Free Emigrant Road – 1853

The Free Emigrant Road, a branch of the Oregon Trail, successfully opened a middle route across Oregon for emigrant travel from the Malheur River (Vale) to the southern Willamette Valley (Eugene).

Three different wagon trains made the attempt to cross by a middle route. The first, led by Stephen Meek in 1845, ended in disaster when the wagon train foundered in the desert before turning north for rescue at The Dalles. The second, led by Elijah Elliott in 1853, succeeded in crossing the desert, but became stranded in the Cascade Mountains for lack of a cleared wagon road and were rescued by a relief party from the settlements. The third attempt, led by William Macy in 1854, was finally successful in both crossing the desert and getting over the Cascades using the newly completed Free Emigrant Road.

Together, the three wagon trains that blazed the middle route brought some 2500 emigrants into Oregon. The routes they blazed, sometimes collectively called the Meek-Elliott-Macy Trail, were later used by gold seekers, freighters, the military, and settlers moving to central and eastern Oregon.

Historical Context
As settlers moved into the area surrounding Springfield and Eugene City in the early 1850s, residents realized that they needed a more direct route from the main stem of the Oregon Trail into the upper Willamette Valley. Over time, and as they came to know the land, settlers discovered Indian and trapper trails that crisscrossed the Cascades’ foothills. It seemed logical that the HBC trappers would have used a route that crossed the Cascades’ summit.

For months the project’s supporters talked about how and when to get a formal search started for that route. Residents of Willamette Forks took the lead and soon brought in folks from the Coburg area. Among them were John Diamond and William Macy.

Eager to get underway, the residents petitioned the Territorial legislature for funds to support the effort. Although the legislature encouraged the effort, they sent no funds. Undaunted, the settlers passed a hat around to collect contributions for a scouting effort. With funds and seven volunteers committed to the project, scouts set out in the early summer to find a pass through the Cascades. Eight years after Stephen Meek’s disastrous foray in search of a middle route across Oregon, the Road District of Benton, Lane, and Linn counties hired William Macy to lead a party called the “Viewers” to search for a road from Eugene City in the Willamette Valley to Fort Boise.

Preliminary efforts yielded nothing. In July, 1852, a second scouting expedition worked their way up the Cascades, climbed a mountain they christened Diamond Peak, and located a viable pass. As soon as possible, before the snow started falling, Macy and his companions set out. They traversed the new pass and followed an Indian trail toward the Deschutes River and the Bend area. From there, they continued eastward across the old Meek route. The Viewers spent about two weeks looking for gold along the Meek Cutoff through the Maury Mountains.

Near Harney Lake, the Viewers were attacked by a small party of Snake Indians. In the skirmish, the Viewers lost their notes, four horses, and several mineral specimens they collected along the way. Moreover, Macy, Diamond, and Clark were wounded. Still, they managed to reach the Oregon Trail near the Burnt River and met a physician on his way to Oregon, who treated the wounds as well as possible. The Viewers returned home along the Oregon Trail.

In spite of the difficulties they encountered, the Viewers knew that a mid-Cascade route was indeed feasible and that with more investment and a lot of work, the middle road could be opened. Although Macy thought it was reprehensible to charge poor emigrants a toll, the others joined parties traveling over the Barlow Road, paying toll charges as they went.

The Viewers quickly went to work, preparing a report for the legislature that suggested that $3000 would open the road from Eugene to the Deschutes River. After their previous attempt with the legislature, the road promoters were skeptical of receiving funding support from that body, but interest was spreading: residents of Benton and Douglas Counties wanted the new road, as well. Levi Scott (who was among the group that opened the Applegate Trail) and J. C. Avery of Marysville lent their support. The hat was passed again, this time to a wider group than before. Elijah Bristow of Pleasant Hill, for one, offered $240.

With seed money in hand, the promoters appointed an eight-man committee to plan the road, which would be open to everyone. Unlike the Barlow Road, this would be a free road — no tolls would be charged. Macy, Cady, and Asahel Spencer were elected commissioners to oversee the project. The Road District promptly hired Dr. Robert Alexander to construct the road. They would call it the Free Emigrant Road.

Elijah Elliott, the brother-in-law of a Pleasant Hill settler, had traveled to Oregon by way of California and claimed land east of Pleasant Hill. Elliott donated $30 to the road building effort and when the organizers learned that he was traveling back on the Oregon Trail to meet his family in Idaho, they encouraged, and possibly paid him, to lead the party back over the new road.

After crossing the Barlow Road, Elliott traveled on the Oregon Trail to Fort Boise where his family greeted him and others listened as he told about the new road. Elliott, having never seen the new road, left Fort Boise leading 215 wagons and followed the Oregon Trail to the point where it crossed the Malheur River. From there he turned west to follow Meek’s old road.

As with Meek’s effort over Oregon’s desert country, Elliott’s party wandered a bit — lost, confused, and growing angry. Elliott’s attempt to avoid the stagnant marshes the Meek group encountered carried the group south around the Malheur and Harney lakes. They went for long days without water (70 miles in one stretch) and their provisions dwindled steadily.

As they neared Silver Lake, arguments broke out among the emigrants and efforts were made to calm their fears of being stranded in the desert. A party of eight men was appointed to go ahead and alert settlers that a party was coming over the new road. As the advance group hurried ahead, the emigrants moved more slowly, arriving at the present location of Bend in October, 1853.

With the advance party out, Elliott still had scouting needs and formed a small contingent to locate the new road. No one knew that the road builders were working just miles away to get the road blazed on their own. Elliott’s second group of scouts located the road builders’ blazes near LaPine, three days after the builders turned back toward the Valley.

The emigrants had found their road, but it wasn’t what they anticipated or were promised. Elliott fully expected the road to be cleared; instead, the trees along the road had been felled but not cleared. Dr. Alexander had defaulted on his road building effort.

Still, the emigrants pushed on, following the blazed trees over the Cascade Mountains. As Elliott’s group traveled, winter snows settled over the Cascades. The emigrants were slowly starving in October’s freezing mountain temperatures. They were making decisions on their own. The route was littered with downed trees making any travel slow and arduous. Many wagons were left at the Pine Openings (10 miles above Hills Creek Dam), and a grave was dug there, too, for a woman was killed in a wagon accident near the present Hills Creek Reservoir.

After several days of crawling on hands and knees through thickets, climbing over logs, wading down streams, their provisions gave out and they were reduced to the necessity of living on snails and mice and anything they could lay their hands on. They at last reached the cabin of a settler who took them in and got on his horse to spread the news. There was not a moment’s delay in the efforts of the settlers and to furnish relief. All night they worked in getting together supplies and as soon as morning dawned a large pack train was on its way for their relief.

James Addison Bushnell, emigrant of 1852 whose family followed Elliott across the Free Emigrant Road in 1853

Earlier, when the main body of Elliott’s train crossed the Deschutes, one man in Elliott’s party, Martin Blanding, rode ahead. Near where Lowell, Oregon, is today, Blanding’s old gray mare went into labor and delivered a stillborn colt. Blanding prepared a fire and began roasting the colt. Settlers in the valley saw the smoke from his fire and, fearing Indians, hurried to investigate. When they found Blanding and learned from him of the plight of the rest of the emigrants, still miles away, the settlers mounted an all-out relief effort. Ninety-four pack animals and 23 loaded wagons were sent out to help the struggling emigrants. By October 19, near the camp on the Big Marsh Creek, the rescuers reached the first of Elliott’s desperate party. With the support of their welcoming neighbors, the emigrants completed their journey and settled into their new homes in the southern Willamette Valley.

Meanwhile, the advance party was having problems, too. Early in their effort, they mistook Three Sisters for Diamond Peak. They had no way of knowing that they had traveled too far north. They struggled across lava beds and down the McKenzie River, living on rodents and birds. While the relief party was making its way up the Middle Fork of the Willamette River to relieve Elliott’s group, the last of the lost advance party was rescued near Springfield.

In 1854, William Macy successfully led a train of 121 wagons along the route taken by Elliott. The road continued to be used through the 1860s, when the Central Oregon Military Road was established as a supply route from the Willamette Valley to the military posts situated in eastern Oregon. Although nearby, the Central Oregon Military Road crossed the Cascades south of the Free Emigrant Road. It angled south to the Klamath Marsh, passed Warner and Steens Mountains, and went on through the Jordan Valley to Idaho.

Altogether, Meek, Elliott, and Macy guided — for better or worse — nearly 500 wagons and 2500 people across the high desert and central Cascades into the Willamette Valley. In later years, the Oregon Trail cutoff they established was used by freighters, settlers, and the military.