Applegate Trail

History of the Southern Route

Applegate Trail is the common name of a new wagon road to the Willamette Valley which was a southern alternative to the Oregon Trail along the Columbia. It was located in 1846 by an exploring party in which two Applegate brothers played a leading role.

Three Applegate brothers came to Oregon as a part of the great migration of 1843—Charles, Lindsay, and Jesse. The three Applegate brothers had prosperous farms in western Missouri until the depression of 1839 hit the western frontier hard. In 1842 Jesse sold a boat load of bacon for $100 to a riverboat captain to be used as fuel for his steamboat. The curing salt alone had cost him $150. Jesse said “This state of things created much discontent and restlessness among a people who had for many generations been nomadic, and had been taught by example of their ancestors to seek a better home in a ‘new country’ as a sure way of bettering their condition.”

After making the difficult crossing of the continent to Oregon in 1843 the Applegates still had to face their greatest challenge: the Columbia River. In 1843 the Oregon Trail for all practical purposes ended at Fort Walla Walla and to get to Fort Vancouver and the Willamette Valley you had to traverse the Columbia River. The Applegate brothers spent several days in late October building flat boats and finally on the morning of November 1 loaded their families and possessions onto the boats, leaving the cattle and wagons behind at the fort. On November 6, near The Dalles, one of the boats drifted to the opposite side of the river, was caught in a whirlpool, upended and Jesse’s nine year old son, Edward Bates, and Lindsay’s nine year old son, Warren, along with an old family friend were lost to the river. Lindsay vowed that as soon as the families were settled and time could be spared they would look for another way into Oregon so other families could avoid such a tragedy.

The Columbia River route would claim more lives in ’44 and in 1845 an entire family drowned while attempting to travel down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver. This last event Jesse would later state “aroused the whole community to the necessity of finding a remedy for an evil so distressing and calamitous.”

In 1845 Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer scouted out an alternate route around Mt. Hood that would become the Barlow Road. The Barlow Road was safer than the Columbia, but all who took it vowed it was the worst stretch of the entire Oregon Trail and it was a toll road. Others, including Stephen Meek and Elijah White, attempted to find a safer way into Oregon with little success.

James Polk was elected president in 1845 and declared in his inaugural address that it was his duty “to assert and maintain by all constitutional means the rights of the United States to that portion of our territory which lies beyond the Rocky Mountains.” This call alarmed the British and they placed a ship-of –war, H.M.S. Modeste, at the mouth of the Columbia and sent spies in to see if the Americans could defend themselves. All Americans in Oregon knew well how easy it would be for the British to block any assistance coming from the United States along the Columbia and through the Cascades. A southern route not under the control of the British suddenly took on more importance. By the spring of 1846, George Abernathy, Oregon’s provisional governor, was lobbing for an exploring party to locate a southern route into Oregon that would avoid the British controlled forts of the Oregon Trail.

On May 15 a group of fifteen men under the leadership of General Cornelius Gilliam and including Levi Scott, his son John, William Parker (Cynthia Applegate’s brother) David Goff and Moses “Black” Harris set out to look for a southern route into Oregon. The Applegate brothers were not a part of Gilliam’s group. The explorers proceeded down the old trappers trail to a spot near modern day Monroe where they crossed over the valley toward Spencer Butte and on east into the Cascades. When they did not find a suitable route over the mountains they came back to Spencer Butte and turned south. Shortly after they came upon an Indian trial crossing the Calapooya Mountains into the Umpqua Valley, Gilliam left the group and returned home. The group continued on down the old California trail to a spot near modern day Oakland where they decided there were too few of them to succeed at the task before them. Levi Scott would later write, “We had no guide nor leader, and our party was without any organization. In starting out we had overlooked the important principal that an organized plan, with a head and leader is essential to the success of almost every undertaking.” Levi Scott let it be known if a new company was formed he wanted to be a part of it. Nate Ford stated in the Oregon Spectator that he felt the route laid out by the May explorers was the start of a practical wagon road leading to the south.

It is at this point that Jesse and Lindsay Applegate stepped forward and formed a new company. Jesse was elected captain of the new company and eleven of the men from the Gilliam expedition joined, including Levi Scott, David Goff and Moses Black Harris. About half -way into the expedition Levi Scott and David Goff were elected to share in the leadership role alongside of Jesse.

Jesse went at once to the Hudson’s Bay Company to ask if they had any maps that covered the area south of the settlement. He was given a map drawn by Peter Skene Ogden in 1826-1827 that proved to be very accurate in the areas where Ogden had actually traveled. Jesse also obtained a copy of John C. Fremont’s journal from his Topographical Expedition through Oregon in 1843. From this journal he learned that a straight line between a point slightly south of the head of the Rogue River Valley and a point on the Bear River on the California Trail south of Fort Hall approximated the forty-second parallel. This line now forms the southern boundaries of Oregon and Idaho. The road explorers intentions was to go south to the Rogue River Valley and head east sticking as close to the forty-second parallel as the topography of the land would allow.

Following the route of the May explorers, the new South Road Expedition, encountered few problems until they arrived in the Umpqua Mountain area north of modern day Canyonville. There they met a Mr. Hess coming up from California who told them there was a canyon ahead of them that you could not get a horse through much less a wagon, they might as well turn around and go home. They went on and attempted to go into the canyon from the north end but brush, downed trees, and rocks soon forced them up the canyon walls where they traveled some ten to twelve miles along the ridge before they came back to the valley floor at the south end of the canyon. They all went into the canyon from the south end and agreed that with some work a road suitable for wagons could be made through the canyon as long as the little creek that wound its way back and forth on the valley floor remained in its banks. The uniqueness of this mountain was described in the Way Bill, printed in the Oregon Spectator: “You go over other mountains, this one you go through.”

They continued on over Sexton Mountain, across the Rogue River Valley, over the Cascades into the Klamath basin, around Tule and Goose Lake where the terrain began to force them more and more to the south into northern California. They discovered the magnificent High Rock Canyon in northern Nevada and beyond it the Black Rock Desert and finally on to the California Trail where they headed north east towards Fort Hall. It was decided at this point that Jesse Applegate, Moses Harris, David Goth, Henry Bogus and John Owens would go on to Fort Hall to replenish supplies and perhaps turn some of that years pioneers onto the new trail. Jesse arrived at Fort Hall on August 8th and soon he convinced a number of people to try the new route. Both Goth and Harris made contact with wagon masters they had know before and convinced them to turn their charges toward the new trail. According to John D. Unruh Jr. in his book The Plains Across about 100 wagons and five hundred people turned onto the new trail.

Once all had gathered at the trailhead, near Imlay, Nevada, it was decided that Levi Scott and David Goth would stay with the wagons and Jesse, Lindsay and all the rest of the road explorers, plus a few young men from the wagon train, would go ahead of the wagons and build a road passable by wagons. At Goff’s spring, near Clear Lake, Jesse left a note for Levi Scott saying he was returning to the settlements to try to put together a relief train for the struggling emigrants. He left someone in charge of the work crew, probably Lindsay, but they too would head to the settlement within a week. This would later cause great condemnation for Jesse Applegate because Levi Scott and the emigrants themselves had to make the trail passable for wagons from this point on, delaying their progress. Levi Scott would later write that for much of the return trip, each morning he had to go ahead, search out the route, and then help make the road passable before the wagons could follow.

The wagon train was often spread out over twenty miles or more, causing more delay and Levi Scott managed to get the lead wagons to Canyon Creek Canyon south of Canyonville in late October. Scott’s description, “and I must say dreadful canyon, where we really could go no further without having made a road through this formidable gorge. I spent two days in a fruitless endeavor to get a party to go with me….Finally I emphatically called the company to attention, and told them that I was going through the next morning….If no one would go with me…..I should go home, “I will not stay, idly, here and see you all perish, because you will not put forth an effort to help yourself.”

Finally on the morning of October 26, 1846 the lead wagons started into the canyon and on October 27 it began to rain and will pour rain for at least the next seven days; this same storm will catch the Donner Party in the mountains in California. All who passed through Canyon Creek in 1846 suffered great loss; seven died in the canyon, and many more would have died without the relief trains that were coming down the trail to meet them. Several relief trains were organized, including one by the Applegate’s, and the largest one was led by Thomas Holt who had arrived in Oregon in 1844.

Jesse Quinn Thornton and his wife Nancy were among those who lost most of their worldly possessions on the Southern Route of 1846—“having at various times upon the journey thrown away my property, I had little reaming save…the most valuable part of our wardrobe. We passed many wagons that had been abandoned by their owners…” and later Thornton described the road builders, the Applegate’s in particular, as “outlaws and banditti who during many years infested the Florida reefs.” Thornton’s controversy with the Applegates over the new South Road would be carried out in the Oregon Spectator for almost a year and he is the first to refer to the new trail as “the damnable Applegate road”.

Levi Scott led a smaller group over the new southern route in 1847 and they arrived in the settlement in good shape and ahead of those who used the original Oregon Trail that year. The trail was heavily used in 1848 when about three-quarters of the men in Oregon followed it to the Tule Lake area and then turned onto the new Lassen Cutoff to the American River and the gold rush of ‘49. Over time it was used by those coming from the east and planning to settle in the Klamath Valley, or the beautiful Rogue River Valley. It is now I-5, the major north- south route through Oregon.

The name “Applegate Trail” is a source of disagreement even after all these years: some feel it should be called The South Road as the original explorers did, some feel it should be the Scott-Applegate Road because Levi Scott stayed with the wagons and led a second group over the trail the next year. Walter Meacham, director of the Oregon Council of the American Pioneer Trails Association, seemed to cement the title of Applegate Trial with the publication of a booklet he entitled Applegate Trail in 1946. In 1992 the U.S. Congress officially designated the trail the Applegate Trail, an offshoot of the California Trail and a part of the National Historic Trails system.