Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Three
Can You Imagine?
This story actually came from research I was doing for a coloring book, The History of Tumwater, Washington Coloring Book. The original founders of the City of Tumwater were all members of the Simmons Party, who came across the Oregon Trail, from Missouri, to find a better life in the Oregon Territory.
There was one paragraph I read during that research, one simple paragraph, but it was amazing and profound. When the Simmons Party finally made it to the area now known as Tumwater, they needed shelter for the upcoming winter, so they set about making a communal home for twenty of them. The home was made of sixteen-foot fir logs, stacked ten high. That’s all that paragraph said, kind of a toss-away paragraph, one of thousands of facts, but if you stop and think about it, a sixteen foot first-or-second growth fir log is one big mother, heavier than hell itself, and each wall had ten of those logs stacked on top of each other. So let’s do the math…four walls, ten logs each, that’s forty sixteen-foot logs felled, limbed, shoved and pulled into place by human willpower and muscle…no modern machinery, no nothing.
That’s when I decided this story needed to be written.
- Into the Great Unknown: Chapter One
I have a new family for you to meet. Travel with me to the year 1845. Iowa is the place, and dreams are about to become reality.
Part Two of the Series
- Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Two
Follow along as a young family travels the Oregon Trail in search of a better life.
Arrival at Elm Grove
We made it a day earlier than expected. Once the rains ended we made good time, and we arrived in the town of Elm Grove, Missouri, on May 2nd, 1845, two days before the scheduled crossing of the Missouri River. It was a late start for making the trip, the weather postponing things. It weren’t much of a town, Elm Grove, various shacks, a general store, probably no more than one-hundred full-time residents, but it had swelled markedly on that May day, wagons pretty much dominating the landscape, fellow travelers making last minute purchases before the journey began.
We found out the leader of the group was Dr. Elijah White, a Presbyterian minister who had made the trip two years earlier. Me and George found him down by the river, studying the muddy water, standing knee-deep in it, shaking his head, muttering a fair amount of curses for a man of God, a short man, dark hair, broad shoulders and a kind face.
“Good God Almighty, we’ll lose half these pilgrim just crossing this sonofabitch,” he was saying to a tall man in buckskins standing next to him. “Ain’t half of them got the brains they were born with, otherwise they would have stayed on their farms and growed corn the rest of their lives.”
“Excuse me,” I shouted when I was within ten feet of the shore. “I’m told you might be Dr. White. If that’s so, my family and friends will be joining you on the journey.” I extended my hand. “My name is Joshua Brewster, that’s my wife, Laura, daughter and son over by the wagon. The wagon behind ours is George’s.” I pointed to my friend standing next to me. “He’s got his wife and son with him. We’d be mighty obliged if we could travel along with your group.”
The kind face and the man in buckskins turned at the sound of my voice. They didn’t say anything, just took our measure, making silent calculations, determining our fate according to standards I’d never be privy to. Then the smaller of the two smiled, stepped up on the bank, and took my hand.
“The name is Dr. Elijah White, and if you’re fool enough to make this trip then we’ll be happy to have you join us. My friend here,” he said, pointing at the tall man, “is Jeremiah Jackson, formerly employed by the American Fur Company and now our scout and my second in command.” He turned and looked at the river again, spit on the ground and muttered something I couldn’t hear. “We’re charging one dollar per head on our train. We all meet tonight, seven o’clock, to go over the laws of the Trail and such. You’ve got the rest of the day and tomorrow to gather up what supplies you’ll need. Don’t know what you’ve got with you, but you’ll be needing about two-hundred pounds of flour per person, one-hundred pounds of bacon per, corn meal, coffee, dried fruits, those are the basics. We’ll hunt what we can along the way, pick up more supplies once we reach the forts out west. We’re going to travel hard and fast since we are off to such a late start. We sure don’t want to get stuck in the Rockies in an early snowfall.” He spit again, smiled.
“Both your families are welcome.” He looked at George. “Black men are rare on the Trail, but not unheard of. You’ll find things a bit more tolerant on the trip. I won’t stand for any trouble, certainly not about a man’s color. Can’t rightly tell you what you’ll encounter in Oregon, but I guess it can’t be any worse than what you’ve seen already. You’ll be treated like any white man by me and Jeremiah. Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to make the rounds and see to some preparations.”
And just like that we were signed on as members of the 1845 great adventure.
There was only one place to buy supplies and that was Afferton’s General Store. We spent the rest of that day buying what we figured we would need. The store was short on bacon, only about half what we needed, us being late and all, but Mister Afferton told us to buy extra coffee and we could trade with other travelers along the way, so we followed his advice. Prices for the food were steep but not unfair, and I got a good deal on a Springfield musket and skinning knife. Laura found some cloth she said we needed for clothes. Lisa had her eye on a bonnet, and I could never say no to my daughter, and Samuel asked for, and received, his own skinning knife, the knife being almost as big as he was at the time. The store owner’s wife was a little cold to George, downright rude, I thought, evidently black not being her favorite color on a man, but George didn’t seem to mind and we had no real trouble.
We all gathered in the fading light around a big fire at seven. It was a gentle evening, the kind of evening makes a man dream of better things, hopeful that the dreams weren’t ones of foolishness. A breeze kicked up off the river, the fire’s sparks floated off to the east, and the murmuring of the crowd died down as Dr. White stood on top of a wooden crate to address us all. Just before he spoke, thunder rolled in from the west.
“Evening, folks,” he said. “As near as I can reckon there are two-hundred and forty of us making this trip, and I appreciate the faith you have in me and Jeremiah. Now the plan was for us to leave on the fourth, but if you all can be ready to leave by afternoon tomorrow, the third, I would appreciate it. The grasses are finally growing on the Plains, so the oxen won’t starve, and I would like to spend a few hours tomorrow on the Trail, working out the kinks, getting a good seven or eight miles in before nightfall. That seven or eight miles might make a big difference in five months. Are there any objections to us leaving Elm Grove tomorrow at two?”
Heads shook in the fading light and no objections were made.
“Good, then, that’s settled. Now, about the rules. There is no law west of that river over yonder, no judge to dole out punishments or settle disputes. I serve as the judge on my train, but this is also a democracy, so you will all play a part in any sentencing we have to give if there is any trouble. I’ll come around tomorrow with assigned camp chores, and also with a list of those who will be guards at night. We don’t expect any Indian trouble, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. Most deaths on the Trail happen from accidents, not from Indians, so be careful and be prepared to help each other as much as possible. If there are deaths, and I suspect there will be, we’ll stop long enough to bury the deceased and say some words over the grave, but there will be no extended delays if I can help it. Are there any questions?”
A few questions were asked and answered, and then it was time to turn in. Dr. White wrapped it all up with a few final words.
“This will not be easy. Some will die. Some will wish they would. Most of you will be sick, all of you will be hungry, and you’ll be so bone-tired in about ten days you’ll think seriously about turning around and returning to your farms. Me and Jeremiah will do our parts to make sure you see Oregon, but you’ll only see it if you prove to be tougher and meaner than this country you are about to travel. Now get some sleep. Tomorrow the adventure begins.
Under the Stars
The thunder, earlier, proved to be more noise than trouble. By the time we turned in, the skies were clear and a million stars served as our blanket. I held Laura in my arms, the kids a stone’s throw away from us. Coyotes howled at the half-moon, owls answered, bullfrogs croaked, nature conducting a symphony on our last night in civilization.
“Are you afraid, Joshua?” Laura asked, her golden head tucked up under my chin.
“More excited than afraid, Laura. I suspect, though, I’ll change that assessment after a couple days on the Plains.”
“They say there are no trees on the Plains,” her voice dropping to a whisper. “They say a squirrel can jump from limb to limb, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Missouri, without ever touching ground, but after the Missouri that squirrel will be walking on solid ground for a thousand miles. Do you reckon that’s truth or just so much nonsense?”
“From everything I’ve heard, it’s true. I’ve also heard of buffalo herds so big they blot out the sun, millions of buffalo, as far as the eye can see, and mountains so high they seem to reach to the seat of God himself.” I was quiet then, squeezed her shoulder, felt her breathe deep next to me, and then her breathing became rhythmic, weariness overtaking her.
Truth be told, I was more than a little afraid, but it would do no good to say those words out loud. I was hoping that when the time came, when I had to face down those fears, that I’d be man enough to answer the call.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)