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.-Spelling was his)
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 mighty 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.