West history part 3
June 22, 1973
By JB West
When Grandfather McConnell began making preparations to migrate with his family to Oregon, he profited by the experience gained by the emigrants of the previous 25 years. The routes were well defined, but the roads or trails were still very primitive. The earlier emigrants usually loaded their wagons too heavy. The result was that the wagons would break down, or the teams could not pull them. Part of the carefully plannned cargo would have to be unloaded. Farm equipment, household wares, treasured articles of furniture, and lastly, provisions would have to be left behind.
If they were lucky, some of it could be sold to those who had turned back and were returning to their former homes. Otherwise it was left alongside the trail for anyone who cared to pick it up. Some made a small fortune by picking up discarded goods and hauling it back to civilization where it was sold.
It was established that 2,500 pounds of cargo was about the limit for the average team and wagon. Horses and mules were both used as draft animals. The mules were fast and tough and did not require much grain, but they did not do well in sand or mud. Their hooves were small and they would mire down and would have to be unhooked. Sometimes the wagon would have to be partially unloaded before it could be moved to firm ground. In some respects, horses were preferred to mules but both mules and horses were hard to herd. When turned out to grass, after eating their fill, they both tended to roam. Horses were known to take off for their old home, and had to be chased for miles before being turned back to camp.
Experience proved that oxen were the most practical draft animals. They moved along at about two miles per hour and covered 12 to 15 miles per day, about half the speed of mules and horses, but with their huge cleft hooves they could walk through mud and sand without difficulty. They thrived on nothing but grass. When turned out to graze they could be kept together and would lie down when they had their fill.
All of the stock had to be shod. Horses and mules submitted to being shot, but not so the oxen. The blacksmith, in order to shoe an ox, had to use a canvas sling built for the purpose. The canvas would be placed under the ox’s belly; he would then be raised off his feet. Each leg had to be tied fast while his shoes were being nailed on. Because of his cleft hooves, two shoes were required for each foot, one for each half.
The driver walked alongside the oxen with his bullwhip. It had a stock several feet long with a braided lash of four or five feet. The driver became clever at snapping the lash to sting any oxen that lagged and was not pulling his share of the burden. The train would halt for two hours at noon to eat and rest. The oxen would be unhooked and allowed to graze.
The train moved on, week after week, month after month though good weather and bad. When not soaking wet and plowing through mud, the train had to endure clouds of dust. At times swarms of mosquitoes and flies made life miserable for both humans and beasts.
It was one long picnic for the children. In good weather they romped and played games alongside the slow moving train. In bad weather or when tired, they rode in the covered wagon. The older ones spent their days on horseback, scouting the trail ahead and the countryside, always looking for signs of Indians.
In the long evenings, banjos and violins were brought out and there was music for singing and dancing by the campfires or in the moonlight. Boys courted girls. Crocket, the son of Captain Kirk, fell in love with 15 year old Aunt Molly. They were married two years after arriving in Oregon.
After crossing the plains, some of the emigrants left the train to follow trails in different directions. Grandfather continued on toward Oregon. There remained deserts, mountains and rivers to cross and they suffered incredible hardships. The weather was hot and dry, except for an occasional violent thunderstorm. Tempers grew short as food ran low and equipment needed constant repair. The oxen, with insufficient water and grass, grew worn and weary, and needed continual goading to keep them moving.
At last, the end of the Oregon Trail was reached at The Dalles. The family had come through without any casualties or serious accidents. Here, Grandfather sold the oxen and purchased horses. He took passage to Portland on a river steamer for his family, the wagons, and the horses. They stayed all night in Portland and the next morning the horses were hooked to the wagons and they began the trip to Corvallis.
Now, driving down good wagon roads instead of trails and twice the speed the oxen had traveled, along farms where crops were being harvested, past orchards full of ripe fruit, the McConnells felt they had arrived in Paradise.
When they camped at night farmers cam bearing bread, eggs, milk, butter, newly dug potatoes and other vegetables and fresh fruit, things the travelers had not eating for months. No one would accept any pay.
When they arrived at the home of my grandmother’s family, the Hurlberts, the reunion was both joyous and sad. Ellen, Grandmother’s youngest sister, now a young……………………………….lad she had never seen. Three years had passed without any communication. During that time, her sister Emily and her mother had died. Her father had remarried. But there was no time for grieving. Grandfather rented a farm nearby. They lived there through two winters, then he purchased a permanent home.