The Emigration of 1843

Submitted by Lewis Judson Ė 1961

Marion County Historical Society Vol. 7 Salem, Oregon

Grand Ronde Agency

December 15th, 1888


P.B. Whitman

Lewiston I.T.


Dear Sir:

I owe you an apology in not answering you kind letter long before this. In answer to your request, I will state that I crossed the plains from Independence, Missouri in 1843. I was 23 years old, being born in Philadelphia, in the last day of January 1820. I met Dr. Marcus Whitman between Fort Laramie and Fort Hall, soon after he overtook us. He formed a camp mess, consisting of a gentleman by the of Record who was an attorney at law and Gen. Lovejoy, Nimrod Ford and P.B. Whitman, for the purpose of going on ahead of the wagons. We left the direct route which the wagons would have to take at Soda Springs and went a much shorter route across the mountains, horseback with pack animals, to Fort Hall. We arrived at Fort Hall several days ahead of the wagons, where we met considerable provisions, which had been sent to Dr. Whitman and brought there by Cayuse Indians from his mission in Wildpoo: where he was afterward massacreed, and we met there Gov. Grant of Fort Hall who was commander of the fort and the head trader for the Hudsons Bay Company at the fort.

And through his kindness and solicitation we sat at his table with him and had rooms appointed to us in the fort, which we occupied for ten days. In the meantime all the emigrants had arrived, or nearly so. Governor Grant said to us and the emigrants generally that it was useless to undertake to go any further with the wagons, we might go to California, but not to Oregon. To Oregon we would have to go to work and rig up pack trains but it was impossible to go with wagons. Or in other words throw away our wagons as there was no one there that wanted them. But Dr. Whitman interposed and stated to him that he could take their wagons through without any trouble, he (Grant) poopooed it and said "My friend you are certainly mistaken for you will never get through with the wagons to Oregon".

Then the Dr. went around among the immigrants and told them not to leave their wagons for he would want insure them safe passage through with them. They appeared to become satisfied with his insurance and said they would take his word for it. He further promised them, as he had received a dispatch from Walker and Eels that they expected their wives to be sick at a certain date, he would have to go on ahead of the wagons to be there in time. But him and his camp mess would rig up a couple of horses to a light wagon, which would leave a track for them to follow and besides leaving notes by putting up poles and leaving notes on the poles, where it was prairie directing them how to proceed. He then proceeded to divide up all of his provisions among the sick and the poor, and then went around and picked up beef bones and beeves that had been killed that morning. In fact I believe that if he hadnít smuggled some of our provisions away we wouldnít have anything but the bones left. As it was very little. I should have stated, too, that he put a calf (that had been dropped that morning) into the wagon and we started our journey leaving the wagons behind. He staying behind with the emigrants, encouraging them to come on. As I had the honor of being the driver and being alone crossing the prairie, when I arrived at the place to camp, I found my calf was gone. And just about the time we had our supper made of soup and beef bones thickened with flour, he , the Dr. rode up. "Well" says I "Doctor, get off, supper is ready". He says "What you got for supper?". "Well", says I "got soup thatís all". He says "Whereís the calf, why didnít you have some of that cooked?". "Why" says I "Doctor, that calf must have come to life again, when I arrived at camp it wasnít in the wagon", and you may judge from the forgoing that we had a very light diet from there on. I hadnít any trouble with my wagon until the Burnt river, there when we struck Burnt River where the brush wasnít on the bank we traveled on the bank and where it was thick we drove in the water.

There could have been a very good road made but we had neither an ox or men to do it. After leaving Burnt River we had a good way from there to the foot of the Blue Mountains in the east of Grand Rond. There we found a number of Cayuses in camp waiting for the Doctor. There he received an invitation from one of the Chiefs for him and his mess to dine with him (the Chief) on elk meat, which was the finest dinner I had eaten for many a day. From there the Doctor left us and went to Walkers and Eels across the country, but left instructions with us how to proceed to his mission and for all of us, his mess to stay there until his return, which we did. There I made the acquaintance of my old friend Dr. Gaiger, whom had control of that mission at that time in the Doctors absence; I discovered soon after I arrived there that the Doctor Gieger was wasting a great many potatoes and cold salmon; I remonstrated with him and told him I would show him how to save the much, by mashing up the cold potatoes and boning the salmon, making fish balls of them and frying them at the next meal, that they was better than at the first meal, at all events there was no more cold potatoes and cold salmon thrown away.

I will now state something concerning Dr. Whitman (deceased) object in going to the states in the winter of 1842 and returning in the the spring of 1843, as I learned from him. He said that he was satisified the Hudsons Bay Co. was doing what they could to keep the Americans from settling in Oregon and was doing what they could to have it settled up by Canadian Frenchmen, Englishmen and Scotsmen, so as to hold Oregon for England. He was so strongly impressed with the idea and fearful that they might succeed that he undertook the perilous journey of crossing the plains in the dead of winter, knowing that the same time that he was subjecting himself to the censure of the missions by leaving his post without permission, but believing that the country belonged to the United States and as fine a country as it is and was in his estimation that he went prepared even at the sacrifice of his life to save it to the United States. Believing that he did not do so, that Great Britain would succeed in holding it by filling it with emigrants that favored England.

Skipping over the hardships as he stated to me, landing in the states first object was to visit Washington D.C.. There he had the honor of conversing with Senator Webster, and a number of other leading men; he found quite a number favorablely disposed to trade off Oregon for fishing privileges in the Atlantic. Their estimation of Oregon was very poor and it was so far off they thought the U.S. would never have any use for it.

But after visiting the members and talking with them and stating the facts of the case and visiting the then President Tyler. He succeeded as he thought in getting many interested in Oregon and that Linn of Missouri introduced a bill in Congress for the purpose of giving Emmigrants large quantities of land. This to induce them to Oregon, so that it would be settled by americans and if it was not already, it would become a domain of the United States. And it was that bill that induced myself and many others to emigrate to Oregon in the spring of 1843. When we started from Independence Missouri (which was the rendevous of the immigration that year) we went ahead without guide or road to guide us excepting we had what we called the Subletts trail, who had gone ahead to some station in the Rocky Mountains, but in going up the South Platt we lost the trail and was satisfied we must have passed it somewhere from the lay of the country, and there was a few of the young men and myself undertook to cross the South Platt and see if we could find the Subletts trail.

(No doubt you know by experience, as well as others, that but few can swim on a trip of that kind and it devolves upon a few to find the fords and lost trails). We went across by pretty hard work by wading and swimming and then we struck the sandhills, apparently nothing but sand piled up in sugar loaf shape. The majority of the party that went over wished to take a straight shoot across to the North Platte or find Subletts trail. One other and if I am not mistaken his name was Sewal and myself concluded we could go down the river, we thought it would be the most likely place to find subletts trail. This brought on a rupture in the party; they thought as they were the majority in the party they had ought to rule us and all go together.

We thought it would be folly to take a trip across those sand hills, which would take nearly a days travel and being without provisions or blankets only having our ammunition and guns. The prospect looked very gloomy going through the desert where there wasnít any prospect of game of any kind to live upon. So we started down the river. They seeing us start they demanded us to halt and come back. We halted but didnít go back. We told them that they could shoot, that we was going on, and immediately turned on our heels and went on. They immediately started for the North Platte. We didnít travel many miles before we found the Subletts trail. We immediately returned to opposite our camp and reported progress. After dark that evening we saw a little flickering light on the other side of the river and was satisfied it was our companions that had left us to go to the North Platt that day. About that time there came to us one of those rain storms that that country can produce and our companions had a sorry time of it that night without food or shelter. In the morning after the river had swollen considerably, after the nights rain, they undertook to come across and succeeded in doing so, but do not think they would have done so if it hadnít been for assistance from our side. After waiting some time on the bank of the river, we succeeded in finding a ford by starting in near where we camped and going quarteringly across stream down it. Some times crossing islands and sometimes channels, by going down the stream that way about three miles we came out all safely on the north shore. I have made this statement merely to show the inconvenience our emmigration encountered for want of a guide or road. After Dr. Whitman overtook us, on the road we got along without any trouble. Gen. Lovejoy in talking to me about his trip in company of with Dr. Whitman in the winter of 1842, stated to me in substance the same that the Doctor had and when the emmigrants arrived at Doctor Whitmans station, I thought that the Doctor was very kind to them in trading them fat cattle for poor ones and letting them have a yoke of oxen. On account of their kindness and gentleness they were great pets of the Doctors. After being killed and dressed they weighed over sixteen hundred pounds.

Yours with Respect.

J. B. McClane

U.S. Indian Agent.