“It strikes me as I think of it now — of course, I was a girl, too young then to know much about it — but I think now the mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else. The…
Author: Bethany Nemec
The most common wagons used for hauling freight back East were the Conestogas, developed in Pennsylvania by descendants of German colonists. Conestoga wagons were large, heavy, and had beds shaped somewhat like boats, with angled ends and a floor that sloped to the middle so barrels wouldn’t roll out when the wagon was climbing or descending a hill. Like the covered wagons of the western pioneers, it had a watertight canvas bonnet to shelter the cargo.
Conestogas were pulled by teams of six or eight horses and could haul up to five tons.
Traders on the Santa Fe Trail adopted the Conestoga design for its durability and size, but they found that bullwhackers or muleskinners were preferable to teamsters — the immense distances and scarcity of good water along the Santa Fe Trail precluded the use of horses as draft animals. Teams of up to two dozen oxen or mules were used to haul the heaviest loads. Sometimes a second wagon, or “backaction,” was hitched behind the lead wagon.
Overlanders on the Oregon Trail, in contrast, quickly learned that Conestoga wagons were too big for their needs: the huge, heavy wagons killed even the sturdiest oxen before the journey was two-thirds complete. Their answer to the problem was dubbed the “Prairie Schooner,” a half-sized version of the Conestoga that typically measured 4′ wide and 10′ to 12′ in length. With its tongue and neck yoke attached, its length doubled to about 23 feet. With the bonnet, a Prairie Schooner stood about 10′ tall, and its wheelbase was over 5′ wide. It weighed around 1300 pounds empty and could be easily dismantled for repairs en route. Teams of 4 to 6 oxen or 6 to 10 mules were sufficient to get the sturdy little wagons to Oregon. Manufactured by the Studebaker brothers or any of a dozen other wainwrights specializing in building wagons for the overland emigrants, a Prairie Schooner in good repair offered shelter almost as good as a house.
The wagon box, or bed, was made of hardwoods to resist shrinking in the dry air of the plains and deserts the emigrants had to cross. It was 2′ to 3′ deep, and with a bit of tar it could easily be rendered watertight and floated across slow-moving rivers. The side boards were beveled outwards to keep rain from coming in under the edges of the bonnet and to help keep out river water. The box sat upon two sets of wheels of different sizes: the rear wheels were typically about 50″ in diameter, while the front wheels were about 44″ in diameter. The smaller front wheels allowed for a little extra play, letting the wagon take slightly sharper turns than it would otherwise have been able to negotiate without necessitating a great deal of extra carpentry work to keep the bed level. All four wheels had iron “tires” to protect the wooden rims, and they were likewise constructed of hardwoods to resist shrinkage. Nonetheless, many emigrants took to soaking their wagon wheels in rivers and springs overnight, as it was not unheard of for the dry air to shrink the wood so much that the iron tires would roll right off the wheels during the day.
Hardwood bows held up the heavy, brown bonnets. The bows were soaked until the wood became pliable, bent into U-shapes, and allowed to dry. They would hold their shape if this was done properly, which was important to the emigrants: if the wagon bows were under too much tension, they could spring loose and tear the bonnet while the wagon was jostled and jounced over rough terrain. The bonnets themselves were usually homespun cotton doubled over to make them watertight. They were rarely painted (except for the occasional slogan such as “Pike’s Peak or Bust” in later years) as this stiffened the fabric and caused it to split. The bonnet was always well-secured against the wind, and its edges overlapped in back to keep out rain and dust. On some wagons, it also angled outward at the front and back, as shown in the illustration above, to lend some additional protection to the wagon’s interior.
While wagons were minor marvels of Nineteenth Century engineering, they inevitably broke down or wore out from the difficulty and length of the journey. Equipment for making repairs en route was carried in a jockey box attached to one end or side of the wagon. It carried extra iron bolts, linch pins, skeins, nails, hoop iron, a variety of tools, and a jack. Also commonly found slung on the sides of emigrant wagons were water barrels, a butter churn, a shovel and axe, a tar bucket, a feed trough for the livestock, and a chicken coop. A fully outfitted wagon on the Oregon Trail must have been quite a sight, particularly with a coop full of clucking chickens raising a ruckus every time the wagon hit a rock.
There was only one set of springs on a Prairie Schooner, and they were underneath the rarely-used driver’s seat. Without sprung axles, riding inside a wagon was uncomfortable at the best of times. Some stretches of the Trail were so rough that an overlander could fill his butter churn with fresh milk in the morning, and the wagon would bounce around enough to churn a small lump of butter for the evening meal. The simple leaf springs under the driver’s seat made that perch tenable, but not particularly comfortable. The illustration above does not show the driver’s seat, and its placement of the brake lever is questionable. The brake lever was usually located so it could be pressed by the driver’s foot or thrown by someone walking alongside the wagon, and it was ratcheted so the brake block would remain set against the wheel even after pressure was taken off the lever.
While Prairie Schooners were specifically built for overland travel, many emigrants instead braved the Oregon Trail in simple farm wagons retrofitted with bonnets. Farm wagons were typically slightly smaller than Prairie Schooners and not as well sheltered, as their bonnets usually were not cantilevered out at the front and back, but they were quite similar in most other respects.
It is believed that over 200 steam-powered riverboats sank in the Missouri River during the mid-Nineteenth Century. Two of them were excavated in 1988. One, the Bertrand, was brought to light 120 years after sinking in what is now part of the DeSoto National Wildlife…
Oregon’s history is deeply tied to its trails. The routes followed by American explorers stretched across the Oregon Country a full 50 years before the Oregon Trail migrations of the mid-1800s.
Until the late 1700s, the western regions of the continent were populated exclusively by a wide variety of tribal groups with distinct cultures and traditions. Although an occasional hunter of trapper may have moved through the country, experiences with whites were few and far between.
During the age of exploration, American and English sailing ships skirted the west coast of North American. Captain Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, giving the United States first claim to the title of the territory by right of discovery. Several ships entered the mouth of the Columbia following Gray’s expedition and traveled far enough upriver to see Mount Hood in the distance. Lewis and Clark followed the Columbia River from the east to their winter camp on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, having crossed overland from St. Louis to Oregon in 1804-05. The explorers and traders who traveled into Oregon following the Lewis and Clark Trail helped shape Oregon today.
Early explorers quickly and correctly assessed the region’s rich natural resources. Beaver and other fur bearing animals were treasured in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, valuable commodities in Europe and the rest of the world — they were abundant in the West.
American businessman John Astor was the first to establish a fur trading post in the Oregon Country. Astor founded the American Fur Company and sent an expedition to Oregon to establish the commercial settlement of Fort Astor (now known to us as the city of Astoria) in 1811. The English, under the flags of the North West Company and, later, the Hudson’s Bay Company, were also in a hurry to take advantage of the land. From a port on the west coast, the HBC could trap furs for a worldwide market and ship the goods either by ship or overland to the HBC posts on Hudson’s Bay; the British could also trade with the Orient through Hawaii.
When America and Britain went to war in 1812, it took time for the news to travel to the West. The Astorians learned of the war in January, 1813. In March, they learned that a British frigate was en route to “destroy everything that is American on the Northwest coast.” The Astorians took it upon themselves to sell all they could — pelts and the post itself — to the British traders. The HBC rechristened the trading post Fort George.
The War of 1812 was very unpopular in England and America, and both sides agreed to negotiate a quick end. Americans were infuriated by the engagement, and some states considered seceding from the Union over the war. The British were distracted by European allies and adversaries on the Continent and elsewhere. The treaties that ended the war included a boundary agreement between the United States and Britain that extended the line from Lake Superior west to the Oregon region and included a joint occupancy agreement for the Oregon Country.
Although the initial boundary agreement spanned 1818 to 1828, the years between signing and implementation held their own tensions. In 1816, Astor successfully lobbied the US Congress to pass a law prohibiting foreigners from participating in the American fur trade except in subordinate capacities.
Nonetheless, by 1821 the HBC had forced out all viable competitors, including Americans. They held a monopoly on the fur trade and the trading relationships with the local tribes. The HBC’s carefully-controlled power was wide reaching and eventually settled into every aspect, save religious activities, of everyday life for many native persons. In the 1820s, the HBC’s network of trapping and trading operations reached from Russian Alaska to Spanish California (between the Fraser River and Oregon’s California border) and from the summit of the Rockies west to the Cascade’s summit — 670,000 square miles.
The hub of the HBC’s western division, known as the Columbia River District, was Fort Vancouver, established in 1824 on the Columbia River 100 miles inland from the river’s mouth. Fort Vancouver was designed to be self-sustaining. Orchards and crops were planted and harvests were plentiful. Livestock grazed on tall grasses, and the fort’s blacksmith shop and lumber and flour mills kept the HBC’s network of western outposts well supplied.
Trade expanded from the United States west into both the Oregon Country and Spanish California. As trade in Santa Fe and Taos grew in significance, a number of American trappers and traders ventured southwest from Missouri toward Mexico. Among the handful of trappers who worked the western creeks and streams were Jedediah Smith and Ewing Young, who traveled the trade trails into Spanish California and then into Oregon from the south in the late 1820s. Smith and Young both found temporary shelter under the long reach of the HBC.
The Americans and British were, of course, not the only people trading in the Pacific Northwest. For 10,000 years before the arrival of whites, native peoples gathered at the great trade center located at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, a central location connected to a vast network of trails that connected the entire Pacific Northwest region. The Klamath Trail was used as a trade route between the Klamath Lakes region and the Columbia River. Further trade and communication was accomplished through the western branch of the Klamath Trail which crossed the Cascade Mountains and merged with the Molalla Trail, a major north-south route along the Western Cascades.
Many of Oregon’s trailblazers traveled west-northwest from St. Louis into the Rockies, crossing the Wind River and Green River ranges trapping and trading, and making note of the topography and resources along the way. Word spread about the rich resources Oregon offered: tall trees, plenty of wildlife, good soil, and the “free” land. Word spread about the wonders of the Oregon Country — and soon the media joined in the promotion.
Oregon’s accolades were sung by many who ventured here, but no one was more fervent in their promotion of Oregon than Hall Jackson Kelley, an eccentric Massachusetts school teacher who had read Lewis and Clark’s journals but had never really been to the Oregon Country, himself. His enthusiasm, coupled with the promotion of the place in contemporary newspapers, inspired men like Nathaniel Wyeth and Benjamin Bonneville to explore all of the West that they could.
It is important to note that John McLoughlin, the HBC’s Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, was not entirely against the Americans. As trappers and traders came through the post, he did what he could (within the limits of protecting the Company’s monopoly) to help the newcomers. He welcomed the religious influences and efforts of missionaries such as the Reverend Jason Lee and his brother Daniel, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and Henry and Eliza Spalding.
When masses of emigrants followed in the decades after the missions were built, McLoughlin and the HBC made goods and services available to many Americans. HBC posts en route provided food and supplies when possible and boats and guides were available for a fee. Over the years, McLoughlin grew increasingly supportive of the American settlers and their commercial efforts in Oregon, and he encouraged settlers to move south of the Columbia River. In time, the HBC governors came to believe that McLoughlin’s loyalties were muddied and that he could no long effectively represent the HBC in the Oregon Country. They forced his resignation in 1845. McLoughlin settled near Willamette Falls in Oregon City, and the HBC moved their base of operations from Fort Vancouver to Victoria Island.
Through the years, the joint occupation treaty between the United States and Britain was extended. When Ewing Young died in 1841 without a will, but with extensive property to be disposed of, the area’s residents (former HBC employees and American emigrants) joined to establish a “probate government” to determine the disposition of Young’s estate — an important first step toward self-rule for Oregonians. In 1843, American settlers pushed the issue of sovereignty to the fore and began convening public meetings to discuss the issue. When the question of self-rule was put before one of these meetings, the Americans won by one vote and established the provisional government which ruled Oregon until it was formally annexed by the United States.
From 1841 to 1843, overland emigration increased, and the first major wave of Oregon Trail emigrants arrived in 1843, doubling the American population in Oregon. Most of the emigrants followed the Whitman Mission Route, the original route from the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River by way of the Whitman Mission, where emigrants bought goods and necessary services. From there, they followed the Upper Columbia River Route westward down the river corridor to the Willamette Valley.
The Applegate family was among the emigrants of 1843. After watching two young boys, cousins and sons, drown in the Columbia, the Applegate brothers joined several others in 1846 blazing a southern route into the Willamette Valley. Later called the Applegate Trail, the route avoided the dangerous canyons and river cataracts of the Columbia River, but it had dangers of its own, including vast reaches of open desert, little water, and difficult canyons to negotiate. It also provided Oregonians with a ready route to the gold fields of California in 1848.
With all the interest and activity here, the Army directed Lieutenant John C. Fremont to reconnoiter Oregon. He followed the Oregon Trail through Oregon in 1843, visiting the Whitman Mission, The Dalles, and Fort Vancouver before turning south to explore central and southern Oregon. With strong civilian claims and the demonstrated ability to bring troops to Oregon by land from the East, the US held the cards needed to win the land from the British. In 1846, Britain and the US agreed to divide the Pacific Northwest at the 49th parallel — the present boundary between the US and Canada — and Astor’s law of 1816 at last limited the HBC’s influence south of the international line.
Regardless of the HBC’s influence and explorations, American emigrants followed a variety of routes of their own making into the Oregon Country. Interested in saving time and effort, some sought out shortcuts from the main route of the Trail. Occasionally a cutoff effort, most notably the Meek Cutoff, led to disaster. Other routes, such as the Cutoff to the Barlow Road, really did save days of additional travel. Still others, like the Free Emigrant Road, were established as cost-saving options that enable emigrants to travel without paying tolls. As Oregon’s population grew and the settlements expanded, additional routes such as the Santiam Wagon Road were established to meet the needs of commerce and trade.
With farms came fence lines, and the settlers began closing lands that had always been accessible to the native people. Pressures exerted on the Indians by whites, who had little understanding or appreciation of existing cultures and traditions in Oregon, created explosive tensions.
During the 1870s, the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce tribe were forced to leave their traditional homelands in the Wallowa Country and move to a reservation. The group’s exodus deteriorated into a running battle with the US Cavalry called the Nez Perce War. The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail traces the route the Wallowa Nez Perce followed in their unsuccessful flight to Canada.
Today we travel many of the routes established in the early and mid-1800s. Although the routes are not exact, they often approximate the trails followed by Jed Smith, the Applegates, or Stephen Meek and his lost wagon train. The trails of the Nineteenth Century are the foundation of Oregon’s modern transportation system.
Secretary of State James Buchanan received a letter in 1849 describing San Francisco and Monterey. It said that three-fourths of the houses were deserted or selling for the price of the building lot. Every blacksmith, carpenter, and lawyer had left. Brickyards, sawmills, and ranches were abandoned. Volunteer soldiers had deserted and sailors were jumping ship. Both newspapers had been discontinued. Even the judges had left.
Californians had word of the discovery of gold all to themselves for the first six months of 1848, but eventually the news spread to Oregon. In July, Captain Newell docked his brig Honolulu at Fort Vancouver. He bought all the mining supplies he could under the pretense of supplying coal miners, but this pretense quickly wore thin. Once the word was out, two-thirds of all adult males in Oregon headed south. Wagon trains of up to 150 men and fifty oxen-pulled wagons traversed the Applegate Trail and Fremont’s route to Sacramento.
In Oregon, crops were neglected and Indian wars forgotten. Gaps appeared in newspaper editions. The Oregon Spectator, the first newspaper published west of the Rocky Mountains, disappeared from September 7th to October 12th, 1848, then reappeared with this apology: “The Spectator, after a temporary sickness, greets its patrons, and hopes to serve them faithfully, and as heretofore, regularly. That ‘gold fever’ which has swept about 3000 of her officers, lawyers, physicians, farmers, and mechanics of Oregon from the plains of Oregon into the mines of California, took away our printers.”
The 1848 session of the Oregon legislature was scheduled to meet on December 5, but twelve of the twenty-two representatives were missing. Seven had bothered to write letters of resignation, and five had actually been replaced by special elections. Among the missing were such Oregon Trail pioneers as Asa Lovejoy, founder of Portland, wagonmasters Peter Burnett and James Nesmith, and Osborne Russell, member of Oregon’s first Executive Committee. Arrest warrants were issued for those who had not resigned, and the legislative session was canceled. Elections were mandated for a special session to be convened on February 5, 1849.
Some Oregonians struck it rich and lived out their lives on Nob Hill in San Francisco, but most had returned to the Willamette Valley before the first 49ers arrived from the East. Many came home with pockets full of gold dust and trunks full of clothing and furniture from San Francisco. Henry Garrison recalled that his father returned with fancy clothes and made him wear them to church, making him the target of much giggling among the girls in the congregation. When the services were over, he rushed home to change back into his buckskins.
Oregon changed from a community content to provide for itself to an ambitious and efficient supply house for people too busy mining and building to produce their own food. New flour mills, sawmills, and towns grew up along the banks of the Willamette. The river was alive with vessels loading goods for California. Debts were paid off — except those owed to John McLoughlin — as Oregon’s economy leapt into high gear.
Across Oregon, businesses and industries were growing. New varieties of sheep were imported from Australia. Wheat purchased for 62¢ a bushel at the mill sold for $9 a bushel in California. Apples sold for $1.50 each in California, and 6000 bushels were immediately sent south. New orchards were set in the fall of 1848, and by 1856, 20,000 bushels were shipped. Roads and mail service from Oregon City to Sacramento were developed or improved.
Merchants like Francis Pettygrove, ship builders such as Lot Whitcomb, and ship owners like Captain John Brown made their fortunes overnight. Along the bluff above Oregon City’s business district were located at least a dozen fancy mansions financed with California gold. Almost all of these mansions are gone today, giving up their prime view locations to businesses and new homes.
However, the news wasn’t all good. Wages were driven up because so many men were at work in the mines, and many farmers and mill owners found it difficult to break even, let alone turn a profit. Oversupply prevented them from raising prices, and there was support in some quarters for the legalization of slavery in order to bring down labor costs.
Prior to the California gold strikes, an almost total absence of circulating currency in Oregon had spawned such innovations as Abernethy Rocks: small stones inscribed with the letters “GA” and used as change in Governor Abernethy’s store. But with gold suddenly pouring into Oregon as fast as $2 million a year, no standards existed for exchange. On February 16, 1849, the Provisional Government passed an act to provide the territory with desperately needed coinage. The law allowed $16.50 an ounce for virgin gold, without any alloys, to be minted into five and ten pennyweight pieces.
The only coins actually minted under this law were the Beaver coins produced by the Oregon Exchange Company. The pure gold $5 and $10 pieces were stamped “T.O. 1849, Territory Oregon, KMTAWRCS” on the obverse and “Oregon Exchange Company. 130G. Native Gold, 5D” or “l0pwts, 20 grains, 10D” on the reverse. The initials stood for the owners of the company: Kilbourn, Magruder, Taylor, Abernethy, Wilson, Rector, Campbell, and Smith. Most of the Beaver coins were later melted down and recast at the San Francisco mint, as they contained 8% more gold than US coins of equivalent dollar value. Those that survived have become rare and valued collectors items, as they were produced for only two weeks.
When Territorial Governor Joe Lane arrived to take office, one of his first duties was to review all laws enacted by the Provisional Government. The only law he voided was the coinage act, as the US Constitution restricts the power of minting money to the federal government. The stamps were to be broken on the rocks of Willamette Falls, but they somehow ended up in a museum, instead.
That, however, was not the end of gold fever in Oregon. The town of Jacksonville, Oregon, exists because James Cluggage and John R. Pool discovered gold in the Rogue River Valley in December, 1851, and January, 1852. Later in 1852, gold was discovered along the Umpqua River near Scottsburg, a town founded in 1850 by Applegate trailblazer and pilot Levi Scott. These strikes started a gold rush in southern Oregon that attracted miners from both the Willamette Valley and California. The mines generated enough wealth that in 1853 and ’54 there was talk in Jacksonville of attempting to separate southern Oregon from the rest of the Oregon Territory in the hope of eventually founding a new, pro-slavery state between California and the Willamette River Valley. Plans harbored by this movement to annex the northern reaches of California doomed it to failure.
Like the California gold fields, the Oregon mines attracted single, unattached men almost exclusively. Heretofore, Oregon had been the destination of families, farmers, and settlers; the mines brought a distinctly unsavory element to the Territory. This might have had little impact on the character of white civilization in the area — miners tended to follow the latest rush, and the boomtowns along the Rogue and Umpqua Rivers would have eventually emptied out — except that the Indians of southern Oregon were generally more hostile to whites than those in the north. The spring and summer of 1855 saw an escalating cycle of provocation, retribution, and retaliation that culminated in what was then described as the “most sanguinary war” — that is, the bloodiest — in Oregon’s short history.
Tensions exploded in July, 1855, in the Humbug War, named for the creek along which the hostilities took place. More than two dozen Indians were cruelly and indiscriminately killed by shooting, hanging, or being thrown down abandoned prospect holes. On October 8, 23 noncombatant Indians (women, children, and old men) were killed in what was known as the Luptin Affair. The next day, 16 whites of all ages and both sexes were killed in the Rogue River Massacre. The fighting climaxed on October 17 at the Gallice Siege, wherein four whites and an undetermined number of Chinese were killed when Indians trapped a volunteer militia in buildings which they set ablaze with flaming arrows. (Note that when whites were killed, the settlers generally labeled the incident a “massacre”; when Indians were killed, the settlers chose different words.) The situation was eventually calmed by Indian Agent Joel Palmer, who spent 1855 imposing treaties on almost all the tribes of Oregon and sending them to reservations.
A few years later, in the early 1860s, gold was discovered in the southern Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon in the areas of Union Flat and the John Day River. These strikes gave rise to boomtowns such as Auburn, Sumpter, Elkhorn, Pocahontas, John Day, and Mitchell. Hard rock mines and prospect shafts were sunk throughout the area, and in the area around Sumpter, the entire valley was dredged and sluiced in search of gold. Baker County in eastern Oregon was unofficially born in May, 1862, when a group of miners in the Union Flat area organized an election board and sent in their returns under the name of Baker County, though at the time the area was part of Wasco County. On September 22, 1862, Baker County was carved out of Wasco County and Auburn was designated the county seat, an honor soon lost to Baker City.
The lure of gold is largely responsible for the speed with which white civilization spread beyond the Willamette Valley in Oregon during the 1850s and ’60s. Prior to the strikes in southern Oregon, towns and villages in that area were slowly being established along the routes connecting the Willamette Valley to California; once gold was discovered, miners, merchants, and scoundrels of every sort flooded into the valleys of the Rogue and Umpqua rivers. Boomtowns sprang up overnight, new roads were graded, and the power of the local Indian tribes was broken. When the mines played out and the riverbeds would yield no more gold, the miners and prospectors moved on and left behind the infrastructure necessary to support farming communities and logging camps. Likewise, eastern Oregon was generally considered Indian country — few others wanted to live there — until the gold strikes in the Blue Mountains led to the forced relocation of the Nez Perce to make way for whites eager to exploit the newly-discovered gold fields. The search for gold became a dominant force not only in Oregon, but Idaho and Montana, as well, altering the patterns of settlement that had ’til then been driven by emigrants looking for farmland.
Near the mouth of the Clackamas River, there once stood an old, moss-covered, seemingly dilapidated house 300 feet long. In it lived the entire Clackamas Indian tribe. The Indians along this portion of the Wal-lamt, or Willamette, River were hosts to the hundreds of migrating…