Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 17: Settling In

Chapter 17: Settling In:

The valley was full of activity as we returned north. There were settlers who had wintered in Oregon City and the new city of Portland and Champoeg and Lee’s Mission who were now all over the valley choosing land claims. There were settlers who had come in the mid forties returning from gold hunting ventures in California and settling on claims they had already chosen. There was talk of Indian troubles in the south of Oregon, especially down by the Klamath and Rogue Rivers. Buildings were going up when we reached Marysville and there was activity at a plotted site called Thorp’s Town of Independence north of Marysville. As we arrived in Champoeg, there was a hum of activity around the town. Pa stopped to say hello to the family, then immediately lit out for Oregon City to put in his claim. Us boys stayed and helped Ma and Nancy and Nathan pack everything up.

“Pa has a claim northeast of Eugene City.” John was saying to Ma and Nancy as I came in.

“And he also has a lot in the town for a blacksmith forge.” James added almost on top of him

“There is a school already down there at Pleasant Hill, run by a man named Bristow.” John added to Nancy.

The boys were very excited to be back, and were telling the family all we had done and saw. The family was all excited to hear too, and had news of their own.

“Your Uncle George will be coming over with my Ma and Pa and his family next year.” Ma told us, smiling. “We got a letter that came around the Horn to Oregon City while you were all gone. We’ve got a couple of years to make everything ready for them and settle into a home. Well, we’d better all start packing up. I’m sure your Pa will want to head out to the new site as soon as we can.”

Over the next week, we loaded the wagon as tight as we could. With the furniture Pa had made and the things we had acquired over the winter, it was packed more than full. Nathan came back one day with a buckboard he had bought from Lucien the warehouse owner, and we cheerfully packed the rest of our belongings into it. Going just 80 or so miles and on mostly flat ground, the horses could easily pull the buckboard, and the two remaining oxen pull the wagon, and we could carry far more that way than trying to fit it all into the wagon.

When Pa got back the next week, he was impressed that we were all ready to go. He had made arrangements with Dr. McLoughlin to order a full sized anvil from the East and have it delivered around the horn, probably next summer. He also came back with news. The company that ran steam ships between Champoeg and Oregon City planned to run their line as far as Marysville by this fall. There was talk of an eventual stage coach line, but there were not good enough roads yet. There were supposed to be a lot more emigrants on the trail this year than last. Oregon City had its first hanging, a man from down by Salem who shot his neighbor in an argument over some pigs.

Ma shared her letter from her brother George with Pa, and said her parents would probably want a lot in town, being too old to work a farm themselves. Her Pa had been a farmer, but the last few years in Fort Des Moines, her brother George had run the farm, and her father John had just helped out. He was approaching 70 years old, and the work was too much for him to do by himself.

The Luckey family left the next morning, on a bright, warm day in early May. It was very different than the early May day leaving St. Joseph with the long trail before us as part of a large wagon train. It was just us again, plus baby Thomas, and we would just be driving a few days to get to our claim. The sun was out, and the spring had been dry, so the roads going down into the valley were not too bad to travel on. Going at a slower pace with the wagon and the buckboard, it took about a week to get to Skinner’s hill and cross the Willamette River on his ferry. The family camped on the Skinner’s claim that last night before making their way to their own claim the next day.

Mary Skinner and Ma got along well, and Ma was thrilled that she would have neighbors like them. Mrs. Skinner’s little daughter Leonora loved the baby and though she was just three, she wanted to hold him. She enjoyed chasing around four year old Allen too, but most of her attention was on the baby.

Eugene Skinner took Pa and Ma and Nathan down to the town site and showed them improvements on some of the sites. Judge Risdon, a law man who had helped Skinner plot out the town, was supervising and building his lawyer office on the site. A man was setting up a sawmill, and another was building a log warehouse that would eventually be behind a store. There was talk of a county courthouse within the next few years and a school. Nathan said with all the activity at this end of the valley, there should be a surveyor down here, and Skinner agreed and said he would write to the surveyor’s office in Oregon City and try to get agreement for the territorial government to pay for one.

We passed a pleasant night at their claim enjoying the company of a settled family, and looking forward to our own claim getting settled.

The next morning we crossed the river, and made our way north to our claim. Nothing had been disturbed while we were gone, and we parked the wagon and buckboard and staked out the horses. It would take a lot of work to make this bare homestead into a real home.

First thing we had to do was get the garden and the wheat crop in. We took turns plowing, using the oxen to pull the plow. First, we plowed a garden plot, almost two acres, where Ma, Nancy, and the younger boys planted seeds for potatoes, carrots, beans, corn, and other vegetable seeds we had bought in Champoeg. Then we plowed the field for our wheat crop. The third night we were there. One of the horses disappeared.

Pa and Nathan traveled all around our claim, eventually visiting Mr. Scott over on the Mohawk who said Indians around here were very adept at stealing horses. There were not a lot of them, but they saw stealing as a skill to be proud of, and stealing a horse was worth the risk because a family band of Indians with a horse was far better off than the bands without them. About a week later, a second horse was taken. Pa built a log pen right behind the house for the other two, and for the oxen, but the Indians must have moved on for no others were taken.

While we plowed and planted, Ma made the rough log cabin more homelike. She got the younger boys to work chinking any gaps between the logs with mud daub and gathering smooth stone from down by the river to make a stone floor. She set up the table, the benches, and stools, and the two bedsteads that Pa had made last winter in Champoeg with curtains to divide up the back of the room. She nailed pegs into one wall and got James to build a lean to on the north side of the cabin. Nancy dug a fire pit in front of the house for bigger cooking that would be done outside, and they both hung lines behind the house for laundry to dry on. Days flew by as we worked hard to make the claim into a real home.

About a month after we got there, after all the crops were in, Pa came up to the house with a couple of men who lived over by Pleasant Hill. They had got word of a family up in a valley above Marysville who were selling off some young stock from their cattle herd, and these men were trying to get together a group to go buy some from them. Years back, people had bought cattle from the Hudson’s Bay Company or brought them up from California, but Hudson’s Bay Company had sold most of their stock and now with the gold rush, driving cattle up from California was no longer an option.

Nahum King had brought cattle with his family when they came out in 1845, and now needed to thin their herd a bit. In the end, the two men from Pleasant Hill, Pa, and one man from a claim to the southwest named Cartwright ended up going. I went as well as a couple of sons of Turner, one of the Pleasant Hill men, and Cartwright’s sixteen year old son. None of us had driven cattle before, but we all knew how it was done, at least in theory. One man rides point and the others make a loose U shape behind and to the sides of the herd to keep them going straight. We made our way to the Marysville Ferry, which was now up and running, and crossed the river there, proceeding northwest of Marysville towards King’s Valley.

The King family was huge, three generations, close to fifty people, most of them working up in their valley above Marysville and west of Thorp’s Independence. It took us two days of hard riding to get there, and the real work would be bringing the cattle back down to our claim sites.

Old Mr. King was willing to sell us about 600 head of cattle, and since none of us had much cash, he sold them by bartering. We gave him wheat seed we hadn’t planted and the glass Pa intended to be windows for Ma’s permanent house. Cartwright brought some horses and some cash to trade, both the men from Pleasant Hill had tools, including a plow. When all was said and done, Mr. King gave us 580 head, and our family share was 150 of them. We left King’s Valley early the next morning and discovered that driving cattle was not easy. They were pretty wild, they had been running free in the valley there for the last five years, and weren’t used to a lot of handling.

Finally in the middle of the second day, we found an old cranky cow who would follow our point man, and turned out that the herd would follow her pretty well. We got to the river above Marysville early in the third day, and following that cranky old cow, crossing the river with a herd of cattle was not as hard as we thought. From there, it took us just five more days to get them down to our claim. There, we separated our 150 head of cattle, and helped drive the rest on to Pleasant Hill. We separated the 250 or so there, and Pa and I helped Cartwright and his son drive their 180 cattle across Camas Swale and down to their claim. All total, it took almost 2 weeks to get the job done.

When we got back to our claim about a week later, Ma and Nathan said we were losing cows. Pa first suspected wolves and sent John and I out to patrol around them while he, James, and Nathan built a corral. One night, near dusk, we saw three Indian men cutting a cow from the herd and driving her away. We watched as they crested the hill and went down the other side. We went around the small hill, following at a distance, and when they went over the next hill, they stopped, butchered it, and began cooking the meat. Soon, there were about twenty of them, women and children came from a nearby stand of trees and they were all around the campfire singing as the meat cooked. We quietly led our horses until we were far enough away, then rode home.

Pa was surprised and called us fools for trying to follow them, because they were much better woodsmen than we would ever be. He decided to go talk to the men down at Pleasant Hill and see if they had similar problems. After we arrived and Pa explained our situation, Bristow told them of an experience he had with the Klamath Indians a few years before. A group had stolen and slaughtered an oxen to eat, and Mr. Bristow caught and flogged one of them. The next day, 13 braves came and demanded that he pay them for the damage done, and he refused. He ended up killing one of their horses, and they never bothered him again. Bristow said that unless there was a consequence to the Indians, they would see the cattle as free for them to use, just like deer or fish.

The area down around Pleasant Hill had not seen any thievery for about three years, and Pa decided we would have to do something similar. But by the time we began searching for the family groups of Indians, the nomadic group had left the area of our homestead. Though we watched for them to come back for several weeks, they had moved on to a new area, and we did not see them again.

As the summer wore on, we added more and more to our home and farm. We built a barn and a corral for the horses and oxen, and we chose a couple of the tamest cows to be milk cows and live in the corral, where we would supplement their grass with grain we had bought from Eugene Skinner. We still had the chickens we had bought the winter before at Champoeg, and set up their chicken coop, where we shut them in at night to protect them from animals that would eat them. We watched our wheat grow, and caught and dried fish from the river. Late in the summer, we picked blackberries, acorns, and started to harvest from the garden we had planted. We had more saved up than we had ever had for our winters in Iowa. About September, Ma told us she was expecting a baby, and she and Nancy began to knit more baby clothes. By the end of September, we harvested our wheat and loaded the buckboard and the wagon without its cover to take the load of wheat to Marysville. At Marysville, we could load the wheat onto a steamship and send it upriver to Oregon City to sell. Pa and Nathan and John rode up to Marysville, then John and Nathan brought the buckboards back while Pa went up to Oregon City with the wheat on the steamship.

It took almost a month for Pa to get back. He had bought two horses and a buckboard in Oregon City and made the trip down in just three days, but the steamboat down river from Marysville took a long time to get him up there. He told us the valley was filling up, almost the whole ride down, he could see the smoke from a settlers chimney or a cabin, or a field that had a crop started. He brought with him glass to replace that he had traded for the cattle, carpentry tools we needed, netting to make fish traps, cloth for Ma and Nancy to work on, and some sawn lumber that he stacked behind the cabin to take down to his city plot next spring for the blacksmith shop.

Once the wheat harvest was done, we decided to go down to Eugene Skinner’s town site and see what had happened. We had not been there since the cattle drive in June. The Skinners welcomed us all, and Mary Skinner showed off her new baby girl named Phoebe. Then while the women stayed up at the cabin, Eugene Skinner led the rest of us down to his townsite. We saw that a few buildings were completed and some others were started but not yet done. From the site, we could see that there were a lot more people in the area than last year. Skinner was excited to hear that we had our lumber for the blacksmith shop, and that we planned to build in the spring. He had heard when the mail was delivered, because he was a postman, that both cholera and Indian attacks were worse on the trail this year than last. People coming into Oregon City were in many cases more desperate than the year before.

It was hard to remember that this was our first year here, it had just been twelve months since we were coming in at the end of that Oregon Trail. We felt very much at home here after just one summer of work.

We had a great meal and visit with the Skinners, then returned to our cabin ready to settle in for the winter, excited about what the next year would bring.

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