The Great Trail

From, "The Centennial History of Oregon 1811-1911"
by Joseph Gaston * Volume I

The Oregon trail, or as the Indians termed it - "The Big Medicine Road" - is entitled to consideration in this connection. The great mass of people not familiar with Oregon history have the idea that the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1805 opened the trail to Oregon. As a matter of fact and history, that expedition did not locate any part of the Oregon tail. Lewis and Clark proceeded west on the proposition of ascending the Missouri river as far as possible with boats and canoes, and then crossing over the Rocky mountains to the nearest branch of the Columbia river, and then descending that branch in canoes to the ocean. That plan carried them to a crossing of the mountains three hundred miles north of the route pursued by the Hunt party six years later. The Hunt party went as far north as they dared to for fear of trouble with the Blackfeet Indians; and did not commence to locate any part of the Oregon trail until they reached "Fort Henry" on the south branch or Henry branch of Snake river. But from that point on to the Columbia river the route of the Trail was located by Hunt and members of his party. The reader will remember that in describing Hunt's troubles in the Snake river valley that after he found the Snake river was not navigable he sent out three parties - McKenzie to go north and find another branch of the Columbia river; Crooks to go down the west side of the Snake river, and Hunt, himself, with the balance of the party, to go down the east side of the Snake river. These parties determined the fact that the Snake river could not be navigated through its great canyon, nor traveled on land through that canyon. This discovery forced Hunt and Crooks to return to the route which nature had made through the Blue mountains, where Baker and La Grande are now located, and where the Indian guide piloted them through to the Umatilla river. That experience selected the route of the Trail that far. Then, in five months after Hunt reached Astoria in January, 1812, he dispatched a party under the lead of Robert Stuart to carry a report back to Astor as to the condition of affairs at Astoria. Stuart had six men and on this return trip had the benefit of the experience and observations of Hunt on his trip from the Missouri to the Columbia.

And profiting by such experience and advice crossed the Rocky mountains going eastward through the celebrated "South Pass." From that point to the Missouri river, down the Platte valley, it was plain sailing, for that part of the route had been traveled by trappers for years. It is historically correct to say that the route of the Oregon Trail was located by Wilson Price Hunt and Robert Stuart. But they traveled with Indian ponies and left few marks or traces of their route except at camping places.

They found and followed the route marked out by the maker of rivers, plains and mountains.

The First Wagon On The Trail

Finding a practicable route for a wagon way is one thing, but getting the first wagon over that route is another matter, and making a highway for thousands of wagons a still greater. To Marcus Whitman belongs the honor of attempting the first wagon haul from Missouri to Oregon. If one could transfer their personality back seventy-six years to the May morning in 1836, when Dr. Whitman and his young bride, Rev. Spalding and his bride, the invincible W.H. Gray and the two Nez Perce Indian boys, all and each with light hearts and high hopes, seated themselves in that first wagon to test all the unknown and unforseeable toils and dangers of a two-thousand-mile ride over plains, deserts, mountains and unbroken forests, they might get some idea of the courage, heroism and self-sacrifice which animated that first wagon party on its holy mission to Oregon. These two cultured women were the first white women to attempt that unequaled exploit in the history of mankind. And these two women have been well named "The Real Pioneers of Civilization in the Oregon Territory." The American Board of Missions provided for Whitman a generous outfit - blacksmith tools, plows, seed grain, clothing for two years and other necessaries, pack animals, riding horses, sixteen cows and two wagons, making in itself quite a train, and which was driven and managed by W.H. Gray and the two Indian boys. Soon after starting, the Whitman party overtook the Fitzpatrick fur traders with their carts, and then making up altogether a caravan of nineteen carts, one light wagon and two heavy wagons. On reaching Fort Laramie, at the junction of the North Platte and Laramie rivers, in what is now Laramie county, Wyoming, the fur traders' carts stopped, that being as far as it was then deemed practicable for wheeled vehicles, but on account of the enfeebled condition of Mrs. Spalding, Whitman decided to retain the lighter of his two wagons and leave the others behind. In this way Mrs. Spalding was carried on safely and comfortably through the South Pass of the Rocky mountains, following a natural highway. At Green river, Whitman met the annual rendezvous of the fur traders, and also Captain Wyeth, returning from his second expedition to Oregon. Here both the fur traders and Wyeth united in advising Whitman not to attempt to go on with his wagon, which they assured him would not only give him great trouble, but dangerously delay his trip. Nevertheless, the courageous Whitman resolved to take his wagon along, and did so successfully, reaching Fort Hall in what is now Bingham county, Idaho, July 24, 1836. Here Whitman and his party had to stop for rest and repairs, and here he was again warned that he could not travel through that country with his wagon. Loth to give up the wagon enterprise, the Doctor resolved on a compromise - he would convert the wagon into a cart, proceeding with the front axle, fore wheels and tonglue, and put the hind axle and wheels on top as cargo; and in that shape the wagon was drawn down through the Snake river valley, over lava rocks, sand plains and sage brush a distance of two hundred and fifty miles to old Fort Boise. And there the old historical wagon - the first to pass the Rocky mountains - was left because the horses and the whole party had become so tired out with the labor of the long journey, it was not safe to try to drag it through to the Columbia river.

But Whitman's wagon did not make a wagon road. It had followed the route found by Hunt and Stuart, and had blazed the way, and that was honor enough. Three years later, Dr. Robert Newell and others concluding to leave the Rocky mountain region and come to Oregon, came through by Fort Boise, and picked up the remains of Whitman's wagon, and brought it safely through with their wagons, and delivered it up to the Doctor at Wailatpu Mission.

The experience of Dr. Whitman showed that it was not an impossible undertaking to bring wagons from the Missouri river through the South Pass of the Rocky mountains to Fort Hall. And six years later, that party of emigrants coming into Oregon with Dr. White, United States Indian agent, brought nineteen wagons as far as Fort Hall and then traded or sold them to the agent of The Hudson's Bay Company, and came on to Oregon with horses. That was a very valuable addition to the population of Oregon, bringing in some very good men who were active in organizing the provisional government.

Their names are as follows: Thos. Boggs, Gabriel Brown, Wm. Brown, James Brown, Hugh Burns, G.W. Bellamy, Barnum, Winston, Bennett, Vandeman, Bennett, Bailey, Bridges, Nathaniel Crocker, Nathan Coombs, Patrick Clark, Alexander Copeland, Medorem Crawford, A.N. Coats, Jas. Coats, John Dearum, John Daubenbiss, Samuel Davis, Allen Davie, John Force, Jas. Force, Foster, Jos. Gibbs, Girtman, Lansford W. Hastings, John Hofstetter, J.M. Hudspeth, Hardin Jones, Columbia Lancaster, Reuben Allen, A.L. Lovejoy, S.W. Moss, J.L. Morrison, John McKay, Alexander McKay, Dutch Paul, Walter Pomeroy, J.H. Petty, Dwight Pomeroy, J.R. Robb, T.J. Shadden, Owen Sumner, Andrew Smith, A.D. Smith, Darling Smith, A. Towner, Joel Turnham, David Weston, Elijah White. Of these, ten had families, as follows: Gabriel Brown, Mr. Bennett, Jas. Force, Mr. Girtman, Columbia Lancaster, Walter Pomeroy, J.W. Perry, T.J. Shadden, Owen Sumner and Andrew Smith. But Hastings gives the force of armed men as eighty, and Fremont as sixty-four. Crawford says the whole number of emigrants was one hundred and five. The largest number given by any authority is one hundred and sixty. Lovejoy says about seventy were able to stand guard. White's statement that there were one hundred and twelve persons in the company when it organized, and that this number was augmented on the road until it reached one hundred and twenty-five, is probably the most reliable, and agrees with the account given in Lee and Frost's Oregon.

Now the "Trail is made, and Whitman made the Trail;" but there is yet no wagon road. The emigration of 1843 made the wagon road, now immortalized by the travelers thereon, and by its great results as "The Oregon Trail." When the wagon train of 1843 pulled out from Fitzhugh's Mill, near Independence, Missouri, the members of that train soon found that there must be an advance guard to clear the way. Then at the next camp they organized a party of fifteen or twenty men varying from day to day as needed, who were placed under the lead and command of a captain. These men rode horseback ahead of the train, each armed with a rifle and carrying axes, picks and shovels, to fight Indians if necessary, but to be sure to make a road the ox teams could draw the wagons over. This party of men made the road - The Oregon Trail - from day to day; and they were "The Royal Sappers and Miners" that made the way across the two thousand miles of plains, deserts, sage, brush and mountains from the Missouri to the Columbia. And when the grand caravan of ox teams, loose cattle, horses and wagons passed over it, they left behind them a great wide road that all subsequent travelers and emigrations followed for more than twenty years and until the Union Pacific Railroad was opened. And that grand highway of enterprise, heroism and civilization left its impress wide and deep, not only on the soil, the rocks and the mountains, but on all the institutions of men to make mankind better, and extend and exalt the principles and glory of the great Republic.

The following list contains the names of every male member of that great train over the age of sixteen years. It was prepared by J.W. Nesmith when the train was organized, and was preserved among his papers for a third century before given for publication. All reached the Willamette valley except a few, the exceptions being designated by marks and foot notes:

Please Click Here to Read the "Nesmith Address"
Please Click Here For the Roll of 1843

In addition to the above were the following gentlemen connected with the various Protestant Missions:

Abernethy, George; Babcock, Dr. Ira L.; Beers, Alanson; Brewer, H.B.; Campbell, Hamilton; Clarke, Harvey; Eells, Cushing; Gray, W.H.; Hines, Gustavus; Judson, L.H.; Lee, Jason; Leslie, David; Parrish, J.L.; Perkins, H.K.W.; Raymond, W.W.; Spalding, H.H.; Walker, E.; Waller, A.F.; White, Dr. Elijah; Whitman, Dr. M.; Willson, Wm. H.

In addition to these were some fifty former employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, nearly all of whom had settled on French Prairie, and a number of priests, connected with the Catholic mission, making a total male population at the close of the year 1843 of about four hundred and thirty, exclusive of the officers and actual servants of the Hudson's Bay Company.

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