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Traveling the Oregon Trail


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April 24, 1849

Tomorrow we set out for the great west. It has been horrendous gathering the $600 dollars for the fee for my family and me. My husband had to take on two jobs, and each of my 12 year old daughters had to work as well. It was horrible. Imagine, 12 year olds working! That is not the environment a child should grow up in. Children should be laughing and playing, not working in those harsh conditions. It broke my heart to see my girls coming home looking so woebegone with their lives. In the end, we just managed to scrape by. Aunt Maureen graciously sent us the extra 100 dollars we needed. We are in debt to her in many ways. My daughters are very excited to begin this trip. Cassie is an artist, and has been saving up her collection of glass marbles to trade for a new art set. Her paintings are beautiful. She’s heard of the remarkable paintings by people like George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Seth Eastman. She wants to paint just like them. Ariel is a writer. She writes poetry and fables, and is also ecstatic to get going. My husband and I, however, are aware that this is going to be more than fun and games. We have heard stories from our friends about the Oregon Trail. Many deaths. Many problems. But also, lots of memories. And the reward is definitely worth it. A nice big plot of land to raise a farm and a family. A completely new chapter of our lives is just beginning. I just hope we are all there to see it.

April 30, 1849

We just left Independence, Missouri a couple days ago. We’re traveling along the banks of the Kansas River on our way to the Oregon Trail. It’s one long procession. A wagon train, they call it. I’ve never actually seen a train, but I’ve heard they are indeed very long. And also, that they are very noisy and smelly and pollute the air with their burning coal engines. But, really, they are quite long. Our line of wagons can give a train a run for its money! There must be 70 wagons here at least! Not to mention all the animals and possessions people have brought along. It will be a miracle if we all reach the Oregon Country alive. Our journey got off to a rough start that morning. Aristocrat Damian Emerson had 7 wagons to accommodate, but when the departure time arrived, Mr. Emerson never showed up! Finally, we learned that poor Mr. Emerson, bless his soul, had died in his sleep last night of heart problems. Lydia, his wife, is devastated. She claims the Lord took him too soon, that the Lord should have let him live long enough to see Oregon. I privately agree. Lydia has decided to go on without him, saying she wants a piece of Oregon to set up life for her children and their children. She now also has to manage all 7 wagons by herself. Her children, Aidan and Jason, are only 5 and 3 and no where near old enough to help. My heart reaches out to the Emerson family. But, I fear, this is only the beginning.

May 20, 1849

It’s been nearly a month now, since we’ve set off from Missouri. I wish I could say it was more pleasant. We’re now just about to turn onto the Oregon Trail. But, in order to do that, we had to cross the Kansas River. We managed that devilish task today. The “expert” men claimed that the water was good enough to cross over, but I had my doubts. The water was moving a little too fast for my liking. We ended up caulking the wagons over. It seems the Lord has smiled upon us today. No one was hurt. However, we did lose a wagon full of medicine, as well as several rations of food. That will serve as a problem in the future. The poor Emerson children were terrified of crossing the river. Lydia managed to coax 3-year-old Jason asleep in one of the wagons, but poor Aidan was deathly afraid, and wouldn’t come near the water within a ten foot branch. After much, much, much persuading of all of the women, we managed to get him onto a wagon. I held him in my arms and sang to him the entire way across, to drown out the sound of the roaring water. Lydia was so very grateful toward me. She wanted to pay me with food, cloth, medicine, anything but I told her, “Family do not have each other pay to live. We are all family right now. We’ll all get there together.”

May 27, 1849

Cassie is sick. We’re following the Platte River right now. Cassie and Ariel decided to go for a walk along the river banks, to play. They didn’t know the men were hunting. Cassie leapt up too quickly, and one of the men……anyway, we managed to patch her up, but that’s not the worst of it. An infection has set in, and we’re lacking medicine. We had to ditch Mrs. Ferguson’s ivory chest of drawers to make room for Cassie to lie in one of the wagons. Mrs. Ferguson made a big scene at first, then took a look at poor Cassie’s pale, flushed face and mumbled an apology before going off to be on her own. I am not angry with the man who shot Cassie. The Lord would want me to forgive him, so that’s precisely what I’m doing. If only that wagon of medicine hadn’t been lost a week ago! Cassie could be well! Cassie could be free! Cassie could get another shot at life! I don’t know what I would do if she….if she….went to the other side. How would Ariel manage? How would their father manage? How would I manage? People always say, ‘Life’s not fair.’ I guess I finally understand what that means.

May 31, 1849

Cassie died today. We held a small memorial in her honor. Ariel is devastated, I know, but she does not let it show. I envy her in that way. I envy her in the way she can hold it all in and be brave for the others. I know that is what I must do as well. I must be strong for my family. For the other families. But, alas, Cassie is not the first, nor will she be the last. Why just the other day, we lost several of our best hunters to mosquito disease. Ariel pulled me aside for a talk this morning. She said to me, “Do you see those majestic mountains over there? Those mountains are God. We’re just trying to battle across the fields of life trying to reach him. The road to God is not smooth and easy. There are bumps, there are turns, but there are also joyous rewards. Cassie told this to me Mama. Right before she Left. She said God was watching over us, and that it was not easy to reach him. If it was easy, every one would do it. I want you to look at those mountains, Mama. Every time you feel sad about Cassie, or sad about anything else, I want you to look at those mountains, and think about the road to God.” You can’t even imagine how much it is shocking to hear something like that coming from a 12 year old. She puts me to shame.

June 18, 1849

The scenery here is beautiful! The plains are lush, the rivers clear, and the mountains thrusting powerfully from the face of the earth. We have met several different Indian tribes so far. They are very helpful, showing us remedies and new ways to capture food, not to mention giving us advice on crossing dangerous rivers. My husband tells me we are approaching a place called South Pass. Apparently, it’s a pass in the Rocky Mountains that all pioneers take trying to move west. I’m afraid we’ve had another accident. While crossing a fierce river, Jason Emerson fell in. He rolled off the wagon and into the water. Lydia jumped in to save him. As far as we know, they were never seen coming to the surface, and were not present when we crossed the river. Aidan is now an orphan. I have taken over the role of taking care of him. Ariel is helping greatly. She keeps him entertained and educates him on the different types of animals and where we have come from and where we are going. She teaches him about God, and how to have faith and believe. I only wish Cassie was here as well…

June 30, 1849

We’re halfway through the South Pass. It is a fascinating yet, terrible place. The path is wide enough, but when you see the pressing walls of mountain on either side of you, you can’t help but feeling small. It’s like the mountain is unwilling to let us pass, so it tries to close up. I go back to thinking about what Ariel told me when Cassie died. About the mountains. How they are God. It’s just so serene here. Here in the mountains, the plains. So peaceful. But once again, our day was not without its usual share of disaster. This time it was the mud. It had rained the night we set up the mountains to get to the pass, and the normal dirt path was a sticky, goopy, mess. The horses and cattle’s hooves keep getting stuck, and it seems we have to send the children down every five minutes to knock the mud off the wagon ruts. Everyone here is trying to stay optimistic, but it’s becoming more and more difficult. I think people took for granted how hard the trail really is. Now they know. The reality of it is like a slap in the face. I’m so proud of Ariel. A woman broke down today, because her little boy had died during the night, and Ariel gently took her in her arms, and led her away, and when the woman came back, I could see it. I could see the hope in her eyes. It makes me so happy to see that my baby girl saved this woman. I wish I had Ariel’s spirit.

July 5, 1849

We’re through the South Pass and the Rocky Mountains are behind us. All that the eye can see now is open grassland. It’s amazing. It’s like someone took a giant paintbrush and swabbed dabs of color all over the grassy fields. Today we saw a herd of buffalo! They are awesomely big beasts. 500 pounds of meat and flesh. Unfortunately, the men got greedy and hunted too many. We processed and cut the meat as best we could, but a lot of it was wasted. To make matters worse, the sun is brutal. We all look like Indians with our skin burned a reddish-brown color. Aidan and the other children cry because it hurts so. We take pity on them, and let them ride in the shady protection of the wagons. But, now with the increased temperatures, we’re facing the problem of water. There hasn’t been a crick or stream or river in sight for days, and our supply is draining fast. My husband has set off on his own to locate some source of water. David is a brave man, but I fear for his chances. I may never get to see him again. Ariel is still staying strong and comforting the other children as well as the adults who have lost hope. I swear, if Jesus had a sister or a daughter it would be Ariel. Ariel doesn’t ask for anything in return for her willingness to help others. She is the gentlest soul I have ever come across, but can be firm and strong when she has to be. I expect she gets that from her father.

July 31, 1849

Today is Cassie’s birthday. I try not to feel too sad. Especially since what happened. A few weeks ago, I found her sketch book. Her paintings and drawings are truly remarkable. It’s almost as if she held her fingers over the landscape, and took the image within, and put it on paper. Not only were there landscapes, but portraits as well. One was of all of us standing outside our home in Boston. Me and David standing underneath the tall oak tree, and Ariel and Cassie standing in front of us with their arms across each other’s shoulders. I’m so glad I decided to put that one in my breast pocket over my heart. Last night, a terrible fire raged. Some of the children were fooling around with lit torches, when one of the children tripped and the flaming stick went flying out of his hand. It caught fire to several of the wagons. After much hard work of throwing dust on the wagons to quench the flames, the fire was gone. However, we lost a number of things. All of Cassie’s drawings were lost. All that remained were a few charred fragments of wildflower drawings. Now, the only thing Cassie left behind in this world, aside from her memories, was the drawing sitting in my pocket.

August 18, 1849

We’ve reached the Snake River. There is no sign of David’s return, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to show up. The trail now splits. Several people have decided to head down the California Trail toward San Francisco and Los Angeles. Only 38 people remain headed toward Ft. Vancouver, including Aidan, Ariel, and myself. I hope to start a new life in Vancouver. Put all these troubles behind me. Not forget about them, never will I forget the awful things that have happened on this Trail of Death. I will just put these events in the past, so they don’t cloud my future.

September 14, 1849

I am terrified. Ariel, my precious Ariel, has gone missing. No one can recall seeing her dying or anything, so that’s a good sign. But no one can remember where they last saw her last. I searched for her. I searched for her for days. Calling her name, going farther and farther away from the wagon train. I just wanted to die when I couldn’t find her. I wanted to kill myself. But, then Aidan Emerson’s 5 year-old face floated to the top of my mind. The thought of who would take over watching him and caring for him, drove me to return to the camp. With Ariel gone, there is a sharp upswing in the gloom around the camp. I am too sad, too grieving, even to cry. First Cassie, then David, now Ariel? Is freedom and prosperity in Oregon worth not having anyone to spend it with? But then, I found a poem Ariel had written just days before she went missing. This is what it said:

Love is like the sunshine,
It might be bright and beautiful,
But can burn you with its harshness.
Love is like a diary,
A friend that will always be there,
Someone who you can cry as loud as you want to.
Love is like a mother,
Tender on the outside,
But on the inside is a warrior ready to break free.
Love is what I give to you,
And what you will always give to me.

It took me a long while to read this poem. My eyes kept filling up with tears. When I finally reached the ending, I realized something. As the poem ended, so did my grief and despair. Sure, Ariel, and the rest of my family have Moved On, but there are others still here on Earth who need all the love and care they can get. I will make it to Oregon. I will be strong for my daughters. Strong for my husband. Strong for those who didn’t make it through. I will not brood over the past, but will look forward to the future. I am here for those who need me, and I know they will love me too. My daughters and my husband stand in Heaven beside the Lord smiling down at me. And Ariel whispers to me “Look at the mountains, mama.”



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This article has 2 comments. Post your own!

Thalia said...
Jan. 4, 2010 at 4:31 pm:
This is great writing! The whole story seems so realistic, like you were there. You should keep going with this; it can only get better!!!
 
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. said...
Nov. 21, 2009 at 6:43 am:
Wow, this is amazing! I researched the Oregon Trail for a long time last year and wrote an essay on it, so I could relate to everything you described. It was such a sad story, with Cassie dying and then the lady and her son falling in the river. And Ariel is so courageous. I don't understand how Ariel died, though. Did she know she was going to die? How did she leave the poem for her mom?
 
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