In their Own Words
Motivations to Migrate
Compiled by Prof. Jim Tompkins
Disclaimer: Prof. Jim Tompkins has compiled the following information for classes he has taught. He has kindly contributed them for general use. This information has been gathered from a variety of sources and, while it is free to use, copyright infringements may make it unsuitable for commercial purposes.
Shocked by the debauchery, drunkenness, and gambling along the Ohio River, he couldn’t wait to get to Oregon and the business of conversion. - Rev. Henry Harmon Spalding, 1836
Dr. Marcus Whitman, 1836 - His goal was clear and nothing was to stop him. The Indians who went east looking for the Word of God were calling him directly.
Narcissa (Prentiss) Whitman, 1836 - She wanted to convert the western American Indians who had asked for the Word of God.
Rev. Elkanah Walker, 1838 - Committed, along with his wife, to lives as missionaries, they would go wherever they were assigned. At a meeting of the ABCFM in New York, four newly married couples were told, “You will commence a Pilgrimage ....”
Gabriel Brown, 1842 - He had six daughters, five of them of marriageable age when he decided to leave Arkansas. Known as the “Belles of Oregon” not for their beauty, but for their availability, three of them were the first emigrants to marry in Oregon (Adeline age 23, Polly age 16, and Cynthia age 14, each married men who were in the same emigration party as the Browns). They were said to be fair haired if not endowed with titian tresses. Is it any wonder that they were passionately courted, in an almost Eveless Eden.
Hugh Burns, 1842 - Recruited by Elijah White. He wanted to build a town in Oregon. That town would be Multnomah City. It would fail, but is today part of West Linn. Medorem Crawford, 1842 - Recruited to assist in bringing Thomas McKay’s sons Alexander and John to Oregon after their schooling in the east. Glowing descriptions of Oregon’s “rich soil, mild climate, and beautiful scenery” made Crawford a willing participant.
Asa Lawrence Lovejoy, 1842 - His health was impaired by the malaria epidemic of the Missouri bottom lands, so he came to Oregon for his health.
Dr. Elijah White, 1842 - He became disenchanted with the Methodist Mission and had returned east in 1840 on the Lausanne. He saw the appointment as sub-Indian agent to Oregon as excuse to return. He saw the need to populate Oregon with non-missionaries. He also saw an opportunity to be in charge. He spent much of 1841 and 1842 organizing religious groups to go
to Oregon with him. Regulations were created to filter out possible trouble-makers.
“Twelve months ago I labored to advance - now I struggle harder to retain my position. This state of things created much discontent and restlessness among a people who had for many generations been nomadic, and had been taught by the example of their ancestors to seek a home in a ‘new country’ as a sure way of bettering their condition.” - Jesse Applegate, 1843, a
reference to the deepening depression that began in 1839 and caused farm produce products to decline in price and markets along the frontier to dry up. Wheat cost 50¢ a bushel to grow and sold for 25¢. In 1839 hogs sold for $4.20 per hundred weight. In 1842 it was below a dollar. Buyers were near impossible to find. Jesse sold a steamboat load of bacon and lard for $100. The
curing salt had cost him $150. The steamboat used the bacon for fuel.
Peter Hardeman Burnett, 1843 - As a store keeper along the Missouri River he depended upon the farm trade. When his business started to fail he sold all of his stock and property and lived frugally to try to pay off the interest on his debt. He became a lawyer, but still had a considerable debt. He was afraid his wife would die of fragile health, made worse by hard winter of 1842, and he would be left with six children. He read about a bill in Congress that proposed to donate land to anyone emigrating to Oregon. By his interpretation of the bill he could 640 acres for himself and 160 acres for each of his children totaling 1600 acres. The land would be worth enough to pay off his debts. An agreement with his creditors said, “Take what may be necessary for the trip, leave us what you can spare, and pay us the balance when you can do so.”
Peter Burnett was forming party in spring of 1843 in Platte Co, MO. One grand objective was to obtain a donation of land in the country, “if it was worth staying in.” Burnett was to colonize Oregon and take possession for the US. “I never heard that the government desired to colonize. It was all a private movement and we came of our own responsibility. We had not any assurance
that the Government would assist or protect us in any manner. Fremont Company which fell in after us I understood was employed by the Government.” - Nineveh Ford, 1843
Rev. David Lenox, 1843 - Timber was $5 an acre. His partially cleared land was not enough to support a growing family. When Peter Burnett spoke outside his store, Lenox was the first to sign his book.
“I was a poor, homeless youth, destitute alike of friends, money and education. Actuated by a restless spirit of adventure, one place was to me the same as another. No tie of near kindred or possessions bound me to any spot on the earth’s surface. Thinking my condition might be made better, and knowing it could not be worse, I took the leap in the dark.” -
James Willis Nesmith,1843
William Hatchette Vaughan, 1843 - Before his 21st birthday Billy became obsessed with talk of Oregon. He heard of good land, plentiful game, and a healthy climate, but he was most interested in helping America secure the United States’ claim on Oregon. When Sen Lewis Linn’s annual Oregon Territorial Bill passed the Senate in 1842, it looked like the opportunity was too good to pass up. (The bill failed the House.) He came to Oregon alone.
Daniel Waldo, 1843 - His neighbors were the Applegates - Charles, Lindsay and Jesse. He was in poor health in 1842-43. He called his ailment the ague (“bad air” was a form of mosquito born malaria). It caused shakes and fever. He had to ride most of the way to Oregon in a carriage, which improved his health completely.
George Washington Bush, 1844 - After watching the 1843 “Great Migration” leave their area for Oregon, the Bush and Simmons families persuaded each other to head west the next year. The Simmons wanted to go west because Missouri was becoming too crowded and drought-stricken, while Oregon needed to be rid of British and Beaver. Bush had been there and done that. He was
wealthy, owned land and was getting on in years. His problem with Missouri was prejudice. It was a slave state and he was dark skinned. Institutionalized exclusion, even among so-called free states, was spreading west along with the frontier. Ohio, Indiana and then Illinois passed black exclusion laws between 1807 and 1840. He resolved to move on if treated poorly in Oregon.
Isaac Newton Gilbert, 1844 - He came to Oregon at suggestion of Marcus Whitman, who was a neighbor and friend in east, and had visited him upon his 1842-43 return east.
“My father was one of the restless ones who are not content to remain in one place long at a time. In 1843 Doctor Whitman had taken a train of emigrant wagons across the Rocky Mountains. This was the theme of much conversation among the neighbors. ... Father had already become restless, and talked of going to Texas. But mother, hearing much about the healthfulness of Oregon, preferred to go there. ... It is well that we can not look into the future and see what is
before us.” - Catherine Sager, 1844
Harrison Wright, 1844 - Harrison left his family in Missouri and came to Oregon alone, to start over. Harrison and Caroline had separated at least four years before he came to Oregon. Despite the efforts of his wife, daughter and brothers to communicate, he only wrote once. His daughter is quoted, “You do not know how sad it makes me feel father to never hear from you and to think that you do not love me or care for me.”
“The first year we came here strawberries bloomed all winter, but in 1847 we had a hard winter; the snow laid on the ground for three weeks, but I did not think this a hard winter, compared with Missouri or Ohio. We live in a pleasant part of the country, and are now doing better than at any time during our lives.” - Elizabeth “Betsey” (Munson) Bayley, 1845
Benjamin Franklin Bonney, 1845 - The Bonney family had various reasons for leaving Smithfield, IL. One was to flee the “fever and auge” raging in the Midwest. Another was to fish for the wonderful salmon they’d heard tell of. “My father loved to fish.”
Joel Palmer, 1845, was going to Oregon alone to find proper land for his family, then return for them.
Eugene Franklin Skinner, 1845, decided to emigrate to California in 1845 for his health. He had lost three daughters to illness in IL. [Came to Oregon in 1846.]
“There was a great deal of sickness in our community. Our whole family had a spell of it. When harvest came there was not a well person in our family. Martha and I had the ague on alternate days, we were the only ones that could wait on the rest of the
family.” - Henry Garrison,1846
Rachel Way Joy (Mrs. John H.) Fisher, 1847 - Three of their four children died of illnesses. Their best friend, Henderson and Elizabeth Luelling’s oldest son Alfred, was coming to Oregon with his parents and their 700 fruit trees.
James Jory, 1847 - prompted his family to move to Oregon. He was concerned for the health of his new wife, as young women seemed to be most vulnerable to malaria, a mosquito-borne disease which was commonplace at the time. Oregon had a reputation of being free of such maladies and having a healthy climate which aided the recovery of settlers with chronic diseases.
Cornelius Smith, 1847, and Russell Welch, his son-in-law, were business partners in a lumber mill near LaPorte, Indiana. His westward movement began when the mill burned down.
Alfred and Phoebe (Fail) Stanton, 1847 - A farm family, they looked forward to the sprawling acreage of rich land.
“The past winter there has been a strange fever raging here. It is the Oregon Fever. It seems to be contagious and it is raging terribly. Nothing seems to stop it but to tear up and take a six months trip across the plains with ox teams to the Pacific Ocean. Everything was out of place and all was excitement and commotion.” - Keturah Belknap, 1848
“Our family ... left this morning for that far and much talked of country, California. ... My father is going in search of health, not gold.” - Sallie Hester, 1849
Harriett Talcott Buckingham, 1851 - Uncle Hiram Smith came to Oregon in 1846, returned east to recruit new settlers, assisted by the new Donation Land Act of 1850.
Susan Amelia (Marsh) Cranston, 1851 - They joined a group of fellow Ohioans in 1851 who were going to Oregon to escape the discontent caused by slavery debate.
“Father got the Western Fever. The government promised to give homes to all who would go to Oregon. Mother was not willing to go. She did not want to undertake the long and dangerous journey with a large family of small children.” - Martha Gay, 1851
Amelia (Hammond) Hadley, 1851 - raced to Oregon in 130 days, while others took at least 160-190, to get a Donation Land Claim. They used horses rather than oxen. The diary tells of traveling on Sundays and passing the slow moving oxen. They were accompanied by another wagon belonging to Aaron and Sarah Rose. Aaron Rose traded a horse for a land claim on the
Umpqua River and settled what would become Roseburg.
“We had decided to go west, to cross the plains to Oregon Territory. It had all come about rather suddenly. Some of our neighbors who had gone to California following the gold rush of ‘49 had now returned for their families.... From the first my husband was eager to go. At that time he was twenty-seven years old, with an adventurous, somewhat rebellious spirit that often chafed under the restrictions placed upon the younger men by the stern, staid, old-fashioned settlers of his neighborhood and time. ...Freeman declared that there were fine opportunities for strong, willing young men in that great western country. He said he was weary of slaving through the hot summer to save money that must be spent during the long, cold winter that followed. Besides,
this would take him away from farming, which he despised....” - Lucia Loraine (Bigelow) Williams, 1851
Eugenia Zieber, 1851 - She learned of her trip to Oregon while attending the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in Bethlehem, PA, in a letter from her father in Peoria dated Dec 1849. He intended to move to Oregon for a more healthy climate.
Cecelia Emily McMillen Adams and Parthenia McMillen Blank, 1852 - James McMillen, older brother of the twins had emigrated to Oregon in 1845. The 1852 party also went to Oregon to attend the wedding of brother James and Tirzah Barton. Joseph McMillen left his wife Ruth and three younger children in Illinois to go to Oregon with the twins and claim land, then return by way of Panama and travel the trail again in 1856.
Tucker Scott, 1852 - was first infected with Oregon Fever in 1838 when Jason Lee gave an inspiring talk at Main Street Presbyterian Church in Peoria. The Peoria Party of 1839 left as soon as possible. Their leader, Thomas Jefferson Farnham was Scott’s neighbor and friend. Also in 1838, the Oregon Provisional Emigration Society of Lynn, Mass, published The Oregonian
magazine. Peter and Tucker Scott were the magazine’s Illinois agents. Peter emigrated in 1847. Tucker was delayed when his brother was murdered by “road agents” and being responsible for half of his debts went into bankruptcy in 1842. By selling portable lumber mills, Tucker was able to be out of debt by 1852.
“There was much talk and excitement over the great gold discoveries in California. And equally there was much talk concerning the wonderful fertile valleys of Oregon Territory, an act of Congress giving to settlers 640 acres of land. My father, with much of the pioneer spirit in his blood, became so interested that he decided to ‘Go West.’ ” - Harriet Scott, 1852
“Father and Mother received such glowing accounts from Abraham that they decided to go to Oregon in the
spring.” - Sarah Bird Sprenger, 1852
Frederick Keil, 1855 - Frederick and his father Henry were traveling with Henry’s brother, Dr. William Keil, who was transplanting his commune to a site on Willapa Bay picked out by a scouting party in 1853. Dr. Keil’s communalistic teachings came from a Bavarian tradition that it was more pious to live communally than competitively. His original Aurora Colony in Bethel, Missouri, was too close to the influences on modern life, so Dr. Keil was looking for the isolation offered by Oregon. When his son, Willie, was disappointed by not getting to go along on the 1853 party, Dr. Keil promised his son he would take him to Oregon. But Willie died during preparations for the 1855 trip. To fulfill his promise Dr. Keil had a wagon fitted with a special lead-lined vat of whiskey and took his son to his final resting place in Willapa, Washington.
“Upon hearing of the wonderful new country in the West, where the people were free from the dreaded malaria, a party of people decided to make up an immigrant train and travel to the ‘Land of Promise.’ ” - William McCormick, 1859
Charles Oliver, 1864 - His grandparents, Elijah and Catherine Oliver, were bringing their family of three grown sons and their families to Oregon to escape the ravages of the Civil War which threatened to encroach upon Iowa.
“That winter had been a sad one. The fact that the war was drawing to a close was dwarfed by the news which had come in a letter from the chaplain telling us of a new grave near Vicksburg. After that, Father and Mother seemed to have no heart for another year on the Iowa farm. Their one desire seemed to be to sell the place and start anew in some spot where they would not feel their loss so keenly. But where? During the cold winters, Father was often ill; he needed a warmer climate. Then came a letter from Uncle Alfred in far off Oregon. It was a wonderful letter. Over and over we read it. Oregon must be the most wonderful spot in the world. Father and Mother must have thought so, too. They talked about it so much, the wonderful climate, the
warm winters, the beautiful harbor, the thousands of orchard trees, the great forests of valuable timber, the coal mines, and always again, the climate.” - Philura Vanderburgh, 1864
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