Trials of the Trail

by J.R. Mitchell
June 28, 1844

James W. Nesmith intended to be part of the 100 person wagon train that embarked in 1842, but arrived in Independence, Missouri after the company had left. Nesmith spent the next year working as a carpenter building Fort Scott, and was ready to set out on the trail in 1843 with a company that would soon become the biggest train to Oregon thus far, measuring at around 1000 people.1

Once on the trail, travellers face river crossing, four weather, and buffalo herds, as well as dangers within their own wagon train. Though not for the faint of herd, the Overland Trail offers the promise of new land in a chiefly unpopulated area, where many may head to start anew.

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Photograph of the Oregon Buttes

William Newby, along with his family, left with that same group in 1843, and has, like Nesmith, documented the journey. After only four days, on May 25, the group reached the Caw River, which took six days to cross, and one boat sank, offering a rough start to a long trip2. On June 8, the group of 1000 split into two groups after some minor conflicts. One, the Cow Column, travelled a little slower, and the other, the Light Column, consisted of emigrants who had little to no cattle, and did not want to participate in the additional work needed to manage the cattle, and moved a little faster. The two columns did stay within reasonable distance to each other to provide aid to any Indian attacks.3 The journey started out with major struggles within the first two weeks, and yet the company continued on in full knowledge of the challenges ahead.

In 1836, Marcus Whitman and Henry H. Spalding, two missionaries, travelled the Overland Route to to Oregon with their wives. Their successful journey proved that the crossing of the continent is possible, and could be repeated. Over the next few years, missionaries and explorers have been reporting back of the fertile and spacious land in the West.4 Reverend Elijah White led a group of around 100 people in 1842, the first instance of mass emigration to Oregon territory.5

The trail itself is over 2,000 miles long, in which many travellers walk the entire distance, only resting when absolutely necessary, sick, or injured. River crossings are abundant, and water sometimes is scarce or unfit to drink, and the mountain passes are dangerous and provide an extreme challenge to many.6

I find James Nesmith’s words from July 4th on the trail particularly good at capturing the spirit of the trail. “Occasionally you hear something said about mint julips, soda, ice cream, cognac, port, ale and sherry wine, but the Oregon emigrant must forget those luxuries and, for a time, submit to hard fare, and put up with truly cold-water celebrations, such as we have enjoyed to-day, namely, drinking cold water and wading and swimming in it all day. This ought to satisfy any cold-water man.7

Within the wagon trains, dangers were less than the exterior hazards, though still evident in instances such as stray gunshots. But on July 18th, as recorded in William Newby’s diary, Joel Hembree, child of Joel J. Hembree, who was travelling with his father, mother, and five siblings, a child of perfectly good health fell from the wagon tongue and was run over by the wheels. Hembree died the next day.8 On July 20, 1843, Joel Hembree was buried and Newby engraved the headstone. Later that day, Nesmith, a leader within his party, came across the grave, describing it as “a fresh grave with stones piled over it, and a note tied on a stick, informing us that it was the grace of Joel Hembree, child of Joel J. Hembree, aged six years, and was killed by a wagon running over its body. At the head of the grave stood a stone containing the name of the child, the first death that had occurred on the expedition.9” Unlike past expeditions, this company, with its massive numbers, is spread out enough that communication between members is minimal, and various happenings aren’t necessarily communicate between the parties, and the two columns, resulting in such gaps in information: Nesmith hadn’t heard of Hembree’s condition until after he died, despite having been in critical condition for a day, and dead for another.

A perceived danger on the trail likes in the Indians, and their potential to attack travellers, yet Newby records a few encounters, all friendly.10 Some pioneers note that a mass of shadowy figures on the horizon could be a flock of crows, a head or buffalo, or even Indians, all at varying differences, and need to be identified quickly as they are all addressed differently. If buffalos, a hunting party may set out to bring back food and hides for their company.11

William Newby notes that on August 23, they saw around 100 Snake Indians, with whom they traded for horses, skins, and other various items. These Indians were the first that had been seen since the Pawnee Indians on June 17.12 During Newby’s journey, the Indians did not play as much of a role as expected. In late October, in Oregon Territory, near a location called The Dalles, the Indians allowed Newby’s party to stay at one of their encampments for a night.13 The Indians on the trail currently aren’t posing a threat, which is good news for anyone wanting to make the journey.

The first major river crossing is the Platte River, which was reached on July 1. The day before, Newby’s party had killed two buffalo and skinned them for their hides, which would be used to make boats.14 On July 2, the party made two boats by sewing together hides and stretching those over a wagon bed, which was then dried in the sun and covered with tallow and ashes, but it was soon discovered that with those boats, a passage would have taken weeks. In lieu of that, Newby and a few others swam around the river to find a ford, and the next day the party forded the river, which at some places was said to be as deep as would reach the middle of a wagon bed.15

Nesmith’s experience with the Platte involved a much longer crossing in addition to having recorded a good account of the resources around the Platte. “The water in taste resembled a strong solution of salts, which rendered it unfit for use, in fact, all the water we have had except river water since we struck the Platte has been strongly impregnated with some mineral which is said to be salts and appears to have the effects of that medicine on the person who makes use of it. The ground in many places which are rather low is covered with a white substance which has a salty taste. Captain Gantt calls it sulphate of soda.16” Life on the trail is one in which the simplest of provisions can be easily warped to an unfamiliar state.

The Platte river provided a first major challenge, and the varying ways that parties and columns approached it show the variety of people who have decided to take on this challenge, in addition to showing some of the disconnect that surrounded the 1000 people. This disconnect, though at times seemingly detrimental and saddening, allowed for individual innovation within groups that increased the chances of overall success. Had Newby’s group been stuck at the crossing, they may not have made it. Other groups may have had success, but the Newby party was able to find another solution, only a possibility due to the fragmentation of the columns.

The Columbia River mark the last portion of the Overland Trail, as travellers boat down the sometimes turbulent water to their new home. Esther Hanna, a minister’s wife, writes that “Little did I think in my school days as I traced out this river, that ever I should stand upon its shorts or drink of its clear water! But so it is! Here am I after months of toil and fatigue, permitted to see this noble and far-famed river! … The water of this river is certainly the clearest and sweetest of any water I tasted.17

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Illustration of the Dalles, on the Columbia River

Later, she noted the sight of Indians trading forty-pound fish, and the awe that she and others had in sight of the Cascade Mountains.18 Those who chose to take the Columbia instead of the route through the Cascade Mountain pass will encounter the dangers of the rapid, potentially travelling only on Indian canoes. Newby’s party was stranded on a rock in the river after the canoe upset, leading them to need rescuing by a group of Indians.19

Travelling on the Overland Trail is a hazard to all who attempt the journey, and yet the number of emigrants is increasing, attesting to the value of the destinations. Undoubtedly, the Overland Trail allows citizen to attain new land and opportunities in what looks to be the future of America.


Notes

  1. Nesmith, James W. “Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 7, no. 4 (December 1906): 329-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20609704. 325
  2. Winton, Harry N. M. “William T. Newby’s Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 40, no. 3 (September 1939): 219-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20611196. 222
  3. Ibid, 222
  4. Lee, Mary, and Sidney Nolan. “Along the Oregon Trail.” Pioneer America 7, no. 1 (January 1975): 20-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29763545. 20
  5. Ibid, 20
  6. Flynn, Matthew J. “Oregon Trail.” In Native to Pyramid, edited by Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 6 of Dictionary of American History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.
  7. Nesmith, “Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” 337-38
  8. Winton, “William T. Newby’s Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” 226
  9. Nesmith, “Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” 341-42
  10. Winton, “William T. Newby’s Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” 231
  11. Applegate, Jesse. “A Day with the Cow Column in 1843.” The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 1, no. 4 (December 1900): 371-83. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20609477. 377
  12. Winton, “William T. Newby’s Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” 231
  13. Ibid, 240
  14. Ibid, 224
  15. Ibid, 225
  16. Nesmith, “Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” 336
  17. Edwards, G. Thomas. “The Oregon Trail in the Columbia Gorge, 1843-1855: The Final Ordeal.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 97, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 134-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20614728. 137
  18. Ibid, 137-38
  19. Winton, “William T. Newby’s Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” 240

Bibiography

Applegate, Jesse. “A Day with the Cow Column in 1843.” The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 1, no. 4 (December 1900): 371-83.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/20609477.

Edwards, G. Thomas. “The Oregon Trail in the Columbia Gorge, 1843-1855: The Final Ordeal.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 97, no. 2 (Summer 1996): 134-75.
http://www.jstor.org/stable/20614728.

Flynn, Matthew J. “Oregon Trail.” In Native to Pyramid, edited by Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 6 of Dictionary of American History. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003.

Lee, Mary, and Sidney Nolan. “Along the Oregon Trail.” Pioneer America 7, no. 1
(January 1975): 20-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29763545.

Nesmith, James W. “Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 7, no. 4 (December 1906): 329-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20609704.

Winton, Harry N. M. “William T. Newby’s Diary of the Emigration of 1843.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 40, no. 3 (September 1939): 219-42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20611196.

Works Consulted

Mowry, William A. “Marcus Whitman! Is the Story History or Tradition?” The Journal of Education 53, no. 4 (January 24, 1901): 52-53. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44052357.

“Oregon Trail.” In The New Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar. Rev. ed. New Haven, CT: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998.

Image Sources

A View on the Columbia River at the Commencement of the Dalles. Illustration. JSTOR.
Oregon Historical Society negatives. OrHi 81098

Oregon Buttes. Photograph. JSTOR.
Taken from South Pass

View on the Columbia River below the Dalles. Illustration. JSTOR.
Oregon Historical Society negatives. OrHi 85473

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