This is the story of Oregon Trail pioneers Nicholas Sprenger, his wife Maria, and nine of their ten children as recalled by his daughter, Sarah.
The story was transcribed by Marcia Hurt Baldwin with additional information compiled by Merle Lamar Pugh in 1952, and is graciously shared by Lurline Lewis, of Walnut Creek, California.
Nicholas Sprenger was born on a small farm in Albersweiler, Germany, February 8, 1802. Discontent with his surroundings led him, as a boy of seventeen, to leave his family and friends and embark upon life in a country across the sea, of which he knew naught but by hearsay. He left Germany July 2, 1819 in a sailing vessel, and he reached New York in December of 1819. He remained there a short time and then made his way to Pennsylvania where he engaged in [the] merchandise business.
In Reading, Penn., he met Maria Bird, who was born in that city on June 9th, 1804 of Quaker parentage. They were married on April 8, 1827. Col. Baxter who fought in the Revolutionary War was one of her grandfathers, and she was related in a roundabout way to William Penn. (These facts were related by her son, Henry B. Sprenger, at 86 years of age during a family gathering November 1, 1936.) One branch of the Baxter family came from Ireland and several brothers fought in the Revolutionary War, but it is not known if these were Grandfather’s relatives. Her mother, Mary Bird, died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania October 18, 1861 (recorded in the family Bible).
The following children were born while the family resided in Reading, Pennsylvania:
- Twins – Mary Ann & a still born boy – March 17, 1828
- Abraham Bird – November 23, 1829
- Isaac Bird – July 1, 1831
- Abigail Bird – December 4, 1832
- Jacob Bird – August 15, 1834
The family, which now included five children, two girls and three boys, moved to Morgan County, Ohio in 1835. Here Grandfather Nicholas Sprenger learned the millwrights’ trade, and afterwards applied himself to the grist and woolen milling. A fourth son – Charles Bird was born in Zanesville, Ohio, August 22, 1836. The family were residing in McConnelsville, Ohio, by the year 1838, where Grandfather was engaged in the milling business. It was here that they joined the First Presbyterian Church – Grandfather was raised a Lutheran and Grandmother was a Quaker. It was here also that their other six children were born:
- Maria Bird – Sept. 16, 1838
- 1st Sarah Bird – Aug. 16, 1840, died Jan. 2, 1842
- 2nd Sarah Bird – June 26, 1842
- Nicholas Bird – Mar. 10, 1845
- Henry Bird – Jan. 12, 1850
- Thomas Bird – Oct. 25, 1851
The milling yielded a fair income for the large Sprenger family, but the same spirit of ambition which rebelled at the limitations of the little German farm saw further than millwrighting in Ohio. Nicholas Sprenger, like many other pioneers, got the “western fever” after listening to glowing accounts of the climate, natural beauty of the scenery, the great evergreen forests, snow capped mountains, rivers full of fish, and land all ready for cultivation that awaited the pioneer in the great Oregon Country.
Like many pioneers who came with their families to the valley of the Willamette, the desire for land upon which to build homes with a better opportunity for their growing sons, was the idea uppermost in the minds of Nicholas and Maria Bird Sprenger when they made their decision back in 1851. They, like many others, turned their backs on the eastern country, where they were considered well-to-do in this world’s goods. They hoped for a more healthful climate and less severe winters because the ravages of fever and ague were so prevalent at that time. They also longed for the fir and pine forests of the West.
The following account of the crossing of the plains to Oregon by our grandparents in 1852 was written by Sarah B. Sprenger Fisher, who at that time was a child of ten years. The original narrative was written from memory in December, 1925 – seventy-three years after these happenings took place. The manuscript as you now read it was prepared by her great granddaughter, Marcia Hurt Baldwin of Oakland, California, who merely corrected grammar and spelling and kept the story almost exactly as it was written, leaving out only the parts that were repetitious.
Ohio to Oregon – 1852
by Sarah Bird Fisher
In 1850, my brother Abraham and his friend, James Bingham, who was engaged to my sister Abbie, decided to go West, after having heard stories of praise for the new country from a friend who had left McConnelsville, Ohio, the year before. Father and Mother in turn received such glowing accounts from Abraham that they decided to go to Oregon in the spring.
All winter was spent getting ready for the trip. Father sold his woolen factory and grist mill. He and Mother shipped some of our bedding and clothing around the Horn and loaded the rest of what we were to take with us in the wagons. One of the three large wagons was made like an omnibus, with a door and steps at the back and seats along the side. This was where we were to sit by day.
At night extra boards could make it into a bed for Mother and Father and the younger children. Our friends were very kind and helped us in many ways, and on the first day of April, 1852, we were ready to start.
The small stern-wheel steamer on the Muskingum River took us from McConnelsville to the Ohio River, where we took a large side-wheel steamer up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. As we came near Lexington, the Captain, a big, black-bearded man, came through the crowd of passengers with a pistol in his hand. He told us that a short time before, a boat going up the river had blown up and many people had been killed because they had all run to one side to see the town. He threatened to shoot any of us who went over on the other side. We weren’t going to go over, but pretty soon the people on the other side changed places with us so that we could see the town and the boat that had blown up in the river. It seems that in those double boiler steamboats, if there is too much weight on one side, the water all runs in the boiler on that side. When it goes back in the other one again, that boiler explodes.
When we arrived at St. Joe, Missouri, Father rented a house, where we remained six weeks until we were equipped with everything we would need, including horses, cows, and oxen. Our wagons, made in Ohio, had been shipped to St. Joe, and we filled them with bedding, tents, and groceries. There were barrels of sugar, molasses, vinegar, flour, and meats. Mother slipped in a little jam to use if we were sick, or to give to sick people we should meet on the way.
Sometime in May our preparations were completed, and we left St. Joe for Savannah to cross the Missouri at that point. At Savannah we had to cross the river by way of one small ferry boat, which was pulled across by a hand-operated pulley. Father had dreamt three nights in succession that the family would attempt to cross in that boat and that the oxen being rather wild, would run to one side, causing the boat to sink. In his dream he was told that none of his family would drown.
Though Father didn’t believe in such things, after dreaming the same dream three nights in a row, he tried to get the boatman to take the family over alone and make another trip for the oxen. But the boatman refused, as so many other people were waiting to be ferried over; so we had to go with our wagon. When we reached the middle of the river, the oxen ran to one side and the boat began to fill with water, until just a tiny bit of the wagon cover was above the water. The oxen swam off; the boatman held my baby brother above the water, Father held Mother up on a wheel of the wagon while my sister Abbie and brother Jacob kept Nicholas and me from drowning by holding on to us and to the wagon. My oldest sister held to the wagon on a wheel. My brothers Isaac and Charles, one on each side of the river were crazy to come to us, but that was impossible as the river was too full of sand and eddies to swim in. There was not even a skiff to come to our rescue, and my brothers had to run a mile to get a boat. Archie Rusk, a friend or ours who was going with us to Oregon, jumped off the boat to try to get help, though I pleaded with him not to. He was drowned.
At last the boys got to us with a boat and we were pulled out. Mother looked around and called out, “Where are Maria and Henry?” A voice from the wagon said, “Here we are!” and the wagon cover was pulled off and they were dragged out. As the water had risen in the wagon, Maria had put the big family Bible on the beds which happened to be left in that wagon that morning, along with the dishpan and every other thing she could find to pile up. That left her just room enough to stand and hold their heads above water, with a few inches between the top of the water and the cover of the wagon to breathe in.
We stayed at Savannah a week trying to find the body of our young friend and to replace the clothing that we had lost. The people of the town told Father there was no use trying to get Archie’s body, for it would have been buried in the sand in a few hours. But they tried for a week, and when we left, Father left word that if his body could be found and sent home, the finder could keep the remainder of the five hundred dollars in gold that had been in the young man’s belt.
Along the trail, we saw buffaloes wallowing in their mud holes, and many antelope. Once in a while the boys would kill an antelope, which made delicious meat. We found that buffalo meat was too coarse, and bear meat too greasy to eat much, but that prairie hens were a real delicacy.
Father always rode ahead to hunt good camping grounds with plenty of water, grass, and wood – at least water and grass for the cattle. Often we had to cook with grease wood or sagebrush. We had iron pots and teakettles for cooking, and did our baking in a Dutch oven with coals under it and over it. It was difficult for my Mother and sisters to work and cook this way, as we had been used to a large house, a cook stove and brick oven, and maid to do the hard work. When our cow gave plenty of milk, we put the milk in a large, tin can and hung this can on the wagon, where the jolting would churn the milk to butter. But most of the time, since the cow didn’t get the right kind of food, it took all her milk for my little brother Tommy. Besides, a number of the cattle died before we reached Oregon, and we had to be frugal with the milk we could get.
One night, my oldest sister and I were going from one wagon to another one and a big wolf came up. We didn’t stay to see what he wanted!
We saw Indians often. Once when we were in Nez Perce country, a chief came and offered my brother a lot of horses in trade for my sister Maria, a beautiful girl with black hair and snapping black eyes. My brother jokingly agreed, and the next day the chief came with his ponies, looking for Maria. Father hid my sister in one of the wagons, and after several days managed to persuade the chief that my brother had been in fun.
There was a great deal of cholera that year. So many people had started without any tools to do anything with, and without enough food to eat. The night before we came to Old Fort Kearny, my sister Abbie was taken sick. Father went to the Fort when we got near to get help. As he was a Presbyterian and a Mason, they allowed him within the grounds, but not in the Fort itself. The doctor and his wife came down and sat up that night with Father and Mother caring for Abbie, but she died. They gave us the best coffin they had – a plain board one – and they allowed us to bury her in their cemetery. The doctor and his wife promised to care for her grave as long as they were there, but it was heart-breaking for Father and Mother to have to leave her.
While we were traveling along the South Platte, Father also contracted cholera. That night we had a terrible hail and rainstorm, and to keep Father from getting wet, Mother put the feather bed and boards over him. Thanks to this sweating, and the medicine, Father recovered. During the hail storm, the cattle became frightened and ran off and swam over to an island. The next day, when it had cleared, the boys had to swim over and drive them back so that we could travel on. Maria got the cholera, too, but Mother cared for her as she had cared for Father, and she too recovered.
As we traveled, we met a great many people who were sick and dying. Often there was nothing to dig a grave with, and the dead had to be wrapped in quilts and blankets, and laid on the ground with stones piled over them. In spite of these precautions we saw many graves that had been invaded by wolves.
We passed Fort Laramie, Fort Hall, and Fort Boise. At the Malheur River, my brother Abraham and Mr. Bingham met us with some provisions, thinking rightly that we might have run short. When James Bingham, who was to have been married to Abbie upon our arrival in Oregon, heard of her death, he was so shocked that he became sick, and had to be cared for all the rest of the way in to Oregon City.
We were camped one Saturday night at a good place for both the cattle and the family. My brothers were watching the cattle when they came upon two young men camped nearby. One was quite sick, so when the boys told Mother and Father, they took food and medicine and helped them get ready for their journey again. The young men were from Indiana, and had no wagon – they had packed all their food and supplies on horses. One of these young men, Walter McFarland, was to become my husband seven years later.
We crossed the Green River at a very steep place where the banks sloped sharply to the river’s edge. The boys unloaded two of our wagons and fastened the two wooden beds together, fastening a rope to them, and swam across the river and anchored the rope to a tree on the other side. The beds were loaded with food and the dismantled wagons were pulled across the river, where the wagons were put together again. The cattle swam to the other side.
When we reached The Dalles, the party separated. Some of the brothers took the big wagon over the Cascade Mountains. The rest of us took a flat boat to the Cascades, from which we went around the cascades in the wagon to the lower Columbia River. There we took a flat boat again to Sandy River, quite a way below Oregon City. At that point our brothers met us with the big wagon and we started together for Oregon City.
On our way down the Columbia, the wind started to blow so hard that we had to put ashore. It happened to be on a pretty steep place, but we had to stay there all night nevertheless. How we managed to sleep and eat our food without slipping is more than I can tell.
We arrived in Oregon City on October 26, 1852. My brother had found a house for us; it had only four rooms and no plaster, and was not very comfortable, but it did have a cook stove, and was the best that we could get at the time.