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 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.
The principal game in this section was antelope and jack rabbits, of which we got our share.
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 soon discovered that the stream by which we were camped had plenty of salmon in it. I had a fine five tined steel spear with me, but the fish kept out of reach in deep water.
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.