Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 15: Reunited

Chapter 15: Reunited:

We packed up our wagon with our new possessions and old, and made our way early that next morning to the dock where the steam ship would arrive to Oregon City from the Columbia River. We were all excited to see Ma, Nathan and Nancy, John, Warren, and Allen again. It had been nearly three weeks, and after the continual travel together for the whole length of the Oregon Trail, we missed them all greatly. When we arrived at the dock, a small crowd had already gathered including some of the men of our wagon train also waiting for families to be reunited. There were also a lot of town people, for the steamboat also brought mail, ordered goods from Fort Vancouver or passengers and goods coming from ships coming around the Horn, the tip of South America, and most of all, news from the outside world. Oregon City was a bustling busy place, but it was isolated, and its people craved news from the world.

We waited in that growing crowd for almost two hours. The day was cold and damp, but there was no new rain, and on occasion, a weak sun even peaked through the fluffy grey clouds above us. We heard the steamship before we saw it, the chugging and lugging of the great steam engine, the crashing of water as the wheel turned to move the ship slowly down the river, eventually, the loud babble of voices on its deck. Then we saw the steam and smoke rising above the bluff along the river to the north of town, and soon had our first glimpse of the great steamship as it slowly made its way towards us. It moved slowly, but surely into full view, then angled towards the dock, where there was another delay as it slowly moved into position where sailors on the dock could grab the thrown ropes and lash them into place, and the plank was laid out to provide a smooth path to the dock for the passengers. Oblivious to the tearful and joyous reunions all around us, we waited anxiously until we saw Ma and the others in line on the deck, then make their way down the gangplank to us. Ma and Nancy had tears in their eyes as they hugged Pa and then James and I in our turn, and the boys jumped and danced excitedly around Pa anxious to tell him of their adventures on the river.

It was another hour or so for everyone’s belongings to be unloaded and for John James and I to stow them all away in the wagon, then we were all off down the street, Pa and Ma, Nancy and Nathan, Warren and Allen walking ahead of the wagon while John and I sat on its seat, John driving, and James rode his horse behind, leading the other horses. The absence of two oxen was noticed and explained to Ma and Nancy, then suddenly, Pa stopped in front of a large white three story house and told John to tie the oxen and James and I to tie the horses to its hitching post. A servant stepped out of the front door and welcomed us to the McLoughlin House, and with Ma in stunned silence and Nancy grinning, we all walked in and sat down to the fanciest meal we had ever seen. John McLoughlin and his wife Marguerite, his daughter Eloisa and her three children, and a few other new invited pioneers sat around a table gleaming with china and silver, and were served several courses of the best food we had ever tasted.

Pa had arranged that Ma’s first meal in Oregon would be unforgettable and among the finest she had ever eaten. The meal stretched on for a couple of hours, and the McLoughlin’s were gracious hosts. We heard stories of the Hudson Bay Company days, and Fort Vancouver, as well as stories of the settlers over the last ten years and how Oregon was growing and thriving.

As we left that evening, Pa had in his possession a letter of introduction to a man in Champoeg who might be able to provide a place for us to stay through the winter.

The drive to Champoeg through the lush valley of rolling hills and grassy plains dotted with oak trees was much easier than the travel we had become accustomed to. We followed the road along the river, and it took us just three days to get from Oregon City to Champoeg, traveling slow and easy.

Champoeg was smaller than Oregon City but no less prosperous. It included a grist mill, a sawmill, at least three stores, and about 60 homes laid out in an organized grid of streets along the bank of the river. The buildings were wooden structures , most painted with whitewash, buildings that shone white in the weak early November sun. Three stores, two churches, and a big warehouse were located on the river side of the street, with the mills on the far side of town and houses mostly on the other side of the river street or one of the parallel streets. Most houses in the town had a lot with fruit trees, a shed for a dairy cow or horses, or a worked up patch of garden behind the home, and none of them were fenced. There were three parallel streets along the riverside, the one closest to the river fronting all of the businesses. The main street coming into the town was the one closest to the river. It was muddy, but passable as we pulled up in front of the first store in town. Pa went in and got directions, and we passed through the town to the other end, where a livery was located across the street from a blacksmith shop, between the sawmill and the grist mill. Pa went into the blacksmith shop and talked to the smith there, and came out smiling.

“Looks like the older boys and I will be able to work here at this smith to earn our keep, and we can plan on heading out in the spring to make our claim.” Pa said, a smile on his face. “The smith says he is the only one south of Oregon City and that if we set up down in the valley, we ought to do well.”

“Where are we staying through the winter?” Ma asked anxiously, “Nancy’s baby is due in March, and we ought to be somewhere that she can rest when her time is close and recover after the birth.”

“I figure I’ll take Nathan and the older boys in March or so, maybe after the baby comes. It would be good to look at land when the snow melts so we can stake a claim that’s less likely to flood. Once we have a place, we will have to come back up to the surveyor’s office to put in our claims, and when we do, we can bring the rest of you back down with us. There is a family that left last Spring to go to the gold rush in California and they gave their house to the blacksmith who has a brother coming out next summer from Illinois. He will let us use it until next fall when they arrive if Nancy needs it that long.”

Ma was never demonstrative, with Pa in front of us kids, but she hugged and kissed him after he said this, “You thought of everything Will, thank you so much.”

We took days to unpack from the wagon, because not all of our belongings were to go into this temporary house. Pa’s blacksmithing tools went into a lean to on the side of the house since the smith we would work for was fully stocked, and some items we wouldn’t need, like Ma’s wedding dress, and some other things were also packed tightly and stored in the lean to. Clothing Ma brought in to the house, because she planned to patch and repair almost all of it. We had few kitchen supplies, and no furniture.

The house was a single story, with hewn logs, cut at the sawmill in Oregon City and transported down to Champoeg by steam ship. It had three rooms and a wood plank floor, and though it lacked the sleeping loft for us kids, it was bigger than our house in Fort Des Moines . The big room, taking up about two thirds of the space consisted of a front door with windows to either side, all facing the street to the north, three blocks from the river that peeked through between the houses and traffic in front of us. A porch ran the length of the front of the house, covered with a low step immediately in front of the door. The stone chimney and fireplace were on the west wall, with a swinging hook system to hang a Dutch oven over the flames to cook soup or stews. The back rooms were identical, each small with a doorway that we hung a blanket across, one for Nancy and Nathan and the other for Ma and Pa. Us boys unrolled blankets in front of the fireplace, and in the morning, rolled them up and stored them along the east wall. Dried goods, salted venison and beef, and strung vegetables from the last years garden were hung in the lean to, while watertight canisters of coffee and flour and a small tin of salt were on a rude little shelf next to the fireplace. Pegs to hang coats were on the north end of the east wall, and our boots or shoes would line up underneath them. The house had been painted with whitewash on the outside, to protect the wood from weather damage, though on the inside, it was bare wood. There was a small orchard of apple trees behind the house, eight trees, and the outhouse just beyond them next to a shed with four stalls, one for the oxen to share and the others for the horses.

Our second day in town, Nathan informed us that he had found a job at the shipping warehouse owned by a steamship company that sent wheat, vegetables, and other goods up to Oregon City and returned with mail that made its way around the Horn. In addition to the mail, they brought down items Oregon didn’t have yet like glass for windows or nails, or barrels for water. He had gotten an advance on his first paycheck and bought wood to make a crib for the new baby.

Pa had gotten an advance too, and used the money to buy some wool and linen so Ma could make sheets, blankets, socks, and shirts for us all, and wood to make a table, benches, and a chicken coop. We made the chicken coop first, because Pa also bought a few chickens who were living in the lean to and Ma didn’t much like their smell, though she loved the fresh eggs after six months of trail food. Then he made a table, two benches, and two extra stools. Later on, he bought more wood to make Ma and Nancy bed frames.

So we settled happily into our first winter in Oregon. Pa and Nathan would leave every morning for work early, sometimes Pa would take one of us boys to the blacksmith shop if they were busy, once a week when the steamship came into town, Nathan would take one or two of us to help with unloading and sorting the shipment. There was no school in town, but in the evenings, Nathan would teach us how to do figures and sums and we’d all read an article from the newspaper brought down on the boat from Oregon City each week, saying that we needed at least some math and basic reading to run our farms or shops one day. Ma and Nancy worked hard making blankets, for even with very little snow, the damp nights were cold, and also making baby clothes and extra socks for us all.

Working at the warehouse was always fun because the shipments that came in were so interesting. Nathan would go on board the ship and be given a manifest that totaled everything on board. The passengers and their luggage would get off while we waited, then, us boys, and a few others around town, would start carrying items off the ship. Boxes would be opened, inventoried by Nathan or the warehouse owner, nailed shut, and usually labeled and stacked in the warehouse. If something were a special order for one of the people in town, it would be labeled with the correct name and if that person had not come down to meet the ship, would be set on the porch of the store next door to the great warehouse. There were usually six to ten of us young men who would work for a few hours until the steamship was unloaded, then the next day come back and carry sacks of wheat, crates of vegetables, furs, venison, fish, or other goods into the steamship, with Nathan or the store and warehouse owner Mr. Lucien writing a manifest as we loaded. After loading the ship, we’d be paid for the two days work, or more often told how much of our family account we had worked off or how much credit at the store we had earned. It was quite a feeling to know when Pa brought home the glass panes to make windows at our house at the future homestead, that we had earned those windows for Ma with the sweat of our brow.

On the days Pa would take one of us to the blacksmith shop, we would work much as we did at Fort Des Moines. We would pump the bellows, add rain water (rather than snow) to the quenching barrels, or do other work to support Pa or the smith. The smithy here in Champoeg was much smaller than the one in Iowa, but it was a busy place. The anvils were much smaller, and it took a lot longer to shape an ax head or plow shear than it had in Iowa with the smaller anvils and with a smaller fire. But the work was almost the same. The smith himself here was remarkably like the one in Fort Des Moines, hairy, grumpy, and shaped like a massive bear. Pa and the smith now and then let us boys start or finish a piece, and I looked forward to when Pa had his own shop in the valley and I could be a full apprentice.

Through the winter months, Indians would come into town to trade as well. The Indians in this area were called Kalapooya, and traveled in bands made up of extended family up to about 50 or so people. They were nomadic during the spring and summer and fall months, moving wherever the harvest was at the time, hunting and fishing in the spring, collecting berries, roots, nuts, and other foods when they were ready. Then in the fall, they would set fires and as the deer, elk, and bear ran out of the woods, braves would be waiting for them. We had never seen this kind of hunting, but in addition to being very efficient, the ash fertilized newly cleared valleys where the rain allowed grass to grow up thick and lush. Once the winter rains came in October or November, they would build long houses of bark for the winter, and stay in them through the early spring. The Tuwally Kalapooya Indians had distinct flattened heads, they used boards to cause their babies skulls to develop that way, but the Indians who came up from the south part of the valley did not appear to do this. They all spoke variations of the same language, Indians also came over from the coast to trade shells, fish, shellfish, and coastal berries and birds, and these spoke a different language. They were called Salish or Siletz. Their clothing was also quite different. The French trappers who had been in the area for nearly twenty years said the numbers of these Indians were much smaller, and that they had never really been hostile like some of the Indians further south, but they did resent the settlements being in places they used as sacred. The area where Champoeg was had been a site for trade and peaceful fishing together of the coastal and valley Indians and even sometimes the Indians from east of the Cascade mountains, as had Willamette Falls, but settlement had changed this forever. Both these places were sacred, and while some of the Indians accepted the changes with little said, others were bitter at the white Settlers and would have little to do with us.

In January, Pa took James and bought steamship tickets up to Oregon City to talk to the surveyor’s office about how to legally stake a claim and mark it off. He was very nervous about there being some catch, some mistake that would take away a claim or change the law. When they came back 2 weeks later, James said Oregon City was in uproar because the Legislature had voted to move the capital down to Salem, and build the prison in Portland and the university in Marysville further down the valley and leave Oregon City out completely. There was also anger at John McLoughlin and some men claiming that his land claim was not legal and he was not an American and couldn’t own land. All the politics bored me, but John and James were excited by it.

Pa was incensed at the treatment of Dr. McLoughlin, who he said had saved many of the thousands who had traveled to Oregon over the past seven years, and that their ingratitude was horrible. He said it was because some of the people didn’t like him for being British, while others didn’t like him being Catholic, and still others didn’t like his marrying a half Indian wife. Pa said this was all nonsense, and the character of a man is all you need to know, and his actions made his character clear.

Ma added that his wife was charming and a perfect Lady and anyone who thought less of her than of a white woman was a fool.

Pa also said the Legislature had created a new county in the south end of the valley called Lane County and that it would in time have its own surveyor and land office. He was in a hurry to stake his claim, worried that the best land would be taken, but we couldn’t leave quite yet, Nancy’s baby was coming soon.

The baby was almost a month early, but signs were clear to Ma that the baby was on its way, and Ma was concerned. There wasn’t a doctor closer that Dr. McLoughlin and another doctor up in Oregon City, and the travel would be too much for Nancy in her condition.

When the labor began, a couple of Indian women who had married Frenchmen and settled in the area before it was even a town came to help Ma with the delivery. When the baby came out, he screamed loudly, and Ma brought him out to Nathan beaming while the two women stayed in the room to tend to Nancy. Ma said he would be a strong boy, a loud scream at birth was always a good sign.

Nathan named him Thomas Marion Smith after his two brothers who were in California and planned to come up to Oregon after the gold rush. They had left Ohio in 1847 and spent two years in Oregon exploring but not settling anywhere, and had written Nathan from Sutter’s Fort last spring to convince him to join them in Oregon when they returned from the gold digging.

The first of our family born in Oregon was a huge event. Everyone in town it seemed like came to the house with a small gift to see Nathan and the baby and later Nancy as well. Nancy was up and about three days after Thomas was born, and within two weeks was her old energetic self, helping Ma, teasing us boys, and taking care of the baby as if she had been doing it her whole life. In a way, I guess she had, since she was the oldest, and had helped Ma with almost every part of raising her brothers. It made us all feel that we were truly home to have a new baby here, and we were all hopeful about the spring and our future.

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