Travels With “Lapham’s Quarterly”: Starvation on the Oregon Trail, 1846
This found letter from schoolteacher Tabitha Brown details the horrors and hardships for settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail in the 19th century. The sixty-five-year-old widow left Missouri with her children and grandchildren in April 1846. Brown settled in Oregon, where she helped to found Pacific University. She died at the age of seventy-eight in 1858.
Oh! that I could be present with you and Margaret and relate in the hearing of your children the numerous vicissitudes and dangers I have encountered by land and sea since I parted with you in Brimfield. It would fill a volume of many pages. But I will give a few items from the time I left Missouri in April of 1846 for Oregon. I expected all three of my children to accompany me, but Manthano was detained by sickness and his wife was unwilling to leave her parents. I provided for myself a good ox-wagon team, a good supply of what was requisite for the comfort of myself, Captain Brown, and my driver, Uncle John, and crossed the plains on horseback. Orus Brown, with his wife and eight children, and Virgil Pringle, Pherne’s husband, with five children, fitted out their separate families and joined a train of forty or more for Oregon, in high expectation of gaining the wished-for land of promise.
The novelty of our journey, with little exception, was pleasing and prosperous until after we passed Fort Hall. Then we were within eight hundred miles of Oregon City–if we had kept on the old road down the Columbia River—but three or four trains of emigrants were decoyed off by a rascally fellow who came out from the settlement in Oregon, assuring us that he had found a near cutoff, that if we would follow him, we would be in the settlement long before those who had gone down the Columbia. The idea of shortening a long journey caused us to yield to his advice. Our sufferings from that time no tongue can tell. He said he would clear the road before us, so that we should have no trouble in rolling our wagons after him. But he robbed us of what he could by lying, and left us to the depredations of Indians and wild beasts, and to starvation. But God was with us. We had sixty miles of desert without grass or water, mountains to climb, cattle giving out, wagons breaking, emigrants sick and dying, hostile Indians to guard against by night and day, to keep from being killed or having our horses and cattle arrowed or stolen. We were carried hundreds of miles south of Oregon into Utah Territory and California, fell in with the Clammette and Rogue River Indians, lost nearly all our cattle, and passed through the Umpqua Mountains.
Our family was the first that started through the canyon, so we got through the mud and rocks much better than those that came after. Out of hundreds of wagons, only one came through without breaking. The canyon was strewn with dead cattle, broken wagons, beds, clothing, and everything but provisions, of which latter we were nearly destitute. Some people were in the canyon two or three weeks before they could get through. Some died without any warning, from fatigue and starvation. Others ate the flesh of cattle that were lying dead by the wayside.
After struggling through mud, rocks, and water up to our horses’ sides much of the way in crossing this twelve-mile mountain, we opened into the beautiful Umpqua Valley, inhabited only by Indians and wild beasts. We had still another mountain to cross, the Calapooia, besides many miles to travel through mud, snow, rain, and hail. Winter had set in. We were yet a long distance from any white settlement. The word was “Fly”—everyone that can—from starvation. Mr. Pringle and Pherne insisted on my going ahead with Uncle John to try and save our own lives. They were obliged to stay back a few days to recruit their few worn-out cattle. They divided the last bit of bacon, of which I had three slices, a teacupful of tea; the last divisions of all we had—no bread. We saddled our horses and set off, not knowing if we should ever see each other again. Captain Brown was too old and feeble to render any assistance or protection to me. I was obliged to ride ahead as a pilot, hoping to overtake four or five wagons that left camp the day before. Near sunset we came up with two families that had left that morning. They had nothing to eat, and their cattle had given out. We all camped in an oak grove for the night, and in the morning I divided my last morsel with them and left them to take care of themselves. I hurried Captain Brown to ride fast, so as to overtake the wagons ahead. We passed through beautiful mountains and valleys and saw but two Indians in the distance through the day. In the afternoon Captain Brown complained of sickness, and could only walk his horse at a distance behind. He had a swimming in his head and a pain in his stomach. About two or three hours by sun, he became delirious and fell from his horse. I was afraid to jump down from my horse to assist him, as it was one that a woman had never ridden before. He tried to rise up on his feet, but could not. I rode close to him and set the end of his lignum-vitae cane that I had in my hand hard in the ground to help him up. I then urged him to walk a little. He tottered along a few yards and then gave out. I then saw a little sunken spot a few steps from me and led his horse down into it, and with much difficulty I got him raised to the saddle. I then requested him to hold fast to the horse’s mane and I would lead by the bridle. Two miles ahead was another mountain to climb over. As I reached the foot of it, he was able to take the bridle into his own hand, and we passed over safely into a large valley—a wide, extensive, solitary place, and no wagons in sight!
The sun was now setting, the wind was blowing, and the rain was drifting, upon the sides of the distant mountain—poor me! I crossed the plain to where these mountain spurs met ravines, betwixt the points. Here the shades of night were gathering fast, and I could see the wagon track no farther. I alighted from my horse, flung off saddle and saddlebags, and tied him fast with a lasso rope to a tree. The captain asked what I was going to do. My answer was, “I am going to camp for the night.” He gave a groan and fell to the ground. I gathered my wagon sheet that I had put under my saddle, flung it over a projecting limb of a tree, and made me a fine tent. I then stripped the captain’s horse and tied him, placed saddles, blankets, and bridles under the tent, then helped up the bewildered old gentleman and introduced him to his new lodging upon the bare ground. His senses were gone. Covering him as well as I could with blankets, I seated myself upon my feet behind him, expecting he would be a corpse by morning. Pause for a moment and consider my situation—worse than alone, in a savage wilderness, without food, without fire, cold and shivering, wolves fighting and howling all around me, darkness of night forbade the stars to shine upon me, solitary. All was solitary as death—but that same kind Providence that ever has been was watching over me still. I committed my all to Him and felt no fear. As soon as light had dawned, I pulled down my tent, saddled the horses, found the captain so as to stand upon his feet. Just at this moment one of the emigrants that I was trying to overtake came to me—he was in search of venison—half a mile ahead were the wagons I was trying to catch up with, and we were soon there and ate plentifully of fresh venison. Within eight or ten feet of where my tent was set, fresh tracks of two Indians were to be seen, but I did not know that they were there. They killed and robbed a Mr. Newton but a short distance off, but would not kill his wife because she was a woman. The Indians killed another man on our cutoff, but the rest of the emigrants escaped with their lives. We then traveled on, and in a few days came to the foot of the Calapooia Mountain. Here we were obliged to help cut a road through. Here my children and my grandchildren came up with us—a joyful meeting. They had been near starving. Mr. Pringle tried to shoot a wolf, but he was too weak and trembling to hold his rifle steady. They all cried because they had nothing to eat. Just at this time their own son came to them with a supply, and all cried again.
Lapham’s Quarterly is a journal of history and ideas edited by Lewis Lapham. Since 2007, it has published historical writing on topics such as War, Nature, Crimes and Punishments, and Travel. The Fall 2009 issue is Medicine. For more from our Travel issue, please visit www.laphamsquarterly.org.
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