Oregon Trail Diaries

A literate middle class hits the dusty trail

The period between 1820 and 1860 in America is sometimes called the Age of Reform.

People were driven by a religious revival known as the Great Awakening. Reformers demanded an end to alcoholism and improved living conditions for prisoners, the handicapped, and the mentally ill. People like Dorothea Dix, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Thomas Gallaudet were horrified by the treatment of society’s less fortunate.

Horace Mann, famed for remarking that, “In a republic, ignorance is a crime,” was upset by the condition of American schools. Many communities had no schools, and where schools did exist, they were often terribly overcrowded. Teaching techniques left much to be desired, as well: students learned by rote memorization and recitation, misbehavior was punished by beatings, and teachers had no formal training. As Massachusetts Secretary of Education, Mann started a revolution in American education. He established graded schools where students moved from one grade to another after achieving required skills, and he set up training institutions that prepared teachers. Horace Mann’s reward was a seat in Congress; America’s reward was a better-educated populace; the benefit to Oregon Trail historians was a literate middle class, able to read and write.

And write, they did — in great profusion. Other than the Civil War, no single event in Nineteenth Century American history produced more firsthand narratives. They wrote at any time and to anyone. They left graffiti on rocks. They wrote letters back home to loved ones. They recalled their adventures in newspapers, magazines, and dime novels. And they wrote to themselves.

Merrill Mattes, historian of the Great Platte River Road, estimates that one in every two hundred emigrants kept diaries during their journeys. Considering the large number of children and California-bound prospectors who did not write diaries, the 1/200 figure looks good. Doing the math, we can guesstimate that there were around 3000 personal historians to the Oregon Trail experience. Three types of Oregon Trail narratives exist: diaries, journals, and reminiscences. Diaries and journals were actually written by emigrants as they trekked the 2000 miles west; reminiscences were written much later in life.

The large number of diarists is remarkable considering the conditions the authors had to endure. Pencils, pens, inkwells, and paper all had to be brought with them. Time was very limited, the only time available being that last hour of daylight after the animals had been tended, meals made and cleaned up, and chores completed. Their energy was limited, as well, as the average emigrant walked ten to fifteen miles each day. Many diarists can be excused for writing journal entries only on occasional laundry days, at forts, or during Sunday rest stops. Most letters were written at forts, as they could be posted home from there. These letters and diaries were invested with great sentimental value and often became family heirlooms of a sort. Not surprisingly, most diaries remained in Oregon or California with the descendants of their authors, and most letters remained in the East with the descendants of their recipients.

It is generally assumed by this time that most diaries and collections of letters have long since been recognized as historically significant and turned over to museums and libraries, but every so often come rumors of a family still holding on to one. Diaries are extremely valuable resources for researchers. Many institutions have microfilmed their collections and made them widely available. Collections worth noting include the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Brigham Young University, the Huntington Library in California, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Western History Research Center at Yale University, and the state historical societies of California, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oregon.

With a renewal of public interest in the Oregon Trail, diaries are being published in books such as Platte River Narratives and Dr. Ken Holmes’ Covered Wagon Women. Publications of historical societies are also excellent sources of diary material. Among the best are the Missouri Historical Review, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Nebraska History, Wisconsin Magazine of History, and the Overland Journal, published by the Oregon-California Trails Association.

A copy of one such narrative, the reminiscence of Henry Garrison was given to this author by Marijane Rea of Oregon City, a direct descendant of Henry. Written in 1903 when he was 78 years old — 57 years after the trip — it tells the story of a 14 year old boy on the Oregon and Applegate Trails. One event he cited conflicts with other accounts, but most of the story appears to be accurate.

Henry Garrison’s remembrances start in Missouri in 1841 at a place called Irish Grove, five miles from the river near St. Joe. He tells of the difficulties of being a Methodist preacher’s son in a Catholic community. His uncles had left for Oregon in 1843, and he wished to join them someday. During the winter of 1845-46, the Garrisons tried selling their farm. Harsh economic conditions forced them to settle for $800.

They left for Oregon on May 5, 1846, heading to the ferry at Oregon Crossing on the Missouri River. With 50 wagons in line to cross ahead of them, it took three days to reach the far shore. They elected Rily Gragg as their Captain and Henry’s father as First Lieutenant and member of the camp legislature.

At the crossing of the Big Blue River, Henry first met David Inglish, the same age as he and described as a “bully among the boys always ready for a fight.” On several occasions, Inglish tried to beat up or even kill Garrison. Some years later, Inglish apparently came to an unpleasant end in Idaho, where he is believed to have been hung by a vigilante committee for robbing miners.

Along the Platte River, Henry’s father took ill with inflammatory rheumatism and was entirely helpless. He had to be propped up in the wagon, not able to move below the neck. After arriving in Oregon, his father recovered and became a preacher and an 1848 California gold miner.

Henry at the age of 14 became responsible for his family and their wagons. A few days later, Henry’s 7-year-old brother Enoch broke his leg. Henry recommended amputation but the doctor, actually a government hospital steward, refused. By the time amputation was performed, it was too late and Enoch died of infection. In Henry’s own words: “It was reported that the Indians was in the habit of opening graves for the purpose of getting shrouding. To prevent this, the grave was dug in such a place that the wagons when leaving camp might pass over it. In digging the grave, those who have it in charge was careful to cut and lift the sod in squares so they could be replaced when the grave was filled.

Before commencing the grave, bed-quilts were spread on the ground to receive the dirt as it was thrown from the grave. After the grave was filled up, the sods were carefully replaced. The remaining dirt was carried and thrown in the River. When we broke camp next morning, the wagons 74 in number passed over the grave. Fathers wagons was driven to one side and did not pass over the grave.”

Henry talks of seeing the Rocks: Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Independence Rock. It was at Independence Rock on July 12th that three of the Garrison children climbed the rock, crawled down into a crevice, and engraved their names. At South Pass, they realized they were on the Continental Divide and finally in the Oregon Country. Henry told of having problems staking down the horses, as the ground was frozen less than a foot below the surface.

The party’s first contact with Indians was a Crow war party of 400 warriors along the Green River. They swapped horses and left satisfied. Later, along the Applegate Trail near Klamath, unfriendly Indians had to be fought off three times. Two people were killed.

At Fort Hall, they met Jesse Applegate, who convinced them to try his route into Oregon. Applegate’s road passed through the territory of hostile Indians and long stretches of difficult, waterless terrain — the Southern Route, as Applegate called it, would never become the emigrant highway he envisioned. Progress was slow, and food supplies ran low. At the Umpqua River, the wagons were met by a relief party and guided safely to the Willamette Valley. Henry’s uncle, who had come to Oregon in 1843, was among the relief party.

Of his experience, Henry Garrison said, “Our journey is ended, our toils are over, but I have not tried to portray the terrible conditions we were placed in. No tongue can tell, nor pen describe the heart rending scenes through which we passed.”

A diary is simply a daily record of events. Many are terse and practical, containing little more than records of expenditures, miles traveled, and the quality of the forage or availability of good water on a given day. Others are quite expressive …

Journal of a Trip to Oregon
Abigail Jane Scott

June 29 – We came twenty miles. We struck the Sweet water about two o’clock and about three came to Independence rock; The Sweet water is about one hundred feet in width; The water is clear and palatable but is warmer during the day than water of the Platte.

Independence rock is an immense mass covering an area of, I think about ten acres, and is about three hundred feet high; My sisters and I went to the base of the rock with the intention of climbing it but a we had only ascended about thirty feet when a heavy hail and wind storm arose obliging us to desist; We then started on after the wagons and before we reached them they had all crossed the river except the last to overtake. They had intended to let us wade it (it was waist deep) to learn us not to get so far behind the team; I would have liked the fun of wading well enough but did not like to get joked about being left. Immediately after leaving Independence rock we came in sight of the well known Devil’s Gate five miles ahead of us and when we came near enough we turned off the road about one mile and halted for the night opposite to it in a bend of the river.

We in company with many others paid this gate a visit; It is indeed a sight worth seeing; The Sweet water passes through it, and it really seems left by providence for the river to pass through as we can see no other place where it can find its way through the rocks; The cliffs of rock on either side are at least four hundred feet in hight and on the South side almost perfectly perpendicular; The rocks are in many places covered with names of visitors to this place a few of which were of as early date as ’38 a great many were dated ’50 and ’51 but the majority were ’52. We passed seven graves

A journal is usually written in on a more irregular schedule to record events which struck the writer as significant or interesting. Journals have a certain element of storytelling in them which diaries often lack…

The Running Commentaries of Keturah Belknap
1839 – 1848

Just as we were ready to sit down to supper Joe Meek and his posse of men rode into camp. They were going to Washington, D.C. to get the government to send soldiers to protect the settlers in Oregon and they told us all about the Indian Massacre at Walla Walla called the “Whitman Massacre”. They had traveled all winter and some of their men had died and they had got out of food and had to eat mule meat so we gave them all their supper and breakfast. The captain divided them up so all could help feed them. Father B. was captain so he and George took three so they made way with most all my stuff I had cooked up: on the whole we are having quite a time; some want to turn back and others are telling what they would do in case of an attack. I sit in the wagon and write a letter as these men say if we want to send any word back they will take it and drop it in the first Post Office they come to so I’m writing a scratch to a lady friend. While I’m writing I have an exciting experience.

George is out on guard and in the next wagon behind ours a man and woman are quarreling. She wants to turn back and he wont go so she says she will go and leave him with the children and he will have a good time with that crying baby, then he used some very bad words and said he would put it out of the way. Just then I heard a muffled cry and a heavy thud as tho something was thrown against the wagon box and she said “Oh you’ve killed it” and he swore some more and told her to keep her mouth shut or he would give her some of the same. Just then the word came, change guards. George came in and Mr. Kitridge went out so he and his wife were parted for the night. The baby was not killed.

I write this to show how easy we can be deceived. We have a rest and breakfast is over. Meek and his men are gathering their horses and packing, but he said he would have to transact a little business with his men so they all lined up and he courtmartialed them and found three guilty and made them think they would be shot for disobeying orders but it was only a scare “Now every man to his post and double quick till they reach the Hollow”.

The woman was out by the road side with a little buget [buggy?] and her baby asleep in the wagon under a strong opiate. After that we had trouble with those folks as long as they were with us; they would take things from those that did the most for them and there was others of the same stripe. They seemed to think when they got on the plains they were out of reach of the law of God or man.

A reminiscence is written later in life, long after the events being described. Reminiscences are the most suspect form of “eyewitness testimony” to history because of the many years that have passed. Historians generally check their accounts against diaries and journals, which were usually written only hours or days after the events they chronicle, as well as other forms of primary documentary evidence …

Reminiscences of A. H. Garrison
His Early life, and Across the Plains
And Of Oregon from 1846 to 1903

I think it was about the 12th of July when we arrived at Independence Rock. This is simply a legg ledge, or mountain of rock that runs down to within a short distance of the stream. We remained here one day to give the teams a chance to rest. Hoover, Brother David and myself climed to the top of the rock, my recollection is, the rocky ledge was five or six hundred feet high, on top, it was quite level, after looking around as long as we wished, we started to return to camp. After getting a part of the way down, we discovered a crevice that seemed to go to the bottom, as we could see a glimmer of light in the distance. We concluded to venture down, Martin Hoover first, and David next, we had a hard time of it after going quite aways down the crevice, we would have been glad to have been on-top again, but concidering it more dangerous to try to return than to keep on down, we kept, some places, the chasm was so narrow, that we could scarcely squeeze through.

I think we must have been two hundred feet high when we started to down the crevice. When we got to where it was light enough, we left our names engraved on the rocks, but I doubt not to this day, Jan 12th 1903, that there is any names in that crevice than those of Martin Hoover, David Garrison, and A.H. Garrison. When we returned to camp, and it had become known what we had done, we got two free lectures, one from Captain Garag Gragg, and one from Father, we was more frightened after hearing of the dangers the lectures cited than we was while creeping down the crevice.