|OTCC Interpretive Kiosk
Ironic Twist of Faith
Many emigrants in the 1840's turned northeast after crossing the Blue Mountains and trekked 35 miles to the Whitman Mission where they purchased provisions and continued down the Columbia River. By the mid-1840's most overlanders bypassed the mission on favor of a more direct route to the Columbia at it's confluence with the Umatilla River, 35 miles to the northwest. This change in the Trail deprived the Whitman Mission of sorely needed income. Peter Hardeman Burnett, and emigrant of 1843, purchased "Indian corn, peas and Irish potatoes, in any desired quantity" from the Indians. Ironically the missionaries who established agriculture, soon found the Indians beating them at their own game. In succeeding years Dr. Marcus Whitman began meeting wagons in this area to peddle provisions.
"...We traveled about sixteen miles this day, which brought us to Umatillo river. Here is an Indian town, the residence of the pricncipal chiefs of the Caaguas. ...they brought us the different products of their farms for traffic. As they expressed great eagerness to obtain clothes, and we had a like desire to obtain vegetables, a brisk traffic was continued until dark." Joel Palmer; September 16, 1845
The Long Walk to Oregon
Contrary to popular belief Oregon Trail emigrants rarely took the reins while seated in their covered wagons. Wagons were reserved for foodstuffs, household items, and to transport the sick and injured. Emigrant wagons were designed for farm use not for comfort, and many, along with Martha S. Read and her sister Lydia, emigrants of 1852, "like to have died, it hurt us so to ride." Most overlanders walked from Missouri to the Willamette Valley prodding and guiding their beleaguered teams with sticks.
"...We again took up our line of march for a seventeen mile drive and Bynon said he would be teamster though he had not set up any till about time for starting. He drove several when he was obliged to lay down. I then took my turn and drove until I was quite outdone and at last I called upon Win who was teamster the rest of the day. Bynon is very sick. We have packed him and bandaged him thoroughly he is relieved of much of his pain but is very weak. Sis is still feeble and I am all used up. dark times for we folks." [End of Diary] Charlotte Stearns Pengra; August 28, 1853
The Changing Trail
Westward emigration was an annual spring event between 1843 and the completion of the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1883. the 1843 emigration brought 875 would-be Oregonians across mountain ranges and prairies, and for these emigrants it made little difference whether they led the emigration or brought up the rear. Emigration peaked at 10,000 in 1852, and with wagons reported traveling twelve abreast from St. Joseph, Missouri, leading wagon trains were much better off than those following. When Eshther Belle McMillan Hanna first saw the Umatilla Valley August 25, 1852, "It looked very lovely, stretched out covered with green grass." James Atkin Jr., passing through a few weeks later found "grass scarce."
"The grass here is very poor having been fed off by the ponies and cattle. ...This valley is the head quarters of the Cayuse Indians. They are more civilized than any we have seen before. Bought a few potatoes of them. They are killing some very fat cattle and sell the beef at 15 to cts. pr lb. No other provisions can be had here and that is a death blow to the hopes of many hungry people. Found a man here who had left our company some time ago and been on to the Dalles and returned with a pony load of provisions. Gives a very discouraging account of the prospect before us. Grass is very poor all the way. No provisions for sale between here and the dalls...." Cecilia Adams and Parthenia Blank; October 8-9, 1852
The Whitman Incident
Presbyterian missionary Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa and eleven others were killed by a small band of local natives at their mission November 29, 1847. The deaths alarmed settlers in the Willamette Valley and sparked a series of confrontations between the volunteer Oregon Militia and the local tribes. Five members of the Cayuse tribe were eventually surrendered, and after a speedy trial held under questionable circumstances in Oregon City, they were hanged on June 3, 1850. The deaths at Whitman's mission were regrettable, but necessary from the perspective of the local tribes. The 1847 emigration brought 4,000 overlanders to the Oregon Country, and along with wagons and livestock they also brought the measles. The ensuing plague was responsible for the deaths of over half the Waiilatpu (Cayuse) population. Sick emigrants detoured to Dr. Whitman's mission for medical assistance, and there many local tribal members were infected. The account of the Whitman incident in the oral tradition of the tribes is a story of self defense.
"I don't know how they, the Indians, thought of him
as passing the sickness to them. But yet, the Indians knew that he was passing
this measles, coming form him, going on to the Indians. He was trying to
stop it, but he already had it. He didn't know it, I guess. the Indians,
they were wondering how their people were dying. then they came to this Indian
doctor and he says "well, we'll have to get
rid of him." Nobody would take it. Nobody wanted
to kill him. then this one man--he lost, I think it was three kids, three
kids from him. and he was sending them there. And he says,
"I'll do it." And
another says, "I'll help
you." so five of them went in there, they killed
them all. Then the measles stopped. They never lost no more Indians."
Marvin "Wish" Patrick, Tribal Elder; may 21,
Exaggeration, Fear, and Prejudice
The fantastic tales of warfare and horror on the frontier published in more than 300 "Indian Captivity Narratives" perpetuated an image of Indian savagery in the minds of many Oregon Trail emigrants. Charlotte Matheny Kirkwood, emigrant of 1843, recalled hearing her father's "vivid thrilling stories of Indian treachery, massacre and warfare, while I sat as close to him as I could and shivered in the dark shadows of the room." On the trail, however, emigrants soon found native people helpful, if not essential to survival. Nevertheless, emigrants and natives never understood one another well enough to cast suspicion aside.
"There appeared to be great excitement among them about the death of Whitman, and they appeared very suspicious of us and we prepared ourselves for a fight on the evening of the 20th, as all signs indicated that there would be one. Their interpreter told us that they woiuld not steal, or injure us. He was a fine looking Indian, who had gone through with Fremont, and went to school in Oregon. We provided supper for fifty or sixty of them. The chief and his crowd ate first, then renewing our coffee, the squaws surrounded the table, and seemed to enjoy themselves very well. We made them numerous small presents, with which they appeared well pleased. After supper the squaws went off on their horses at full speed; nightfall was the signal for the warriors to leave." William J. Watson; August 21, 1849
The majority of Oregon Trail emigrants were farmers
accustomed to working the land to provide food for their families. Esther
Belle McMillan Hanna, upon descending the Blue Mountains into the Umatilla
Valley in 1852 exclaimed "the valley and praira
for miles looked like grain fields ready for the sickle."
The many native peoples living along the Trail,
however like those of the Umatilla Valley, the "Waiilatpu," or "People of
the Ryegrass," were hunters and gatherers living with the land, utilizing
the abundant seasonal resources it provided. The difference in perspective
led many an emigrant family into the "wilderness" entirely unprepared.