Crossing the Plains 1852
by John G. Abbott
Contributed by Darrel Boyd Jury
I was only a lad of 11, in 1852, but incidents of those days are more vivid to my mind than many things which happened in later years. Friends and neighbors of my parents had emigrated to the Oregon Country in 1846, among them James Weatherly, Dan Waldo, and R.K. Payne. They gave highly colored descriptions of the Oregon Country, stating that the soil would produce all crops that could be grown in Missouri, and the climate was excellent. They added that stock of all kinds could winter on the range and come off fat in the Spring.
These flattering accounts of the Oregon Country excited my parents and grandparents, and they decided to take the trip. Accordingly, they sold their hordes and belongings at great sacrifice, and outfitted themselves for the journey. They were advised to use ox-teams, as there was great danger that the Indians would steal their horses. Several other families in the neighborhood also sold out and prepared to emigrate. There were ten families in all, and each started in covered wagons with two teams of four oxen each. All being ready, we met at my Grandfather Abbott’s place on April 11, 1852. As we took our final leave of our homes in Osage County, Missouri, the neighbors from miles around congregated to bid us farewell. The country Minister was on hand to offer prayer to Almighty God for our safe deliverance to the promised land. At 10:00 o’clock in the morning we waved goodbye to all and the caravan moved Westward.
The train had about 10 head of loose horse and cattle, and it fell to me to help drive the loose stock and it suited me very much for I was fond of horseback riding and the reports from the drivers’ whips and the chimes from the cowbells were music to my boyish ears. Everybody enjoyed themselves at first. They would gather around campfires in the evening, sing, tell stories, and talk of the promised land. We crossed the western boundary of Missouri at a small trading post called West Plains. Here we entered Indian country. There was not a single white person existing between here and The Dalles, Oregon, except for the Mormons at Salt Lake. This vast amount of country was known as “The Great American Desert.”
Our train was increased by other emigrants joining the caravan, 40 wagons and 60 able-bodied men, all well armed. The men called a meeting to consider protection and organize. My maternal grandfather, John Gaebhart, was elected captain. He was a veteran of the “War of 1812” and had fought Indians on the front under General Jackson, and knew all the tactics of war. He was cool, considerate, and a man of good judgment.
We then made our journey over the prairies and rolling hills covered with luxuriant grass. We met many bands of Indians. They were on most friendly terms, the main object of the visits to trade dressed buffalo robes and beaded moccasins for loaves of bread. They were great marksmen, taking real pride in how accurately they could shoot their bows and arrows.
Nothing happened worth mentioning until we reached the Little Blue River, now in Nebraska. One day we saw a man approaching on horseback as fast as his horse could carry him. He was much excited and said that a band of Indians had attacked a [wagon] train of emigrants a mile ahead of us, and had stampeded the stock and crippled several women and children. Our captain called a halt and ordered a corral formed at once. A circle of all the wagons was formed and the women and children were placed inside. By this time the Indians 300 strong were approaching, waving their blackest and buffalo robes and yelling like coyotes. They were all smeared with war paint and well-supplied with bows and arrows. The women began to scream and pray, but our captain soon silenced them. He drew the men in a line, and gave explicit orders to keep cool and not to fire until he gave the word. On the Red Devils came. When they got within a few rods of us, our captain stepped out in front of them and beckoned with his hand for them to move on. They were appalled by the bold appearance of our men and proceeded without attack.
We moved up the Little Blue River about a mile, and came to the train that had been attacked. We assisted the emigrants in getting their wagons in shape and they traveled under the protection of our train.
Shortly after this our train was attacked by the dreadful disease cholera. My father was the first victim, only living a few hours. We laid him to rest where the Emigrant Road left the Little Blue River and journeyed on. The next day we arrived at Fort Kearney. The banks of the PlatteRiver were lined with tents, and the cholera was raging at a fearful rate, people dying on every hand. One of our companions, a young man by the name of Sheckley, died that night. We buried him the next morning and journeyed on for many miles up the Platte River. The cholera claimed many able-bodied men, women and children by the score. This prevailed for several days. You could see men and women on bended knees asking God for the mercy of their loved ones.
The road was lined with cattle and horses. Many emigrants were compelled to lighten their loads. You could see all kinds of wagons from prairie schooners to one horse buggies standing by the roadside. These frantic travelers cast away carpentry and blacksmith tools, bedding, wearing apparel and valuable books in their mad scramble to reach the Oregon Country. We lost about 30 per cent of our train.
After getting out of the cholera belt, we left the main road and moved up the creek about 10 miles for the purpose of resting the stock. Here was the home of the buffalo. You could see them in every direction, and I believe I can truthfully say that I saw 10,000 at one time. It afforded great sport for our men to kill them, but mostly supplied us with an abundance of fresh meat. We resumed our journey and passed Fort Laramie without mishap. At Green River [WY], the men had to fix up their wagons to keep water from coming in. A few days later we had several horses stolen. Thefts of this kind were common enough through this section of the country in those days. Some laid it to the Indians, but others thought the thieves were white men.
Then we arrived at the forks of the road leading to California. About one-fourth of our train left us, among them our highly esteemed Dr. Schnell, who located in San Francisco and for many years was one of the leading physicians of that city.
Oregon Country reached. We finally arrived at the Snake River. Our stock was tired out, was short, and many families were compelled to walk on account of the loss of teams. On the Snake River, my mother was taken ill with Mountain Fever, a disease that prevailed at the time among the emigrants. She died and was buried on the bank of the Powder River, a few miles below where Baker City now stands. My brothers and sisters and I were left in the care of our grandparents.
The next day we reached the Grand Ronde Valley. There was not a house in the valley at that time. A man by the name of Lot Whitcomb from Willamette Valley was stationed there in a large tent, with a stock of provisions, selling them to the emigrants. We procured such articles as we needed, and crossed the Blue Mountains and arrived at the Umatilla River, where Pendleton now stands. There was a half-breed Indian there butchering cattle and selling them to the emigrants, and our people pronounced it the best beef they had ever tasted. We tried to persuade our train to change course, on account of our stock being so weak, and go to the Walla Walla Country, where he said the soil was good and climate excellent. He told us of Dr. Whitcomb raising wheat, potatoes, and everything in abundance. We no doubt would have taken his advice had it not been that many of our train were sick and were anxious to reach civilization and procure medical aid. So we journeyed on. My father had started with two team of four oxen to the team, and my maternal grandparents with one wagon of four yoke. By this time the stock had dwindled to two yoke of oxen and one yoke of cows, 8 or 10 head of loose cattle, and one horse.
We finally reached the John Day river, where there was a man stationed buying cattle. My grandfather was confined to his bed with Mountain Fever, so he sold the cattle outfit with the understanding that the men would take fresh oxen and haul us to The Dalles. There was one log cabin in The Dalles at that time. There were no steamboats on the Columbia River above the Cascades. Everything was transported on large boats. We took passage on one. At night it pulled into the shore and tied. The first night there was a young man delirious with fever, who walked into the river and drowned. The screams of his mother awakened the entire camp. The men procured torchlights and searched for the body until daylight.
The next night my Grandfather Gaebhart died. He was buried on the north side of the river, a few miles above the Falls. At the Falls there was a wooden railroad for portage purposes, and the car was pulled by one old mule.
In a few days we arrived in Portland, a little muddy village of 300 people. This was in October of 1852. The principal merchant there was A. Ladd, and I can truthfully say that he extended many acts of charity to the needy emigrants. There were three steamboats on the river, the Lot Whitcomb, the Multnomah, and the Sagle. Above the Falls at Oregon City were the Shoalwater, the Hoosier, and the Beaver.
Most of the emigrants of that year landed in Portland without money, but they found friends. I will mention one good friend in particular: A.J. Hembree of Yamhill County. He assisted many by locating them on government land free of charge, and helped them in many ways. He was a very prominent man in those days, representing Yamhill County in the Territorial Legislature of 1854 and being elected captain of a volunteer company at the outbreak of the Indian War in the fall of 1855. He was killed by the Yakima Indians near the present site of North Yakima, April 10, 1856. He was a personal friend of Judge Deady, Delazon Smith an dDavid Loga, and many more leading men of the country. My paternal grandfather Samuel Abbott located a donation claim in Lane County. He had been well-to-do in Missouri, and when he left for Oregon Country, his outfit included several blooded breed mares. They arrived at The Dalles with about half the stock they had started with, and there he arrived to have it wintered.
The winter was severe, and before spring all the stock had died. My grandfather passed that winter in Salem, and in the spring of 1853 joined in the fight against the Rogue River Indians, taking part in the battle of Table Rock and others. Grandfather Abbott enjoyed the distinction of having been the first man to suggest John Whittaker for Governor of Oregon, and worked for his successful nomination and election. Grandfather Abbott died in 1885, greatly respected by all who knew him.
The pioneers had to face many difficulties and endure untold hardships in building up an empire where those of later generations may live in peace and plenty.
This was originally printed in the Oregon Journal October 22, 1911. It was related to the paper by my material grandfather John G. Abbott, who was the boy of 11, one of the Abbott brothers and sisters who were members of the wagon train. He died in 1914, shortly before my birth January 30, 1915. [Betty Beecher Jury, 2466 E. Hillside Dr, Anderson, Calif. 96007]
Transcribed by Darrel Boyd Jury and Darla DeRuiter 12/29/05
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