Most of the emigrants on the Oregon Trail were
between the ages of 15 and 35. John Mark was a 52 year old veteran of the War
of 1812, and his wife Martha was 50 when they set out for Oregon in the spring
of 1847. They were the family elders, the nucleus of a small party of family
and friends from Johnson County, Missouri, consisting of between 16 and 20
people in five wagons. Traveling with John and Martha were four of their
children, aged 11 to 25. Two more Mark daughters, Mary Ann and Elizabeth, came
along with their husbands, as did a group of neighbors from the Mulkey family.
The Mark party pulled out from the family homestead
in Johnson County on May 2, 1847. They had their fair share of hardship and
tragedy along the Oregon Trail — Elizabeth lost her husband of six years, Jack
Howard, during the journey. The location and cause of his demise are lost to
There was also cause for celebration in the group
when Luvina Mark married a family friend traveling with the party, James
Shirley, in a ceremony at Fort Laramie on June 20, 1847. The newlyweds marked
the event by carving their initials in the bark of a tree growing along a
The party passed through the Whitman Mission at
Waiilatpu shortly before the murders and kidnappings that put an end to the
missionary era in Oregon. At The Dalles, they decided to pool their money and
pay for passage over the Barlow Road rather than risk boating down the Columbia
River. Like thousands of other overlanders, they inched their wagons down the
infamous slopes of Laurel Hill by rope. On September 17, 1847, they reached the
Trail’s End in Oregon City.
Family lore has it that John Mark traded either a
wagon or mare for a 643.39 acre claim in the Willamette Valley. It was claim
number 63 on the books in Oregon City, making it one of the earliest land
claims in Oregon. Mary Ann and Luvina took up neighboring land, claiming 640
acres with their husbands for each of their families. Elizabeth, who lost her
husband on the Oregon Trail, remarried in September, 1848, and settled nearby.
The area where they settled is known as Marks Prairie to the present day.
John Mark’s eldest son, Alexander Kesterson Mark,
was unmarried, and under Oregon’s land laws he could claim only 320 acres. On
his claim, which was part of the Marks Prairie neighborhood, he operated and
dairy and planted an orchard of apple, peach, and pear trees. He drove his
wagon to Oregon City regularly to sell cheese, butter, and, when the orchard
came in, dried fruit. There are no records of any Mark family members joining
the California Gold Rush when the news reach Oregon in 1848, but Alexander’s
butter and cheese no doubt brought in a tidy sum from merchants looking to the
farms of Oregon to supply the miners.
However, Alexander was a religious man and lived
frugally. When he built a large, two-story house — a mansion for its day — he
did much of the work himself, even pitching in on the two-man whipsaw to help
with the tedious job of sawing logs into planks. When his house was complete,
he reserved a ground floor room for the use of local circuit riders, traveling
preachers who rode regular routes through the countryside. In later years, the
house became the focal point for the extended Mark family, and to this day a
handful of the trees planted by Alexander Mark are still bearing fruit.