Tuesday, February 07, 2012


The ongoing series How Women Won the West

In May of 1843 the Ohio Statesman printed this short article: "The Oregon fever is raging in almost every part of the Union. Companies are forming in the east and in several parts of Ohio, which added to those of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri, will make a pretty formidable army. The largest portion will probably join companies at Fort Independence, Missouri and proceed together across the mountains. It would be reasonable to suppose that there will be at least five thousand Americans west of the Rocky Mountains next autumn."

Lucy Hall Bennett was 13 when her family joined the emigration to Oregon. She wrote:
"We came across Steve Meek, (he) told us of a better road to Williamette Valley. Part of our train refused to take this cut-off and went by the old immigrant road, but a good many of us followed Meek on what has since been called Meek's Cut Off…The road we took had been traveled by the Hudson Bay Fur traders, and while it mght have been alright for pack horses, it was certainly not adapted to immigrants traveling by ox train. The water was bad, so full of alkali you could hardly drink it. There was little grass and before long our cattle all had sore feet from traveling over the hard sharp rocks. After several of our party died, the men discovered that Meek really knew nothing about the road.

Accidents occurred nearly every day on these extended trains. During the long trips children lost all fear of jumping off the wagons to keep from asking that they be stopped. One little girl, Catherine Sager, caught the hem of her dress on an axle handle while leaping out of the wagon. She was tossed under the wheels which passed over her left leg before her father could stop the oxen. He leaped down and picked her up, then saw her broken leg dangling unnaturally and cried out, "My dear child, your leg is broken all to pieces."

Her father was later killed in a buffalo stampede, but as he lingered he bitterly wept, wondering what would happen to his frail wife and his child so recently crippled. Soon after childbirth his wife came down with "camp fever" and she succumbed in a few days, leaving their seven children orphans, the eldest was 14 and the youngest only a few weeks old.

The Sager children traveled on until they reached the missionary settlement of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in Oregon. The Whitmans were Presbyterian missionaries who had established the mission in 1836. Narcissa had lost a child earlier and when she saw the orphaned children, it was the baby she wanted, and so all six remained there with her and her husband.

As fate would have it, and such things certainly make us wonder, Cayuse Indians attacked the mission in 1847, killing the Whitmans and twelve others, among them both brothers of Catherine Sager who survived to marry and raise a family.

Accidents were only one of the horrible ways that the lives of these early emigrants could be threatened. Cholera was the scurge of travelers in those days, and when it struck, young and old alike were cut down.
But for every sad story there is a happy one. Some young couples were filled with excitement and a spirit of adventure. They yearned to see the new world. One young wife wrote that she and her husband were "indifferent to fear," and she felt confident that they could go almost anywhere.

An example of such "adventure" can be found in the diary of Nancy Hembree Snow Bogart who wrote of crossing the Deschutes River.

"The women took their places in the boats, feeling they were facing death…the frail craft would get caught in a whirlpool and the water dashing over and drenching them through and through. The men would then plunge in the cold stream and draw the half-drowned women and children ashore, build fires and partly dry them, and the bedding and start on again."

And so did the women of those days conquer the west with fortitude, courage and strength, much of which we can't imagine today.

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