The Blue Mountains
Oregon Trail emigrants crossed the Rocky Mountains through the South Pass in Wyoming. The ascent and descent of the Rockies was so gradual that some emigrants were unaware they had crossed the continental divide. The trail through the forested slopes of the Blue Mountains was a different story. David Maynard, emigrant of 1845, exclaimed "if they don't beat the devil." upon beginning his ascent of the Blues. Most overlanders agreed with P.V Crawford, emigrant of 1851, who not only found the trail through these mountains "rough....Much more so than the Rocky mountains," but found that weary oxen also "appreciate the difference...."
The Promise of Oregon's Future
Oregon Trail emigrants caught their first glimpse of the Blue Mountains from the desolate hills above the Burnt River east of the Grande Ronde Valley: "we could trace their outlines for many miles," wrote John Johnson, emigrant of 1851, and "they appeared to be a beautiful blue." the Blues presented to Maria Parsons Belshaw, emigrant of 1853 "Such hills as never were viewed by us poor mortals before." Many emigrants saw the promise of their future, and Oregon's in these rugged mountains.
"As we ascended the high hills upon leaving this delightful
valley, we found that the trees which looked like bushes, were of the very
largest and tallest growth. some of themI was told would make 300 rails,
and they would, evidently, the best kind of saw
Camp sites along the Oregon trail were determined by the presence of water, graazing for livestock, or simply the end of a long day's journey. Many emigrant camps were used by native peoples long beffore the first emigrants trekked westward. today's Hilgard Junction state park, still a campground, is no exception, and featuresw prominently in the oral tradition of the locl tribes.
"Indians were camped around this whole area, lots of camps and a big arbor. they had Three "criers" or speakers. One man would speak Cayuse, then it would come down to Walla Walla, then Umatilla. Each one of these men would interpret what the other said. Some missionaries were sitting around and one of the Indians was tellintg them what was being said. The criers were talking about life and their people...and it was similar to the Bible, yet the missionaries knew that these criers couldn't read or speak english. But this man would talk up here and another one down there and this one in between, in Umatilla and WallaWalla....When they got done, one of the missionaries says, "they don't need us here, they're well versed in the ways of the Bible. But I don't see how they can understand the Bible." so these missionaries went back to Salt Lake City." Marvin "Wish" Patrick, Tribal elder; May 21, 1992
Worst Road Yet
Wagons used by Oregon Trail emigrants were
ordinary canvas-covered farm wagons. they were not the large Conestoga
freighters used in the Santa Fe trade. When fully loaded, these
narrow wagons were extremely top-heavy and incapable of negotiating much
side slope. Because of this emigrants approached hills head on, straight
up, and then straight down. The Blue Mountains presented a tremendous
challenge to already weary travelers. Edward Evans Parrish, emigrant of 1844,
described the route as "the worst road yet."
Abigail Jane Scott, emigrant of 1852, described the descent to this campsite
as "down the most dangerous looking place we had yet
come down." Emigrants employed a variety of methods to control a wagon's
steep descent. S.B. Eakin, Jr. used the most common method to descend these
mountains in 1866: "We kept our brakes on so that the
hind wheels slide all the way." Some emigrants also dragged logs behind
their wagons, and on the steepest declines they let wagons down by ropes
tied to tree trunks."...we camped near the top of the
longest hill we have yet seen. Parts of it are very steep and a smashed wagon
lies near the foot of it. Preparations are going on to go down the hill.
I drove a single yoke of oxen to the buggy and mnade the descent in good
style. No accident occurred to any wagon of the train..."
"The first 5 miles was composed of a long ascent and a long descent which was steep, crooked, sideling and the road literally covered with rock from the size of your fist to any size not quite big enough to turn a wagon over, if you drive very careful. By locking both hind wheels and getting back in the wagons and placing your feet against the bows the drivers all escaped being thrown out." Henry Allyn; August 14, 1853
The Oregon Trail often exacted a heavy toll from emigrants: hardship was the common fare. Girls will be girls, however; Practical jokes and monkeyshines were not uncommon.
"A rather amusing occurrence took place today and which
also made some fun. It was as follows: James McCoy went off of the
road to get some water and got some distance behind and also came in behind
six girls who were walking ahead of their train. One of the girls left
her company and ran some distance ahead, so far as to exclude her from the
sight of the others, and got behind a tree to scare the others as they came
up. In the meantime James passed the girls who were behind and came
on up to the one behind the tree, and she, hearing his footsteps, supposed
it to be the others, and no sooner did he get up than she let out upon him,
crying "Booh!" but no person had ever looked worse beat at their own game
than did she. those she had intended to scare had got in sight to witness
the fun by the time it came off.
Good Water, Good Camping
The Oregon Trail offered little respite for weary overlanders, and the route through the Blue Mountains was no exception. Emigrants found water only at the bottom of steep ravines, and livestock were frequently lost as they foraged among the trees. Although the descent to this campsite was extremely arduous, once here emigrants found an oasis. Many overlanders concurred with George Belshaw's assessment of this site in 1853: "good water good camping."
"today we had an excellent camping spot, a very nice
situation completely surrounded by tall fir-trees. Right beside us
flowed a river abounding in fish and in the shallow parts of the river one
could scoop up quantities of crayfish."