Western Short Story
"Hitch up and roll out!" a stern voice commanded. Then a contradictory order rang out. "Form a corral with all haste!" The endangered emigrants, like their divergent leaders, scattered in disarray. "The entire company seemed almost wild with excitement," wrote a sixteen-year-old group member. That evening she made a notation in her diary of seeing "children crying, mothers screaming or praying, men running wildly, not knowing what to do."
The chaotic scene was their response to a previous warning cry of "Indians! Indians!" A group member had scouted a gathering war party of Sioux. As the gravity of their dilemma sank into the minds of the 1845 travelers, it looked as if the calmer thinkers might prevail. Rather than hitching up and fleeing, several men decided to arrange the wagons into a circular fortress and prepare to defend themselves against the expected onslaught. Eventually however, despite the pleas of the older and wiser travelers, the group's captain ordered the wagons to line up and prepare to move forward. This directive produced, as our young writer noted, "a medley of sounds and sights, a moving to and fro of frightened men, women and children. All was utter confusion and uproar."
Some of the more seasoned members tried to calm the others by reminding them that Indians didn't usually attack in the daylight. Then suddenly, the panic-stricken party of western emigrants saw the distant metallic flash of firearms. Despite their fatigue, the frightened settlers felt a surge of emotion. "You can imagine our unbounded joy in the surprise," the young diarist noted, "They were a regiment of U. S. soldiers..." The troops, lead by Captain Kearney and Lieutenant Fremont, had been dispatched by the government to escort emigrants across the plains. They had executed the type of last-minute rescue that would be reenacted in the cowboy movies of the next century. The feared Indian attack never materialized.
The soldiers remained with the settlers for about ten days as they worked their way along the Platte River toward the Rocky Mountains. While they traveled, Captain Kearney gave the emigrants tips for defending against an Indian attack. He told them to form a perfect circle by laying the tongue of one wagon right behind the rear wheels of the preceding one. He also directed them to build their campfire just outside the circle of wagons. This would make it more difficult for the Indians to observe their movements within the circle at night. If they were attacked, Kearney instructed, the women and children should climb into the wagons and remain on the floor. The men were to then shoulder their guns and prepare to fire. Although the immediate danger had passed, before their journey concluded, the emigrants would need to follow those instructions to the letter.
The group of travelers who made up this party had first banded together in St. Joseph, Missouri in the spring of 1845 several weeks before the Indian incident. Although none of the group knew the exact path, one of the members brought a copy of a Lewis and Clark report. Using that as a guideline, they decided to head north along the bank of the Missouri River. Their destination was the Willamette Valley in present-day Oregon where they had heard of the distribution of donation land-claims.
The teenage diary-writer was a young lady named Sarah Walden. Much later in her life, as Sarah Cummins, she transcribed her diary entries into a small book written primarily for her family. Like the other settlers who turned their joys and heartbreaks into lines of ink on paper, she captured a vivid piece of our country's history, forever suspended in time. The journey she would preserve was actually prompted by her family doctor. In February of 1845, Sarah, along with her father and brother, suffered an attack of "lung fever." They sent a messenger thirty miles to the nearest doctor for medicine. Old Doc Vellmon, however, would have nothing to do with simply sending the messenger back with packets of pills. He made the rigorous overnight trek himself and pulled them through the illness.
As he left their house, Doctor Vellmon gave Sarah's father a stern warning not to stay in Missouri for another winter. "Your lungs and the boy's and the girl's are not made for weather such as this," he cautioned. "Go to Oregon where there are pine and fir trees and grouse." Taking their doctor's advice to heart, Sarah's family sold their house and began making the preparations for their trip. As a young girl, Sarah had dreamed of studying in an eastern school to become a missionary and write children's books. "But my star of destiny," she reflected, "was to arise in the far West..."
Not only was Sarah embarking upon a new destiny, she had only recently begun another new life-style. Three weeks previously she had married a young man named Benjamin Walden. Despite the major changes in her life, Sarah kept her equilibrium and launched into the preparations with enthusiasm. Like the rest of her family, she didn't dwell on the dangers that might lie ahead. "It seems a special providence of God," she later observed, "that our hearts were kept strong and true to the task before us."
Once in St. Joseph, Sarah and her family joined a number of other groups who had previously arranged to make the journey together. While they waited for everyone to arrive, each gun was examined and put in perfect condition while charges of ammunition were safely stored away. The expanding party selected a captain who, as Sarah noted, "had been in mountainous countries and had clear ideas of the possible dangers that we were to encounter." She said they decided to elect a new captain every month to assure that "no one be too long burdened with the duties and cares of that office."
Although there would be plenty of "duties and cares" down the path, the journey started on a fascinating note. "Within a few hours time," Sarah remarked, "we began to sight vast herds of buffalo on their way to and from the plains..." The grand sight, however, soon took on an ominous tone. "One bright morning," she related, "several thousand of these horned beasts were seen coming directly toward our train." The captain shouted an order for the drivers to stop and veer sharply to the left. His quick thinking likely saved the party. The stampeding herd barely missed the wagons. For the next two hours, Sarah and the others watched the seething mass of buffalo flood by. She said the galloping motion of the individual animals gave the herd "the undulating movement of a great sea as it rises in regular billows and falls in gently undulating troughs." The terrified settlers knew all too well they could have easily been trampled beneath that "great sea."
Within a few days, their wagon train had reached the plains of the Platte River. The high winds, Sarah observed, would lift the treeless soil and heap it in huge drifts. One of the group members said it resembled the great Sahara desert he had witnessed in the wild region of Africa. Sarah let her imagination carry her there, saying the semblance seemed complete, "had we but camels to complete the 'panorama'..."
Despite the absence of camels, another fascinating animal soon caught their attention. The small creature raced across the plain one afternoon just after the party had stopped for dinner. "A little old man mounted a fleet horse and went in pursuit..." Sarah wrote. The small critter soon left the man and his "fleet horse" in its dust. After the defeated pursuer had returned and faced the group's laughter, he said the animal resembled one described in one of his natural history books. He had decided from its first jump that it must have been an antelope. "Chasing antelopes," Sarah added, "now became a favorite sport for the younger men..."
While the men were fooling around chasing antelope, the women were faced with a considerably less pleasant activity. In the sparse plains, they could find very little wood for the cooking fires. Many times, to their disgust, they had to substitute dried buffalo chips. Apparently they didn't all suffer in stoic pioneer resignation. "Many were the rude phrase uttered," Sarah noted, "far more humiliating to refined ears than any mention of the material used for fuel could have been."
The inconvenience of using the buffalo chips, however, soon faded from prominence. This was the time-period when Captain Kearney's men thwarted the feared Indian attack. After the incident, Kearney and Fremont trailed along with them for several days. Along the way they met with a Sioux chief and secured safe passage through his land for the wagon train. Sarah reported that once the soldiers left her party, they headed "to the foot of the Rocky Mountains and established Fort Kearney."
Following their Indian scare, the party welcomed the day-to-day sameness of the journey. As the emigrants persevered, the trek became, as Sarah observed, "a good place to study human nature." One wagon for instance, would pull out ahead of the others every morning. The lady of the family said their stock wouldn't have enough to eat if they remained with the group. Then in the evening, seeking the security of the group, she would ask that they be voted back into the train. "This was kept up so regularly," Sarah noted, "that at last some of the crowd would vote "no" just to annoy the lady..."
Fortunately, the strain of the trip brought out positive traits as well. Another woman had placed her soup kettle over a fire made from the slender branches available for fuel. The branches holding the pot burned in half and, as Sarah noted, "down went the kettle, soup and all." The struggling cook salvaged the soup bone, prepared the contents again, and placed it on another spot on the fire. Once more the branches broke and the kettle hit the ground. It wasn't until the fifth attempt that the kettle held up long enough for the soup to cook. Turning to those observing her ordeal, she said simply, "Well, I intended having that soup for supper after all."
As the days melted together, the lack of excitement gradually turned from comfort to tedium. "We continued our daily journeying," Sarah reported, "listening to the regular tramping of the poor four-footed beasts over the plain and through the dust..." She said a weary sameness and an expression of stern desperation gave the "look of similarity to the outline of each one with whom we came in contact." For the first couple months, they had stopped to observe Sunday as a day of rest. Now, however, they pushed forward every day. They were acutely aware of the hazards of traveling too late into the season.
When the landscape finally changed, it did so dramatically. With the Rocky Mountains as a backdrop, they approached the wonders of the Yellowstone area. As they traveled through the fascinating rock forms, her husband and father recognized pyrites of copper, silver and gold. "It was often remarked," she wrote, "that we were passing over more gold than we would ever possess in any new lands which we might conquer." No one considered stopping to prospect since, as Sarah noted, "the thought of snow falling in the mountains was a continual menace to any tendency to tardiness or delay."
Nature began to play tricks on them in the Yellowstone region. They camped one evening near a small marsh formed by spring water. When the tired animals stooped to lap up the refreshing treat, they suddenly lurched back. Like his bovine companions, a dog trotted over for a drink. But, as Sarah put it, "One lap of his tongue was quite enough to satisfy the good canine." The mystery was solved when one of the men filled a pail for drinking water. "Boys," he called out, "it's hot enough to cook eggs!"
As they left Yellowstone, their surroundings turned rugged and the animals often struggled to maintain their footing. "It became evident," Sarah observed, "that we were ascending the Rocky Mountains." The hazards of their environment, however, would soon pale next to the danger from the area's inhabitants. A small group of horsemen approached to issue a warning. The little party, led by a Doctor Whitman, included several friendly Nez Perce Indians. They had traveled overnight from the Snake River Mission near present-day Lewiston, Idaho. Doctor Whitman informed Sarah and the others that Indian spies had sighted their party and that large numbers of hostile Walla Walla Indians were advancing across the Blue Mountains to attack them. Captain Kearney's earlier warnings were about to transform from vivid mental images to cold reality.
Doctor Whitman and the Nez Perce remained with the party, guiding them along the Powder River toward the Grande Ronde valley. That evening, shortly after the group stopped to camp, several Nez Perce advance scouts returned at full speed. They reported that they had sighted the Walla Wallas approaching rapidly, and that they were prepared for immediate attack. When the Walla Wallas arrived, they did so, as Sarah reported, by "sauntering up in groups, on foot, and in roving bands mounted on ponies." They were shocked to see the settlers armed and prepared for their attack. Doctor Whitman assumed immediate control, approaching the Walla Walla chief and extending his hand in friendship. Sarah said the chief at first hesitated, then after conferring with his warriors, shook hands with the doctor "pretending great friendship for all his paleface brothers..."
After a tour of the camp, the chief instructed one of his warriors to fill a pipe with finely cut tobacco. Sitting inside a circle of twelve of his tribesmen, he took a puff of the pipe and passed it around the circle. Then the oldest white man was presented with the pipe and handed it on until everyone had smoked. At the end of this ceremony, the chief rose to leave. Convinced that the Walla Walla were still going to carry out the attack the Nez Perce had predicted, Doctor Whitman ordered the chief to stop in his tracks. "Most of our people were surprised," Sarah wrote, "but some others understood the situation and it was deemed our only hope of life to hold the chief prisoner." She said the wisdom of Dr. Whitman's move became apparent as night bands of warriors continued to approach. "We could hear their grunts of disappointment," she noted, "as they learned that their plans were interrupted." "It was a night of terror to all, " Sarah added, "not a breath of sleep except the younger children."
By morning, a band of Nez Perce had arrived to help protect the frightened settlers. The Nez Perce chief lectured the captive Walla Walla chief. "The Great Spirit watched the white man," he informed him, "and the Indians should know better than kill them." The Walla Walla chief refused to respond, but grudgingly accepted a cup of morning coffee and some breakfast. Sarah said he then "walked slowly to where his pony grazed, followed by his warriors."
Doctor Whitman's party and the Nez Perce chief and his band accompanied the emigrants through hazardous Indian Territory into present-day Oregon. On the fourteenth of September, 1845, two days before Sarah's seventeenth birthday, they reached The Dalles, Oregon. The little settlement consisted of a few missionaries who enjoyed a friendly relationship with the local Klickitat Indian tribe. The mission provided Sarah with a pleasant dose of civilization. The Hudson Bay Company maintained a trading post there and the missionary families had constructed a small church. Sarah and her friends re-stocked their supplies and attended the little church service. As they relaxed, with the Willamette Valley beyond the Cascade mountain range, it likely seemed the toughest struggles of their journey were behind them. Unfortunately, they were actually looming just ahead.
Even as they relaxed in the little mission, another segment of their party was encountering disaster. Before they had reached the Grande Ronde River, several members of their group split off after a bitter argument over directions. Rather than heading overland to the Grande Ronde, they decided to follow a stream toward the Snake River. Sarah said they "left us shouting good-byes and waving hats." Several days after Sarah and her group reached The Dalles, a lone man staggered into the mission. He had been one of the "hat wavers" who had veered off toward the Snake river. "He was scarcely able to walk," Sarah reported, "and had not tasted food for three days." He tragically related that his group was a day's journey up the Columbia river and that some had already died from starvation. Sarah's father and several others immediately packed a horse with provisions and headed toward them. "Of their sufferings and deaths," Sarah lamented, "the world will never know."
In fact, the world very nearly never knew of Sarah's story. In late September, several of the group members left The Dalles to search for a potential route across the Cascades. Sadly, upon their return, they judged it an impossibility for the wagons to cross. They said only loose cattle and people on foot could make it through. The wagons and other goods, they decided, would have to be taken apart and loaded on boats for the remainder of the group to transport down the Columbia River. Feeling the river trek would be safer than the mountain journey, Sarah's parents decided she should join them on the boat. But both her husband and brother had been selected for the group to drive the cattle over the mountain. That cemented her decision. She resolutely joined them. "To this there was a strong remonstrance," she reflected, "but my will was not to be swayed in that matter."
Sarah's "un-swayed will" would soon be tested to its limits. On the second day of their journey across the mountains, one of the group stayed behind to bring the pack horse while Sarah and the others rounded up the cattle. Within minutes, a straggling Indian band emerged, stole the pack horse and galloped out of sight. When Sarah and the rest returned with the cattle, she said they found the man riding dejectedly with "nothing to prevent us from starving." Since they were already two days on the trail, they decided to continue. After another day or so, they finally ran into a little luck. A party of five young men and an old trapper overtook them. Learning of the theft of their packhorse, the young men divided their supplies with them. The biscuits and bacon they provided would soon make the difference between life and death.
Sarah's party, although bitterly disappointed by the theft of the packhorse, hadn't panicked. After all, they were surrounded by cattle, so at least there would be plenty of meat. That life-saving contingency, however, vanished on the sixth day. They ran into such dense growths of Mountain Laurel that they had to turn back to the previous night's camping spot. Worse yet, the cattle had grazed freely on the toxic shrub. Sarah and the others suddenly realized the depth of their plight. "They were so poisoned," she asserted, "that we dared not eat the meat."
Hunger was soon joined by another complication - bitter cold. One morning they awoke to a blinding snowstorm. As the snow deepened, even the horses gave out and had to be led. "As night was coming on," Sarah noted, "it seemed we all must perish, but weak, faint and starving, we went on." Their hopes for a life-saving fire at the day's end was also diminishing. The packed snow on their clothing had melted enough during the day to drench them to the skin. Even if they found wood, they would need some dry cloth for kindling to start the fire. As they trudged into the late evening, Sarah became so weak that her husband, Benjamin, had to drag her much of the way, valiantly lifting her over obstructions along the frozen path. Benjamin and another man tried hoisting her onto one of the horses - but with no success. "Not one step would the poor beast take," Sarah reflected, "even though I weighed less than eighty pounds at that time."
Finally, in the midst of their struggles, a welcome sound materialized. "We have found wood," shouted a distant voice from the head of their frozen little group. But when Sarah and Benjamin finally worked their way forward, they found that "most of the men and all of the boys were shedding tears." None of them even had the strength left in their frozen fingers to pull the trigger of a gun to ignite a fire. Even if they could, there was not a stitch of dry clothing to use for kindling. "All were panic-stricken," Sarah declared, "and all hope seemed abandoned."
Somehow Benjamin still held onto a grain of that hope. He told everyone to take off their coats and search for any patch of dry cloth. In the inner lining of one of the coats, he located a small section of dry quilted material. Carefully placing the treasure in a handful of wood whittlings, he loaded a gun. "All realized," Sarah recorded, "that upon that charge depended our lives." Summoning the energy from within, Benjamin depressed the trigger and fired a bullet into the little pile. "A great shout of thanksgiving burst forth," Sarah wrote, as flames appeared. Within minutes, they were crowding around a roaring fire.
Despite the fire, Sarah had sunk into a state of total despondency and, as she put it, "was perfectly indifferent to the result." Benjamin carefully urged her near the fire. She wrote that as the warmth slowly penetrated her frozen body, she was "wild with pain and could not forebear the scream that rent the air on that wild mountain." With that scream, fortunately, Sarah's struggle with the environment was slowly turning her way. The group slept soundly beside the roaring fire and awoke to a cloudless sunny sky. But their ever-weakening bodies were still racked with hunger pangs. "My case," Sarah solemnly noted, "now developed the last stages of starvation."
Finally, the pitiful little group happened upon bushes loaded with huckleberries. The welcome delicacies gave them the energy to continue. They decided to head west, hoping to run into Oregon City. "The men were becoming desperate and had lost all fear of wild beasts," Sarah wrote, "so that even the sight of a grizzly bear would not have frightened us." Fortunately, they didn't run across one...but they did manage to shoot a bird, which they cooked and ate. The shared bird and the huckleberries, however, wouldn't stop the escalating effects of starvation. It was vital that their last desperate march toward the west lead them to some form of civilization. About two in the afternoon, eleven days after they wandered into the Cascades, that civilization finally materialized. They stumbled across an occupied cabin. As Sarah staggered toward the doorway, the lady of the cabin, Mrs. Hatch, caught her in her arms. Sarah's nightmare was finally over.
Once they regained their strength, Sarah and the others stayed in Oregon City over the winter and got word to the rest of their group that they would join them in the Willamette Valley in the springtime. As with all the other pioneer chronicles, their real-life joys and tears would eventually transform into lines of dried ink on yellowed paper. But as we read them, those lines once again spring to life. The rough-edged adventures they document remind us that those who carved out a future in the untamed wilderness definitely required an "un-swayed" will.