Traveling the Oregon Trial and the Naches Pass
Introduction: Several pioneers, in addition to James Longmire, wrote accounts of their trip west. From here you will be able to access their accounts of the route through the Nachess Pass and other hardships they encountered on the way. (Spellings are from the originals)
The Naches Pass – Lucille MacDonald (summary account by a writer, not a pioneer)
The Natchez Pass – Erastus Light
Naches Pass – Van Ogle
Natchess Pass – George Himes
Crossing a River – Erastus Light
Hail – Erastus Light
Rain – Erastus Light
Flash flood – Erastus Light
Hunting Buffalo – Erastus Light
Indians – Erastus Light
Graffiti – Erastus Light
Wind – Erastus Light
Mosquitoes – Erastus Light
Death on the Trail – Erastus Light
Fire – Erastus Light
Crossing a River – Erastus Light
Going Uphill – Erastus Light
Rain Storm – George Himes
Crossing a River – George Himes
Thinking the shorter route would be better, the whites went northeast as far as White Bluffs on the Columbia. The Indians followed them and the settlers suspiciously ordered the tribe to keep at a distance. Next day all retraced their steps to Wells Springs. Nelson Sargent had gone in another direction to look for the settlers’ road and came back with word that he had found it.
The party traversed the formidable canyon September 18, then went on to Coal Creek, the Selah Valley and on to the Wenas where a member of the group, John Aikin, was dispatched to ride ahead and seek supplies. Next the caravan reached the Naches River, following it four days and crossing it sixty-eight times. At the summit grass was found and the wagons stopped for two days’ rest.
Three miles father to the west was Summit Hill where the most storied episode of the trek took place. The steep descent was accomplished only after cattle were sacrificed for the purpose of making rawhide to augment the scanty supply of rope with which to lower the wagons three hundred yards down the slope.
An end of the rope was tied to a wagon axle, and the other end, thrown around a tree, was held by the men of the party. One by one the wagons were eased past the danger point, then the ropes were loosened and the vehicles continued another quarter of a mile with locked wheels to the Greenwater. The only wagon lost was that of John W. Lane. A rope broke, the prairie schooner was smashed and the Lane family made the remainder of the trip on horseback.
By this time Aikin had reached Edward J. Allen’s road camp, arriving there just before it was abandoned. Alien, hearing that the wagon party was in need of food, sent three hundred pounds of flour from the worker’s supplies into the mountains, then accompanied Aikin to Steilacoom and Olympia for more. Michael Simmons and others got together one thousand pounds of flour, onions, and other provisions and sent a party back with Aikin.
Meanwhile Andrew Burge, of the road building party, was traveling along into the mountains with packhorses laden with Alien’s donations of food. At Summit Hill he saw two white women, Mrs. James Longmire and Mrs. Erastus Light, and their children walking.
“My God, women, where in the world did you come from?” he demanded, seeing them shrinking back in the bushes to give his horses room to pass on the narrow trail.
When he saw the wagons he tried to persuade the men to camp on the summit meadow, saying the trail he had come over was too narrow and had not been finished. Unable to convince the immigrants that they could not pass, he left the food he brought as the wagons were badly in need of it. As Burge returned to Steilacoom, he blazed trees and left notes tacked up to guide and encourage them. His messages read,” a shade better,” or “a shade worse,” and so on. The wagons crossed the Greenwater sixteen times and the White River six times. The dreariest pull, Longmire said, was over Wind Mountain, “which was covered with heavy fir and cedar trees , but destitute of grass, with a few vine maples on whose long leaves our poor oxen and horses had to live for seven long days, not having a blade of grass during that time.”
Logs were made into bridges to cross creeks, some being laid along- side windfalls, already on the trail. The men walked in order to ease the pull for their tired, half starved oxen. Finally the leaders came out on Porters’ claim but the owner was in Olympia. They made their seventh crossing of the White River and reached Connell’s prairie, thence to the Puyallup where humpback salmon were running and they had a fish feast.
On the way they had been heartened by the appearance of several other settlers. A day after Burge reached them, another Sargent boy, Wils, accompanied by Orington Cushman, hiked in from Olympia and paid a visit to the mountain caravan. At a ford on the White River before they descended Mud Mountain three Tumwater boys delivered the supplies from Michael T. Simmons.
On October 8, when the wagons were on the Nisqually Plains, a party of well-dressed horsemen approached. They were members of the Olympia committee which had raised the road funds. Longmire said that when the two groups met he was wearing torn and ragged pants and a cap. One of his boots was missing and he wore in its place an improvised moccasin made from the hide of a cow killed a few days earlier.
“Our embarrassment,” he recalled, “soon was dispelled by a copious draught of good old bourbon, to which we did full justice while answering questions.” Scarcely had the Olympia welcome squad departed when another group rode up from the rival town of Steilacoom…
Following Wenas Creek to its source we crossed the Naches River which we followed for four days, crossing and recrossing it sixty-eight times. Then we left it and started for the summit of the Cascade Mountains, twenty-five miles north of Mount Rainier, which we reached in three days finding fine grass and good water.
Here we stopped for a two day rest, giving our tired oxen plenty of food, which they needed for the rest of the trip.
Three miles farther on we came to Summit Hill, where we spliced rope and prepared for the steep descent which we saw before us. One end of the rope was fastened to the axles of the wagons and the other end was thrown around a tree and held by our men. Thus, one by one, the wagons were lowered gradually a distance of three hundred yards when the ropes were loosened and the wagons were drawn a quarter of a mile further with locked wheels.
Here we reached the Greenwater River. All the wagons were lowered safely except the one belonging to Mr. Lane which was crushed to pieces by the breaking of one of the ropes, causing him and his family to make the rest of the trip to the Sound on horseback.
At the top of Summit Hill, my wife and Mrs. E. A. Light had gone ahead of the wagons with their children, taking the circuitous trail which brought them around to the wagon train, for which we were making the road as we went along. As they walked thus, my wife ahead, they were surprised to meet a white man. They had not seen one, except those of our party, since leaving Walla Walla, and little expected to find one in this almost inaccessible place, but were more than please by his rude welcome, “My God, women, where in the world did you come from?”
The two women shrank against the trees and shrubbery to give him room to pass them with his packhorses, the trail being barely wide enough for one person.
This man was Andrew Burge, sent out from Fort Steilacoom, with supplies for the road-makers who had already given up the job for want of food, which arrived too late for them but in time for us, as our stores were becoming alarmingly low. From these two lone women in the wilderness he learned of our whereabouts, and came at once to persuade us to return to where there was grass and water for our stock, telling us it was impossible for us to make our way over the country before us.
Failing to convince us of this, he set to work to distribute his supplies among us, and returned to Fort Steilacoom, blazing trees as he went and leaving notes tacked up, giving what encouragement he could, and preparing us in a measure for what was before us.
For instance, he said, “The road is a shade better, ” A little farther, “A shade worse.” Then again, “A shade better.” And so on till we were over the bad roads.
We crossed the Greenwater sixteen times, and followed it until we came to the White River which we crossed six times. Then we left it and made a dreary pull over Wind Mountain, which was covered with heavy fir and cedar trees but destitute of grass, with a few vine maples, on whose long leaves our poor oxen and horses had to live for seven days, hot having a blade of grass during that time.
I must not forget to mention that in these dark days, seven of them, we and our half-starved cattle worked the roads every day. We bridged large logs, which already lay on the ground, but cutting others and laying alongside them till we had a bridge wide enough for the oxen to draw our wagons across.
Then all, except John Lane, E. A. Light and myself left our wagons on account of their failing oxen, which they drove before them to Boise Creek Prairie, where there was good grass. Lane, Light and I arrived first, the rest following soon afterwards with their cattle and horses. Four miles farther on we reached Porters Prairie. We again crossed the White River, which made the seventh time, and pushed on to Connell’s Prairie, thence to the Puyallup River.
We found the river low and filled with hump-backed salmon. We armed ourselves with various weapons, clubs, axes, and whatever we could get, and all went fishing. Every man who could strike a blow got a fish and such a feast as we had not enjoyed since we had potatoes boiled their jackets, only fish was far ahead of potatoes. John Meyers declared they were the best fish that he had every eaten.
Some of the party stayed up all night cook and eating fish. All relished them but my wife, who was indisposed, but she was fortunate enough in finding an Indian who had just killed a pheasant, which she bought, her first purchase on Puget Sound, and which caused merriment in our party, as the Indian was a perfect nude.
We moved on to Nisqually Plains and camped on Clover Creek, some three hundred yards from the home of Mrs. Mahan. On the 9th day of October, the day after we camped at Clover Creek, the men all went to Fort Steilacoom to see Puget Sound, leaving the women to keep camp.
During their absence Mrs. Mahan took the ladies to her house, where she had prepared dinner which to these tired sisters, after their toilsome journey, was like a royal banquet. After months of camp life to sit once more at a table, presided over by a friend in this faraway land where we thought only to meet strangers was truly an event never to be forgotten.
Before proceeding with my narrative, I will mention the fact of my arrival in this country with torn and ragged pants and coat, my cap tattered and torn, and with one boot on, the other foot covered with an improvised moccasin made from a piece of cowhide from one of the animals we had killed a few days previous.
In this garb I was to meet a party of well-dressed gentlemen from Olympia, who had heard of us from Andrew Burge and who came out to welcome the first party of emigrants direct from the east over the Cascade Mountains north of The Dalles.
Reminiscences of Erastus Light of His Journey Across the Plains With the Longmire-Byles Wagon Train of 1853.
Tacoma Ledger (June 19, 1892)
In the fall of 1852, I sold out, mostly on time. On the 1st of April 1853, I found myself ready to continue my journey to the far west. The party consisted of my wife, with a weak, sickly baby two years old, Charles Hadley, John Reagon, two young men who had worked for me a long time, and myself. We had five yoke of oxen, two cows, one Canadian pony, one heavy two horse wagon and one heavy one horse wagon.
We crossed the river and at night found ourselves on a broad prairie without a house in sight. We went on the next morning and as we struck traveled roads at Cedar Rapids, we fell in with two men and their families by the name of Cook, who were on their way to California. I had known the men before, and we decided to travel with them as far as consistent. We found they were very agreeable and were sorry when the parting came. They tried to induce me to change my mind and go to California, but I had started for Puget Sound and nothing could have changed my determination.
One afternoon a driving rain struck us. We were near a house and we laid over until the next day. The people were very hospitable and that night insisted on my wife and I occupying a bed in their house, which we did. It was the last house we slept in for more than six months.
The next day we came to a stream where a bridge or boat was necessary in order to reach the opposite shore. We concluded to make a bridge as a fine grove of poplars stood close by and in a very short time we were landed safely on the other side. We passed one, crossing the Des Moines River where the city of Des Moines stands. Near here we saw a farm house near which was a herd of tame elk.
We journeyed through vast quantities of mud and water until we reached the bottom lands of the Missouri River, where we rested our animals about a week. We then arranged to cross. One morning early at Surprise ferry, below Council Bluffs, while we were camped at the ferry, so as to be on hand early in the morning, I saw John Lane and Sam Ray, acquaintances of mine going on the ferry with a train. I knew they had started for Puget Sound, so I made haste to find them, after crossing the river and made arrangement to travel on their train. Here we reluctantly bid the Cook families good-by and started with the train bound for the Puget Sound.
Before arriving at the Elkhorn River, Lane picked out a camping ground and Sargeant, his brother-in-law chose another. When we came to the place of choosing Lane turned to his place and with seven young men and two wagons following him. The others all went with Sargeant. We started for the ferry early the next morning and found enough wagons waiting to be ferried as to keep the ferry busy for a week. We also noticed some people crossing in dugouts that some emigrants had made.
We bought the canoes but had to wait a day for our turn to come. While watching the men operating the canoes, we saw them when empty coming back for another load run them under the current and the men had to swim for dear life.
We at once made up our minds that there ought to be a deeper canoe. On the upper side of the river we saw a tree out of which we could make one, and all hands put to and by the time we could use it we had it ready.
Lane, the seven young men and myself had all our effects safely across in a short time, with the exception of a loss to Lane of a valuable mare. He had tied a rope to the animal and took the end across the river. He then had the mare pushed into the current and between the mare at the end of the rope and the swift current running over the rope, the mare head was dragged under water and she was drowned. It was a sore loss to our friend for the mare was a valuable one.
Lane struck out, leaving Sargeant, and the seven young men and myself followed. We had a train of six wagons. It was about four months before we again saw Sargeant and his party.
We guarded our stock well all the way up the Platte River, as we were in constant fear of the Indians. The hunters of the party procured more or less fresh meat. We noted several exciting races after the buffalo.
After we had passed some four hundred miles up the Platte River, just for a change in the monotony, we were treated to a genuine hailstorm, which came upon us without warning. I told Reagon to go on the pony with the cattle which had all run in a huddle and I doubled my three yoke of oxen that were on the big wagon and Hadly brought the big oxen and little wagon on the other side so we had our oxen between us, and we made them stand and take the storm.
The wagons sheltered us a good deal, however. The other men unhitched their teams, and some of the oxen ran away, with their yokes on dragging their chains after them. Some had got the bow off the near ox, and the off ox ran away with the rest of the yoke. When the storm was over, they had great trouble in gathering up their paraphernalia.
After the rain and storm were over some of the cattle were found three miles away. We soon got gathered together and pushed on again. This storm and several succeeding ones forced us to ferry some streams in my wagon box, which I had prepared for this purpose before starting out from home.
We soon began gathering firewood, as we were about to enter a stretch of country about two hundred miles wide where there was no wood to be had. We in time had covered this uninviting strip of country and had camped by good water and a nice grove of trees and laid over for washing.
While here, a hail storm came upon us. The most of the men were out on a hunting expedition at the time. I hurried nearly all the cattle to the center of the grove, and the others ran in themselves. When the hail began to pelt them I tied the lariats of the horses to the first tree I came to. The storm in its fury was soon fully upon us and a large herd of cattle from neighboring camps came rushing by us, passing near the horses, but the lariats being strong kept the horses and the cattle, with a little persuasion from myself and another man who had come to my assistance, decided the best thing to do was to stay where they were.
They wriggled about a little, but we managed to keep them within the grove, notwithstanding the severity of the storm, which proved to be much worse than the first one we experienced. The cattle from the neighboring camps that had rushed by us went on, and when they reached the Platte River, they plunged into it pell-mell and began swimming in a circle in the swift current. Some of them floated on down the river and gained the bank but a great many were drowned.
There was a family camped in a sort of a ravine when the torrents came rushing down the sides of the hill, sweeping their yokes, and wagon, and everything with it down the ravine. The family barely escaped a drowning. Most of their things, except their provisions were recovered as they had lodged in some brush a little way down the stream.
A few days after this we were treated to some genuine fun . On the opposite side of the Platte River we saw two men in hot pursuit of a buffalo. When the animal reached the river he plunged in and swam across. His pursuers sent several bullets after him, but missed their mark. Our hunters grabbed their rifles and ran down to welcome the buffalo as he ascended the bank of the river. He scorned their acquaintance and kept at long range and the contents of their rifles did no more good than those of the hunters on the other side of the river, now casting wishful eyes toward their escaping prey.
Lane was on horseback and got quite close, but the buffalo refused to wait for him. In the melee I had become somewhat excited and grabbed my double-barreled shotgun, which was loaded with buckshot, and ran ahead, thinking I might intercept the animal as he left the road, but I failed to connect.
Lane called for me to ” come on, ” as if I could keep pace with him and his game. While Lane stopped to load his gun, I kept a close watch on the game, and noticed that he turned a right angle back toward the road some distance ahead. I saw that Lane had lost his game, and motioned to him where the buffalo had gone. He started in pursuit and soon had him in view, and was close on him, when he again crossed the road, and going up close to an emigrant’s camp, stopped and sat down on his haunches not ten feet from him.
The man fired his pistol at him and shot him several times and he dropped over dead. The man’s wife had fainted and was lying apparently dead. She revived, however, and soon all hands were busy dressing the buffalo. My trip after the animal on foot was the subject of many a hearty laugh.
In a few days after this we were at Fort Laramie. After passing this point some distance, we one day met about one hundred Sioux Indians, all mounted on horses, sitting as straight as so many cobs. Some of them could talk a little English, and relieved somewhat of our fears. We then fully realized how utterly helpless we would be if we were attacked by these people. We felt that providence was on our side, however, and that we should and safe on Puget Sound.
We soon saw the Platte River for the last time. We left the Black Hills behind us and were passing ponds of alkali water near the Sweetwater River. Near the crossing of this river is located the famous Independence Rock, which is nearly covered with the names of travelers. Up the river a mile or so is the noted Devil’s pass, where the Sweetwater river cuts a narrow channel through the mountains of rock and forms nearly perpendicular walls, up which lunatics have crawled to incredible heights to inscribe their names.
We agreed that we could get along very well without the light wagon, and a few days after crossing the Sweetwater we left it standing on our old camping place. We left it in good condition, cover and everything else complete. We favored our cattle in every way we could. To the light wagon we had yoked the finest yoke of oxen we had seen on the plains. A few days later after we abandoned the wagon, it passed us with a span of mules drawing it.
In going through the South pass of the Rocky mountains, there was a gale of wind that we could scarcely make our animals face. It kept the sand and gravel rolling and some of the lighter pebbles were picked up by the wind and blown with such force that they left a stinging sensation if they hit anything that had the sense of feeling.
When we reached Big Sandy river we found we were on a road which we didn’t care to travel, so before crossing we struck down to the right losing about a day’s travel. On reaching the Green river we found several of our party indisposed. Some of them did not regain their health until we reached the Bear River mountains, where we rested a couple of days.
After our rest we went down into the valley of Bear River where we arrived in the evening. The mosquitoes were so thick it was almost. impossible to breathe. Our stock suffered terribly. From this river we caught some trout.
In this valley the big black crickets were so thick for miles that they nearly covered the ground. The Indians gathered them, fried them and used them for food so we were told. The night we arrived at Soda Springs we didn’t much like the actions of some Indians we noticed prowling around, and we had extra guards out, and there was not much sleeping done among us. We drank from these springs, which had a very pleasant taste. . . .
We made a sort of a barrack out of brush and tied it firmly together and put a rope on each end and dragged the stream. I placed myself so as to catch the fish as they came down the stream, but they were so frantic in trying to escape the brush that was hurrying them on that they stranded on the sand at the banks of the river and the men kicked them out on dry land, and in a short time we had more than we could take care of for want of salt. We had great sport, and felt happy that we were journeying on toward the land of fish and clams.
We passed over the hills and entered the Burnt River valley and on down into the Grande Ronde valley where we met Nelson Sergeant of Olympia who was on the way to meet his father’s family and conduct them over the Naches Pass in the Cascades. We told him we would camp there until he came back and we waited ten days. The Indians were numerous. We had some interviews with them by means of gesticulations We found trout in the stream nearby and had a good time in general, or as good as we could while in a place where we were surrounded by Indians.
Finally our old friends we had left at Elkhorn river rolled into camp and we had a genuine old love feast, relating our experiences since we had last traveled together. The next morning we started on our journey over the Blue Mountains, crossed Wild Horse Creek valley and the valley refused to go farther without additional pay. There was no alternative but to pay them what they demanded as the sun was then shining in the cattle’s eyes and they were turning and going with the current. More pay, however, induced the Indians to make further efforts and they succeeded in landing all the stock, but some of them quite a distance down the river.
I went after the stock and while on the trip I came across a rattlesnake. I had not yet learned to love these reptiles, and I quickly dispatched him. This was the only venomous reptile I ever saw in this state.
We proceeded up the Yakima river following an Indian trail, and crossed the river where the town of Prosser is now located Pew-Pew-Mox-Mox had gone on before us and had a beef dressed for us, waiting near where the trail left the river and went around and through some small mountains. The beef was a good one and was bought at a reasonable price.
At this point we dug a grave and buried a man by the name of James McCulloch, the only one of our company that died on the journey. The funeral services were lonely and solemn and the occasion was particularly sad. carved his name on a board and placed it at the head of his grave. We had seen a great number of graves one and two years old on the way, especially on the north side of the Snake River where these lonely marks of former travelers were quite numerous.
However, the whole road was a succession of graves. Probably no year had been more exempt from sickness and trouble with the Indians since emigration had begun than in the year 1853. . . .
We soon found ourselves fording the Yakima river the second time, and after following it a few miles we crossed Wenas Creek and followed it for some distance. Rough-locking all the wheels, we let ourselves down the side of the mountain into the Natchez River which in following we forded sixty-two times over a rocky bottom.
This accomplished we left the terrible stream for such we had come to regard it, and traveled through heavily timbered lands on quite an easy grade, passing up to the summit of the Natchez Pass. In this place I measured one fir tree that measured more than ten feet in diameter and one hundred feet to the first limb, and which retained its full size well. On the summit of this pass I picked my first whortleberries.
The next morning early we started down the western slope, and after safely descending two steep slopes we reached a third, to look down which was enough to take the starch out of any living being except a pioneer. Our team could not go down the first few hundred feet in yokes, but unyoking them, we took them around singly on a sort of a trail. We then rough-locked all the wheels and fastened a long rope to the hind axeltree, the further end of which rope was wound several times around a tree, and by letting the rope out a little by little, the wagons reached the place where it was level enough to again hitch the oxen to them.
When my turn came I announced my determination of passing my team and wagon down without unhitching, whereupon there were many expressions as to my sanity. I also was called many undeserving pet names and especially by an old woman who was in the train who seemed to think she had a peculiar right to give vent to her surprise and indignation.
I had the men who were tending the rope wound round the tree take particular precaution about letting the rope out, and told them to keep the rope tight enough to allow the oxen to lean their weight in the yoke. After making everything secure, I started over the precipice, reaching the lower level safely, where I hitched my cattle, that had been taken down before to the wagon and moved on down the mountain out of the way of those who were to follow.
The remaining ones on the top of the mountain decided to follow my lead and all moved down the side of the hill like clock work, nothing happening until when Lane started down the precipice. From some mis-management his wagon got away from him and went crashing down the mountain, where he left it until the next season. He packed his goods on his horses and we again took up the journey.
The Greenwater river was soon reached where we camped, and where we had nothing but fir and cedar brush for our cattle to eat. The next morning we moved down the Greenwater river which stream we forded fifteen times, on a bottom of rolling boulders.
On this tortuous route all our people preferred walking as bruises and bumped heads had taught them that there was no certainty of the wagons always being the right side up, the wheels passing over logs, roots, and knolls made a seat in the wagon quite uncomfortable. On foot they followed the trail over some spurs of the mountain and thus avoided some of the crossings of the river, which certainly was not regretted.
On arriving at White River, we struck an open spot of gravel prairie at the foot of Mount Latate, a rock several hundred feet in height, with the form of a person’s head on the top of it. The name Latate is the Indian word meaning head.
At this point we were met with a second supply of provisions from the Sound, which was timely indeed, for some of our people had begun to feel the pangs of hunger. The obstructions and delays by rains in the mountains, together with the work that had to be done, had nearly worn our people out, and the meeting with these good Samaritans with their hospitable donations gave us good cheer and renewed our ambitions and we started on feeling much better for the meeting.
In passing down the White River, which we crossed seven times, we encountered a fire which had felled much of the timber which was a great detriment to us as we had to remove it from our way, causing us considerable delay, besides being exceedingly dangerous from the falling trees and limbs.
The crossing of the White River was the most dangerous of any stream we had encountered, on account of the milky appearance of the water, probably caused by the continual grinding of the glaciers on the rocky, chalky, clayey surface of Mount Tacoma. We could not see hidden rocks, and we were inconstant danger while crossing the stream.
Our cattle had fared badly without grass and before we were all across Mud Mountain, some of the teams gave out and had to be taken on to where grass could be found, and after being refreshed with something to eat returned for the wagons.
In ascending this mountain many of the teams were not able to take their wagons up all the way. Some were taken up by means of a pole, some chains and some elbow grease applied at the small end of the pole. This was done by placing the butt end of a long pole on the upper side of a small tree, the end projecting beyond the tree some four or five feet to the end of which was attached a chain.
At the same distance from the tree on the long end of the pole was fastened another chain. The ends of these two chains were fastened to a single leading chain which was attached to the wagon.
Several men would take the long end of the pole back and forth up and down the hill, some one being on hand to hit the two chains alternately as they bent loose. Each motion of the pole back and forth took the wagon up the side of the hill. While this operation may seem a little tedious, the reader will understand that we were then on our way to the far west.
The honorable James Longmire, John Lane and myself had better teams than most of the other members of our train, and we moved on, crossed Boise creek and camped on the prairie a day ahead of the rest. The following night we camped on Connell’s prairie and the next on the Puyallup Riverbank.
Van Ogle’s Memory of Pioneer Days
Washington Historical Quarterly (XIII) October 1922
Leaving the summit, we went about six miles on a backbone, steep slopes on each side to the jumping off place. Mr. Lane was in the lead that day. He had a team of four horses. We rough-locked all the wheels of his wagon with chains.
He started down with two men to hold the tongue of his wagon, the horses being taken off and a rope around a tree behind his wagon. The distance of the steep grade was one hundred eighty feet. It was too steep for a footing. The wagon swung around, broke the coupling and tongue and upset.
They could not hold it back or steady it. My team was next in line. I drove for Mr. Sarjent; so I had to follow. I was driving four yoke of oxen. I took off three yoke, leaving only the tongue yoke. All the wheels were rough-locked with chains.
One hundred and eighty feet of rope was attached to the hind axle of the wagon and passed around a stout tree. Two men gradually let out the rope. The oxen braced their feet and slid straight down hill the length of the rope without lifting a foot.
Mr. Sarjent had brought this rope with him, coiled up and fastened to the under side of the wagon box of one of his wagons. He thought he might need it. We had sent Mr. Lane ahead with his horses to get food for us. Then I drove a quarter of a mile with the wheels roughlocked and the oxen pulling. All the teams came down this way.; the loose cattle went over Indian trails.
Thirty-eight wagons came over that hill in that way. Lane’s wagon was left behind. About a year later he went back and got it. Then we were seven days until we got to Boise Creek, across the river from where Buckley is now. There were no oxen killed for skins at all. I was twenty-eight years old and I saw everything that was going on.
George Himes – An Account of Crossing the plains in 1853 and the First Trip by Immigrants Through the Cascade Mountains Via the Natchess Pass
Transactions of the Thirty-Fifth Annual Session of the Oregon Pioneer Association. Portland, June 19, 1907.
After this incident [a run in with Indians] nothing occurred out of the ordinary course until the latter part of June, perhaps four or five days before Fort Laramie was reached. Then one night we were overtaken by a terrific thunderstorm, followed by a cloudburst which came near wiping our little company of sixteen persons, nine adults and seven children, out of existence.
The condition of our company on the morning after this disaster cannot be adequately described. The night before we had camped in a broad, most beautiful valley, where wood and water were abundant, with luxuriant grass for the animals. About ten o’clock it began raining with increased violence, as the night advanced, and by midnight was accompanied by lightning until it seemed as if the heavens were on fire and the rapid peals of ear splitting thunder made the earth fairly tremble. About three o’clock in the morning Joel Risdon, one of our men, who was near the door of the family tent, said, “Something has broken loose in the direction of the hills, I hear an awful roaring.” A few minutes later he again said, “This is an awful night. That roaring is surely more distinct! Surely something must have broken loose!” And then looking toward the hills from the tent, he said, ” I see something white coming this way! Get up'” and we all sprang to our feet and a wave of water more than two feet deep, filled with hailstones as large as good-sized cherries swept through our camp. Guided by the lightning we sought refuge in our wagons. My sister, six years old, was missed, and father sprang out into the flood to find her if possible and she was recovered by the aid of the faithful dog.
Thus we awaited the approach of daylight, and then a scene beggaring description appeared. Not a blade of grass, not an animal in sight. Every person was chilled to the marrow, and not a splinter of wood of any kind to be had to built a fire; and father had a severe attack of pleurisy, caused by exposure during the night. . . . .
After the first night’s camp in the pine timber at the edge of the Cascade Range, we began to realize that all previous experiences in crossing mountain ranges were insignificant as compared with those which we were about to encounter. The road which we expected to find was scarcely more than an Indian trail, but there we were, and the idea of retracing our steps could not be thought of for a moment.
We must go forward; there was no other course to follow. Sarjent himself was disappointed. He knew the settlers had started to make a road across the mountains and was at a loss to understand why it was not finished; and since his relatives were in our company it was clear that he did not intend to deceive us. But now was the time for action.
Hence we pushed on as best we could, following the bed of the stream part of the time, first on one bank and then on the other. Frequently we came to impassable places and the recourse was head to high ground where we cut our way through the dense timber, frequently not advancing more than three miles a day. Altogether the Natchess River was crossed sixty eight times.
On this journey there was a stretch of fifty miles without a blade of grass, the sole subsistence of the horses and cattle being browse from alder and maple trees, not very nutritious, to say the least. Every person, from ten years old and upwards, including the women, assisted in making the excuse for a road more passable.
It certainly was a trying time for the women of the company, and much speculation was indulged in as to the probability of reaching the settlements. One woman with two children, Mrs. Abraham Woolery, “Aunt Pop” as she was called, would break down and shed tears every little while; but frequently in the midst of her weeping she would rally and with some quaint remark or funny story, cause everybody to laugh and forget their troubles, in spite of their misery.
At length Summit Prairie was reached. We were in sight of Mount Rainier, that might peak looming up only twenty-five miles south of us. Here we spent the night and it was bitter cold, the time being about October 1st, and snow abounding in all directions, although there was none in our immediate vicinity.
The next morning an early start was made and in less than an hour the company halted. My mother, the young children and I were somewhat in the rear at this time, and as we came close to discover the cause of the delay, she exclaimed: “Well, I guess we have come to the jumping-off place at last!”
And no wonder, for there we were confronted by a bluff fully thirty feet high, almost perpendicular, and for a thousand feet father it was so steep that an animal could scarcely stand up, and there was no other way to go, as careful examination demonstrated. It was soon decided that the wagons should be lowered with ropes, and the teams driven single file by a circuitous trail to the foot of the mountain. Accordingly a long rope was stretch down the hill, but it was not long enough to lower a wagon to a place where it would stand up. Then James Biles said, ” Kill one of the poorest of my steers, make a rope of his hide and see if that will be long enough; if not, kill another.” Three animals were killed before the length of rope required was secured.
After each wagon was lowered to the end of the rope, a yoke of oxen was hitched to the wagon, and by rough locking, and attaching small logs with projecting limbs to the rear, it was taken down about a quarter of a mile and across Greenwater River, where we camped that night. It required almost two days to make this descent. Two of the thirty-six wagons were hopelessly wrecked on the hill, and a small quantity of provisions lost.
The loss of the wagons did not matter, but not so with the provisions, as the company suffered for want of food before supplies could be secured at Connell’s Prairie, probably forty or fifty miles southwest of the present city of Tacoma.
After leaving camp at Greenwater River, evidences of road work were a little more apparent, and hence better progress was made. Complaints were rarely heard, for the main reason that growling over our forlorn condition was unprofitable and made bad matters worse. The teams suffered dreadfully, however, for want of food, and not a day passed but that some of the animals dropped in their tracks, and were left to die alongside the rugged trail.
Pathetic indeed, were these experiences in being compelled to leave faithful beasts in the wilderness to starve. But there was no help for it, grievous as it might seem, and the animals were shot to end their misery. . .
The last day’s journey before reaching Connell’s prairie cannot be forgotten. It came near having a tragic ending. Several days before, the teams being so jaded, it was decided that it would be good policy to drive to the prairie and let them recruit on the luxuriant bunch grass. This was done and the women and children and wagons were left in camp.
In a week most of the teams returned, greatly strengthened. The next day all started on foot to the prairie, and notwithstanding the fact that but few if any of the party had any breakfast all were jubilant over the prospect of getting out of the wilderness to a place where food could be obtained for man as well as beast. All the food our family had that day consisted of a scanty supply of salal berries picked as we trudged along.
The party generally were short of provisions. At this time our teams had dwindled down to two horses and two yoke of oxen. We had one wagon, the other having been abandoned. Joel Risdon, was our teamster, and his entire load was the bedding, cooking utensils, and a scanty supply of clothing much the worse for wear. Father, having the horses in charge, did not return to camp because the animals were in such a wretched condition.
My duty that day was to assist my mother as best I could in taking care of three younger children, a sister nearly seven years old, a brother three and a half, and the baby, ten months old. I carried the little brother on my back part of the time, and when not so engaged, did what I Could to lighten my mother’s burden by carrying the baby.
Along the middle of the afternoon one of the crossings of the White River was reached. At that point it was not fordable, and the teams had to make a detour of a mile down stream in order to find a safe crossing; then the route lay upstream to within a short distance of the place where the river was first seen. Here all on foot passed over on a huge tree which had fallen across the steam, reaching from bank to bank, a distance of over one hundred feet, and on the other side it was partially submerged, the current causing it to sway slightly. It so happened that all were ahead of us, and as we came to the big footlog, mother said she must rest a little before undertaking to cross. So I took my sister, brother and baby to the farther shore, one after the other and then was ready to aid mother.
At length she was ready to start, and after considerable effort to get up on the log she clutched my hand and we began moving. When we were approaching the further shore, the movement of the log by the water caused her to exclaim, “I can’t go, it makes me so dizzy.” “Cling to me,” I said.
When almost across she suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, I am gone !” and fell into the water. Luckily I was in reaching distance of over-hanging bushes, which were instinctively grabbed with my left hand, still clutching her left hand with my right. The cold water brought her to consciousness at once, and when she was safe on the land, after wringing out her skirts, we went on perhaps for about two miles, and then, after ascending a steep hill and emerging from the timber, we saw lights a little way off.
By this time mother was utterly exhausted and said I must find father as she could go no further. I found him in a few minutes and we bore her to the fire, and after some nourishment, only baked potatoes with out salt,-“However, for that night, she began to be herself, and was ready to move on the next day. After that we had a limited supply of provisions and got on fairly well for a time.
We saw many droves of buffalo and some antelope. We encountered many incidents, too numerous to mention. Really we must have been fortunate as we did not encounter the hardships endured by other parties. We crossed the Rocky Mountains with such ease we did not even know when we reached the summit.
We crossed the Snake River twice. At the second crossing one man accidentally was drowned. When we crossed the Grande Ronde Valley, we left the Oregon Trail and started for a new route for Puget Sound We passed by where Doctor Marcus Whitman, his wife, and twelve other while people were massacred by the Indians in 1847.
We reached the Columbia River at Fort Walla Walla (now Wallula), and had to remain there until we could whipsaw lumber with which to construct a scow to ferry our party across. When the scow was completed we placed thereon our wagons, bedding and a very little provision. Then we swam the stock which was very soon completed. Then we tackled the scow. While some were pulling, the others were busy bailing it out to keep it from sinking.
By September 8,1853, we were ready to begin our march through the sand up the bank of the Columbia to the Yakima River, eighteen miles. There we parted with the head chief of the Walla Walla Indians. He and several of his tribe had been traveling with us for several days. The chief road a fine large American roan horse with one ear slightly cropped. He had two large revolvers fastened to his saddle. He had about one hundred fine cattle, one of which he had butchered and sold to us for fifteen cents a pound as I remember. The Indian chief treated us well.