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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Thirteen
Eighty miles of deep water, the barges, at times, swamped by waves, threatening to sink, sandbars rising from the depths, white water rapids, eagles overhead, gulls, deer along the shoreline, watching in curiosity as we passed by, the cliffs rising thousands of feet on either side, occasionally Indians could be seen, weary of us, painted men on painted horses, women in beads, wondering about us as we wondered about them, willing to accept our arrival but filled with doubts, as they should be.
Belongings, not strapped down well, fall overboard, chests, wagon wheels, barrels of flour, racing our barges ahead, all aimed for the Pacific Ocean, it would have been a peaceful setting if not for the constant fear which we couldn’t outrun no matter how hard we tried.
Jackson’s voice above it all, urging us on, trying to calm us, shouts of warnings, shouts of encouragement, only a half-day to go, pilgrims, watch carefully now, pilgrims, aim left, aim right, watch that bar, keep an eye for rocks now, don’t you worry now, pilgrims, old Jackson’s with you, Oregon is right around that bend and then . . .
The landscape changed, dull brown to light greens, then darker greens, fir trees rising along the shoreline, the air heavier, can’t think of a better way to describe it, the air heavier, smelling of salt, the river broadening, around a final bend and blessed be, good God almighty, the log ramparts of Fort Vancouver off to the right, the northern shore British territory, activity all around it, wagons, horses, Indians, watching our barges, waving, coming down to the shoreline to help guide us in, ropes tosses, ropes secured, thank God we made it, and tears streaming down the faces of men, women, and children, hallelujah for sure!
At the Fort
“So the rumors were true? Our friend can’t own property in the Willamette Valley?”
The man in charge of the Hudson Bay Company, John McLoughlin, shook his head.
“I’m afraid it’s so. People of color are still not recognized in the Territory. Now, mind you, we British have no such problems, and your friend, his family, and your family are all welcomed north of here on what is most definitely British land.”
“Are there any other settlers north of here?” Laura asked him.
“Another of our forts, Fort Nisqually, was built two years ago. From here it is one-hundred miles due north. I would venture to guess there are now thirty, forty people in and around that fort. More will be arriving with each year. The area known as the Puget Sound has many natural harbors, so it won’t be long before towns spout up along its shoreline. The land is good for farming, the rivers are swift for mills, and the timber reaches to the heavens if lumbering is something you might be interested in.”
“Thank you kindly for the information,” I told him, shaking his hand. “We’ll have to think on it a spell.”
We all walked down to the docks along the shoreline. The activity seemed to never end along the great river, new arrivals, new departures, ships being loaded with furs and lumber for San Francisco. We had finally made it to civilization only to find a member of our party was not wanted.
“What about the children, Joshua?” Laura asked me. She was now obviously with child, so her question was not an idle one. “Do we really want to leave civilization once more and head north, not knowing what awaits us there?”
A small boat tied up at the wharf, riding low in the water, heavy with fish.
“Do we really want to live somewhere where our best friends are not welcome?” I responded. “Our country was founded on freedom and yet George is not free because he’s a black man. That’s doesn’t sit well with me, Laura.”
“But what about our children?” she asked again, and once more I had no answer.
“Your section of land, 640 acres, is located one mile northeast of Fort Nisqually.” McLoughlin handed me official papers. “I have sent word ahead, to the fort, announcing your deed to the land. Make your first stop the fort, meet with the prefect, and he’ll get you set up. After that, your most important chore will be building shelter. It’s the last week of September. The rains will not hold off much longer, and once they begin they will be relentless. God bless you all!”
“How is the trail north of here?” I asked him.
“You will find it satisfactory for the first fifty miles. After that, and I want to be perfectly honest with you, it is less that desirable. If the rains hold off you should make it with minimal difficulty. If the rains arrive early, you’ll question the wisdom of your decision to go north. It is not a well-established trail like the one you just traversed. Only a handful of men have made the journey north, so God speed!”
No other words were necessary.
Into the Great Unknown
Two days out of Fort Vancouver, all signs of civilization disappeared.
Three days out the rains found us.
Mammoth fir trees surrounded us, rising from all sides, hundreds of feet into the air, ominous in an odd way, as though they threatened us with each step we took. The rain was unrelenting, a constant downpour, soaking us, chilling us, the wagons bogging down every hour, forcing us to muscle the loads forward, one foot at a time. The first night of the rains we stopped along the banks of a river. Dry wood for a fire was impossible to find, no way to dry out, we huddled in the wagon, shivering, Laura and the children crying, me feeling the weight of the world.
What had I done?
I found my friend George standing by the river bank, in the darkness, his outline barely visible in the gloom, his shoulders slumped by the weight of it all. I stood alongside him, the falling rain and rush of river making it hard to converse.
“You didn’t have to follow me north, Joshua. This isn’t your fight, this color issue. There’s still time for you and your family to turn around and head for the Willamette Valley.”
“Seems to me, George,” I said to him, “An issue like color is everybody’s fight. Laura and me, we’ve talked about this and we’re of one mind on it. Freedom isn’t selective, or at least it shouldn’t be so. If one man is free then all men should be free. If one man is not free, then no men are free. That’s just how we see it, so there’s nothing in the Willamette Valley for us until whatever government there is sees things like we do. I’m afraid you and you wife are stuck with us as neighbors.”
I felt more than saw George nod his approval.
“A man could do much worse for neighbors,” was all he said as the hard rains continued to welcome us to the new land.
One More Chapter
We’ll get these fine folks settled in up north and then we’ll be done with this story. Thanks for sticking with it all the way. You are all appreciated!
2017 William D. Holland (aka billbuc)