Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 14: Oregon City

Chapter 14: Oregon City:

Oregon City in October of 1850 was a city of about 1,000 people, and the capital of the Oregon Territory. To us, at the end of a long long trail, it looked huge. It was not a fort, it was not a wagon train camp, it was a city, the first we had seen since St. Joe’s six months before.

There was even a steamboat, transporting produce from farms in the valley. It appeared to be almost two towns, one above the falls and one below. In addition to the thousand regular residents, there were hundreds of pioneers at the end of the trail, hoping to figure out what to do next. The city centered on the Willamette River, a huge, deep river as wide as the Platte but much deeper. The Willamette Falls were a horseshoe waterfall, found between the larger city south of the falls and a smaller city that fronted the water above the falls. Both cities had docks, as docks both above and below the falls were needed to transport goods. As we arrived in town with our eighteen wagons, we waited for Pa to tell us where to go or what to do, but he seemed as lost as we were. None of us knew if Ma and the kids and the other families had beaten us here or were still on their way. It was cold and wet, and we would all need to figure out where to stay for the winter before we could settle and begin to set up farms in the spring.

We made a camp northeast of town, and James and I rode in with Pa while other men of the wagon train stayed with the wagons. It was the biggest settlement we’d seen since St. Joseph, Missouri and as we made our way into the bustling busy town, we were all excited though nervous. The city had a prosperous and solid bustle, the hum of people going about their lives and living well. There were also a number of camps around its edges, wagon trains, and camps of people without wagons who had ridden the river. Many of the people looked even more ragged and weakened than we did, and all had the dazed and overwhelmed expressions that I am sure we shared that said “Now what?”

The city lay between great bluffs to the east and the river to the west, stretched along its shore. There were at least two visible mills, churches, granaries, and clapboard houses lining a street that was largely gone to mud. There were at least four stores in the town and it was to the northernmost of these that we went first.

“I have just completed the Oregon Trail from Missouri and would like to inquire about making land claims.” Pa asked in the store. “I would also like to know if a family has passed through looking for the Luckey’s. My wife and son in law and youngest children rode the Columbia River while the older boys and I took stock over the Barlow Road, and we were hoping to meet up here in Oregon City.”

“Best bet on your family is the steam boat. It comes down from the Columbia every other day.” The shopkeeper said, like he probably had said to hundreds of others, “Land claims are made down at the Surveyor’s office, but most people wait to put in their claim until they have been down the valley and picked out a spot.”

“Thank you, sir, you’ve been most helpful.” We followed Pa out of the store and down the street to the steam ship office. We were thinking river travel ought to be faster than driving over that horrible trail, and they should be waiting here for us.

“Any word on a family named Luckey?” Pa asked as we walked into the steamship office, “We left The Dalles 18 days ago travelling over the Barlow Road, after we saw my wife and youngest kids secured with a guide down the river.”

The office manager shook his head. “No one by that name. Usually takes 2-3 weeks to float the river, gather belongings, and get here on a steam boat. You’ve got another week or so before I’d get concerned. Next steamboat arrives Thursday afternoon from the North.”

We thanked him and went on our way. It was a Tuesday, so we had at least two days to wait and see whether they were on the steam boat or not. We walked to the surveyor’s office. The map on his wall showed a v-shaped valley with land claims hatched in red, many in the top quarter of the V, fewer down at the bottom. Pa made his way to the desk while the man smoked his pipe and waited. “We are just off the trail and wanted to know the process for staking our claim.”

“Most folks winter round about here, then head down in the spring, looking for a likely site. Once they stake one out and start a cabin, they can come back up and put in their papers.” The man said around his pipe. “Married men get 640 acres and single men over 16 get 320. Some folks who want to set up shops get a smaller claim and a city lot as well. Not too many stores, blacksmiths, or other business’s operating down in the valley yet, and that’s where the best money is I would bet.”

“This town seems right crowded to me,” Pa said to the surveyor, “any other places we could winter nearby?”

The man tapped the map about two inches southwest of Oregon City. “Champoeg is a good little town, about 400 or so there, or you could settle down by the Lee Mission, they call that town Salem now.” He tapped another inch to the southeast. “You’d want to follow the path down past the falls to continue down into the valley. Don’t know what sort of provisions and stock you got, but I wouldn’t go much further out without some supplies and warmer clothes.”

We had noticed the cold on this side of the mountains. It wasn’t the blasting winter cold of Fort Des Moines, but instead a damp cold that settled in your bones and was hard to warm up, no matter how close you sat to the fire.

“We may be looking to sell some of our stock.” Pa continued, “We don’t have a lot left after the trip out here.”

“Folks never do,” said the surveyor with a sigh, “When all you got has to fit in a wagon, that trip’ll use it right up. But what they say is true,” he said with a slow smile, “This here land is good and fertile, crops grow well and people make money here pretty quick. Just choose a good piece of land far enough from the rivers to avoid floods.”

Pa thanked him and we left, no more certain what to do than before. We knew we needed to wait until our river folk got here to make any big move, and we knew we needed to repair and replenish our supplies before heading out in the spring to look for a land claim. Before heading back to the men and the wagons, we decided to walk the length of the street one time, and see what else Oregon City had to offer.

It was near the end of the street that we saw a giant of a man, tall and slender, slightly stooped, with a mane of thick white hair. Pa smiled at him and said, “Sir, you must be Doctor McLoughlin, we have heard that you’re the man to see at the end of the Oregon Trail.”

“Indeed, and what might your name be, sir?” The man said, his stern, sad face coming alive.

“My name is William Luckey. Our train split up in The Dalles, and we are waiting for the other half to arrive from the river, including my wife. We are at a loss as to what to do for the winter now that we are here.” Pa seemed hesitant. Admitting that he didn’t know what to do, or asking for help did not come naturally to him.

“Well, there are quite a few new families here in town. The best bet would be for you all to continue down to Champoeg, it’s about a week or so to get down there, and there is a lot more food for the winter there than here.” As he finished this sentence, he turned to the front of a store, his store, and held the door open to us. “So tell me, how did your outfit hold up out on the trail?”

Pa began, “Well, we still have our four oxen, three horses, and a wagon. As long as my wife and kids did ok on the river, we have blacksmithing tools though no forge, guns, though few bullets left, some blankets and clothes, but our shoes are in poor repair, we are low on food and very low on cash. We brought seed with us for a first crop, but we lost that on one of the river crossings.”, he sighed, then continued, “We were hoping to sell two of the oxen for some of what we need to start out in the spring.”

“You are coming in in better condition than many of the families I met. I will give you seed and a plow and a set of bellows so you can set up a smithy down in the valley next spring. I also can write you a letter to a man at Champoeg who will let you stay there for the winter and get yourself set up for making your claims in the spring. He has a couple of stores down there so he might hire you or your boys to work off meals and lodging through the winter. You could set up a blacksmith shop in his store and probably make good money through this winter doing work for them.”

“I ain’t used to bein in a man’s debt. Every time I go down that road, a crop fails or we lose everything in a flood or fire. I can’t say when I could pay you back.” Pa sounded ashamed and I understood. He was used to standing on his own feet, and this was charity, something he scorned.

“The act of coming out here took courage, man.” I have been trying for years to convince people to make the trek, even when my government told me not to. You are here, and you have a backbone and will make a success. That’s going to settle this country, and pay me back. Plus, if you are really concerned, the blacksmithin you do in Champoeg will help everyone around and pay back more than I am starting you out with.” Dr. McLoughlin sounded sincere, and I believed he was.

“Well, that’s awful thoughtful of you.” Said Pa. “What about the other men in the caravan? I can vouch for their stamina and courage coming out here with us, sticking in out when our guide died in the Blue Mountains, staying with us after every disease and accident.”

“Every man has a place.” Dr. McLoughlin stated firmly, “I have learned in my years out here to judge character by how a man talks and acts before he has a chance to prove anything. You bring those men here, and we’ll see.” He went around to the back of his store, grabbing several small bags of seeds and handing them to us boys. “Stop by and get the plow and the bellows too,” he said. “I don’t have an anvil, but I can put in an order from back east and get one.”

“Much obliged,” said Pa with a little nod of his head. “We’ll be back this way next fall after we get our first crop in.”

We walked back towards the north, seeds in tow. Pa seemed more confident after talking to Dr. McLoughlin, like confidence of the man rubbed off on him. We walked back out of town to where the wagons were circled, up and up to the fire where the men and boys and few women of our wagon train were huddled up against the cold and damp.

“Now that we’re here, we have to make some decisions.” Pa started. “My family is going to winter down in Champoeg and we are going to start down to the valley to stake our claims as soon as spring warms up. If any of you don’t know what to do next, or have family already here and need help to find them, Dr. McLoughlin in the city is a great help. Even if you do have an idea, talking to McLoughlin might be a good idea. He has been here longer than anyone and has good ideas about how to proceed.”

“My brother and his family have a claim down by Salem, by the Lee Mission. That is where we’ll be going.” Said a man named Cornelius, “Salem isn’t too far, so I think we will just winter there.”

“I might just try my luck here,” Said a man named Thomas, “This looks like a right prosperous town.”

Soon, the men were all talking among themselves, getting excited, full of hope. It was almost like they needed to wake up from the day to day struggle of the journey to realize we were in Oregon and it was time to start planning. Several of the men said they’d wait for families to come down the river like we would. Several others began to take inventory in their wagons of what they had to start off with and what had survived the trip.

Pa turned to James and Me and said, “Boys, I have to confess that when Mr. Jones died and I took over, I lost sight of everything else. I felt responsible for all these other families and their well being. Now that we are here, each of us needs to take care of his own and that means planning our family’s future. As I looked at the map in that surveyors office, I was thinking we ought to strike out for the bottom of that valley, all traffic to California from Oregon will have to go that way, and it would be a good place to set up a blacksmith shop and Nathan and Nancy’s school. The farm ought to be close, but off the wagon pathway. We’ll look for a spot when we get down there in the spring. In the meantime, we need to figure out what we need to get to set up. In the morning, Jim, you and Will take two of the oxen down to the livery and see about selling them. I’ll take the wagon to McLoughlin’s store to see about pickin up the bellows and plow.”

The next morning, the men broke camp early, some left for good, others just for a few hours to see the lay of the town or talk to someone about their next move. The Wagon Train was no more, and we were back to being a family again.

We hitched up our wagon and headed to McLoughlin’s store. It was a busy, prosperous looking place without the anxiety of the stores in St. Joseph where people were heading out onto the trail.

James and I went around back and a clerk said “You boys are with that blacksmith Luckey, aren’t you? Here are your bellows and plow.”

We loaded them into the wagon, shuffling things around to make room for them. Both were used, but in good shape, and ready for use. We then unhitched two of the oxen and led them down to the livery further into the town.

“I deal in horses,” He said after we asked about selling them, “but Abernathy buys oxen and usually pays well for them. Some of the farmers prefer them because Indians won’t steal them like they’d steal a horse.”

It occurred to me as James and I walked to Abernathy’s that I hadn’t seen any Indians in this city. I asked James, “Have you seen any Indians since we got here?”

He shook his head and I continued, “I wonder why, this is a big town, but the country around here isn’t all settled.”

“Most of the Indians native to this area died of disease years ago. We’ll see a few in the spring who come in to trade. Feeling is pretty high against them though after that Whitman Massacre.” It was Dr. McLoughlin who heard me and answered as he came around the corner. “You’ll see some down in the valley when you go.” He said to us, smiling.

We walked with him to Abernathy’s, where he stood by as we sold our oxen. Then we walked to his store as he told us stories of the valley before settlers came, of the Indians fishing here at Willamette Falls much like they did at Celilio, of the flower filled grasslands, formed when the Indians burned the fields to hunt deer or clear fields to plant crops. We were surprised, we had no idea that Indians planted crops, but apparently these Kalapuya did it for hundreds or thousands of years. He told us of Vancouver Island and Rupert in the far north, of the Sandwich Islands way out in the Pacific, and we listened to his stories fascinated.

When we reached his store, Pa was loading bundles of supplies into the wagon. “I was about to come looking for you two.” He said with a smile, “Did you sell those two oxen?”

Jim handed him some money, “We got a good price for them, more than we paid in Iowa.”

“Most of the settlers come here with Oxen, but few sell them.” Dr. McLoughlin said, “Having four when you arrived is a big benefit.”

“Well, sir, I have to thank you for lighting a fire under us. I was kind of lost when we arrived. After all that travel, I almost forgot what we came here for.” Pa shook Dr. McLoughlin’s hand and turned to us. “Boys, take the wagon south and set up a camp site where there is some grass for the oxen and horses. I have one more stop to make.”

He walked down the street with McLoughlin, and I stepped up into the wagon while James gathered the lead ropes of the other horses and mounted his own. We found a likely spot and set up our camp, and were near done when Pa came out toward us several hours later.

“Boys, Ma and the others are on the steamboat and will be here tomorrow. A horse messenger delivered the passenger list to the steamship office this morning.”

We all three breathed a sigh of relief. We had heard too many stories of horrors rafting down the Columbia since we had entered Oregon City and were beginning to worry. As we settled down for the night, for the first time since before Fort Bridger months before, Pa had the leisure to pull out his fiddle and we all sang around our campfire for a good hour before we went to bed. It was then I realized how hard the trip had been on Pa. He was just 43, but had grey hair at the edges, stiff, gnarled hands from years of hard work, and had worn a worried frown much of our trip, even before Mr. Jones death, with the worries of being so depended on as blacksmith of the wagon train. His worries had multiplied after the accident, taking full responsibility for so many families and their hopes and needs. This was the first night it was just us again, and Pa was able to relax and unwind in a way we had almost forgotten that he could.

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