The Applegate Trail

compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White
copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved
Oregon Trails Coordinating Council

The Applegate Trail is an alternate southern route of the Oregon Trail and was blazed from west to east, intersecting the California Trail at the Humboldt River. It is historically linked to the Oregon Trail in that it was developed as an alternative route into Oregon that avoided the obstacles of the Burnt River Canyon, the Blue Mountains, and the Columbia River. After its opening, Oregonians used part of the Applegate Trail to travel back and forth to California’s gold fields. As designated by Congress under the National Trails System Act, the Applegate Trail is a branch of the California National Historic Trail.

Historical context

In 1843, Jesse and Lindsay Applegate, members of the first wave of Oregon Trail emigrants, watched helplessly as their ten-year-old sons drowned in the Columbia River when a boat overturned in rapids near The Dalles. The Applegates, like so many overland emigrants who lost loved one on the Trail, continued sadly toward the Willamette Valley.

The Applegate brothers vowed to find a better route into the Willamette Valley — one that bypassed the Columbia River altogether. The Provisional Government of Oregon also hoped an alternate route would be opened because the Hudson’s Bay Company essentially controlled the Columbia River corridor, and so controlled a significant segment of the only overland route connecting the American settlements with the United States. By 1846, after settling on Salt Creek (near present-day Dallas), the Applegate brothers felt the time was right to follow through on their commitment to search for a new route.

In mid-June, Jesse and Lindsay Applegate met with other trailblazers at La Creole Creek (today called Rickreall Creek) to prepare for the trip. Eleven of the party had scouted the route earlier in the year as far south as Calapooya Creek in the Umpqua River valley. Jesse Applegate was elected leader of the group which included Lindsay Applegate, Henry Boygus, Benjamin Burch, David Goff, Samuel Goodhue, Moses “Black” Harris, John Jones, Bennett Osborn, John Owens, William Parker, John Scott, Levi Scott, Robert Smith, and William Sportsman.

The fifteen men, each with their own saddle horse, packhorse and supplies, followed Hudson’s Bay Company trappers’ routes, working their way south from the central Willamette Valley to the Bear Creek Valley in southern Oregon. From there, the group knew they would be blazing an entirely new trail. Turning east, their plan was to intersect the Oregon Trail near Soda Springs (in present day Idaho). Instead they intersected the California Trail on the Humboldt River and continued eastward to meet emigrant parties and guide them onto the new route.

The trailblazers crossed the Cascade Mountains approximately where Oregon State Route 66 crosses today and then headed south around lower Klamath Lake. Local Indians led them to a natural crossing of Lost River where the water flowed over a shelf of solid rock, making a substantial natural underwater bridge that wagons could traverse safely. This bridge was the critical key to establishing a wagon road through the Lakes Country. After crossing Lost River, the party rounded the north end of Tule Lake and headed east again, eventually crossing the Black Rock Desert to reach the Humboldt River.

There, the trailblazers decided some of the party should stay behind to rest their stock while others continued on to Fort Hall to replenish supplies and tell Oregon-bound travelers of the new route. Jesse Applegate led the advance group to Fort Hall and persuaded more than 200 men, women, and children — some historians report nearly 100 wagons — to travel over the southern road.

The trailblazers who stayed behind could hardly believe their eyes when they saw the number of people, wagons, and cattle coming down the trail to meet them. There had been no attempt while the supply party was at Fort Hall to clear a road for wagons. The emigrants of the new wagon train would have to do that themselves.

Levi Scott and David Goff agreed to stay behind to guide the wagon train. Meanwhile, equipped with pack horses and a few tools, the trailblazers had about sixty days before winter storms set in to open more than 500 miles of road and to blaze the trail for the wagons. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-47 was a year of record snowfall, with heavy storms starting early. (These storms were the same ones that trapped the Donner Party heading over the Sierras not far south of where Scott was crossing the mountains with his wagon train.)

The wagon train did not move as fast as Scott would have liked. By the time the wagons reached the Rogue Valley, the winter rains had set in and from then on it rained or snowed most of the way. Supplies were running out and game was scarce. The trail had become harder to clear with brush and trees everywhere. The weather was cold and everything was slippery and muddy. Trying to start a fire to get warm was almost impossible. The emigrants were strung out for miles and Scott tried to persuade those who were stopped to keep moving because things could get worse. When word reached the Willamette settlements, relief parties headed down the trail to rescue those in need.

Although the trailblazers always referred to this route as the “Southern Road,” critics such as J. Quinn Thornton chose to belittle the Applegates’ name by referring to it as the “Applegate Trail.” Thornton blamed Jesse Applegate for hardships members of the first wagon train endured and felt that Applegate should suffer for what the emigrants endured. Thornton began a war of words through the newspaper that nearly led to a duel between him and an Applegate supporter, James Nesmith. Although people such as Levi Scott and David Goff supported the Applegates, remnants of those hard feelings survive to the present day among some of the descendants of survivors of the ’46 wagon train.

Despite its detractors, the Applegates’ alternate route through Oregon contributed substantially to the development of the Northwest. At the urging of the provisional government, Levi Scott agreed to return over the Southern Road to Fort Hall in 1847 to lead additional emigrants back over the new route. In doing this, Scott made noticeable improvements to the route. In 1848 with the discovery of gold in California, Peter Hardeman Burnett led 150 pioneers with fifty heavily laden wagons from Oregon City over the Applegate Trail going south to the gold fields. They were followed a few days later by a smaller group of men and wagons from north of the Columbia River. Intersecting Peter Lassen’s wagon tracks south of Tule Lake, Burnett’s cavalcade helped Lassen blaze a new trail to his rancho in the Sacramento Valley, establishing the first route for wheeled vehicles between the valleys of California and Oregon. This remained a major wagon route for more than a decade. In 1852, a group blazed a trail off the Applegate route south of lower Klamath Lake to the Yreka area; this trail was used for many years to help populate that part of northern California.

Of the three brothers Applegate who emigrated to Oregon — Charles, Lindsay, and Jesse — Jesse was the dominant member of the clan. He was a college graduate, school teacher, and surveyor. After being turned down by William Sublette as a member of his fur company, he took a job as Deputy Surveyor General of Missouri and farmed along with his brothers in western Missouri. Times were hard… In 1842, Jesse sold a steamboat load of bacon and lard for $100. The curing salt alone had cost him $150, and the steamboat used the bacon as fuel for its boilers.

A good friend of Jesse’s named Robert Shortess emigrated to Oregon in 1840. Shortess wrote letters back to Applegate singing the praises of the Oregon Country. While Shortess was helping to build the Oregon Provisional Government, Jesse was protesting his neighbors’ practice of owning slaves and advertising his family’s intent to migrate to Oregon in the spring of 1843. True to Jesse’s word, three of the five Applegate brothers sold their farms and bought several hundred head of cattle, the largest herd among the more than 5000 head of livestock believed to have accompanied the Oregon Trail emigrants of 1843. They followed the promoter Peter Burnett, who told tall tales about Oregon to drum up excitement — including one which described fully-cooked pigs running around the forest with knives and forks already stuck into them for the convenience of hungry settlers.

During the second day on the Trail, an argument arose during a river crossing and Peter Burnett’s leadership was challenged. The next day, he was replaced as Captain of the wagon train by Rev. David Lenox. Within a week, the Great Migration of 1843 broke into two parties over the issue of whether the livestock would slow the emigrants enough to risk running into winter weather in the western mountains. Reverend Lenox was elected captain of the “light column,” consisting of those emigrants who had no more than three head of loose stock (milk cows, for the most part). The “cow column” was headed by newly-elected captain Jesse Applegate. Despite the fears of those in the light column, the cow column was able to keep a steady pace, following about half a day behind.

The Applegate brothers left their guide Marcus Whitman at his mission in southern Washington and then abandoned their wagons at Fort Walla Walla. They spent several weeks sawing lumber and building flat boats before departing for Fort Vancouver via the Columbia River on November 1, 1843.

Near The Dalles, tragedy struck the Applegate clan. “Whirlpools looking like deep basins in the river, the lapping, splashing, and rolling of waves… Presently there was a wail of anguish, a shriek, and a scene of confusion in our boat that no language can describe. The boat we were watching disappeared and we saw the man and boys struggling in the water.” Eleven year old Elisha and nine year old Warren Applegate were drowned. Lindsay and Jesse each lost a child to the river; Lindsay later wrote that, “We resolved if we remained in the country, to find a better way for others who might wish to emigrate.”

The Applegates were not alone in wishing to find a new road through the Cascade Mountains, as the Columbia River route was dangerous and not well suited for bringing livestock into the Willamette Valley. The experiences of the emigrants of 1844 were no better than the 1843 parties, and in 1845 an entire family drowned while attempting to travel down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver. In the wake of this tragedy, Jesse Applegate later recalled that, “The whole community were again aroused to the necessity of finding a remedy for an evil so distressing and calamitous.”

The first efforts to find an alternate route through the Cascade Mountains were made in 1845, when Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer scouted the route of the Barlow Road and Elijah White, who had lost two children to the Columbia River, himself, explored down the length of the Willamette Valley in the hope of finding a low pass through the Cascades. White’s expedition was a failure, and while the Barlow Road was safer than the Columbia River route, it was arguably the single worst stretch of road on the entire Oregon Trail. Other, smaller expeditions were mounted during the summer of 1845, but none discovered a suitable pass for a wagon road over the Cascade Mountains.

Probably the best known of these other expeditions was the Lost Meek Party that followed guide Stephen Meek on an untried route through the high desert. They left the Oregon Trail and the Malheur River and headed due west across central Oregon. By the time the party reached the Deschutes River, they were hopelessly lost, fighting among themselves, and had split into two groups. They eventually straggled into The Dalles, and the route they sought over the central Cascades was opened nine years later, in 1854, by the efforts of Elijah Elliot and William Macy. However, the Free Emigrant Road — so called because there was no toll charged for its use — was little used.

1845 was a high point for American patriotism. James K. Polk had been elected president on the jingoistic slogan, “Fifty-four forty or fight!” and in his inaugural address, he declared it was his duty “to assert and maintain … the rights of the United States to that portion of our territory which lies beyond the Rocky Mountains.” Meanwhile in Oregon, Jesse Applegate was serving as a representative from Yamhill County in the legislature of the Provisional Government, where he actively promoted two pieces of legislation. The first created Polk county around Applegate’s land claim on Rickreall Creek. The county seat of Dallas was named for Vice-President George M. Dallas. Jesse’s other legislation authorized him to survey a southerly route into the Willamette Valley, avoiding the Columbia River which, at the time, seemed likely to become the US-Canadian border in Oregon. Daniel Waldo, one of Jesse’s fellow emigrants from the Great Migration of 1843, was given the task of outfitting the road-hunting expedition.

On March 30, 1846, the following item appeared in the Oregon Spectator, the first newspaper published in English west of the Rocky Mountains, under the headline OVER THE MOUNTAINS:

“The company to examine for a practicable wagon route from the Willamette valley to Snake river, will rendezvous at the residence of Nat. Ford, on the Rickreall, so as to be ready to start on the trip on the first day of next May.”

The first expedition failed as dissension arose and Jesse Applegate was elected to replace Levi Scott as Captain. Four men deserted as the group headed into territory populated by hostile Indians, forcing the others to turn back for fear that they would not be able to mount an adequate watch over their nightly campsites. On June 25, 1846, the Spectator reported that:

“Whilst on the one hand we learn with regret, that the company of road hunters which started from Polk county, has returned unsuccessful and discouraged; on the other, we are cheered with the intelligence, that another party … is forming, and will soon be prepared to start, under the command of an able and experienced pilot.”

It was learned from Peter Skene Ogden of the Hudson’s Bay Company that there was a low pass through the Cascades near Klamath Lake, and this was the goal of the June expedition. Jesse and Lindsay Applegate joined the company, and Jesse was elected to command it — in part because of this, his name stuck, and the route they opened became widely known as the Applegate Trail.

On June 22, 1846, before news of the failure of the Scott party was even in print, the fifteen explorers of the Applegate Party set out from Polk County into what maps called an “unexplored region.” Constantly watched by Indians, they traveled south, beyond the head of the Willamette Valley and up into the mountains. They broke out of the forest near Klamath Lake, crossed the Tule and Goose Lake valleys to northern California, and crossed Black Rock Desert to the Humboldt River where they picked up the California Trail from Fort Hall.

The explorers found a large wagon train gathered at Fort Hall and were able to persuade about 150 families to try the southern route. The bulk of them cut off from the Oregon Trail at the Raft River on August 9, 1846. Levi Scott and David Goff remained with the wagons to guide them while the brothers Applegate and the other road builders set out ahead to mark the trail. The Applegates arrived back at Rickreall on October 3. The first emigrants off the Southern Route, now also road builders, themselves, arrived six weeks later.

The emigrants found the trail through the desert to be hard going, but historian Hubert Howe Bancroft estimated that with the exception of a nasty stretch of trail across an alkali desert, grass, water, and wood were no more scarce on the Southern Route than on the main trunk of the Oregon Trail. The emigrants had no way of knowing this, however, and many of them blamed every dead ox and broken wagon wheel on misrepresentations made by the road builders regarding the ease of travel on the Southern Route.

Fourteen year old Henry Garrison described battles with hostile Indians, disappointment with Applegate for not improving the road, and a trading post where Applegate bilked the emigrants out of their last dollars. Constant complainer J. Quinn Thornton said, “having at various times upon the journey thrown away my property, I had little remaining save…the most valuable part of our wardrobe. We passed many wagons, that had been abandoned by their owners… [giving] the appearance of a defeated and retreating army,” and later compared the road builders to, “outlaws and banditti who during many years infested the Florida reefs, where they often contrived so to mislead vessels as to wreck them, when without scruple or ceremony, they, under various pretenses, would commence their work of pillage.” Thornton’s controversy with Applegate over the relief of the emigrants was carried on for almost a year in the pages of the Oregon Spectator, and to this day, some descendants of the 1846 emigrants who were lured into trying the Southern Route still bear a grudge against the Applegate clan.

After dealing with hostile Indians, an inadequately surveyed route, and the difficulties of the terrain itself, the emigrants were faced with the final push through the Cascade Mountains. Until a bypass was found, the first climb into the eastern Cascades required ascending a slope so steep as to require as many as two dozen oxen to haul a loaded wagon to the top. The leading wagons were delayed by the need to chop their way through trees and underbrush that had not been cleared by the road builders, and the wagons that had fallen to the rear of the column — which by this time was stretched out in small groups over more than 50 miles — were in such sorry shape that when they reached the valley of the Rogue River, they rested there until the winter rains set in and forced them to move on. The remainder of their journey was exquisitely miserable, as the creeks came up and no one was ever again dry until they finally reached the settlements in the Willamette Valley. Some, including J. Quinn Thornton and his wife, were forced to abandon their wagons and possessions, arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs.

The plight of these stragglers eventually became known to the settlers in the valley, and a pack train was sent to meet them. The relief column included Henry Garrison’s uncle, who had emigrated two years earlier and was expecting Henry and his family. They met the emigrants at the North Umpqua River on November 14th and conducted them safely to the Willamette Valley. About a dozen emigrant families were trapped in the valley of the Umpqua River until January or February, when they were able to resume the journey with their wagons and surviving livestock.

Despite all this, the route scouted by Applegate’s party did have one thing in its favor: when gold was discovered in California in 1848, the Applegate Trail was used by Oregonians to get a head start on the 49ers coming from back East. They followed the Applegate Trail to Tule Lake and then the Lassen Cutoff to the Sacramento River. As they did not venture far into the interior desert, they found the route hard going, but tolerable. They certainly had an incentive to tolerate it, though.

The April 6, 1848, Oregon Spectator contained an article written by Jesse Applegate in which he gave details and mileage estimates along his southern road into Oregon. All of the estimates were short, and the details optimistic. The dry Southern Route was longer than the Columbia River road and accented by spiteful Indians, and it never became the emigrant highway into the Willamette Valley envisioned by the men who blazed it.

Although the trail fell into general disuse in 1848, it is firmly ensconced in the pioneer lore of the Pacific Northwest. There remains, however, some controversy over what to call it. The name “Applegate Trail” was cemented into the lexicon of Oregon history by Walter Meacham, director of the Oregon Council of the American Pioneer Trails Association, with the publication of a booklet he wrote entitled Applegate Trail in 1947. However, anti-Applegate descendants of the 1846 emigrants advocate “Southern Route” or “Scott-Applegate Trail,” instead; the role played by Levi Scott in the affair is downplayed by Meacham and elevated by the Polk County Historical Museum. i