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   Chapter 4 THE OREGON TRAIL

The Way to the West / and the Lives of Three Early Americans: Boone—Crockett—Carson By Emerson Hough Characters: 30841

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


In the distribution of the population of Western America, the mouths of many great Western rivers, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Columbia, the Colorado, the Red, the Sacramento, the Arkansas, perhaps even the Ohio, were known before their sources were fully explored. The journey over the Appalachians, and the down-stream movements that followed the Mississippi and its greater tributaries, were the first concerns of our new-American emigrants. The lower reaches of the great Western rivers having been utilized, the first two decades of the century last past were spent in the search for the head waters of these same streams.

Lewis and Clark followed up the tortuous Missouri until they reached at least a practical conclusion as to its sources. Lieutenant Pike mistook the upper Rio Grande for the head of the Red River, and it cost him a long walk to Chihuahua. Yet he was as accurate as the famous Baron von Humboldt, who thought the Pecos River was a tributary of the Red. Major Long, in 1820, dropped down from the South Fork of the Platte to the head waters of the Cimarron, which he traced to the Canadian, also missing the Red River which he sought, and taking the Canadian river to be the Red.

Scores of similar errors were made in those days before the maps, but still the explorations went on. The head waters of the Columbia, of the Green, of the Sacramento or "Buena Ventura," offered challenge to many bold men, the story of whose exploits forms one of the most glowing chapters of American hero history. These divers pursuits, these evidences of an up-stream travel and traffic, more properly group themselves under our second general head of up-stream transportation. Next there was to come the day of transportation across the waters, from stream to stream.

Among those men who early in the past century pressed out most boldly in the quest for the heads of the upper Western waters, we continue to find our men of the South very prominent, the sons of the men that moved west from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee into Missouri and other parts of the trans-Mississippi. Many of these made the old town of St. Louis their general starting point, and St. Louis was, in those days, much more a Southern or Western town than it is to-day. As in the time of the Santa Fé trail, the Western man was still what we should call to-day a Southerner.

The greater number of the leaders of the fur trade were properly to be called Western-born citizens. A few exceptions to this rule are worthy of note. John Jacob Astor was the first of the Eastern merchants to send out a commercial expedition into the far West; but really the first notable Eastern explorer personally to engage in exploring the head waters of distant Western rivers was Nathaniel J. Wyeth, of Massachusetts, who, in 1832, led the first continuous expedition from New England to the mouth of the Columbia, a man whose pluck and energy deserved a better fate than he encountered. It was this same Wyeth who, in 1834, founded one of the first establishments west of the Rockies, that Fort Hall, often mentioned in the story of the fur trade, which was afterward sold to the Hudson Bay Company. Fort Hall was a trading post of much note in earlier times, and it is of interest to us at this juncture, in view of the fact that it was located on that great roadway later to be trod by thousands of feet that had begun their journey farther to the eastward than the valley of the Mississippi-the roadway to be known as the Oregon trail.

There was early need for a trail to Oregon. The first of the hardy trappers of the Northwest told us about Oregon; and had we heeded them, we might to-day have an Oregon of continuous American territory running north to Alaska. Our trappers offered us this empire. Our "leaders" lost it for us. As it was, we nearly lost what Oregon we have to Great Britain and her own hardy trappers. Wyeth and his friends brought back word to the East, which at last the ever hesitating, ever doubting Eastern men believed. At last we summoned together our senses, our halting diplomacy, with the result that we kept our marches intact to the Western sea. This we were able to do simply because of the individual search that had been going on for the head waters of the Western streams, because the Western men had already made for us that Oregon trail, which gave us touch with the far-off American provinces beyond the Rockies.

To-day, to the average resident of the Middle West, Oregon seems farther away than California; but up to the middle of the last century it was much nearer and much better known; and it was so solely because, under the existing conditions of travel, it was more accessible. The Santa Fé trail did not go to California. The Oregon trail did go to Oregon, and over a plain and easy route.

The Oregon trail left the Missouri River, as did the Santa Fé trail, at that early citadel of the trade of the West, the town of Independence. It followed up the ancient valley of the Platte, immemorial highway of the tribes, and led to the head waters of many streams now historic, even then long familiar to many of our early trappers and traders.

We have heard of Andrew Henry, whose name was given to a beautiful lake of the Rockies, as well as to a once famous trading post across the range, the lieutenant whose man, Etienne Provost, probably discovered the South Pass. We know of the trader Jackson, one of General Ashley's bold mountain family, whose name was left to the beautiful valley below the Yellowstone Park, called even to-day Jackson's Hole. We have heard of the wanderings of Campbell, Fitzpatrick, Sublette, of Jim Bridger, and of General Ashley himself, prince of early mountain traders, father of a bold crew of young successors. We shall presently speak of Bonneville and his northern wagons, and of Bonneville's man Walker, bigger than himself. We must also trace a part of the march of the first land party to cross this continent, the Astorians, whose broken journeyings down the Snake and Columbia made part of the earliest trail-history of the West.

All these different leaders and individuals had much to do with the Oregon trail; the trail that was the road of the adventurers, and also the first real road to the Pacific for that traveler properly to be called the home-seeking man. The Missouri River would do for Manuel Lisa and General Ashley and Major Henry, and the Sublettes, and the Chouteaus, and all those others that held the scores of trading posts which dotted the upper waters of the Missouri and the Yellowstone. The Missouri River and its tributaries gave them their natural roadways; but all these scattered posts, all this devious ancient roadway of the waters, lay far to the northward, on the upper curve of a great arc, the winding way traced out by Lewis and Clark, the way of the up-stream wanderers. The streams ever appealed to explorers. Any man going into unknown country instinctively clings to the waterways, near which he always feels safer. Yet it was the way between and across the streams that spoke most loudly to those settlers that came to stay, to till the soil, who brought with them household goods, who brought ax and plow as well as trap and rifle. The ancient highway for footmen and horsemen, which ran up the valley of the Platte River, extended out along the chord of this great Missouri River arc, along the string of this vast bended bow.

The string of this great bow ran four degrees of latitude to the south of the upper curve of the Missouri. Evidently the line of the bow-string was the better way to the Pacific; the more especially since itself followed for so great a distance another preordained pathway of the waters-that of the river Platte, ancient road of the Indian tribes. It was within natural reason, therefore, that the travelers should break away, should leave the upper waterway and start directly overland. This came to pass because there were now horses to be obtained in the West. We are now come to the time of horse transportation; which was the beginning of the day of travel across the streams.

Along this great trail crossing the waters men bent their steps toward Oregon and California, men from the banks of the Missouri, from Illinois, and now even from far-off New England-where at last they had learned the "easy way West" and had begun to travel, as their friends to the southward had been doing for so many years. Thus, then, began the great Oregon trail, this road that might, with justice, have been called an open highway when Frémont "explored" the Rockies, albeit a highway almost unsettled, as it is to-day over much of its length, though peopled thick with mighty memories. The Mormons, the Missourians, the men bound for the placers of Montana, the valleys of California, or the warm slopes of the Oregon ranges-all these helped wear deep into the earth the old roadway, once clear-cut and unmistakable for more than two thousand miles west of that Missouri River which was the first route out into the ulterior West.

It may profit us to fix in sequence a few simple facts in the study of the development of this great trail. At the start, of course, we come to our Frenchman De la Verendrye, who may perhaps have been the first to tread a portion of the later Oregon trail; since we know he forsook the Missouri and started overland, possibly up the Platte, crossing some of the country which the Astorians later saw. We hear also of the trapper Ezekiel Williams[36] in 1807, and some of the advance guards of the Missouri Fur Company, who were cutting loose from the Missouri River, and who were naturally looking for the easiest land routes. Then came Wilson Price Hunt, with his overland Astorians, seeking a way from the mid-Missouri River to the Columbia River.

These established the course of the Oregon trail west of the Rockies, but did not trace it so distinctly on the east of that range. Later Robert Stuart and the returning Astorians were to mark out, east of the Divide, the route of the Oregon trail for much of its length. Then came Ashley, who went up the Platte and across the South Pass; and after Ashley came scores of other flap-hatted trappers and traders, all of whom rode, we may be sure, along the easiest ways; which meant the Sweetwater and the South Pass after the Platte was left behind. These followed the route of the Oregon trail for the compelling reason of topography. Now came Bonneville and his wagons to deepen the trail, in 1832; and two years later than that, in 1834, Robert Campbell and William Sublette built old Fort Laramie, on Laramie Creek, a branch of the Platte.[37] This establishment went far toward developing the Oregon trail into a regular route. It became a well known trading center, so that all the trappers and many Indians rounded up there; and in the days of the emigrants, soon to come, thousands of weary travelers aided in marking deeply the now unmistakable and open roadway that lay across the Rockies.

So practicable was this post of Fort Laramie, and so practicable also the route on which it was located, that in 1849 the United States government bought the old post, and used it as a military establishment, so adding to its long and exciting history. Eight years after the building of Fort Laramie, Fort Bridger was built by Jim Bridger, on a branch of the Green River, over the Divide, farther out to the west, along what had now come to be a universally accepted highway.

Jim Bridger, possibly the first discoverer of Great Salt Lake, was, by the year 1842, ready to admit that the old days were over and done with. No more trapping for Jim Bridger. The West was gone. He must thenceforth feed Mormons, or guide government officers in their "explorations." Bridger gave up the West as a squeezed orange at just the time Frémont was starting out to make his name as the "Pathfinder" of the Rockies. Frémont, and all the other explorers of so late a period, went west as far as the head waters of the Green River over the Oregon trail,-a road a man could have followed in the dark.

The Mormons took over Fort Bridger in 1853, not liking so stable a Gentile institution thus near to their realm; but the Mormons forgot that they could not wipe out the trail that led to Bridger's old log fortress. The trail brought on an ever-growing stream of travel. In time Fort Bridger, too, became an army post, and remained such from 1857 till 1890. Since the latter date it has been abandoned. We go to Europe to seek for interesting ruins, forgetting Laramie and Bridger and Benton, all spots with significant and thrilling histories.

As to the great trail of the Northwest, considered as a transcontinental trail properly so called, its second stage might be said to begin in 1834,[38] when it was first used as a route straight through to Oregon. After that date the parties of emigrants steadily grew in numbers, among them not only men from Missouri, but farther to the east.

In 1836 there occurred a great and wonderful thing. Two women moved out into the West along the Oregon trail. We keep record of the times when wagons first went up the Platte, and we shall do well also to note this date of 1836, when women of the white race first went over the national road of the West. These two were the wives of Whitman and Spalding, missionaries bound for Oregon. Father de Smet, great man and good, a missionary also, followed in 1840; then more missionaries from New England-always prolific of missionaries; and two years later Frémont, as far at least as the South Pass. Then came the Mormons in 1847, bound for their kingdom of Deseret, and the Oregon Battalion in the same year; these followed soon thereafter by a continuous stream made up of thousands of trappers and explorers and visitors and gold seekers, who began to crowd West after '49 and the discovery of gold. Those were busy times in the West, we may be sure. The Oregon trail grew deep and wide. No traveler on the north and south line could cross it without being aware of that fact. It was the plain, main-traveled road.

The first agricultural invasion along the old trail might be said to be that of the Mormons, who sent delegations from their settlements to occupy the Green River valley, and who used the trail for a short way. General Albert Sidney Johnston used it for many more miles, when he went out to take care of some of these Mormons, now grown obstreperous.

Even so late as this we are many years in advance of the railways; which indeed do not even to-day occupy the old Oregon trail throughout its entire length, though using much of it on both sides of that easy South Pass country, once so useful to the trappers and wagon travelers, but not so essential to railway engineers looking for more direct lines across the wastes. Perhaps we shall some day see a line of rails follow throughout the two thousand miles of this ancient trail. Even so, our American tourists would still go to Europe in search of ruins and history and memories! We know and care all too little now for this old trail, whose earliest travelers were called by the California Indians the "Whoa-haws"-that being the word most used by the aforesaid emigrants, who had pushed their ox-teams across half a continent. Significant term, this "Whoa-haw" title, though we have now forgotten it.

The emigran

ts of to-day do not go by the "Whoa-haw" route. On February twelfth of the year 1902, between fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred land hunters left the city of Chicago for the country of the Northwest. Two-thirds of these came from the crowded East, the remaining third, for the most part, from the crowded West of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, now grown very old.

A common carrier, responsible as such for the life and goods of these emigrants, agreed to take them from Chicago to the city of Portland, on the extreme western end of that Oregon trail, for the price per head of thirty dollars. The old "Whoa-haw" route once demanded a year of time and a heart of steel, as part of the essential capital of the traveler, and demanded also that he take his own chances and foot his own losses, which, in the nature of things, might be considerable.

It was expected by one railroad in the year 1902 that it would, within the term of twelve months, carry out fifty thousand persons to settle in the Northwest coast country. There you have the old way and the new. There you have a part of the history of a country two thousand miles west of the Mississippi valley, which even Thomas Jefferson accepted as the very farthest edge of the region that could ever be called America! This is the story of a land that even Thomas Benton, a big man, and always a friend of the West, really in his own conscience thought could never, by any possibility, extend its national and civilized limits west of the Rockies! This is the record of a region which, in the beginnings of the Oregon trail, our ablest men of letters and of statecraft thought could never be aught but the home of wandering tribes of savages! Truly the great men of to-day might profitably learn humility from a study of the things which the American people have done in spite of leaders. Ah! Daniel Webster, and many other Daniels of the little East, could you come to life to-day, what would be your oratory?

Francis Parkman, sometimes querulous, often supercilious, but ever beautiful and splendidly accurate historian of the beginnings of the American West, visited the Oregon trail in 1846, twelve years after Kit Carson had practically ceased to trap beaver, and four years after the first Frémont expedition.[39] He says: "Emigrants from every part of the country were preparing for the journey to Oregon and California;" and adds, "An unusual number of traders were outfitting for the Northwest;" as well as many Mormons. This was before the discovery of gold in California. Independence, the outfitting point, was at the threshold of the later West, the beginning of the way to the Pacific.[40]

Parkman states in the preface to a later edition of his work (1872): "We knew that a few fanatical outcasts were groping their way across the plains to seek an asylum from Gentile persecution, but we did not dream that the polygamous hordes of Mormon would rear a swarming Jerusalem in the bosom of solitude itself. We knew that, more and more, year after year, the trains of the emigrant wagons would creep in slow procession toward barbarous Oregon or wild California, but we did not dream, how Commerce and Gold would breed nations along the Pacific, the disenchanting screech of locomotives break the spell of weird mysterious mountains. . . . The wild cavalcade that defiled with me down the gorges of the Black Hills, with its paint and war plumes, fluttering trophies and savage embroidery, bows, arrows, lances and shields, will never be seen again."

In no way could Parkman have been more just or thoughtful than in one of his chance statements. "All things are relative," said he. "The West is either very old or very new, according as we look at it." From the one point of view he might feel a superiority of his own, for as he traveled over the country a few days' march west of Leavenworth he saw many antlers of elk and skulls of buffalo, "reminders of the animals once swarming over this now deserted region." This intervening country between the Missouri River and the plains proper he considers to serve the popular notion of the "prairie." "For this it is," he writes, "from which tourists, painters, poets and novelists, who have seldom penetrated farther, derived their conception of the whole region." There was fell stroke of unwitting justice! Even to-day there are artists and novelists that deal with the West, but have "seldom penetrated farther" than the edge of the real West.

Parkman himself saw the old trail fairly well dotted with the outfits of the west-bound emigrants. He describes the difficulties then existing between the Mormons and their enemies, and the suspicions of the one party against the other. He saw one party of fifty wagons, with "hundreds of cattle," on his way up the Platte. Far out to the West, on that Horse Creek so frequently mentioned in the history of the mountain trappers' rendezvous, he witnessed a party of Indian women and children bathing in the stream, while meantime "a long train of emigrants with their heavy wagons was crossing the creek, and dragging on in slow procession by the encampment of the people whom they and their descendants, in the space of a century, are to sweep from the face of the earth." This was toward the headwaters of the Platte, of course, not far from that Fort Laramie where he met the grandsons of Daniel Boone, still going West, even unto the third and fourth generation. "Great changes are at hand," says he, "great changes are at hand in all that region. With the stream of emigration to Oregon and California the buffalo will dwindle away. . . . In a few years the traveler will pass in tolerable security." This was the utmost prophecy of one of the most intelligent and philosophical travelers that ever went from the East into the West!

Yet one of the most vivid conceptions possible of the history of that day, as bearing on the strange impulse that seemed to drive these wanderers west and ever westward, may be gained from a passage of Parkman's "Oregon Trail." "It is worth noticing," says he, "that on the Platte one may sometimes see the shattered wrecks of ancient claw-footed tables, well waxed and rubbed, or massive bureaus of carved oak. These, some of them no doubt the relics of ancestral prosperity in colonial times, must have encountered strange vicissitudes. Brought, perhaps, originally from England; then, with the declining fortunes of their owners, borne across the Alleghanies to the wilderness of Ohio or Kentucky; then to Illinois or Missouri; and now at last fondly stowed away for the interminable journey to Oregon. But the stern privations of the way are little anticipated. The cherished relic is thrown out to scorch and crack on the hot prairie." What a world of suggestion there lies in this chance picture of the desert-what a world of American history it covers! Perhaps one day the American people will come to take interest in a past so curious and so striking as its own.

There was a time when every Western man, still restless, still unsettled, still under the mysterious west-bound impulse, thought in terms of Oregon and California. No wall could have stopped these men. No political doctrine could have restrained them. As well try to regulate the sweep of the tides of ocean, equally mysterious, equally irresistible. This great road of the prairies and the mountains, more than two thousand miles long, and level, smooth and easy, even though it crossed a continental divide-this unengineered triumph of engineering-lay directly at hand as the natural pathway of the American people. It was the longest highway of the world, unless that may be the trail of the convicts of Siberia, to reach whose terminus in the fullness of time this great trail of the American freemen seems to have been devised. It was the route of a national movement-the emigration of a people "seeking to avail itself of opportunities that have come but rarely in the history of the world, and will never come again."

As has been stated, the overland trail to Oregon began, as did the Santa Fé trail, at the town of Independence, on the Missouri River. The two trails were the same for forty-one miles, when, as the able historian of the fur trade remarks, a simple sign board was seen which carried the words, "Road to Oregon."[41] The methods of these old men were very direct and simple. There was small flourish about this little board, whose mission was to point the way across these miles of wild and uninhabited country! There were branch trails that came into the road from Leavenworth and St. Joseph, striking it above the point of departure from the Santa Fé trail; but the Oregon trail proper swung off from this fork, running steadily to the northwest, part of the time along the Little Blue River, until at length it struck the valley of the Platte, which was so essential to its welfare. The distance from Independence to the Platte was three hundred and sixteen miles, the trail reaching the Platte "about twenty miles below the head of Grand Island." The course thence lay up the Platte valley to the two fords, about at the Forks of the Platte, four hundred and thirty-three or four hundred and ninety-three miles.

Here at the Forks was a point of departure in the old days. If one chose to follow the South Fork of the Platte, he might bring up in the Bayou Salade, within reach of the Spanish settlements and the head of the Arkansas, as we may see in reading of La Lande and of Purcell and of Ashley, and of the later traders; or he might take the other arm and come out on the edge of the continental Divide much higher up to the north.

The Oregon trail followed the South Fork for a time, then swung over to the North Fork, at Ash Creek, five hundred and thirteen miles from Independence. It was six hundred and sixty-seven miles to Fort Laramie, which was the last post on the eastern side of the Rockies. Thence the trail struggled on up the Platte, keeping close as it might to the stream, till it reached the Ford of the Platte, well up toward the mountains, and seven hundred and ninety-four miles out from Independence-nearly the same distance from that point as was the city of Santa Fé on the lower trail.

Yet a little farther on and the trail forsook the Platte and swung across, eight hundred and seven miles out from the Missouri, to the valley of the Sweetwater, now an essential feature of the highway. The famous Independence Rock, eight hundred and thirty-eight miles from Independence, was one of the most noteworthy features along the trail. It marked the entrance into the Sweetwater district, and was a sort of register of the wilderness, holding the rudely carved names of many of the greatest Western venturers, as well as many of no consequence. The Sweetwater takes us below the foot of the Bighorns, through the Devil's Gate, and leads us gently up to that remarkable crossing of the Rockies known as the South Pass, a spot of great associations. This is nine hundred and forty-seven miles from the Missouri River. Here all the west-bound voyagers felt that their journey to the Pacific was well-nigh completed, though as a matter of fact it was not yet half done. This Western geography, of which most of us know so little, was a tremendous thing in the times before the railways came.

Starting now down the Pacific side of the Great Divide, the traveler passed over a hundred and twenty-five miles of somewhat forbidding country, crossing the Green River before he came to Fort Bridger, the first resting point west of the Rockies, ten hundred and seventy miles from the Missouri. This was a delightful spot in every way, and the station was always welcomed by the travelers. The Bear River was eleven hundred and thirty-six miles from Independence, and to the Soda Springs, on the big bend of the Bear, was twelve hundred and six miles. Thence one crossed over the height of land between the Bear and the Port Neuf rivers, the latter being Columbia water; and, at a distance of twelve hundred and eighty-eight miles from Independence, reached the very important point of Fort Hall, the post established and abandoned by the Easterner, Nathaniel Wyeth. This was the first point at which the trail struck the Snake River, that great lower arm of the Columbia, which came dropping down from its source opposite the headwaters of the Missouri, as though especially to point out the way to travelers, just as the South Fork of the Platte led to the Spanish Southwest. There lay our pathways, waiting ready for us!

At the Raft River was another point of great interest; for here turned aside the arm of the transcontinental trail that led to California. This fork of the road was thirteen hundred and thirty-four miles from the Missouri.[42] Working as best it might from the Raft River, down the Great Snake valley, touching and crossing and paralleling several different streams, the trail ran until it reached the Grande Ronde valley, at the eastern edge of the difficult Blue Mountains, and seventeen hundred and thirty-six miles from the starting point. The railway to-day crosses the Blues where the old trail did. Then the route struck the Umatilla, and shortly thereafter the mighty Columbia, the "Oregon" of the poet, and a stream concerning which we were not always so placid as we are to-day. It was nineteen hundred and thirty-four miles to the Dalles, nineteen hundred and seventy-seven miles to the Cascades, two thousand and twenty miles to Fort Vancouver, and twenty-one hundred and thirty-four miles to the mouth of the Columbia; though the trail proper terminated at Fort Vancouver-the same post, as we shall see, for which the hero Jedediah Smith headed when he was in such dire distress, in the mountains of southwest Oregon.[43]

This was the way to the Pacific, the trail across the Rockies, the appointed path of the heroes that ventured forth into the unknown lands, as well as of the men that followed them safely in later days. It was but a continuation of the way to the Missouri, of the way across the Alleghanies, a part of the path of the strange appointed pilgrimage of the white race in America.

* * *

[36]

Said to have been the first white man to cross the borders of what is now Wyoming.

[37]

Again our useful date of 1834.

[38]

Pray you yet again, remember this great American date of 1834, and you shall be quit of all others, all those telling of wars and politics. That was the year when the beaver trapping ceased to be profitable, when the trappers came in, when the wild West began to become the civilized West. This date, remembered philosophically, will prove of the utmost service in retaining a connected idea of the settlement of the West. It has bearings both upon the past and upon the future. It is a milestone marking the parting of the ways.

[39]

One of Parkman's men, the hunter Raymond, perished in the ill-fated Frémont third expedition, among the snows of the lofty mountains far below the South Pass.

[40]

V. also Chapter II, Vol. III; "The Santa Fé Trail."

[41]

Footnote A: Chittenden.

[42]

The later California trail passed farther to the south, along the upper end of the Great Salt Lake, leaving the main trail at the upper bend of the Bear, to the east of Fort Hall.

[43]

V. Chapter IV, Vol. III; "Early Explorers of the Trans-Missouri."

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