Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 13: The Final Stretch

Chapter 13: The Final Stretch:

We followed the Columbia River, crossing several smaller shallow rivers as they entered it. When we crossed the De Chutes River, we saw Indians catching Salmon as we had seen the Shoshone doing along the Snake. They traded us some fish for blankets and knives, but they seemed wary of us. The Cayuse War that people made such stories about, the burning of Whitman Mission, the reprisals of militia from Oregon City, it really did happen. These Indians and their wariness about wagon trains were one of the results.

The Indians here were fishing with nets, out on rickety platforms under the falls just like some of the Shoshone. Mr. Jones had said at Salmon Falls that this place, called Celilio Falls, was like Salmon Falls and Grand Ronde, a place of peace where even tribes at war would trade and fish peacefully. We watched from a distance, though, not sure by their demeanor when we traded with them that we would be welcomed by these Indians.

The Indians we met were wary because they had been through so much. The Whitman Massacre happened in part because when the Indians died of measles but most of the whites did not, some of the young men among them thought it was done intentionally and acted to make it stop. The measles had continued, and the Cayuse had sent emissaries to let the provisional government know that they had acted outside the will of the Tribe. But the battles, when a militia came from the settlements to the West had not differentiated between innocent and guilty, or even between the Cayuse and the other tribes of the area. These Indians were a remnant of a proud people with a complex culture and where they had welcomed wagon trains and missions at first, now they resented and feared them. They traded with us, but they did not love us.

From the falls and the fishing Indians, it was just a few days to The Dalles. At The Dalles, there were other wagon trains preparing for the last leg of the journey. It was nearing the end of September, and here, we had to make the decision, over the Barlow Road, or down the Columbia River on canoes or rafts. There was not yet snow on the Barlow Road though it could come any day.

The Barlow Road was steep and treacherous, but was the only way to get stock to the Willamette Valley. Sam Barlow had arrived at The Dalles, at the Wascopam Mission, in 1845, and been greeted by 60 families of settlers waiting as much as ten days and paying outrageous fees to risk floating down the Columbia to the mouth of the Willamette and then to Oregon City. He thought there must be a feasible way to get wagons across that last hundred miles and reduce the cost, the wait time, and the danger to future settlers. He traveled 25 miles south to Tygh Creek then cut a road up to the ridge of the mountains south of the great mountain. Indians told him how to make his way down, but the wagons could not yet make it and he and a small group of men proceeded on foot. The next year, they cut the road west of the pass, bridged rivers, cut a swathe among the tall dense trees, and set up toll booths, charging five dollars a wagon, and more for stock. It was a tough and expensive road, but many settlers found it more appealing than floating among the rapids down the river.

The Columbia was a frightening river, strong and powerful with rapids and many hazards to face. The currents changed with every storm, and eddys and whirlpools presented major dangers. We had the choice to make, hazard the river trip and the rapids, or the mountain road and the possible snow. And we had to make the choice without our guide. Because of our day to day trials, we had not yet talked to him about the decision he recommended for this last leg of the journey. In the end, we decided to split up the wagon train.

About half of our wagon train decided to brave the rapids of the river. They traded away their oxen and wagons and loaded their belongings into Indian canoes or tried to make their wagons into rafts. Pa and a few other families decided we would do both. It was the best way to get all of our belongings safely to Oregon City without losing the Oxen or Horses. He charged Nathan and John with watching Nancy and Ma and the young boys. They would make their way down the river with household goods in canoes. Jim and I would help Pa get the lightly loaded wagon, the horses, and the oxen over the Barlow Road so we’d have something to go on with. We all waited in The Dalles until Ma and the others could get on the river. It was expensive, but a guide was needed and found.

We waited nearly ten days at The Dalles until Ma and the rest of the wagon train could go downriver. There were tearful goodbyes and our smaller train was quiet as we headed down the road to the south. It was hard to part ways. If all went well, we’d all meet in Oregon City in a couple of weeks, but both groups had treacherous journeys ahead and anything could happen.

A few days south, we had to pay a toll for the Barlow Road. After this toll and the cost of hiring the guide for the river, we were almost out of cash. Pa led eighteen wagons, the remnant of our train, to the southwest towards the road, where the Tygh Creek led into the mountains. I drove the last wagon, and Jim rode, leading our other horses.

The road was steep and rough after that tollgate. At first, the land was dry and the wind off the mountain was bitter and cold. As we got higher, the woods got thicker and the air got colder. Even with a trail blazed between the trees, the thick woods felt almost oppressive. The oxen didn’t struggle as much as they could have because of the lighter loads of the wagon. Most of our heavy belongings, such as Pa’s blacksmith tools, Ma’s household stuff, had all gone in the canoes with Ma and Nathan and the kids. After two days in the wind swept dry canyons, we were in the thick pine forest, and on the third day, we were in a meadow near the summit of the pass. The meadow looked beautiful and lush, but the grass was a sour grass that the oxen and horses wouldn’t eat.

The fourth day, we were just south of the amazing Mount Hood, the cloud we had seen from the top of the Blue Mountains weeks before. We didn’t have much chance to enjoy the view though, because the south slope was boggy and driving the wagons through this area was very treacherous and took all of our concentration.

The sky darkened through this fourth day, and by early afternoon, snow was spitting at us as we continued through the mushy bogs with our hungry oxen. As we made our way to the downward slope, we reached a steep and dangerous section of downslope. On the West slope of the mountains, the forest was much thicker, and mostly fir rather than pine with a lot more undergrowth. The trail was narrower, winding around big trees, muddy and treacherous with a steep downslope and sudden turns. We connected logs to the back of our wagons as a drag to slow them down, and began our descent as the snow grew steadily heavier and began to stick. We weaved carefully along the narrow muddy trail, trying desperately to keep our wagons from running away, but also keep the logs from catching on the trees we had to turn sometimes sharply to go around. It was miserable stressful, exhausting work.

We were still on the steep and dangerous slope going slowly lower down from the mountain pass as the snow turned to rain. The rain turned the road to mush, and we had to stop and dig out stuck wagons several times. We were muddy, soaked through, and miserable before we reached the bottom a couple days later. Our camps in this damp wet forest were fireless because none of the abundant wood would burn because it was so wet.

At the bottom, we removed the log dragging behind our wagons and camped in a soggy misty forest. The oxen were still hungry and we were all cold and wet. It was hard to sleep when soaked, and when hunger gnawed through you and the restless oxen. We had little food and even less for the oxen, we could not light fires in the wet night with soaked wood, and we all were ready to be done with this long, wet part of the trip.

The road was better the last two days on flatter land, but the weather was not. We traveled along the Sandy River and got to Foster’s Farm and spent a day recovering before continuing to Oregon City.

It was strange as we went through the woods to see the homelike light of a cabin, and a well set up little farm ahead of us, almost like we were back in Iowa. Fosters Farm was welcoming and warm and a great sight for all of us.

Foster was a settler who was with Barlow when he built his road. He had settled near its end, and fed us a wonderful meal of beef steak, potatoes, biscuits, and slaw, charging us 50 cents each for a feast. It was one of the best meals I have ever tasted. We still never felt fully dried out, but at least we got a hot meal and our oxen were fed. From the farm in the morning, it was almost a full days ride into Oregon City.

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