Destiny: A Novel of the Oregon Trail

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Chapter 3: The Journey Begins

Chapter 3: The Journey Begins:

Well, it seemed like Ma and Pa argued about it all through the Winter and Spring, but Pa had the bee in his bonnet and we were going. Most arguments would start with some statement about the neighbors and their troubles.

Pa might say, “Did you hear about Kellogg up on Smoky Creek? Half his calves have been stillborn this spring.”

Then Ma might say, “Well, you know his cattle aren’t the best, he don’t hardly feed them in the winter he’s so tight with his money.”

Then Pa would say, “You know in Oregon, they say the winters are so mild, the cattle are feasting on green grass all winter long, hardly a bit of snow or ice to fight through.”

Ma might bluster, “If you don’t want hard winters, why don’t we move to Texas? Winters are great there, though the summers can roast a man when he does a days work.” She might add, “It’s a lazy man that seeks out a mild winter when he still has a strong back and a passel of boys to help him work.”

Pa would usually end with some variation of, “It’s those boys I’m thinking of Lizzie, imagine a country where they can all have a big farm if they want it.”, then he’d walk out and Ma would fume and be cranky with us kids most of the rest of the day.

What’s more, Ma’s brother George and his family talked about coming too, and a couple of Pa’s brothers up in Indiana sent letters sayin’ they were thinking about it. Their luck had been better than Pa, but not by much. The whole country was talking about Oregon and those who weren’t were often talked instead about the gold rush in California.

The lure of free land in a place where the land was full was just too much for people who had fought and worked endlessly without ever getting ahead. It was a ray of hope for those who had been beaten down for years, men like Pa who had worked hard year after year and never really got to a secure place in life. Every summer it felt like they had to have a big crop just to get through the winter, and every year, some tragedy made it smaller than they needed. If it wasn’t failed crops, it was taxes, or poor prices at market, or some disease taking calves or lambs. A gentler land, with fresh untilled soil was a dream for these hard working, long suffering men. To us boys, it was a dream of adventure, but to Pa, it was a ray of hope for a man beginning to feel hopeless.

That winter was long and cold in Fort Des Moines. There was a lot of idle time for the four or five hundred folks who lived in the log cabins set in a grid around the river to dream and think. Those not talking about gold in California were talking about free land in Oregon. But all most of them would do is talk, it was a big risk, and expensive as well to pull up roots and go across the country to chase a dream.

As the weather warmed and the roads thawed, a couple dozen men had left town and the surrounding area in March and April, hoping to strike it rich in California. Few of these men took families. California was a dream of a quick strike, a sudden windfall that would allow a person security that most of us farmers never had.

Oregon was a dream too, a chance to get rich through the sweat of your brow, slower, harder, but at least it provided a chance, a chance to earn a brighter future. People going to Oregon would take weeks to prepare and would take along families. While a man going to the Gold Rush in California was usually going for a windfall and intended to come back, Oregon-bound families were usually going for good.

For most of the townsfolks, Oregon was just talk. It was a big risk, pulling up stakes and starting over, something Ma reminded Pa of every time they spoke.

There were other naysayers too. Ma found a newspaperman from Missouri and one from New York who said in newspaper articles that Oregon was the end of the earth and full of mountains and deserts and raging rivers and it might never be settled. She would read these articles to Pa as often as she would find them. Some people talked about the Cayuse War, or the Whitman Massacre, but the tales were all confused and the stories changed, and Pa dismissed them out of hand.

Preacher Joe had no truck with people heading out to the wilds either. He preached sermons that spring to all those folks thinking about Oregon about how most the people going there were running from something like the prodigal son, and wouldn’t be the best sort. Ma took that sermon and ran with it, arguing herself ragged, but Pa’s mind was made up. He knew he was a man of character and believed his sons would be too.

Pa would say that here in the Midwest, the boys would have a hard time finding farms and making it work, but over there, where they could each get a land claim, they could all be well off, they could go as far as their hard work would take them. Pa wanted to make it, but land and opportunity for his sons was just as important.

Us kids were on Pa’s side in all the arguing. All five of us boys, even little Allen, spent the spring talking about Oregon, talking about fighting and hunting, and bragging to the kids at school about how rich we’d be in Oregon.

Nancy didn’t say much. I don’t think she liked to cross Ma, but I would hear her whistling while she worked and when we’d start up talking about it, she would just smile. Once, I heard her mention to her friends that maybe she could start a school out there when we went. She was twenty, in a time and place when most girls married as teenagers, but she didn’t seem in a hurry and I think Ma worried a bit about that. But Nancy didn’t seem too worried about it, and as far as I could tell she didn’t pine after any of the young men in town. She talked of teaching, not homesteading and that probably bothered Ma as well, though she didn’t say it.

Through the spring, we worked on gathering our supplies. It was amazing to think that we’d be starting from scratch. Everything we would need for the trip and for the life we meant to start once we got there we had to bring with us.

Pa had bought a wagon and deepened it, modified it to carry more, put good solid wheels on it, and was beginning to load it up. The pamphlet he had said it was important to bring enough food, extra clothes, tools, but it was also important not to overload the wagon. He would pack his basic blacksmith tools, though not an anvil and not the heaviest of the tools. These tools were important for fixing the wagon if anything broke and for making the tools to start out a farm, but couldn’t be as heavy as the ones in the regular blacksmith shop. He had extra wheels, axles, tongues, and canvas, a whole mess of dried fruit, flour, coffee, and bacon, a little sugar and corn meal. Pa had made a couple of barrels for water and strapped them to the back, and we also brought seed and tools for planting. We brought guns and ammunition, knives for skinning game, materials for trapping and we also brought practical dishes, a Dutch oven, tin cups and plates, and other cookfire necessities.

Ma insisted we bring her wedding dishes and the quilts and crossstitch samplers she had made, and Pa talked her out of bringing the piano and she cried when we sold it to old Mrs. Johnson. Between them, Ma and Pa thought of just about everything.

We also brought a money box that we hid among the quilts. The pamphlet Pa had been given said that throughout the trip, there would be ferries, and places that need guides and that having some cash along for that purpose and to buy emergency supplies at forts would make things much easier and give us a better chance for success.

The wagon was packed solid that April morning when we headed out. Pa had sent a letter to the man we met, whose name was Jones, and he had written back enthusiastically about how this wagon train would have 80 wagons with a doctor, a preacher, and now with Pa, a blacksmith. He wrote that we would want to leave St. Joseph by the first of May to beat the weather over the last set of mountains. The trip took about six months and we needed to be over the last range of mountains called the Cascades before mid-October when the snow began.

It was April 1st when we left Fort Des Moines. The whole town, including Uncle George Leasure and Aunt Bessy, and Ma’s parents, John and Mary Ann Leasure, came to see us off. After all of the talk, we were the only family in town heading to Oregon that spring. The few men who had left for the gold rush in California were already gone, but not as many as last year, and most had left without the fanfare and gathering that showed up to see off our whole family, because if all went well, or even if it didn’t, most of them would return. Often, when a family left, it was assumed no one would ever see them again, but when just the men went, most of them would be back and his family was usually still in town. But chances were strong that most of the people in town would never see us again.

Ma’s parents and brother George were talking like they would wait a year or two and hear from us how it was before they’d brave the trip. Aunt Bessy was a mite frail, and my grandparents were in their 60s, the trip would be awfully rough on them if they decided to come. But they all seemed just as excited as we were, Oregon Fever had gripped us all and had us dreaming big.

Those first two weeks were a blur. Every morning, we would set out early, before the sun, hitching up the oxen and saddling the horses in the gray of early dawn. We’d eat breakfast as we traveled, two of us boys on horses with two horses tied behind, and one of us learning how to handle the oxen from Pa. We had a team of four oxen, one we already had for plowing, and three Pa had bought that spring. Pa wanted Jim, John and I to all be able to drive in case we came across any need for it. Jim was just eleven, but big for his age and after a few lessons, all three of us could handle the team. He even taught Nancy to drive to Ma’s scandalized outrage.

Once the lessons were through, John and James took turns driving, while Pa and I rode the horses, along with whichever boy wasn’t driving that day. We didn’t have any cattle to drive like some of the families we had heard of, but we hoped to buy some when we got to Oregon. Pa had made up a small bed area in the middle of the back of the wagon, though it wasn’t big enough to lay proper in, where Ma could ride in the wagon along with Warren and Allen when she chose it. When we drove, Nancy would usually sit up front, by whichever of the boys was driving. Sometimes, she and Ma would walk along side if the weather was nice, and sometimes the little boys would walk too.

We would drive for five or six hours, then stop and have lunch and an hour or so break, then drive another five or six hours before stopping for the night. Good camp sites were easy to find in Iowa and northern Missouri as we made our way to St Joseph. Most of the sites where we stopped had plenty of wood, clean water, and grass for the oxen and horses. The land was full of farms and small towns, and the roads were busy. Often, another wagon or two would share our campsite, and sometimes our lunch stop as well. When we stopped for the night, we’d get a fire going, then Ma would knead the sourdough and make biscuits, and we’d have beans and often bacon and coffee with the meal. After eating, Ma would put away any leftovers and scour the Dutch oven to get it ready for the next night. At our lunch break, we’d usually have leftovers from the previous nights dinner or from breakfast. Some evenings, we had time to drop a line or set snares or hunt and if we caught any fish or got a rabbit or squirrel, we’d have a little variety for dinner. Sometimes, we’d even buy a few eggs from a nearby farmer, knowing that after St. Joe’s, such things wouldn’t be possible.

We had a couple of canvas tents, one for Ma and Pa and one for Nancy, while the little boys would sleep in the wagon when we stopped for the night, and us bigger boys slept under the wagon. We had bedrolls for each of us and a couple of extras stowed away in the wagon. In the evenings, we’d pick a camp spot near water and wood. Sometimes if we had a little extra time after our meal, we’d have time for stories or music around the campfire. Pa played the fiddle and Ma and Nancy both had wonderful voices. Ma had money when she was younger, and was allowed to have piano and violin lessons, but of course, there was no piano here. Still, the lessons helped her voice, and Nancy was an even better singer, even without training.

The weather was nice for the first few days, sunny and mild, and with our wagon so heavily loaded, we were only traveling about 8 miles a day. On the third day out, we crossed our first river. It was muddy and swollen with the melted snow. John, James, and I crossed with the horses first, and I led the fourth horse while Pa drove the wagon with Ma, Nancy, and the little boys tensely sitting in the back. With all the extra water from rains and snowmelt, the river was deep enough that Pa had to caulk the wagon and the oxen and horses had to swim. When the horses swam, we boys would get off our horses on the upstream side, and keep an arm hooked over the cantle so the horse was more free to swim. But the water was moving slow, and the crossing was done without any big problems. Ma was shaking by the time we had all gathered on the South shore to recover, but there hadn’t been any real scare. Nothing like we would face later on.

On the fifth day out of Fort Des Moines, the weather turned nasty. It started raining, and for the next two weeks, it didn’t seem like it would ever stop. We were all soaked through and it felt like we’d never be warm or completely dry again. Our food was only half cooked, and with all the mud, our 8 miles a day was reduced to 2 or 3. Pa was beginning to fret that the wagon train would leave without us.

It was only about 140 miles to St. Josephs from Fort Des Moines, but on April 14th, after two weeks of travel, we had only gone 56 miles. Mr. Jones had told us we had to leave St. Josephs by May 1st, so we needed to make up some time. The further we got, the more traffic we saw, people going to St. Joe’s or even down to Independence from all over the countryside, and some from far away.

Pa helped one man fix a wheel who had been traveling since February, coming from Pennsylvania. As we came upon his wagon, we saw him hopelessly fiddling with the wheel.

“You need some help there?” Pa asked, though the need was obvious.

“We brought two spares, but we’ve used them both. I don’t know how to fix this thing myself. I am a storekeeper, hoping to set up a store out in Oregon.”

“Well, it’s a good time to stop for lunch anyway.” Said Pa, and so we ate as John and Pa fixed the wheel. Pa took his time and showed the man what he was doing too.

“If you’re going out to the frontier, it’s good to know some basics, even if you have another trade.”

The man was grateful and his wife close to tears as we pulled away and they went their way. I couldn’t help wondering how a storekeeper who couldn’t fix things would make a 2000 mile wagon trip, let alone function well on the frontier where there was little help.

We saw a few families headed back East, North, or South, families who had changed their mind or faced sickness. We saw Mormons too, heading to their promised land in Deseret, strange folk pushing hand carts most of the time, travelling in large groups, who kept to themselves and had lots of kids and silent wives. We had heard about Mormons in Fort Des Moines, though we didn’t know any. Many people seemed to hate them. Their beliefs were different, but the ones we saw seemed to be nice enough though they kept to themselves. Sometimes, we were passed by wagons moving faster, and sometimes, we passed slower wagons or hand carts. Seemed like half the country was going West.

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