Lucille McDonald’s Account of the Naches Pass Trail
Seattle Times (November 1 & 8, 1953)
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 pleased 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.