A travel log of 1847

As Told By

Martha Bonser Armstrong

contributed by Ann Carraway


This record is drawn from the related accounts of the actual happenings of the Bonser trek as told by their daughter, Martha Bonser Armstrong. John and Rebecca Bonser were the maternal grandparents of the author, Rosanna Armstrong Scoggin, and was dictated to my daughter Mamie Scoggin Bennett. 

        John Bonser, one of the earliest and most farsighted of Oregon Pioneers, was my grandfather.  Son of Isaac Bonser, he was born in Cincinnati Ohio, Nov. 8, 1803.  Here as a young man he became a proficient boatman on the Ohio River.  His Grandfather, Joseph Bonser, was killed in the battle of Yorktown, Pennsylvania in the revolutionary War. 

            In 1827 John was married to Rebecca Wood Halstead, Louisville, Kentucky.  Rebecca was born near Kayuga Lake, New York June 4, 1803 and when grown, moved with her parents, Ira Halstead and wife, to Kentucky.  Her father was English, her mother Welsh. 

            Soon after their marriage, John and Rebecca Bonser moved to Central Illinois, near Springfield, where they lived until 1846. Here four sons and three daughters were born.  The Children were: Lewis, Stephen Decater, James Halstead, Jacob, Martha Jane, Elisabeth Halstead and Abigale.  The little boy Jacob, died in Illinois at the age of two years.

            Having heard of the new and undeveloped country, with mild climate and fertile lane, FREE  for the taking, John and Rebecca decided to come to Oregon.  They spent five busy months assembling the supplies and domestic animals they were going to bring with them.  First, John gathered quite a large heard of work oxen    Three yoke for each of his three heavy wagons, and extra to change off with sick or worn-out animals.  He brought twenty head of fine English milk stock dairy cows.  He made a special trip to Henry Clay's stock farm in Kentucky to buy the herd sire of fine pedigree, that Clay had brought from England.  He also had five well bred brood mares to start the trek to  Oregon.

            Mother Rebecca also was busy, getting her storehouse of supplies assembled and ready for the trip.  It took such quantities of food and clothing, medicines, etc., for there were no stores or places to buy things along the way.  Everything they would need on the trip must be taken with them.  John made for Rebecca a large chest which fitted into one of the wagon boxes to carry the supply of cornmeal for the entire 7 months trip.  She had the men cure many hams and sides of bacon, while she dried quantities of fruit apples, pears, peaches, prunes (or plums, as they were called then.)  She had a cooper make a big wooden churn and dasher, and a tinner to make large tin milk pan, perhaps 2 feet across.  (on the trip these pans were filled with the fresh milk at night and set under the wagon boxes on the hounds  of the wagon.  In the morning Rebecca skimmed the cream off the milk and put it into the churn, adding the unused morning milk.  By evening, with the jostling and shaking of the wagon as they traveled, a good-sized chunk of sweet butter was ready for the family's supper.).

            In her preparations, Rebecca hired a weaver to come and weave bolts of cloth to bring with them.  She had to buy the thread for the warp of the cloth, but she spun the wool thread for the weaving, herself.  Rebecca was an able and self-reliant woman, and was trained to do many things well.  She was an efficient tailor, and cut and made men�s suits.  She was a milliner, making hats by weaving fine straw, which they raised for the purpose.  She was also an experienced nurse and midwife, and later spent much of her time caring for sick neighbors during those early pioneer days in Oregon.

            When the time came to sell the Illinois farm before their departure on the western trip Rebecca was not well, and was not able to go to Springfield to sign the necessary papers for the sale.  So John went horseback and brought out to the farm the young attorney and notary public Abraham Lincoln, to acknowledge the deed.  Martha, the oldest daughter of the Bonser family, well remembered this incident of Lincoln�s visit to their home.

            The Bonsers possessed a fine German clock, made with all brass wheels, which was Rebecca's pride and joy.  In checking over their things, John decided that there were so many necessary things to bring, they just couldn't bring the clock!  But Rebecca thought too much of her clock to leave it behind.  So, unbeknownst to John, she took the clock out of its case and hid it in one of her trunks.  Thus it came to Oregon  (in later years a cabinet maker made a tall case for her old weight-clock, which I well remember as it stood in the big living room in the old farm house on Sauvies Island).

            Late in the fall of 1846 they were ready to start their great trek, They crossed the Mississippi River at Hannibal into the state of Missouri,  ferrying their cattle and wagons across.  They were held up for some time at the crossing because the cattle stampeded and scattered into the dense timber.  It took days to round them up again.  While camped at the river crossing waiting for the men to round up the cattle, the children spent their time gathering wild nuts which were falling.  There were beach, hickory, and walnuts to add to the family�s food supply.  John had added two more to this already large family when he persuaded his two nephews, Hilton and Clinton Bonser , to come with them to help with the oxen and wagons.

            With other families, the Bonsers traveled west across the state of Missouri until they reached the Missouri River where they wintered at the little village of Savannah. To feed the cattle and horses through the winter, John bought fields of unharvested corn.  During the harvest season the family was shocked and grieved to lose the oldest son, Lewis, by death.  He was a boy of eighteen years and was working in the wheat harvest, which was cradled and bound by hand, heavy work for a boy. He tried to keep up with seasoned men and became overheated and died of nose-bleed

At Savannah, in February 1847, Hannah, their eighth child was born.  Here, too, Rebecca bought a flatiron, which to this day is treasured by the family.  Here John waited for other travelers to join them for the westward trip.  He also waited until the spring grass was ready to feed the cattle on the way.  During the winter the large group of families organized into a Wagon Train Company, and a charter or agreement was written and signed, as the plan they were to follow in their great migration.  John Bonser was elected �Captain of the Train�. (Because, as the man who nominated him, said "He has the biggest herd, the most wagons, and the most capable wife!") And with that title came heavy responsibilities, such as picking out camping places, settling differences or arguments, making decisions of every kind, day after day.  John had not only the worries of his own family on his shoulders, but also those of the whole wagon train.

On May 10 1847 the long caravan of 100 wagons was ferried across the Missouri�s muddy waters and the historic journey was begun.  The long line of wagons moved slowly, raising an enveloping cloud of dust, as they moved out toward the plains country.  Soon after they began traveling it was found that 100 wagons was too many to handle efficiently, because it took too long in the morning to get so many started on the way, and too, there was not enough grass for grazing the cattle. It was decided to divide the train into smaller groups.  This was done and 17 wagons elected to stay with Captain Bonser.  One of these 17 wagons was of special interest to all of Oregon.  It was that of Henderson Lewelling, which was very closely set with little growing, grafted fruit trees, the first ever brought to Oregon.  All the way across the plains, these little trees were watered and carefully tended, and were a source of pride and enjoyment to all the people in the train,  ( Lewelling settled  and started his nursery at Oregon City)  The Bonser�s had frugally brought with them quantities of fruit seeds which they gave to Lewelling to help start his nursery.  The Bonser orchard on their Donation land Claim on Sauvies Island, was planted from Lewlling�s nursery trees and one of the earliest orchards in Oregon

The Bonser outfit had very little trouble with the Indians, and this was true probably because John had brought along as protection for their camp, two large resolute  Mastiff dogs.  Their names were Watch and Brandy, and they were death on Indians!  It was laughingly said that those two dogs could smell an Indian for a mile!  However, the Indians somehow managed to steal all but one of the brood mares long before they reached Oregon.  One experience with the Indians is worth mentioning here.  One day, being scarce of meat, while the wagon train was laying over for the women to do the washing, two young men were sent out to bring in some venison.  One of the names of the young men was Enos Mendenhall.  They were gone all day and toward evening the older men of the camp began to grow uneasy.  At last they saw what appeared to be two white birds coming over the distant hill.  The men, realizing the boys had met up a band of Pawnee Indian, took clothing and went to meet them.  They were unharmed, but the Indians had robbed them of their guns and all their clothes except their hats and boots, for which the Indians had no use. 

Let us skip back to Rebecca and her resourcefulness for a brief moment.  With the arrival of the new baby, Hannah, came the problem of carrying her safely in the jolting wagon day after day.  Rebecca solved the problem by making a canvas hammock and swinging it between the wagon bows under the big canvas top.  There the baby slept, free from danger and out of the way,  in the busy  �living� wagon.

There was one man in the train, who was a grist-miller. He was known as "Millstone Davis".  He was bringing his millstones to Oregon to set up a mill.  The stones were heavy flat Granite slabs that almost filled his little old wagon, and his thin old oxen were often unable to pull them up the hills or over bad roads, sometimes he would push his outfit in ahead of John�s team so that they would have to help him up the hills.  This procedure irritated the boys who drove the Bonser oxen, and they threatened to roll his old millstones down the hill and leave them, but they never did.  Davis swore he�d stay with his stones if they did.

One of many interesting incidents of the Bonser's 7 months trip was the meeting with John C. Fremont as he was returning to Washington, DC to make his report to the President on his Explorations in the great Northwest or Oregon country.  This meeting occurred after they had traveled weary miles up the main Platte River.  The travelers rejoiced at seeing someone who had really seen this great new country, which they sought.  From Fremont they learned that the Mexican War was over. 

Having passed through Nebraska, the Bonser train came to the South Platte, one of the great, dangerous rivers they must cross.  This was buffalo country, as shown by the ever increasing sign of buffalo chips. They were the only source of fuel for the cooking fires, in this treeless country.  The scouts reported great herds of buffalo roaming the plains, and buffalo meat was thankfully added to their food supply.  Another welcome thing discovered by the scouts was a convenient way to get the wagons down from the high banks to the water level.  They found great ditches, 10 feet wide, that had been worn down by the hoards of buffalo as they went down to the river to drink.  So deep were these ditches that someone in one ditch could not be seen from another ditch.  The immigrants were able to drive their ox-teams down the great ditches to the ford.  A successful crossing was made and all camped on the northwest side of the South Platte that night

After this South Platte crossing, the immigrants' trail followed along the main river, or North Platte.  At the same time that the Bonser train was slowly ascending the North Platte, the Mormons were plodding along in the same direction, up the same river, but their road was on the other side of the river.  Mother said they could often see the long line of Mormon women and children across the river walking slowly along. Some pulling carts piled high with their belongings, with no wagons or oxen in sight.

After the travelers had gone perhaps 250 miles up the North Platte, the road left the river and wound through dusty, rocky country.  The tired cattle were thirsty and plodding through the dust all day.  Bill Trimble, one of the scouts, reported that at last water had been sighted not far ahead in some potholes.  As the weary caravan came to it  Stephen unhooked the chain of the Bonser lead team and the thirsty animals broke away and rushed toward the water, dragging the heavy 4-inch-linked chain.  The grass appeared to grow down to the edge of the water and the banks looked to be quite gradual, the hole shallow.  But when the oxen reached the edge the sod began to sink, and the animals to slip forward toward the water, finally sliding off the edge and disappearing into the inky blackness of the deceiving pothole.  The water bubbled and boiled, but nothing of the oxen could be seen.  After long minutes when the watchers had decided they must be drowned, the two steeds fought their way to the surface and rested their tired heads on the grassy sod. Soon the men rescued the poor bedraggled oxen with ropes, and it was found that both of them had twisted clear around and the yoke was wrong side up on their necks from their struggles deep in the water hole.  Also they had lost the heavy chain down in the hole.  That experience ended all attempts to water the cattle there, and the outfit had to wait for water until they came to the river half a mile south.

Our travelers had been plodding slowly west for weary weeks, and at last it was July and time to celebrate Independence Day.  At the time they were in Wyoming, coming up the Sweet Water River.  These Sturdy, Courageous, Patriotic Americans welcomed a break in their long journey, and they stopped over and had a real �4th of July Celebration� at Independence rock.

After this brief rest they again took up the trail.  They finally approached the Rocky Mountain uplands and slowly climbed until at last they crossed the �backbone of the continent� by the south pass when they found that the water of the creeks and streams was running west.  They were jubilant, and again halted the trek for a time of prayer, thanksgiving, and a celebration.  There was feasting on wild duck and mountain berries, and singing and speech-making around the big company campfire that night.  They were happy and thankful that at last they were on the Down Grade toward Oregon!

Continuing their journey with renewed hopes, they crossed the turbulent Green river and kept creeping west to reach and cross the treacherous Snake.  Near the present site of Twin falls, the route they followed, called by those who came after them, "The Oregon Trail," passed through the Baker, LaGrande, and Pendleton country.  The trail also passed near the Whitman Mission, and as the Bonser party came by, Marcus Whitman came out and tried  to persuade the people to stop there with him.  One family did stay with Whitman, and at the time of the Whitman �massacre�, that man was the only white man not killed.  He had gone to the mountains for wood that day and was not there when the Indians killed the settlers.

There was one man in particular that Whitman urged to stay with him.  That was Millstone Davis.  Whitman wanted him to stay and set up his flourmill.  When Davis would not stay, Whitman tried to buy the millstones, offering to have other stones shipped from England by the Hudson Bay Co.  and delivered at Vancouver for Mr. Davis.  Still Davis refused and stuck to the Bonser Train, later setting up his mill in Washington County, near Hillsboro Oregon

As the travelers journeyed on toward The Dalles, coming down Rock Creek, they were met by clouds of feathers!  The farther they went, the thicker became the feathers!  As usual, John was riding ahead on his lone saddle mare, and saw the strange phenomenon.  He at once called a halt for council, but no one could account for the strange sight, so they decided to proceed through the thickening feathers.  At last they came upon a small party of emigrants sitting on their 3 empty wagons.  They had been raided and robbed by Indians who had taken their oxen, all their food and their clothes, except what they had on their backs.  The feathers came from the pillows and feather beds, which the Indians had ripped open and emptied to get the cloth of the ticking.  Meeting the emergency as pioneers always did, the Bonsers divided their supplies with the hapless victims, giving them food, clothing, bedding and oxen, so they could continue their journey.  One family of the raided emigrants bore the name of Tuttle, and they settled on the Tualatin Plains in Scoggin Valley.  (In a recent article in the Sunday Oregonian on the life of the early Circuit-rider, Joab Powell, is mentioned the incident of Joab Powell�s traveling from his Lebanon home to Scoggin Valley to preach the funeral of Sandy Tuttle, young son of this same family ) .  During the Indian raid, one of the women (I think it was Mrs. Tuttle) showed great presence of mind in time of danger.  As the Indians were occupied at another wagon, she hastily dug a hole in the sand and hid a bolt of �Domestic sheeting� covered it with her foot.  Later on she had the cloth to make shirts and dresses for the family.  Those clean white shirts and dresses were conspicuous in the camp when they assembled at night around the central campfire. 

When the wagon train forded the John Day River, the wagon beds had to be raised as high a possible by blocks to keep them out of the water.  During the crossing, one of the wagon-beds floated out of its standards and was carried out on the water.  In this wagon was a sick man lying in his bed.  Suddenly a woman began to scream,   �My black silk dress will get wet! �My black silk dress will get wet!   Ignoring her husband�s peril, her whole concern was for her �black silk�.  John and another man on horseback rode into the current and with one of them on each side of the floating wagon bed, brought it safely across the ford.  Yes, the sick man and the silk dress were both saved!

The Bonser train arrived at The Dalles on Oct. 5, 1847, and at once plans were made to go down the Columbia by boat.  Being a boatman of experience, John set about making a great flatboat, large enough to carry the entire group of wagons, the people, and all their belongings (including everything except the livestock) down the great Columbia river.  The great craft was made by hand from the timber growing on the nearby hills.  It took a month to build the boat.  The trees were cut and whipsawed into boards, beams, and gunwales, and all were put together with wooden pegs, for they had no nails.  The gunwales of the boat were heavy timbers hewn from huge trees, measuring 6 feet deep and a foot thick.  To make the big boat water-tight, pine gum was gathered by the children and boiled in a big iron kettle which John had brought along on the long journey.  The hot pitch was applied to the caulked seams so water could seep through.  Since the heavy boat had been built bottom side up, a monstrous task confronted its builders when it was finished.  How to get it right side up and launch it!  But as always, John had a plan.  With long Chains he hitched several yoke of oxen to the side of the boat furthermost from the river and pulled it up and over onto skid rollers onto which the cumbersome craft was slid down into the water.  When all this work had been done and the party was ready to set forth on the river, the big iron pot was nowhere to be found.  John set much store by that old kettle, and said he wouldn't go without it.  He called in the Indian chief and demanded that the kettle be produced.  The Indian chief called a "pow-pow" of the braves, which lasted all day.  Finally one of the young �Bucks� swam out into the Columbia dived down and brought up the big pot!  (Later this big iron kettle was used to make the soap in for the family washing.  Everything being now ready, John kept part of the men of the company to run the boat, and sent the others to drive the livestock down along the river over the old Indian trails.

Everything was then put aboard the big boat.   The wagon beds were placed close together, running-gear pilled high, people crowded close, the Argonauts set forth on the breast of the great river.  Not relying on the current of the river for progress, John had equipped the craft with long �Sweep� oars on the sides and another long oar at the back to guide the boat with its precious load.  After many days of water travel, they reached the Upper Cascades, where they landed on the north side of the river to take advantage of the five mile portage around the falls.  Here they unloaded their freight, set up their wagons and reloaded them.  Another trip with the boat was made to bring the oxen to pull the wagons over the portage.  All this took time and patience.  That done, the flatboat was turned loose to be carried over the Cascade Falls by the current and caught below the falls by the help of Klickatat Indians in their canoes.  Again, the wagons, the people and their belongings were loaded on the boat, and the journey down the river was continued. 

When they arrived at the mouth of the Sandy River, the grass was rank and green (What a welcome sight!) and as high as the backs of the weary, worn out cattle.  John made friends with the Indians along the river and arranged with them to keep his cattle there through that first winter, while he and the family went on down the Columbia and up the Willamette to Linton, where they made their landing.  The date was Dec. 12, 1847.  John was able to find an empty cabin and moved in out of the pouring rain.  At last they had reached Oregon!!

The next day after their arrival, Martha, the oldest daughter and her mother's right hand, took sick with mountain fever.   She later remembered nothing after the landing, including her helping to carry their belongings up the steep muddy river bank. She  recovered consciousness eight weeks later as she was being carried by her father across a foot-log over a little creek.  The family was being moved across the Willamette river into old Jimmie John�s cabin which stood on the present site of St. Johns, now a part of Portland, named for this first settler.  Jimmie John�s cabin was larger and afforded better shelter.

The next spring John started horseback up the Columbia to the place where the Indians were taking care of the cattle.  The Indians had become uneasy because they had long expected the owner to come for the cattle, and too, they wanted their pay, so they started driving the cattle down the Columbia.  The two parties met about halfway.  John found his cattle fat and fine, and all were accounted for except a two year old heifer which he supposed the Indians had killed and eaten.  But the old chief had a grievance!  One of the fine cows had calved and the Chief knew she must be milked or lose her bag, for the calf could not take all of the milk.  He tied her up and leaned his old shotgun against a bush.  In the scuffle, for the cow resisted, of course, not liking the smell of an Indian, the cow kicked over the shotgun and it spattered the Indian�s leg with bird shot!  He wanted extra pay for this indignity.  John paid him extra shirts and blankets but could hardly restrain his laughter over such a ludicrous accident.  This was the only Indian ever shot by one of the Bonser Party, and he shot by a cow!

On one occasion while John was away from home viewing out a new road, as he often did, toward Tualatin Plains, Rebecca and her children were alone except for a 14 year old orphan girl, Mandy Lee, who lived with them.  One morning while she was bathing her year old baby by the fire place, where she did all cooking and water heating, she was surpassed by an Indian man who opened the door and strode into the room. He came directly over to where she held the naked baby on her lap.  He had a big butcher knife fastened to his wrist by a buckskin string and he dangled the knife around over the baby to frighten her, not saying a word, but taking note of the men�s shirts and other clothing hanging about drying.  Finally he went outside to consult with the other Indians of his marauding party.  Meanwhile they had gathered long poles and began to thrash the ground and let out blood-curdling war whoops to try to scare her still more.  But Rebecca didn�t scare!  She stood in the door and wouldn�t let the Indians come again.  She held a large dipper of boiling water in her hand and she spilled out some to show the Indians it was hot.  The girls, Martha and Mandy, kept bringing hot water, and they knew Rebecca would use it �where it would do the most good�, if they came to close.  She had an old �horse Pistol� for which she had no �Cartridges�, but she had the girls brandish it around anyway.  The Indians stood back and began to demand shirts and blankets but she wouldn�t give them anything.  She bravely lied to them, saying that her men would soon be back, that they were rounding up the cattle down in the lower pasture.  In reality she had no idea when John would be home.  While they were parleying, the Indians saw a canoe crossing the rivers in which were a white man and a boy.  When they saw the white man coming they were frightened and ran and jumped into their two canoes and skeedaddled!  The white man had come to get Rebecca to go with him to take care of a woman in confinement.  She believing in a protecting Providence left the children there alone and went to help a neighbor in need!   One can well imagine how she hurried back when her job was finished, the new baby and mother cared for, to see if her own children were safe and sound!

In the fall of 1848, John drove his cattle up the Willamette to his nephew, John Shoemaker�s farm near Corvallis to be taken care of during the winter, for as yet, he had not grown and harvested hay and other feed for them.  The next spring when he went after them, he took his daughter, Martha, with him to help drive them.  The boys of the family had all caught the fever of the GOLD RUSH to California and had gone prospecting.  As he and Martha came back with the cattle, they passed by Champoeg where a group of men were having a political meeting, so they stopped over and rested the cattle, while they attended the meeting.  Thus it happened that Martha, my mother, was perhaps the first female to attend a political meeting in Oregon. 

In those early days a man selected the place for his home and built his house, claiming the land by what was called a "Squatters right".  In 1849 John exercised his Squatter�s Right on Sauvies Island.  Later on when the Donation Land Claim law came into effect, he laid claim to this land, a mile square of fertile soil, lying in the central part of the Island on the Columbia side.  He also bought another squatter�s right claim adjoining his place, so that he had 1200 acres in his farm.  Most of the place was essentially grass land and ideal for the Bonser dairy herd, for it produced tons of hay, and good pasture.  The soil was very rich and fertile where it was suitable for cultivation, and they raised wonderful fruits and vegetables.  Thus at last, John and Rebecca�s dream of the �promised land�, with fertile soil and mild climate was realized, and the new  home became a just reward for all the hardships of the long trek �across the plains� to Oregon


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