.
Camp, May 20, 1845.
We are now camped about 160 miles from the State line; we have had a great deal of trouble in getting a good company organized. I think we have got one at last that will go through in peace. Yesterday we divided into three companys, one called the no stock company, which left, taking with them 50 or 60 wagons. One called the small stock company with between 40 and 50 wagons—leaving our company, called the large stock company with 26 wagons; we have 51 men able to face an Indian, and we do not want any more. We had a meeting last evening, and elected a man by the name of Palmer, Captain, and O. Risley Lieutenant, &c. We traveled 18 miles today, and have the best camping ground that we have found since we have left the State line.
I will now begin where I left off in my last, which left us in camp, on the bank of the Nebraska, trying to organize. We finally patched up one, by adopting some laws and rules, that were good enough if they had been obeyed, but few, however, obeyed them, or respected the officers. There was a great excitement on the question of who should be the Pilot. Adams was finally rejected, and a man by the name of Meek chosen, whose character one word will portray, that word is: loafer. We agreed to give him $275. Adams asked $500.
Thursday, 15th. We drove 6 miles in peace, except as usual, losing cattle by the Kansas Indians, who steal them every opportunity. We took one of them prisoner today, and made them promise not to steal any more.
Friday, 16th. Drove to Little Vermilion, 12 miles. We are still pestered by the Kaws. Smith left and joined Brown’s company, to take care of the stock we left with them at the time of our first division.
Saturday, 17th. Drove 16 miles, and camped by a Kaw village—had the first rain this evening—which we began to need, to keep the grass good. We gave the Kaws two lame oxen, on their promise not to steal from us. Also, bartered with them for some Buffalo robes.
Sunday, 18th. Drove this day 10 miles and camped on Fish Creek. We had a wedding, our Loafer Pilot got him a wife on six days acquaintance.
Monday, 19th. Spent this day in sorting cattle, or rather in keeping the factions that left us from driving our cattle off with theirs. Our Pilot is with the small stock company.
Tuesday, 20th. This day we met with some men coming in from the mountains, who tell us that the road for 100 miles ahead, is lined with Oregon emigrants. We also saw two men from the Westport company, who are camped 20 miles from us; they were on the hunt of their captain who left them on Sunday last, to go to another camp and has not been seen since. We are all well, and joy and peace now reigns in our camp. It is now 11 o’clock at night, and guard duty frequent, so I must close, or get no sleep. You will hear from me every opportunity I get. I send this by the men from the mountains.
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