1845 - Samuel Hancock
Start on the Oregon Trail
In the Spring of 1845, the author of this book took his departure from Independence, Mo., in company with two hundred others, their wagon and necessary teams, for the long, and at that time uncertain journey across the Plains. The destination of the party was Oregon, which at that time might be considered somewhat indefinite as the whole of the possessions of the United States on the North West Coast of the Pacific embracing an immense area of country, beginning at the 42° of latitude south, extending to the 49° North, thence East to the summit of the Rocky Mountains, and from there to the line separating this territory on the seashore from California.
At the time referred to, the now State of Oregon, and the present extensive and flourishing Territory of Washington, constituted this far off and attractive part of the world known as Oregon, and which seemed to our adventurous citizens, to possess the inducements necessary for them to go, and undertake the settlement, and there build up new homes, and if possible new everything; and in undertaking this the reader can well imagine it was no trifling task to separate one's self from the old associations of early life and start upon such an enterprise, at such a time; for little was then known of the route across from the Atlantic to the Pacific; it is true a small emigration crossed the year before, but little information was derived from these early pioneers other than that they reached Oregon after a long and hazardous journey.
Our party after leaving Independence, proceeded up the Missouri river for four days, when it was thought advisable to halt, and remain there a week, there being good grass at the encampment, and recruiting our animals, get everything in proper readiness for the progress of our long journey; our company at this encampment all collected together numbering about forty wagons. Soon after our arrival at this point, we discovered fresh signs of Indians, which caused us to keep a pretty close guard over our animals, and indeed ourselves, for we were disposed to regard these Indians suspiciously, from accounts we had heard of them before leaving the settlements.
During the second day at this place; Indians could be seen on the hills adjacent to all appearances taking a survey of our encampment, doubtless for the purpose of making a descent either upon us or our cattle, neither of which we particularly desired; so we detailed a double guard to provide against a surprise and secure our cattle, as the Indians could see this movement, and doubtless did; for in two or three hours after this extra guard was instituted, they left, seemingly, but were still near evidently, for in the night of the third day it was discovered that the cattle were very restless and apparently frightened at Indians; we immediately took the precaution of staking our horses near the corral formed by placing our wagons around; this formed a kind of fortification, besides being a place of comparative safety for our stock. In addition to the guard already on duty we detailed a special horse guard, the night being very dark indeed so that we could not distinguish any object a little remote.
About daylight, the cattle made another demonstration of uneasiness, and one of the guard perceived an Indian rise from his place of concealment and run; the guard discharged his rifle at him, hurriedly, but without effect, notwithstanding all this vigilance on our part, these wily Indians succeeded in stealing quite a number of our cattle; upon this being ascertained a party of twenty-five immediately started out from camp in the direction that we heard a bell, that was around the neck of a trusty animal, the Indians had driven off amongst the others they had stolen; this animal being frightened at the appearance of these unfamiliar masters, would not allow them to approach her, to remove the bell, and by this means we were enabled to continue the pursuit. The lndians finding it impossible to get near this "bell cow" endeavored to kill her, for we found a number of arrows had pierced the poor creature and it seemed to be an effort on the part of the Indians to get her out of hearing, for she was in advance of all the rest of the stock and in the pursuit we passed nearly all, save this animal, and perhaps two or three others, hurried along by means of this bell.
When fairly light we saw perhaps a dozen Indians on horses, and others on foot forcing the cattle along. As soon as they discovered us, they abandoned the cattle and fled, we taking possession, and driving them back, found others belonging to us that had broken from the Indians in the stampede. On our return to camp we found three still missing and a party started immediately in search of them, but finding where one had been butchered the night before, gave up the search and returned to camp, where we killed the bell animal in consequence of the many wounds she had received from the bows of the Indians. Breakfast being over, we yoked our teams and making a short day's drive encamped in fine grass, where we enjoyed a quiet night's rest, without any interruption. About sun rise next morning one of the party hearing a noise a short distance from camp, and supposing it to be game of some kind, went out to secure it, when behold! he discovered an Indian perched in the fork of a tree, probably making observations for the purpose of facilitating some subsequent movement against us; the Gentleman discovering him having no very kind feeling toward the "Red Skins" thought he would make one less of their number, so leveling his rifle brought the Indian to the ground, to be cared for by his friends, should they chance that way.
Soon after this affair, we broke up this encampment and after a long day's drive encamped for the night on what is called the Big Blue; here we saw indications of the encampment of the little party called "The first emigration," who preceded us in the year 1843; from these indications we supposed they must have had rather an unpleasant time just here; in fact I have since learned that they were obliged in consequence of high waters to remain here for three weeks or more, the whole country contiguous to the river being completely inundated. Our party here being more fortunate than our predecessors, had no difficulty in crossing, it being in very good stage for fording.
From the encampment on the Big Blue we journeyed on, encountering Indians that day who did not seem badly disposed; that night however, we kept a pretty strict watch, though nothing occurred particularly worthy of note.
Next night we encamped on the Little Blue, where we established for the time being a sort of ferry, converting our wagon beds into boats for transportation, having before starting proved ourselves with those which would answer the double purpose of both land and water craft.
At this encampment on the Little Blue there were more wolves than I ever saw, or I might say ever heard of before, for they made the night hideous with their yelling, and to persons unaccustomed to such sounds, and in a strange country it is anything but musical; at least it seemed to me as if all the wolves for a thousand miles around had congregated at this particular place, for our especial benefit. In the morning they could be seen dispersing in droves, in different directions, and we were by no means loth to part with these "traveling musicians."
From Little Blue we passed on west from day to day without seeing or hearing anything particularly worthy of note, other than is always the case in a travel of this kind, always seeing a variety of game, which imparts some little interest, and relieved the monotony of our mode of travel.
We were now fairly in the Platte River Country and the rain for the past twenty-four hours pouring down in torrents. At the expiration of this day, we stopped and encamped for the night. Smoke could be seen at some distance and fearing interruption from the Indians our guard was instantly placed on duty; but whether they discharged their duties faithfully, the reader can decide, when informed that morning discovered several of our horses missing; this being ascertained the wagon train proceeded forward up the valley of the Platte River, while myself with nine others of the party armed and mounted on fine horses started in pursuit of the party having our horses. We had at times some difficulty in keeping on their track, for the Indians displayed considerable ingenuity, traveling in the creeks for the purpose of avoiding detection.
We traveled that day perhaps fifty miles, and at last, the sun not being more than an hour high, we espied our horses standing in close proximity to some Indians who were apparently engaged in preparing food for themselves. We commenced a charge when perhaps half a mile distant, but they did not discover us until we were within two hundred yards, when they sprang for the horses; but anticipating this moment on their part, we commenced a tremendous yelling, and urging our horses forward, succeeded in preventing the Indians reaching them. In this charge we not only recovered our own horses but captured seven additional ones from the retreating Indians, who, to the number of about thirty, took refuge in a thicket where we deemed it unadvisable to penetrate. Feeling very well satisfied with the result of the little expedition, we determined to make our way to the company, and traveled about twenty miles in that direction, encamping for the night very noiselessly and without fire. On the evening of the next day we overtook our company and enjoyed a night free from disturbance.
Next morning we started in good health and spirits, and during our day's travel, one of the party killed a porcupine, which afforded considerable sport, the animal evincing his fretful propensities to the amusement of some and the alarm of others, none of us before having seen a living specimen.
Toward evening we came in sight of quite a large Indian village, and there being a probability that we would not find water until after dark we determined to camp here for the night; the Indians soon visited us, and seemed disposed to cultivate a friendly intercourse which we gave them to understand we appreciated, supposing we were in need of food, they brought us a few dead prairie dogs, and some screech owls; doubtless these are considered delicacies among them, but fortunately we had plenty of food more familiar and palatable to us, and we declined partaking of these rare dishes, though they were strongly recommended to us, as nearly as we could understand the language of our visitors. They brought deer skins, buffalo robes, and many other things which they were desirous of trading and some of which we purchased. We then visited their camp and discovered many curious things to us; they made us understand that they wanted any and every kind of clothing for which they would give us anything, in return. After spending some time with them, as it was growing dark we thought it advisable to return to our own camp, not knowing but that from the unreliable character of Indians all this intimacy might terminate in a flare up.
Notwithstanding we had every assurance from them that we should be safe both in our persons and property, while we remained, we felt some apprehension and took the precaution to corral our stock and secure our horses, besides keeping up the regular guard; however there was not the slightest indication of a disposition to molest us in any way. In the morning we made the chief some little presents which pleased him and his people very much; we then turned out our stock to feed, and the Indians visited us as before, wishing to trade. This we did not embark in to any great extent our pursuits being in a different channel, but we contrived to keep them well pleased, and they contributed no little to our entertainment, while we remained at this encampment. These Indians, known as the Sioux tribe, are considered pretty numerous and are rather good looking, both male and female; in their rude and uncultivated way they seemed to have some regard to their appearance and deportment, at least during our sojourn amongst them. Their clothing was composed of dressed skins of various kinds and it may be here remarked that some of the women have pretty features and as a general thing, are comfortably dressed, to all appearances their gowns being composed of the dressed elk and deer hides and made long with some observance of decency, which cannot be said of all Indians; the children who are too small to use the bow and arrow, however, are permitted to run at large, in a state of nudity, this exposure in all probability prepares them, for the subsequent hardships they have to endure.
We left this encampment and after a long day's drive, reached a place where we could obtain plenty of grass and water; up to this point in our journey, we were able to have in camp an old fashioned wood fire but here there was no wood obtainable, and we were obliged to take blankets and sally forth to procure "Buffalo chips"; this the young men disliked very much, being the first time they were ever engaged in such business; particularly as there were some ladies in our company which fact I neglected to mention before, and for which the reader will doubtless pardon me, when assured they comprised decidedly the most interesting portion of our company, but there being no alternative the ladies were obliged to divest themselves of all fastidiousness and make use of this fuel for all cooking purposes, which after the first shock proved an excellent substitute for fire wood. Holes were dug in the ground and filled with these chips, at which the ladies soon cooked us excellent suppers, after enjoying which, we had a night of uninterrupted quietude.
Early next morning everything in camp was prepared to leave, and we traveled until about one o'clock when we had to cross Platte River, while making preparations for crossing, an immense herd of buffalo came in view; in fact the whole country as far as we could see, presented a mass of buffaloes on a stampede, coming towards us; having heard of the danger of encountering these roving herds in their stampede, we immediately went to work preparing ourselves as best we could, by driving the wagons around in a circle, to make a fortification for ourselves and animals, against the approach of these formidable travelers of the Plains. Several of our company more daring than the others took a position on an eminence and keeping an incessant firing of guns and pistols, succeeded in a diversion of their route, to within two hundred yards of us, so that we shot quite a number of them. It was estimated that this army of buffaloes was at least two hours in passing our encampment or fortification and immediately following them, were immense gangs of wolves, making the most hideous noise; these "hangers on" of the a above referred to, are not unlike in their object the "yangers on" of some of our more civilized armies, that is seeking something to devour; they follow the buffaloes in these stampedes in the hope that some may tire, and being unable to keep up, get in the rear, when they are beset with these followers, who by the gnawing of their ham strings, render them unable to travel and an easy prey to the appetite of the wolves.
As soon as quiet was restored after the passage of this army, we hitched our teams and crossing the Platte River established our camp and detailed a guard to keep off the wolves while our cattle were feeding, eventually corralling for the night. The next morning we started early but soon stopped, for the purpose of jerking the buffalo meat we had secured; having occasion for a good deal of fuel at this encampment "Buffalo chips" was the absorbing subject of conversation, in which I believe it was pretty generally conceded that it was legitimate fuel for us on our journey and should not be disapproved of as it made a fire that answered our every purpose.
Next morning a small band of buffaloes came in sight and some of the company went out to meet and if possible surround them and drive them towards camp, where we were to shoot them, this arrangement succeeded admirably, as we secured two fine ones in good order, but unfortunately in passing us, they ran through the midst of our cattle which were feeding, causing them to become frightened and join the herd all leaving at full speed.
Eight or ten men started in pursuit to recover our animals, and succeeded in overtaking them but were unable to separate the cattle from the buffaloes, and were obliged to abandon them; this was rather a serious loss, as some of the company in the morning were compelled to yoke up cows as substitutes for the run away oxen.
The Narrative of Samuel Hancock
New York 1927