Reminiscences of Trip West in the 1860s

Dated Greenup, Illinois, November 10, 1933 J. L. Wright. This article was contributed by Sue Jones.

My father, William Wright, began the journey west with his family consisting of his wife, Tempy Wright, and three children, Ellery Stanton, Jonathan L. And Perry Franklin, on the 1st day of March, 1861. Perry Franklin was born September 6th, and was a baby six months old. I was born March 3, 1856, and was a lad of five summers. Ellery Stanton was two years older.

Prior to this time, Pa had come with his parents from Ohio to Indiana and thence to Illinois, settling on a farm near Bellaire, in Jasper county. His father came originally from New York to Ohio, where he married and his first six children were born. Pa was the second son. Eventually he bought one hundred sixty acres of land near his father's farm. It was in timber with just a few acres of prairie. He had four yoke of oxen and broke the prairie during the late spring and summer, clearing and fencing his place in the winter.

At the time he determined to go west, my father had considerable property. He held a sale, satisfied his debts, hitched up his teams and, accompanied by Joe Robinson and Silas Leemon of near Bellaire, started for the gold regions of the west. His older brother, Jonathan, had gone to California in the gold rush of the forties.

For the journey, we had a four horse team, a two horse team, a spring wagon for the family, and a big wagon which the two older boys enjoyed and preferred to ride in. The team to the large wagon consisted of Raby, an Apalachi mare, and Fox an iron gray horse, and the leaders - two matched bay geldings, Dick and Dave, with Raby, the saddle horse, at the wheel. Matched sorrel mares, Kit and Pan, were hitched to the spring wagon. The lines for our teams were made at our home by a man whose name was Chris Owens. When they were finished, he gave me the end of one of them and I ran with it through the middle door into the kitchen to see how long it was.

During the sale, I remember Granddaddy Matheny (my mother's grandfather) holding jars up on his cane and selling them. After some misdemeanor, Ma thought I needed a switching and sent me across the road to a hazel patch to get a switch. (In the future she selected her own switches.)

A short time prior to our departure, my younger brother next to me died, and as I was so small I did not understand the cause of my parents weeping.

The first day we drove to the home of pa's sister, Mrs. A. G. Hopper, two and a half miles south of Greenup, near the Hopper schoolhouse, and spent the night. Upon leaving my aunt's home, we took the Old National Trail, the road crossing the river on the bridge built by the federal government. The bridge had no floor, with only a few boards scattered along it in a double track. I looked over the wagon bed and saw the water which frightened me considerably. Then we went up a very steep hill that looked so high I didn't see how we could make the ascent.

One day, years after, I was talking with Sam House and another man. The latter spoke of the old bridge that used to cross the river just west of Greenup. We were standing on the old abutment at the time. As the place had to us a faintly familiar appearance, I asked him to describe the old bridge. He did so, and from his description, I am sure it was the same bridge which we had crossed on our trip west. He said he cut the timbers that held it up and later fell back in the river. He was road commissioner at the time and said the bridge was dangerous.

We went to St. Louis and took a boat up the Missouri River for Kansas City. The boat was overloaded and we were stranded on a sandbar for awhile. It was necessary to lighten the load, and as I was sick, the doctor advised Pa to take me off. So our wagons and three or four other wagons disembarked near Jefferson city. One of the two horse team hitched to our spring wagon died on the Missouri River and was thrown in the river. When we finally reached our destination, we had five heads which pa sold for cavalry and artillery horses.

The train was organized at Kansas City, Missouri, and we took the trail along the Platte River for quite a distance, traveling through Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho. There were fifty wagons and one hundred ten men in the train, and altogether seven hundred fifty people. The captain's name was Foster. The men were organized and rules adopted. Each driver knew his place and kept it.

When we went into camp, a corral was formed, oval in shape. The captain, always in front, selected his location and stopped. The next two, one on the right, the other on the left, would drive up until the tongues of their wagons were alongside the captain's wagon. The next two placed the tongues of their wagons between the back wheels of the first two and wider apart, and so continued until the wagons were half in. Then they would come closer together and so continue until the last wagon filled up the gap, forming the corral. There were two rows of men on guard outside, one near the wagons, and the other some distance away. Sometimes, men on horses searched for a camp farther out. I remember when we were following the trail, we used to look out of an evening, and when we saw the wagons ahead of us stopping, someone would say: "They are forming," If I saw them first, I would say: "Keyell,' for I could not speak the words plainly.

The children remained inside the corral. The horses were kept outside with a long and very strong rope attached to their halters, which was tied to a picket pin driven in the ground. Men were kept on guard outside with the horses. In places where there was greater danger, all the horses were put inside the corral, most of them tied to the wagons or to the picket pin with a short rope. The picket pin was a piece of iron about two feet long, sharp at one end and having a ring in the other. The cooking was usually done inside the corral. Some of the time it was necessary to cook with buffalo chips (dried droppings). A ditch was dug about ten inches deep, straight up and down at the sides, slanting up at one end. They put the fuel in, set it afire, covered it with a piece of sheet iron and set the frying pan and coffee pot on it. We soon had something that satisfied the appetite of a growing boy. My father and uncle Joe used to help with the cooking, sometimes. They took the frying pan - it had a long handle - put batter in it, held it over the fire a little while, gave it a gentle shake both ways, then a little flip, and over came the cake with a flop, brown side up. They held it a little longer, then turned it out on a tin plate.

One morning, we started the trail very early. We no longer passed any houses, except two or three close together at one place We discovered some men walking along on both sides of the wagons. Every body was still - nobody spoke a word. Our mother kept us boys as quiet as she could. We came to a group of two or three buildings, surrounded by a few trees. Nobody was about. We saw two dead dogs lying close to the road. The train kept on until late in the night before it went into camp. Ma told us the next day that the Indians, a few days before, had raided the place and killed or captured most of the white people who were there.

When we were crossing the sand, one day, the train stopped. A boy of about my own age had fallen out of the third wagon ahead of us and the back wheel had run over him. It so happened it did not seriously injure him and we soon were on our way again. At another time, we came upon the carcass of an ox, dried up but all intact, hide fastened to the bones. Someone who had passed before us had placed it on its legs so it could stand alone. One of our horses had been alkalied and was not able to work but was following along. He became frightened and ran back quite a distance before he could be caught. An alkalied horse is stiff in all joints and if the case is a bad one, it can't walk at all. When we had almost crossed the sand, we came upon a train still in camp. We stopped to find out their trouble. We were told that in the night, the Indians stampeded their horses and most of them ran away. On what were left, the men followed them. When the Indians planned to stampede the horses of a train, they formed two lines, some in the front line, several in the rear line. All on their ponies, the lines a little apart, they slipped up on the opposite side from which they wanted to go, as close to the guards as they could get. Then all at once, with a whoop and a yell, all went for the horses, the front line dividing and going on both sides of the wagons among the horses and leading the way, the rear line driving all that broke loose in a run. There was no chance for the guards to do anything. While we waited and the men were ascertaining how many horses our train could spare, two men were seen nit he distance, coming on the run. When they arrived, they reported that all of the horses had been caught and would be there in due time. Our train moved on and they followed.

We came to a very wide but shallow river which we had to ford. Two men went across first. One crouched down with his face close to the water. A man on our side was in the same position. They talked to one another. The one on the far side told the other how to drive. The first wagon started. The rest followed and all crossed without mishap.

We camped one night well up on the side of a mountain. Nearby was quite a patch of snow. The men were soon having the best sport with snowballs. It didn't last long, however, for Uncle Joe Robinson told Ma that it was the coldest snow he had ever felt. At another place, we camped near a lot of wild gooseberries and currants. The currants were ripe but so full of seeds they were not edible. The gooseberries were covered with little short thorns which were easily rubbed off and what remained was very good. That evening, Ma set Frank down by the back wheel of the wagon. He took hold of the wheel, pulled himself up, stood a second and then walked off. He never crawled.

One evening as we neared the Oregon line, we camped near a small creek of clear running water. There were lots of apples and other fruits in the orchards. The wagon was on the border of quite a pool of water, in which we could see some very nice fish. Ma and we boys went fishing. We were sitting close to the water on a low bank where the creek made a short turn. Old Raby, with a long rope tied to her halter and dragging behind her, came along, went around us and wandered up the creek. Uncle Joe seeing the situation, chould not resist the temptation and stepped on the other end of the rope. The rope straightened with a jerk and off the bank we tumbled. We came up without any fish.

Approaching the Oregon Line, the train scattered. We had been on the road six months. We later lived at Fort Vancouver, Fort Dallas and Fort Walla Walla.

My father enlisted in the army at Fort Vancouver on December 3, 1861, in company D. 1st Regiment of Oregon Cavalry. Uncle Joe Robinson and Silas Leamon also enlisted. The Indians were very troublesome and the soldiers guarded immigrant trains each way across the plains during the summer. Soldiers, Indians and all were driven in during the winter. At this time of the year, Ma bought fruit, baked pies and sold them to the soldiers.

We made great friends with some of the Indians. They belonged to the tribes of Cherokees and Snakes. There were some other friendly tribes, the names of which I cannot remember. With the soldiers, there were two Indian chiefs who acted as scouts - one a very large man, six feet tall. His name was Stock Whitley - a Cherokee, I think. The other was a small man - a Snake, whose name was Kamma Yakum. Both were killed in battle and were buried with military honors. In the army quarters, on one side of the parade grounds were the officers' quarters, and beyond, the other departments attached to the camp. On the other side was the guardhouse at one end. The guardhouse was often full for some of the men disobeyed orders.

When we were living at Fort Walla Walla, there was a branch just back of our living quarters. Down the creek was a place we called the swimming hole. I remember one day we were wading in the branch with another boy and spied a salmon in the shallow water. We went after it with rocks. We got it, and we had plenty of salmon to eat for it was more than two feet long.

As the regiment moved from Fort Vancouver to Fort Dallas, a wagon was provided for our mother and us boys to ride in. The camp, on this night, was in the mountains, surrounded by Indians - some hostile with their faces painted red. The next morning, a wagon came for the tent and its contents, and took them away, leaving Ma and us boys standing by the campfire. Our wagon failed to come for us, and there we stood clinging to our mother's dress, crying. Everybody was gone. When we had just about despaired, the rearguard came up to see that nothing was left. Uncle Joe was one of them. He saw us and said: "My God, Tempy! What's the matter?" She told him our plight. He left in a gallop and it was not long before a wagon came for us. You can guess we were glad to see it. We boys went up the wheels and into the wagon like squirrels up a snag into a hole. Pa, of course, was in front with his company.

One night, while we were living at Fort Walla Walla, we were put to bed as usual. When we awoke the next morning, we discovered that Frank had been slipped in our bed. Ma did not get up, and a woman was preparing our breakfast. After breakfast, our mother called us to her bedside and showed us our little baby sister. She was named Mahala Ellen. Some time later, pa returned to us from the plains. He talked with us and then started to the cradle to see the baby. He had been absent so long that our pet dog lying nearby, made a move to bite him as he approached the cradle.

While still living at Fort Walla Walla, a man deserted the service. They shaved his head and picked a brand on him. Then, accompanied by two soldiers, one on each side, with two behind him, and fife and drum playing a mournful tune, they marched him past the officers and soldiers out from the fort. The man had deserted two or three times.

Another deserter wearing a black cap was placed in a dray cart. Sitting on a long bed with six soldiers, three on each side, he was driven around in front of all quarters and out of sight in the same direction they had taken the other man. A little while after they passed our quarters, we heard the reports of the guns and later the soldiers returned in the cart. They had shot the man. Ma told us that an officer had loaded the guns with three balls and three blanks, not knowing which gun belonged to any of the men. Three balls hit the man. Those were war times. Later, the practice of shooting deserters was discontinued upon the order of President Lincoln.

At another time, two Indians, one an old man, the other a young one, murdered a white family consisting of a man, his wife and two or three children. The soldiers were very bitter toward the Indians, and of course they had real cause to be. The barns for the horses were in the rear of the men's quarters. Nearby were the scales where the food for the horses was weighed, and over them was a large open shed. In that shed, they built a large platform, in which was a swinging door. To this door a rope was tied. Above, on a piece of timber, two other ropes were placed, with hangman's knots at the other end.

When all was ready, Pa and Uncle Joe took us boys to see what the soldiers called "the fun." The men were taken from the guardhouse, up the steps to the platform and placed on the door. A man who knew their language asked them if they had anything to say. The old man talked quite a bit, the young man remained silent. We boys were held up so we could see. Men tied their hands behind them, and also tied their legs, pulled the black caps over their faces and adjusted the ropes. A signal was given to a man on the ground when all was ready. To me, the sight was horrible. I turned my head and looked away, but curiosity got me and made me turn and look. The doctor said the old man's neck was broken, but the young Indian strangled to death.

After three years of service, the men were discharged from the army on December 3, 1864. We lived for awhile in rooms in Portland. The morning we departed from that city to take the ocean steamer, we left everything in our rooms except the knives and forks, and of course our clothing. Ma prepared breakfast and when we had finished, we departed. We left our camp outfit, some provisions, and the table set with dishes. Our baggage had already been taken away.

We took the steamer, "Sierra Nevada," Portland, Oregon, and sailed out the mouth of the Columbia River. The ocean steamer had to leave the wharf at the city landing and go into deep water. Part of the passengers, cargo, mail, etc., was taken by small boats and put on where she was anchored. When all ready, they hoisted anchor and we were on our way down to the ocean. Of course, all were on deck. The river became wider and wider, and before long, we could see the Pacific Ocean quite a distance ahead. Whitecaps were to be seen on all sides. The vessel was going along nicely, but there was just a little tremble caused by the machinery driving her along. Eventually, the motion made several sick and drove all to their quarters, most of them walking with difficulty.

After we had been aboard several days we encountered a very severe storm. The ship rocked and reared up in front, then dipped away down. It rocked and plunged. We were tossed from our chairs and it was difficult to lie in bed without holding to something. I think it lasted thirty-six hours. The mate said he had been on the ocean for twenty years and he thought it was the worst he had ever experienced. They shot cannon balls into the waves to open a space in which to steer the ship.

We stopped at some islands in a foreign territory and picked up and delivered mail. After the ship left the islands, it was not long before we neared the city of San Francisco. It was night and a heavy fog covered everything. We did not cast anchor until daylight. The next morning, all were on deck to see. The fog was still very heavy, but by and by, it lifted, and it seemed like a curtain had been rolled up. There was the golden Gate, and lying on the side of a low mountain with the sun shining brightly, was the city of San Francisco. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Everybody was delighted.

The country south of the bay and Gate, on which the city is built, is slightly rolling. Bordering the water and extending far back are rocks gradually increasing in height farther inland. On the North, the rocks are higher along the coast. The Gate appeared to be an opening in a big rock wall. Not far down the coast each way, the breakers were rolling in plenty high, and whitecaps were bursting and throwing sprays high in the air. It was terrible to think of a vessel going on them. Nearby, we noticed another very large ship. Both started at the same time, but our rival outdistanced us and was first to reach the Golden Gate.

We remained in San Francisco a week, and while we were in the city, Pa had photographs taken of all of us. All aboard the "Constitution," the gangplank was raised, the cables loosened, the ship backed gently in the bay, and we were on our way. Just a short distance out, we came upon a smaller vessel in distress. She had broken her rudder and was drifting on the breakers. Our ship went as close as she dared and a line was taken to the disabled ship. A cable was drawn across and fastened to our ship. We started a little too soon and before they lifted anchor and the cable broke. Not far from the Gate, a smaller vessel signaled that it was coming to their aid, so we were on our way again. One day, a bell jingled, the machinery stopped and the vessel backed a little, then went on. We learned that a man was overboard. He had worked at shoveling coal in the furnace of the boiler. It seemed he had stepped out where he might cool off and had jumped or fallen in the water just in front of the wheel. His body was not seen by anyone. We landed at Panama City and took a train across the Isthmus to the port where we boarded a vessel called the "North Star," and headed for New York City. The last two vessels we traveled on were very heavily armed. We left New York City by train and came to Terre Haute, Indiana. From there, we took a stage coach to Martinsville, where we hired a conveyance which brought us to Bellaire, the old home, at ten o'clock in the evening of March 16, 1865.

A few weeks after we had returned home, Pa told us boys one day that we might go to Granddaddy's and play with the girls who were about our ages. We were pleased when he said we might spend the day. In the evening, Aunt Nancy told us that our mother desired us to return home. We hurried back, and upon our arrival, Ma told us we had another little sister, Cassie Catherine. Haley did not want us boys to come near the baby as she wanted her all for herself. That was April 22nd. Our father died June 7th following.

When we were little children, even before we went west, I can remember that in the evening often after we had gone to bed, we would ask our parents to sing. This they did, and Pa then led in prayer, and then they sang again. These are very precious memories to me and now at the age of seventy-seven, as I write of these experiences of my childhood, I am ever reminded that the Lord they worshipped and taught us by example and words to love and respect, protected us on our long journey and guided us safely home.