From The Dalles to the Sea.
ACROSS THE PLAINS IN '65
Much has been written about the coming of the pioneers to Oregon during the early forties, but you will find comparatively little in print about the overland journeys made by those who came during or immediately after the Civil war. R. D. Inman, one of Portland's best known sawmill men, crossed the plains in 1865. When the lumbermen met for their annual convention, in the fall of 1905, in Portland, Mr. Inman, who was chairman of the executive committee, wrote a paper telling of his experiences in crossing the plains, by prairie schooner. Because it gives such a vivid picture of the hardships experienced by those who came to Oregon before the Iron horse had made its way across the plains, I think it will be worth while to quote Mr. Inman's description in part. He says:
"Few of our younger people of today have any idea of the hardships one had to undergo making the trip overland from the Eastern and Middle States, in the prairie schooner. The writer's family was broken up during the Civil war, and through the good offices of an old grandfather, myself and sister were taken by an old gentleman by the name of William Davidson to be raised. Shortly afterwards he concluded to come West. So he sold his home near Marshalltown, Iowa, and fitted himself out with three wagons: one with two horses and two with four horses each, and took along one extra horse which was for the writer to ride, and also took two cows.
"On the 21st day of May, 1865, we pulled out of Marshalltown on our westward trip, and a happy time we had, everybody jolly and gay. We rolled along westward toward the Missouri River. The stock all being in fine condition, we had very little trouble.
"The first town we struck was Council Bluffs. How well I remember it. We got in about the middle of the afternoon and concluded to stop there two or three days and give the stock a rest. The following day, about 6 o'clock in the evening, Mr. Davidson asked me to go with him. We went along about a quarter of a mile from where we were camped and I soon discovered we were going to one of those so-called 'neck-tie parties.' My recollection is that it was conducted by what was called a vigilance committee.
"The criminal had robbed a man of five dollars a few days before. Being a boy of 12 years, just the right age to take in and remember most everything, I naturally had the whole affair so imprinted on my mind that it seems but yesterday. They brought the poor devil out of a little improvised jail and led him under a green willow tree and then tied his hands behind him, put a dry goods box under him, tied a piece of bed cord around his neck, fastened it to a limb of the tree, kicked the box from under him and then ordered everybody away. That was my first practical knowledge of stern justice dealing with wrong-doers.
"After resting the stock two or three days we again pulled out down the Missouri River and moved along until we came to a ferry a little way below the mouth of the Platte River. We then crossed the Missouri and continued our journey westward until we came to a ferry on the Platte River. We camped there on the banks of the river about a week, and such sport as the men had, hunting and fishing. It certainly would make a sportsman of today green with envy - antelope, deer, bear, wolves and coyotes galore. Here I saw the first shooting scrape and while I can not remember the cause, I remember quite well the affair.
"Hearing the crack of a pistol, boylike, I started to see what was the trouble, and you ought to have seen the men and women running and dodging in every direction to find some place to get out of danger of stray bullets. Both combatants emptied their revolvers before they stopped firing. They were both pretty badly shot up, but neither one of them was killed. I can not remember what became of them, but neither belonged to our wagon train - I say train, for by this time we had been joined by quite a number of other emigrants.
"We finally got across the river by ferrying the wagons and swimming across. The prices charged by the ferry men were so high that the men would not pay the price, and that is why the stock were made to swim across instead of being ferried. Here the writer took his first lesson in the art of swimming, and through treacherous quicksands and ugly currents of that old river I came near traveling no farther with that outfit. Thanks to the watchfulness and skill of a young athletic fellow by the name of Bittner, I was pulled out and rolled over a keg until the muddy water I had taken in was pretty well out of me and I was soon all right again, getting only a good lecture from the old man, Mr. Davidson, for my foolhardiness.
"After getting everything across the river, we started out again, going about fifteen or twenty miles a day, as we were then getting into a country of sand and sagebrush, and of course the trip soon began to tell upon the stock. Cattle and horses feet began to get sore, wagons began to get loose tires - the stock had to be shod, wagons repaired, tires reset. The novelty of the trip, as far as the grown people were concerned, was rapidly wearing off and stern realities were fast creeping in. Of course, as far as the writer was concerned, everything was gay sunshine, except when caught at some boyish mischief and as a result he got a good flogging, no doubt not more than he deserved.
"I will relate a little thing which happened that goes to show what a boy will do to have fun and how little he reckons on results. I will bring two other boys into this sketch, Stanton Dryden, who was about the writer's age, and his brother William, Jr., about two or three years younger. We were fast friends from the start, and always remained so.
"Well, to get to my story, we were camped near a small stream, so we three boys got out our fishpoles and went down through the creek bottom to the stream to fish, catching some grasshoppers on the way. Arriving at the creek, we began to try our luck. About the only thing we could catch was a fish called 'gar.'
"After fishing a while and catching two or three 'gar' we started for camp; going through the creek bottom we came to the cattle and horses which were lazily grazing about. Mr. Dryden had in his ox-team one of the laziest steers that ever looked through an ox-bow, and we boys were out for fun. We took one of the gars, which, if any of the readers have seen one know, have a bill-mouth somewhat resembling that of a duck, with very sharp hooked teeth, and slipping up to the old steer we opened the gar's mouth and fastened it to the steer's flank. The old fellow made a kick or two and then began to bellow. The first thing we knew the whole herd, cattle and horses, began to run, and we had as pretty a stampede as you ever saw. With their heads and tails in the air, away they went and it took three days to round them up and get them back to camp again. Well, if there was ever three scared boys it was we three. We held a council of war right then and there and each administered an oath to the other never to acknowledge knowing anything about what caused the stampede, and it was years after the writer grew to manhood before he ever told the truth about the affair.
"After getting everything in shape again we pulled out. The next resting place I remember was a place called Green Meadow. Here again we laid over for rest. Mr. Davidson lost two of his horses here by their eating some poisonous weed, and the water was so impregnated with alkali that soda had to be mixed with it to neutralize the effect of the poison on the stock.
"By this time we had learned the value of buffalo chips, as that was about the only fuel we had, as there was very little timber of any kind and it became one of the writer's duties after making camp to gather chips for cooking. Again the wagons were overhauled, tires set and horses and cattle shod and everything put in the best possible shape for the tough journey still ahead of us. Here we were joined by more wagons, so when we pulled out again there were sixty-nine wagons in our train. Here also firearms were put in shape as we were beginning to hear quite a bit of talk about hostile Indians. From here on there were military posts, fifty or a hundred miles apart, where there would be a few adobe houses for quarters for the soldiers, and it was about all they could do to take care of themselves with their poor equipment of arms, so they were not much protection to the emigrants. No one was allowed to pass the posts unless they could show credentials that they were a part of some train near by.
"We again pulled out from the Meadows and traveled for I think about a week or ten days when we again stopped to rest. The writer has forgotten the location, but an incident happened there that again called his attention to the fate of evil-doers in that wild and lawless country where life was valued so lightly. There was an old German who belonged to another train camped near our train. One night two of his mules, a very fine pair, was stolen. They caught the two thieves and brought them back and held a council about what to do with them. After deliberating awhile they decided that the thieves must die. They gave them their choice either to be hanged or shot. They chose the former. They took them out a little ways from the camp to where there was an old scrub of a tree and mounted them both upon one of the mules, tied their hands behind them, put a rope around their necks, fastened the other end to the tree and drove the mule from under them. The old German emptied the contents of his double-barrel shot gun into them and remarked, 'Vell, you vas shot and hanged both. I guess you vas satisfied.' Afer this affair was over we pulled out, leaving the thieves hanging there with a placard pinned to them, which read: 'Hanged for mule-stealing; all thieves beware!'
"Not having seen signs of hostile Indians, we were not kept in first class shape for an attack by them. We had several men in the train whose duty it was to supply the train with fresh meat. They were out hunting every day along the route, all mounted on ponies, so they could range off on either side of the train, and as the train moved slowly they had no trouble finding us each evening. We were now in Wyoming, passing Fort Laramie, a little military post. We had traveled some ten hundred miles by this time. The writer had got his first job helping drive some loose cattle belonging to the Bottler Bros., one of whom now lives in Portland. The writer had borrowed an Indian pony that belonged to Mr. Dryden - one of the laziest animals it has ever been my misfortune to be astride. I was riding along behind the herd about 3 p. m. when the first thing I knew I heard the most unearthly yell imaginable. I began to look around and to my horror I could see Indians in almost every direction. They were all mounted and seemed to be circling around the train. Most of them were armed with bows, arrows and long spears, although some of them had firearms. It is marvelous how expert they were with their bows and arrows. Our train was in rather bad shape for the attack, as they were scattered over a mile or more of the road, but the captain got to work quickly to have the train formed into a corral. The Indians all the time were continuing to circle around us, whooping and yelling and gradually closing in on us.
"Up to this time there had been no show of fight on our part, as everybody was busy getting the teams drawn up in shape so the wagons would form some protection from the arrows and bullets that were flying in every direction, and we had to watch the stock to keep them from stampeding. In the meantime I was still trying with my lazy pony to get the loose stock to the train, but the first thing I knew along came an Indian on horseback riding like the wind. He did not seem to be over thirty or forty yards from me. I could see the painted stripes on his face quite plainly. He let fly two or three arrows at me, but luckily for me he was riding very fast and his aim was poor. I was not hit, but one of the arrows went so close in front of me that I felt the wind from it in my face and heard its whirr as it went past me. By this time I concluded it was time for me to make for tall timber, so headed my pony for the train. I did not look back till I reached the train. I do not know just why this Indian did not take me in, as it would have been an easy matter for him to have overhauled me and ran me through with his spear. I got to the train safe and sound, but about the most scared boy you ever saw. As soon as my heartbeat steadied down I began to take a lively interest in what was going on.
"Mr. Davidson's teams being horses, and the rest oxen, he usually drove ahead of the train, sometimes getting as much as a mile ahead, as it is not possible for horses and cattle to maintain the same gait. If you drive the oxen so as to keep up with the horses they will be completely used up in a very short time, and the same will happen to the horses should they be held down to the snail-like gait of the oxen. Upon this occasion Mr. Davidson was about three-quarters of a mile ahead of the train and the Indians immediately surrounded him, thinking they had him sure, but they reckoned without their host, as he was a man of great courage and excellent judgment and a dead shot. He had his three teams driving abreast. Mr. Bittner in the middle, Mr. Fedden on the right and he on the left. In this position the battle began.
"Bittner, the man in the center wagon, fainted from fright, so he was of no use whatever, but Mr. Davidson and the driver of the other team stood up in their wagons and fought like tigers. The Indians seeing what they had run into, after seeing three or four of their number sent to their happy hunting ground, began to bear away to get out of the range of the bullets that were coming from the wagons with such deadly effect. The old man looked back and saw the way back to the train was comparatively clear, so realizing their only salvation in the long run was to get back to the train, he spoke to the other men telling them to turn their teams around and get back to the train as fast as they could.
"Fortunately, in Bittner's wagon there was a young woman, and she grabbed the lines and turned the four-horse team around and the first thing we knew here came the three teams to us. It was an exciting scene to see the horses come tearing back, the dust and gravel flying and the Indians yelling and trying to head them off. It was a great surprise to the Indians that they ever got away from them, and it certainly seemed a miracle that they got back to the train. Only the great courage, cool head and good judgment of this sturdy old pioneer saved them from being massacred, for their guns and pistols were not of the modern type of today and they would have been shortly overpowered. Well, after the old gentleman got back to the train the train was in good shape. After getting a few cracks at stray Indians they soon got out of our reach.
"By this time it was getting dusk and the men organized for guard duty as we fully expected to be attacked during the night. Aside from the children, no one slept any that night. Even the writer, although only twelve years old, did mighty little sleeping. That night must have been a terrible strain upon men and women who had gone far enough on life's journey to be able to realize the position they were all in, away from any help, out on an open plain surrounded by 600 Sioux and Cheyenne bloody cut-throats who only needed the opportunity to murder and mutilate any one they could get their hands on.
"The night wore away and no attack came, and when morning came not an Indian was to be seen. All that day we stood by waiting for an attack, but that day and also that night passed by without seeing or hearing of an Indian. The next day, which I remember well, was August 4th, the captain organized a squad to go out ahead of our train to where two wagons had been captured.
"They did not belong to our train and I never knew where they came from, but two men that belonged with these wagons got into one of Mr. Davidson's wagons just as they were turning around to get back to the train and so saved themselves, and it was through them we learned of those two wagons.
"A very pathetic thing was a little boy nine or ten years old who attempted to get into the wagons as they turned around, but just got hold of the back end of the wagon as the team was starting and could not climb in. Well, sir, that poor little fellow hung on to that wagon all the way back to the train and when the men found him they could hardly pull him loose. The poor little fellow's feet were in an awful condition from coming in contact with the ground and striking the loose stones that were lying in the track of the wagon. So the squad started out for the two stray wagons. They found the wagons had been burned and found two dead persons. a man and a woman. They brought the bodies back to the train. The man had been shot through with an arrow and the woman had apparently been captured and murdered afterward - such a mutilated piece of human flesh it was terrible to behold. If I had not seen it myself I could hardly believe that anything in the shape of a human being could be guilty of such an act.
"After the squad returned from the wagons we found out that there was a young lady and little child belonging to the two wagons still missing. Some weeks after we ascertained that the young lady was taken prisoner and the child was thrown into the fire and burned alive.
"The next thing to do was to see what could be found out about several men that were out hunting. I remember the names of all of them - Messrs. Rae, Startwell, Wilson, Stone and Rodgers - all of them mounted, I think, except Rodgers. The search party found Stone who had been killed by the redskins. They had scalped him and turned him over on his face and shot his back full of arrows. The Indians always like to shoot in the back, as they claim that shows that the man was a coward and trying to run away. The poor man's scalp was evidently lost by the Indians, as it was found not very far from the body. This was the only scalp that I ever saw.
"After bringing Stone's body to the train the men were preparing to start out to search for the other hunters when three men on horseback were seen riding toward our train. Field-glasses were immediately brought to bear upon them and they proved to be Rae, Startwell and Wilson. When they arrived at the train there 'was great rejoicing, as all of them had those who were near and dear to them in our company. It turned out that they all had hair-breadth escapes. It seemed Startwell and Wilson were hunting together and Rae was alone. The two former were attacked by some half dozen Indians and seeing a train a couple of miles away they made for it as fast as their ponies could travel. By hard riding they managed to make the train, but came near getting shot by men in the train, as they mistook them for renegade whites.
"The train they ran into proved to be a train going East. As soon as they could make themselves understood they took out their field-glasses and began to look over the plains to see if they could see anything of Rae. Presently they could see him about three miles from the train. They wanted to go to his rescue, but the men in the train were still suspicious of them and would not let them leave the train, so all they could do was to watch Rae with their glasses. Presently a band of Indians hove in sight and immediately made a dash for the lone hunter, thinking they would have an easy time taking him in. Here they were mistaken, as he was well-armed, having a Henry rifle and magazine gun containing 16 shots. Being an expert shot and a man of great courage he simply went at them for all he was worth. Before they got within range with their bows and arrows it got too hot for them and they backed away.
"Rae immediately took out his field-glasses to see if he could find his train and seeing this eastbound train he immediately started for it, but as he afterwards said, he knew it was useless to try to run, so he just took his pony and started to walk in the direction of the wagon. He had not gone very far before the Indians divided in two squads, one squad cropped out in front of him and at a signal they started to close in from two sides, thinking they could get him this way. They were again doomed to disappointment as the sturdy hunter was determined to fight until the last minute. So giving one side a few shots he would turn on his knees and give the other side a few shots and it again got too hot for them. Before they got within range with their weapons they gave up the chase and let the hunter walk into the train, where, much to his surprise, he found his two comrades, Startwell and Wilson. As near as the two men who were watching them could tell with their glasses they counted twenty-one Indians. Upon counting the shells he had left he found that with something like seventy shots he had killed or crippled half a dozen Indians. Of course, shooting at such long range at objects that were continually on the move made good marksmanship impossible.
"Afer getting their nerves steadied down a bit they started west on the road to find their own train. So, after burying the dead, we prepared to start out again.
"Mr. Rodgers, the hunter, came to us two days after we started out, pretty badly worn out, but with a skin unpunctured by any of the missiles of the red devils. He certainly had an interesting time.
"One thing I forgot to mention, during the time we were besieged we sent out a courier one night to Fort Laramie for aid. They sent out a squad of thirty or forty soldiers who traveled with us for three or four days, but that was the last we ever saw of the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. They seemed to go just as mysteriously as they came, and right here let the writer say that when it came to horsemanship they could surely put it all over anything he has ever seen. They were all tied upon their horses, so that if any were killed their horses carried their bodies out of the reach of their enemies, so we did not have the chance of lifting any of their 'topknots.' According to the best reports, we sent about sixteen of them to their happy hunting grounds and we lost four, two cripples and one taken prisoner.
"Another thing I forgot to speak of was our Fourth of July, about a month before the scrap with the redskins. I remember it quite well, for you may depend that a boy will forget many things, but Fourth of Julys will always remain vivid in his mind.
"The next place we made an extensive stop, as near as I can recollect was a place called Hams Forks. Here we rested several days, as the stock were getting in poor condition and had to have all the rest we could possibly give them.
"Game and fish were plentiful. Again we pulled out. Things were becoming more hazardous all the time. Stock so worn out that we had to make our daily journey very short. Every once in a while a poor, jaded or worn-out horse would give up the struggle and his carcass would be left for the wolves and coyotes. Sometimes a wagon would go to pieces and would be abandoned, which would put one in mind of that early Western saying, 'Pike's Peak or bust - busted, by thunder.'
"The next place we laid over that I call to mind was where the Boise River empties into the Snake River. Here we camped for several days. Here again we found lots of Indians, but they were all peaceable and a dirty, scrubby lot. I think they were called the Snake Indians - and such beggars - 'bisk' and 'toback' seemed to be the two things above everything that they had a mania for - namely, biscuit and tobacco.
"Here we saw our first salmon. The river seemed to be literally alive with them and they were lying dead along the banks by the thousand. The men had a great time the first day catching fish. They would wade out in the riffles and shoot them with their pistols and spear them by the dozen. The writer also waded out, but after two or three big fellows bumped their noses against his shins he was satisfied to stay on the bank and watch the sport, but we soon found out from the settlers that they were of little value as food, having been so long out of salt water that they were poor and flabby. No such sight can be seen anywhere today except in some parts of Alaska.
"Again pulling out and traveling slowly along with our worn-out horses and cattle, we crossed the Snake River. We traveled until we finally struck the Grande Ronde River. Here we again stopped for a few days. We had plenty of good fishing and hunting, but everybody was so worn out that it did not have much attraction for them.
"The train had by this time decreased to six or eight wagons, as they kept dropping out to wend their way to their final destination.
"As soon as we got a few days rest we again pulled out. This time for The Dalles, Oregon, arriving there in due time without any serious mishaps. The following morning we rolled our wagon on the steamboat at The Dalles and on the evening of November 1st arrived in Portland, which had a population then of about 8,000. We were just five months and eleven days making the journey, and the first time I went back to the starting place the trip was made in three days. There certainly was quite a contrast between the speed of the old 'prairie schooner' and the modern 'iron horse.''.