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Into the Great Unknown: Chapter Twelve
One More State to Conquer
Of course there weren’t states back then, but territories . . . our travelers find themselves crossing the Blue Mountains into what is now present-day Washington State. Back then, in 1845, it was British territory according to documents, but those documents were becoming increasingly meaningless as more and more U.S. citizens streamed towards the Oregon Territory.
Laura is under the weather. Joshua is concerned. Everyone is exhausted and in dire need of some well-earned rest.
But first . . .
Goodbye to the Blues
We crested a hill, what once would have been considered a mountain by many of us, and the Columbia River came into view, the waters sparkling under the fall sun, inviting us, pointing the way through a gorge with steep walls, a ribbon of blue providing life for the surrounding area.
And that area was desolate, sage brush, rocks, unwelcoming, the wagons kicking up dust, the dust remaining in the air as we passed, as though unsure of which way to go, finally settling back down from whence it came, the decision left for another time.
“What do we do now, Joshua?” Laura asked me. Her color had returned and she was feeling better. She had confirmed what I suspected two days earlier, she was with child, a child of the west, she said, and smiled. “It doesn’t look like there is a trail along the river bank, not with those steep cliffs.”
Her question was answered by Jackson shortly after we stopped for a midday meal.
“From here we go to the Whitman Mission, pilgrims,” he said. “We’ll rest there for a day. You’ll find the Whitman’s to be welcoming but a bit uppity. Indians don’t like them at all, from what I’ve observed, but that’s no concern of ours. After we rest up we tear apart the wagons and ride barges down the river. It will cost five dollars per family and belongings. That’ll get us to Fort Vancouver, a British fort be damned, but run by a good man. Then we just follow the Willamette down into paradise. If luck is on our side, you’ll be seeing your new home within a week, provided we all survive that cursed river and its rapids. It’s almost time to celebrate. The winter snows can’t hurt us now, so the worst has been avoided.”
My first impression of the Whitmans bore out what Jackson had said. Dr. Whitman was gracious enough, but his wife, Narcissa, was barely tolerable. Laura thought her downright rude.
“She acts like she’s better than us, Joshua. It’s hard for me to figure why she acts that way, high and mighty. I’m having a hard time thinking Christian thoughts about her.”
“People like that, Laura, they are basically unhappy with themselves and take it out on others. I suspect she has a hard road ahead of her, so don’t you waste another moment letting her bother you. What bothers me most is a conversation I had with one of Whitman’s helpers. He was telling me our friend George, because of his color, would not be able to own land in Oregon south of the Columbia. I just can’t wrap my brain around that kind of thinking. Seems to me if a man is willing to make this backbreaking journey, he sure as hell ought to partake in the rewards when he finishes. This is a country based on freedom, isn’t it? Why does a man’s color affect that?”
Laura had no answer for me. I really didn’t expect one.
“So what is George going to do, Joshua?”
“The Whitman’s man says the British are more than willing to give a land claim north of the Columbia, give a claim to anyone willing, no matter his color. George is considering it, said he’d decide when we get to Fort Vancouver, talk it over with the Prefect there, a Mister John McLaughlin. He’s supposed to be a fair man who is favorable to Americans.”
“What about us, Joshua?”
“I guess we have matters to discuss, Laura. I was counting on George and his family as neighbors, us all watching out for each other, but it doesn’t sit well with me, him not being able to get a land claim from the United States.”
The Mighty Columbia
Dismantling the wagons took the better part of two days. The wind howled, driven by an unseen force, pushing dirt throughout our campsite, at times blinding, always bothersome, someone said death by a thousand pinpricks, and I reckon that’s accurate enough.
“Leave what you don’t need, pilgrims,” Jackson shouted to us all. “You can stock up on supplies at Fort Vancouver. We don’t want these barges riding low in this river, not with the wind putting up a fuss, and there’s a mile portage around the falls downstream, so whatever you take, you carry around that portage. Hurry up now, you lollygaggers. Let’s try to be ready within the hour.”
There were Indians there, watching us, waiting for our discards, silent men and women, expressionless, if they were amused by it all they didn’t show it, just held fast by curiosity as the strange visitors to their land struggled with balky items, loading them on the barges, a great deal of cursing that day. The water was placid there, the river wide, the cliffs steep, the ground scorched, barren, and eagles soared above it all, what they were thinking I’ll never know, deer along the shoreline, fish leaping from the waters, the sun, minus its fierceness, providing a golden glow as it inched towards the distant Pacific Ocean.
“This doesn’t look like the paradise we were promised, Joshua,” Laura said, hugging herself despite the comfortable temperatures.
“This gorge cuts through the last of the mountains, Laura. I’m told on the other side of them the land turns wet, green, and lush. Don’t you worry about the land west of here; if you need to worry, give concern over this river trip we’re about to make. There are all manner of problems we could be facing. This river may look inviting, but it’s deep and fierce, and I heard Jackson saying last year two barges overturned and six men and two women were never found.”
Our two children came over, each one grabbing a piece of my trousers. My son looked up at me.
“Are we almost home, Pa?” he asked, and in that question could be founnd all the hopes and dreams we’d been grasping tightly for over five months.
I had the opportunity to kayak this portion of the Oregon Trail. The cliffs rise straight up from the river, some two, three hundred feet, possibly more. The ground is perpetually brown, the landscape barren, a mighty river surrounded by desert. The river is so large as to appear calm, but its force is undeniable to anyone willing to swim against the current, the final leg of its journey from the headwaters in Canada.
It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to those travelers. They came from a land of lush farming soil. They had endured months of hardship overland, and now they were being asked to put all their trust in a wooden barge and the navigation of a complete stranger over deep, deadly waters.
Where was this paradise they were promised? They certainly couldn’t see it even though they were told it was close by. Why couldn’t they see it? They had done everything asked of them, conquered tall mountains, forged rivers, buried their dead, and avoided disease, yet here they stood, facing another obstacle, the Pacific so close some imagined salt in the air they breathed, but still no sighting.
They were tougher folks than I and that’s for damned sure.
2017 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)