Iowa Old Press
The Democratic Union
Keosauqua, Van Buren, Iowa
February 26, 1853.
From the Oregon Times.
Letter of Hon. Delazon Smith.
Facts interesting to all persons in the States who contemplate immigrating to Oregon by the Overland Route: - Character of the Road;- Particulars respecting the journey, &c.
MR. EDITOR:- In my first and last
communication, I sought to fit out the immigrant to perform, successfully, the
journey from the Missouri river to Oregon. In the present number I propose to
explain the character of the road and recite some few particulars respecting the
trip, made familiar to me by a passage over the plains the last summer. Before
entering upon the disposition of these topics, I will first supply briefly, a
few omissions of matters which properly belong to the former part of my subject.
Some former writers have informed the people of the States that they need not provide themselves with tents, or be very particular about their wagon covers, assuring them that it seldom or never rained between Fort Laramie and the valleys of Oregon during the summer season, and but seldom between the Missouri river and the former place. Now I have simply to remark that whatever may or may not have been in former years, certain it is that the immigrants were visited with much rain the past season, there being more or less all the way. And some of these storms were of the severest kind. The season, in this respect, doubtless vary, between the States and Oregon, as they do everywhere else. It is the part of wisdom, therefore, for the immigrant to provide himself with a good tent and good strong and close wagon covers. For even if it were not to rain upon the entire journey, the extreme cold and the raw winds experienced upon a part of the way, would render these articles very useful and very comfortable.
Some persons start with an unnecessary amount of salt. Remember that you will require none upon the road for any other purpose than that of cooking. Your stock will not eat it after crossing the Missouri river.- The reason for this is that the earth is a large part of the distance between the two points is salimoterrene- denoting a compound of salt and earth. Salt itself is but the muriate of soda, compound of acid, and the alkali, contained in the earth and water is volatizable or is expanded and evaporated by heat, and settles upon, and enters into the composition and growth of the grass drying in a salty acid or caustic taste, according to the quantity of the supposed ingredients present. At some, nay many points upon the route, the grass and water is so thoroughly impregnated with alkali that it is almost sure death to cattle if they partake of either.
Before conducting the immigrant across the Missouri river, I wish to suggest these things following: Those who undertake this journey will find it no children's play-no "bed of roses." Many-who have not tried it-speak of it- in anticipation- as a mere pleasure trip. Allow me to assure all who design to follow me, that they will find anything else than that! To perform the journey successfully, expeditiously and with any thing like pleasure or self-satisfaction, it is requisite, as precedent to setting out, that the immigrant possesses himself largely of piety, patience, provisions, prudence and perseverance! And unless a person has both physical and moral courage-unless he possess more or less the spirit of the age in which he lives-the spirit of go-ahead-"upward and onward"- I would advise him to stay where he is. But if he be a bold swimmer I have only to say to him that I have tried the waters of the Rubicon, have overcome them and I find these opposite shores pleasant and inviting. But more of this anon.
I am to speak of the character of the road. And her I must remark that an attack of the cholera soon after crossing the Missouri river, together with the exacting labors of the camp and the onerous duties of the entire way, prevented me from consummating an original intention of taking notes of the journey, I am compelled now, therefore, to depend solely upon a somewhat tenacious verbal memory.
The reader will perceive that I have hitherto spoken of but one starting point upon the Missouri river, of course I can describe only what I saw. And for all practical purposes the general description of which I shall give and the suggestion which I shall offer, are, probably, quite applicable to the route from Independence or St. Jo., or any other point upon the Missouri river, to where all the roads unite and from but one, as to that leading from Kanesville, or Council Bluff.
The first stream of any importance after crossing the Missouri, is the Elk Horn, 30 miles. Eight or ten miles beyond you come to the Platte, and from where you first strike this stream to where you leave it entirely, is 575 miles. For five hundred miles of this distance there is a very great sameness in the appearance of the country, save that for the first 500 miles you meet with occasional groves of timber, and more or less skirting the banks of the Platte, whilst for the remaining two hundred scarcely timber enough for a riding whip can be found! But Providence, as though to provide especially for the immigration to the Pacific where the timber fails, has caused the buffalo chips to abound; and further on, where these also fail, He has caused artemisia or wild sage to grow in great abundance, which answers an excellent purpose to cooking.
The country of the Platte has come remarkable features of which we must speak, and particularly in so far as it can interest or affect the immigrant.
The first stream of consequence to be crossed after leaving the Missouri is the Elk Horn. Here you swim your cattle and ferry your wagons.- Both stream and country here are beautiful.
There are many lakes, pools, puddles and ponds of water, some springs and many shallow wells, dug by the immigrants, along through the Platte country. Let me here advise the immigrant once and for all, to avoid the water of all these places, save, perhaps a few of the best springs. Do not drink it. There is death in it! I believe that three-fourths of the sickness on the Platte, during the past season, was superinduced by the drinking, in large quantities, of the water. Whenever possible to obtain it, drink no other water than that of Platte river. Like the water of the Missouri, into which it empties, it is rather riley, though not so much so as that stream, yet after standing a little time it becomes clear cool and good tasted.
Loop Fork is the next principal stream on the route. On approaching this stream the roads fork- the left hand goes to a ferry, and the right to the place to ford, about 40 miles further up the stream. This ford is impassible in high water, and at best is unsafe on account of quick sand. Better pay the $3 required per team and ferry.
Some part of the road, on the Platte, is crooked, low, wet and sandy. But much the greater part is quite level, good and straight. And it will be round, by odds, the best road on the entire route.
Though it is not my purpose to mention by name any other than the larger streams on the route, yet it must not be inferred that there are no other. On the contrary there are almost innumerable small streams at convenient distances on almost the whole route. These creeks are not only valuable to the immigrant as affording water for himself and team, but the willows which grow upon their banks, and which die and dry, furnish him with fuel, when all other kinds fail.
The portion of the road which we are now more immediately describing runs a part of the distance on the banks of the Platte, and the balance of the way from one to five miles from it.
The first 300 miles from the Missouri river is a delightful country.- Timber, to be sure, is even more scarce than it is in the prairie States of the west, but the soil is as good, if not better as is also the climate- One large State may be formed west of the Missouri river. But the good Lord have mercy upon all those who may ever attempt to form and inhabit States, between the western boundary of such State, and the Territory of Oregon!
The natural scenery along the Platte country for the last 300 miles traversed by the trail, is somewhat interesting and attractive. There are ancient bluff ruins, resembling ancient fortifications, castles, towers, churches, &c., in ruins. "Chimney Rock," also, upon the South side, can be seen at a great distance, and attracts much attention. It resembles, in the distance, a shot tower, or stack chimney. "Capital Hills" or "Scott's Bluff", also south of the river, resemble court houses, or capitol buildings, or state houses, &c. And last, though by no means the least, Laramie's Peak, a mountain to the west of Fort Laramie, may be seen to the distance of 150 miles.
The vast immigration, year after year, upon this route, and making their approach too, just as that season when the buffalo "rises, as the Indian phrases it, has had the effect to frighten that animal off from the trail and drive him farther north, where he has come to remain. As a consequence of this, but comparatively few Buffalo are now seen upon the route. If, however, the immigrants will bunt these animals, and are not anxious to save their horse flesh, and are willing to run the risk of falling into the hands of the Indians, they can find them in vast numbers from 20 to 30 miles over the bluffs, to the south of the trail.- A few antelope are occasionally to be seen. They are easily secured, and their meat is excellent, it being even better flavored than the deer.- Fish are also in abundant in most of the streams. But few can spare the requisite time to catch them, and it is questionable whether their meat be a healthy diet on this portion of the journey.
On arriving at Fort Laramie, I would advise the immigrant to continue on the north side of the river. All the old travelers-mountaineers, traders, trappers, and the Mormons, of a later period, followed this trail form Laramie on west. Indeed, those who have pursued this route may be classified thus:- 1st, the Buffalo, 2nd, the Indian, 3d, the Mountaineer, 4th, the Morman and 5th, the Immigrant.
The county upon which you immediately enter, on leaving Fort Laramie, differs materially from that which precedes it. On leaving the Fort you enter what is called the "Black Hills". The road through these is somewhat rough, and there is, for a considerable distance, a scarcity of water, but there is plenty of wood and very fair grass.
Along through this region of country there are occasional sand, grey and red stone bluffs. And I might say that the whole country, from Fort Laramie to the Pacific ocean, bears the speaking impress of volcanic action. Fire and water have one day struggled for mastery, in seeing which should possess the western portion of this continent.
You travel on the Platte, or in its immediate vicinity, altogether, about 675 miles. From the point where you leave it in the country becomes more barren and desolate in appearance, and more mountainous. And mineral and poisonous waters are more frequently met with. There are many alkali springs and swamps. These you may always recognize by either their smell or by a white incrustation around, near or over them.
About 700 miles from the Missouri river you ascend an elevation called "Prospect Hill," from which you have a fine view of the surrounding country. A few miles beyond this is "Independence Rock," near a beautiful stream called "sweet water." This rock is a natural curiosity. It is 600 or 700 yards long, and from 120 to 150 yards wide and composed of hard granite. It is entirely bare, laying upon the top of the ground, and is quite smooth, having been washed by the rains of - how many years heaven only knows. Thousand have ascended to the top of it. it is literally covered as are the smooth rock generally, contiguous to the trail all the way, wit the dates and the names of former travelers. It was arranged by the immigrants "all along the line," that the readers humble servant should deliver a Fourth of July oration, upon this rock, but we unexpectedly arrived there on the 2d, and not having the time to spare, we passed on.- Within a year or two "trading posts," have greatly multiplied on this route to Oregon. The first one we met with, after leaving Fort Laramie, was stationed at the crossing of "sweet water," not far from Independence Rock. I bought bacon for15 cents per pound. The same price I paid for it in Kanesville. Groceries of all kinds were on sale.
About 775 miles west from the Missouri river is what are called Ice Springs. They are on a low swampy piece of ground to the right of the road. Dig down from [cannot read word] three feet, and you can get ice sometimes, though the weather may be ever so hot. There are also hot springs near by.
The South Pass is the next point of interest met with. Its altitude is something over 7000 feet. This is the dividing ridge between the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.- The ascent to this Pass is very gradual, so much so as to be attained by the traveler without his perceiving it, were he not expecting it. Gorges, frightful descents, awful crags and abysses are not there! But the country is a rolling prairie. This is in lat. 42 º 18 58; long. 108 º 40. Four miles from here you drink from springs the waters of which flow into the Pacific ocean.
About 850 miles from the Missouri river is the junction of the Salt Lake with the Ft. Hall or Oregon road.- Soon after passing which you will have a desert of 50 miles to cross unless you take a "cut off." I kept right on and encountered the desert.- I, however, advise all who may succeed me to take the "cut off." There are many deserts upon the road, varying from 15 to 50 miles in extent.- It may be well to explain that what are called "deserts" upon this road are not entirely destitute of grass, but are so of water. The longest desert on the whole route is the one above alluded to. You will do well to avoid it.
In approaching Green river, you will encounter some very steep hills. Green river itself is a very deep, bold and rapid stream. If attempts are made to ford it, great care should be preserved, as there would be much danger unless the water should be very low. Indeed, the same caution is equally pertinent in regard to Snake, and every other stream of considerable size, having the [cannot read word] in this mountainous country.
Ham's Fork is the next stream of note, and it is a pleasant one, its borders affording fine grazing for cattle.
Some ten miles east of Bear river and about 960 miles west of the Missouri river near a quaking-asp grove and a fir and pine grove, is a very pleasant place. The valley of Bear river is also pleasant, but gaining it you descend some frightful mountains, they being from one to two thousand feet higher that the Rocky Mountains at the South Pass.
There is a bridge over Smith's Fork of the Bear river. Cross on it and pay the toll by all means, rather than go round several miles and endanger your wagons over the intolerable road, and your provisions by fording the same stream four times.
Great Soda Springs are a great
curiosity. They are situated a little to the east of the junction of the Fort
Hall and California roads, and about 1050 miles west of the Missouri river. They
cover some 60 acres of land. They boil directly up from the level ground. The
water contains a gas and has an acid taste, and when exposed to the sun or air,
it soon takes the formation of a crust or solid, of a scarlet hue, so that the
continual boiling of any of these for a time will create a stone to the height
of its source, say 15 or 20 feet, and some 10 or 20 feet in diameter at the base
and from 2 to 3 feet at the top. The tops, containing very convenient pen-stocks
or basins of water. After arriving at a uniform height, the water ceases
to run from them and bursts out in a new place. The spouting forth of the water
is very beautiful.
In the immediate vicinity of the above is a hot sulphur spring called the "Steam Boat Springs." so called from the remembrance, in the boiling and bubbling up of the water, to the boiling of that in the boiler of a steam engine. This is a delightful place and will certainly one day be a Saratoga of the Pacific world. It is now very healthy beyond a preadventure.
From the point last named, on to the valleys of Oregon, lying contiguous to the coast, there are many beautiful springs of cold, pure water to be met with.
In passing over the country, I would remind the immigrant that he may, if he chooses, gather up any quantity of soda for use. It is excellent for making bread.
A curiosity, which had, up to this moment escaped my memory, I will now refer the immigrant to. I mean the "Devil's Gate," so called. The water of Sweet Water river here seems to have forced or worn its way through the solid rock of the mountain. The space is about 20 yards wide, and 500 feet high. This is but a few miles west of Independence Rock. And some 35 or 40 miles west of this you obtain your first view of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. And some 30 miles further on you commence the ascent of the spur of the Rocky Mountains.
Let me suggest to the immigrant the propriety of his examining the banks and bottoms of all streams before crossing. Some of them are deeper and more treacherous than their first appearance would indicate. The Sweet Water, before alluded to, is to be crossed nine times, and some of the crossings are bad. This stream rises among the Wind River Mountains, and is about 150 miles in extent.
Fontanille's Fork, will be found a beautiful stream; and the immigrant will also find good camping places upon it.
There are two bridges over two marshes in the vicinity of Bear River. They are kept by Mormons and are perfect impositions. Don't cross them but go a short distance above and ford. For the sake of your money, these Mormons may tell you as they did me, that you can't ford above, and that, if you can, it is a great distance out of your way. But they lie. Neither believe nor trust them but go ahead!
Four miles from Myer's cut off, leading into Humbolt valley, or what is the same thing, the main road heading to California is a large and beautiful pool of Sulphur water. Let your stock drink of it, will not hurt them, I tried it. Thirty miles onward, you occupy the summit of the dividing ridge, where you have the view of the country, for 160 miles around.- That being the distance of the "Three Tetons"- the three highest points of the Rocky Mountain range, which are here distinctly seen in a clear day. Descending this mountain, you meet with the first water you have seen that runs directly west. You have now arrived at Fort Hall, situated on what is generally called Snake River, but more properly Lewis' Fork of the Columbia. From this point to Grand Rounde, Indians and renegade whites require constant watching. Some 30 miles from this Fort are the American Falls And about 100 miles further on, you enter upon the most barren and desolate region of your whole journey. Bear river was the best, and this is the worst.- You have many long drives without water and with very little grass. About 25 miles from where you enter upon this barren country, are the great Sho-Shone Falls. The water falls 600 feet. And 30 miles from there are Salmon falls.- So denominated, probably, from the fast that they stop the fish from further ascending up the river. At these falls, you will obtain your first fresh Salmon. We did, and we ate them with much gusto! But since we arrived in the valley of Oregon, we have been informed that we ate them out of season, and that they could not have been very good!- What a pity we had not have known that it was unfashionable to eat them then!
Forty miles from these falls, you reach the Ford of the Snake river. You can ford here, and cross the river again at Fort Boise, or continue on the South side of the river all the way.- Should the immigration be large, I would advise crossing. About 100 miles from the first ford, on the South side of the river, are two hot springs about a half mile apart. The temperature of these springs is 196 deg.- From these springs to Ft. Boise ( an old trading post, formerly in the possession of the Hudson's Bay Company, but no in the possession of the Indians,) is about 50 miles.- Fifty miles further on your reach Burnt River, where the country again changes its appearance and you find the desolate and barren aspect vanishing and better grass and fair vegetation presenting itself; though some monster in human form, who preceded the great body of this year's immigration, fired and burnt off four-fifths of the grass! The whole length of the most barren region now passed over by the immigration is about 300 miles.
Grand Rounde is the next object of chief importance, which attracts our attention. This is a magnificent valley. It looks like a freak of nature that such a valley should exist in the midst of these mountains., where no other spot can be found to compare with it. The day is not distant, when the 'pale faces' will own and cultivate it all. Vegetation is most luxuriant in this valley. The climate of this valley is mild. It is well watered, by small streams, and its borders abound in most excellent springs of the purest water.
On leaving the Rounde, you commence the ascent of the Blue Mountains. These mountains are difficult of ascent, and there are some very steep and perplexing goings up and goings down in them, but nevertheless, they are the most delightful mountains on the whole route. They are covered every where, with very lofty pines, fir and cedar; and the earth is carpeted with a luxuriant growth of grass and fine little streams of pure water, are often met with. I could but think as I passed over these mountains that there were many excellent places in which to hold camp meetings! Color was given to this though by seeing the numerous encampments of the immigrants with their covered wagons and many covered tents.
Umatilla river is the next point worthy of attention. Here, on the west side of the Blue Mountains, is the principle village of the Cayuse Indians. They have immense lands of horses which they herd in this vicinity. A single chief owns 5,000 horses! Of these Indians we obtained the first fresh meat we had. They kill beeves for the immigrants. The immigrants usually trade a great deal with them. Exchanging poor and worn out oxen and cows for Indian ponies, &c. They will exchange a good horse for a cow. I ought to have mentioned that potatoes, green peas and other vegetables were obtained of the Indians at Grand Rounde; and also, a very inadequate supply of beef, by some portion of the immigration.
Forty miles beyond Cayuse village is the Indian Agency. Here, too, fresh beef may be had. At this point the road forks,- the right hand road goes over to the Columbia. It is very hilly, rocky and sandy. Do not take it, but cross the stream, and pursue the left hand trail. From the Agency to where you strike the Columbia is about 100 miles. Five miles further on down the river, is De Shane's river; a very rapid stream, and cannot be forded with safety. There is a ferry established here by the Messrs. Olneys. Better pay the ferriage than risk the stream. Before and after crossing this stream, you have fine views of the Cascade range of mountains, and particularly of Mt. Hood, directly before you, and Mt. St. Helens, a little to your right, on the north side of the Columbia river, two of the highest peaks of the range, they being more than fourteen thousand feet above the level of the ocean, and covered with perpetual snow.
From where you first strike the Columbia to the Dalles and Fort Drum, is 25 miles. Ten miles before reaching the latter place, the road forks the left hand takes the immigrant to where he may commence the ascent of the Cascade mountains; and the right to the Dalles. Forty miles east of the Dalles, and but a short distance west of Day's river, there is another road which leads to the crossing of the Cascade. Which of these roads is the best I do not know. Either leads to the main road, hitherto traveled over these mountains. Of the different routs over these mountains, down the Columbian, &c. I shall speak more at large when I come to treat of Oregan as it is. In the meantime, I must go back and hold a brief chat with those intending to immigrate, before I close this article though, already, I fear too long.
It is not an open question whether people will continue to come from the States to the Pacific. They will come just as certainly as water seeks its level, or the stone gravitates. If this country is really what it is cracked up to be, " I certainly shall not remain one of few smart enough to come here. And if the country is not what it has been represented, surely there are more fools behind ready to follow our example! There are, perhaps, from three to four thousand fresh graves between the Missouri river and the Dalles of the Columbia; and if the mortality has been equal on the California route, 12 or 15 per cent of this year's immigration are dead! Will this deter people from coming? Most certainly not! Horses take fright.- Stages are upset, rail cars run off the track, sail vessels are foundered and lost, and steam ships are blown up, and many lives are lost! The ship-fever and a variety of contagious diseases people the waters of both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with the dead, but are these modes of conveyance dispensed with? Do people cease to travel ? Nay, verily! "Let the dead bury the dead" is the language of this stirring onward- progressive age! If wives have been widowed, husbands left companionless, and children orphaned upon the way, their condition will prompt hundreds of kindred to undertake the journey who otherwise have remained at home. People die where they are, and they can but die in crossing the Plains. Thousands, and then of thousands have crossed in safety and thousands are willing to try it yet! Iowa, Missouri and other western States are now, and will continue for years to come, but little else than receiving shops for the Pacific coasts! Those who reside there have friends in the valley of the Pacific, who are cultivating free soil, enjoying a fine healthy and salubrious climate, and selling their produce in the finest market in the world. They will come to them!
Inasmuch as people will come to the Pacific, and as those who cross the Plains (if they bring their families) must come in the mode we have indicated, until camels shall be employed, or railroads built, and as everything connected with this mode and this journey become a matter of importance. I shall deem it advisable to submit additional remarks relative to the journey, but these I must reserve for the next communication.
I am very respectfully, your ob't ser't,
Albany, Linn Co., O.T.
Nov. 30, 1852.
Iowa Old Press
Van Buren County