Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 16: Searching for a Homestead

Chapter 16: Searching for a Homestead:

The rain of the Oregon winter seemed never ending, and as February rolled into March, Pa fretted about looking for a claim, but the roads were too muddy for the wagon. Finally, we decided that we would leave the wagon, leave Nathan, Warren, and Allen, and buy a fourth horse so James, John and I could join Pa on the search for a claim. We made our way down to the livery stable, and it appeared that others had the same idea. Most of the men who were wintering in Champoeg and planning to make spring claims were at the livery stable on that clear March morning, looking for horses or picking up horses they had boarded there. We chose a sturdy young mare that looked promising, and paid for her, then returned home to pack our packs on the back of our horses. We packed, said goodbyes, and headed out later that same morning.

The first day we rode about 40 miles along the Willamette River until we came to a place where there was bustle and busy activity. A man named Joseph Avery had built a store and laid out lots for a town he called Marysville where the Willamette River met Mary’s River from the West. Another man named William Dixon was building a ferry to cross the Willamette into the new town site from the east. This was the town where the Legislature had decided the University would eventually be built and there was its plot, laid out on the west end of the town. There were other men there, a few looking at lots, considering opening stores, liveries, or other businesses, and one man talking of building a church in the new town. We camped on the east side of the river, across from the town site, but Pa was worried again, if someone was building a town this far south, would he find the land he desired?

We continued south and began to look at the land with a considering eye and thought about what we wanted in a land claim. We wanted river frontage, because water transport was most likely to be the best way to get our farm produce up to a city where we could sell it. We wanted a bit of higher land to build a cabin on, and we needed some timber on our land to use for building and as firewood for heat. We wanted some settlement around us, Ma would want neighbors and Nancy enough of a town to have a school, and even Pa wanted to set up a blacksmith shop, but we wanted our space too. As we made our way south of Marysville, we slowed down, following creeks away from the river to see where they led and what kind of land they bounded. We took four days to slowly travel the forty or so miles from Marysville to the next sign of civilization.

During that four days, we saw two small bands of Indians, both were apparently family groups of ten to twenty people. They spoke a variation of the language that the Indians who visited Champoeg spoke, though there were some differences. They did not seem hostile. The first group avoided us. When they saw us riding along the river, they moved up into the woods quickly away from us. The second group traded with us, bringing us dried venison and fish and a fish trap constructed unlike any we had seen before and trading them for a steel knife and a shirt.

The day after we traded with the Indians, we came to a cabin on a small hill. As we climbed towards it, we could see a couple of other cabins to the west. We arrived at the cabin and met the man there named Eugene Skinner. He said that part of his claim down below the hill along the river was going to be a town, and that he and another man would be laying out lots later in the fall.

“I think we’ll be settling hereabouts,” Pa said to him, and we will want a lot in the town to set up a blacksmith forge.”

“That’s good, we will need a blacksmith down here, we can’t keep relying on Oregon City or even Salem for everything. It rains too much to rely on the roads through the winter, so we need to have local businesses like blacksmiths and carpenters and the like.” Said Skinner gruffly. “We are building up down here, we have had a dozen or so come down and stake claims over this last month, and we have a few farm claims scattered around this area. Elijah and a couple of others are off to the southeast, and a few more are off to the west and to the east.” He pointed towards a low rounded mountain to the southeast and the lowland west of him.

A woman came out of the cabin at the sound of voices with a little girl clinging to her skirts. He introduced her as his wife Mary and their daughter Leonora who had been born in 1848 right there in the cabin.

“My wife and daughter will be glad to see other women and families in the area,” Pa said with a smile. “We will be bringing them down as soon as we set a claim and build cabins for them. My daughter and her husband just had a baby last month and we wanted a settled place for them to come to.”

“Well, I’ll sure welcome more womenfolk,” said Mary, “This here Eugene City is going to be the center of everything down here.”

“Well, Mary there is Bristow’s Pleasant Hill down the way.” Said Skinner with a grin, we don’t know this town will be the center.”

She rolled her eyes at him and turned to go back inside, “You all bring your womenfolk here to meet me when you bring them down.” She said to Pa as she went back inside.

We set up a camp on Skinner’s hill with his permission, and decided we’d scout out from there looking for sites for our homestead. That first day, we headed southeast towards what Skinner had called Bristow’s Pleasant Hill. We traveled an hour or so down the slope of Skinner’s hill through a marshy wetland then up a rise to the east of the rounded hill we had seen. We topped a rise and saw Bristow’s claim, a beautiful, peaceful cabin built as a double house with a covered porch between two rectangular cabins. Behind the house was a garden plowed and waiting to plant, some grazing stock, and a couple of other cabins down the hill a ways. A man with a shock of grey hair and spectacles on his face saw us and waved and we made our way towards him.

“Welcome folks, my name’s Bristow.” The man said with a firm handshake first for Pa then for us boys.

“My name’s Luckey. Just scoutin’ for some land to claim.” Pa replied.

“Good land south of us, also to the northeast. Land to the west is a little swampy and if you go too far south to the next valley, you might run into some trouble from the Umpqua.”

A shout came from one of the cabins and about a dozen children came out of the front door and started playing in the yard. “Our school.” Said Bristow proudly, “first one in this part of the state.”

“My daughter was looking at being a school teacher, but she and her husband just had a baby up in Champoeg over the winter.” Pa said reflectively. “she will be glad to know there is education down here.”

“We started using my first cabin as a school the fall after I built my home. We use that cabin for now as a small school, and we use it as a church on Sundays as well.”

“Right civilized down here.” Pa was impressed. “Well looks like this area is mostly claimed, think we’ll head off that way.” He pointed northeast, east of the round hill we had seen from Skinner’s cabin. “Much obliged to you for the hospitality.”

“Any time, Luckey, you let me know if there is anything you need.”

We rode off northwards towards the hill, eventually coming to a river too swollen with snow melt to cross. We followed the river up to the east of the round mountain, then climbed to the top of the rounded mountain to get a view of the land around. It was not too steep, and gave us a great view of the valley all around us. Just north of the mountain there was a claim, we could look to the southwest and see Bristow’s claim, and off to the northwest in the distance we could see claims below the hill where Skinner lived. As we looked off to the north, we saw the main river, the Willamette join with a river from the east. It looked like the north of that river was unoccupied and good land, so we made our way down the north slope of the hill towards the claim we had seen there.

We came upon a cabin south of the river, and a ferry. We met a man there named Elias Briggs, who’s family was in the cabin. He had fenced in an area of a natural spring of fresh water, built his cabin nearby, and had livestock grazing on his spring field. He ferried us across the river and we explored north of that river until dark, camping out in the low hills of the area. In the morning, we had found our claim, a few miles north of Briggs claim, and a few miles west of a claim by a man named Felix Scott, which was along a small river he had called the Mohawk, we found land that stretched from the Willamette River up a slope into some hills that were covered with timber.

Pa and John made a camp there, while James and I went back down to Brigg’s ferry, and crossed the river, then followed it back to the west towards Skinner’s hill. We climbed his hill and told him about out claim, packed up our camp there, and returned back to Pa and John.

Pa had stepped off the claim and blazed trees to mark the claim already, and we began to seek out straight strong trees to make logs to build a cabin. This cabin was just for the first year or two, and so we did not need to make it as nice as the one up in Champoeg where we had stayed the winter. We cut the logs one by one, and dragged them to the homesite, and debarked them. After notching them on the bottom so water would not pool up, we set up skids to move them into place, building up our log walls one by one laying them crosswise in a square of about 25 feet.

Two weeks of solid hard work by all four of us, and we had a solid square, one big room with a dirt floor. We cut out a door opening, and framed the doorway with sawn lumber from Scott’s mill to frame it, and did the same on the opposite wall with a smaller rectangle for a fireplace. The cabin would not have a window, but again, we only planned to live in it for the first year or so.

Felix Scott over on the Mohawk had started a mill, and we bought the sawn lumber from him to frame the door and fire place and to create rafters to build a sloped roof. We made shakes from the bark we had removed from our logs, and used pitch to waterproof the joints at the top. We collected stone from the river and brought them up to build the chimney, and after a few weeks that passed in a blur, we had a rough cabin in which to spend our first winter.

By the time we had completed the cabin and marked the claim, it was late April and the weather was getting warmer. Pa was hesitant to leave us boys to hold the claim, but was also hesitant to leave it unguarded. He brought Briggs and Scott to sign that they had witnessed our claim, and we all packed up to go. We rode over to Skinner’s hill and let him know about our claim and where it was.

People were improving lots in his city, and Pa claimed one on the west end of the town for his eventual blacksmith shop. Then we rode back up, following the river on its west bank back up to Champoeg. We had a home, now the hard work would begin.

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