(Six panels dealing with the Burnt River portion of the Oregon Trail are found beneath this kiosk) Dear Little Willie
Emigration on the Oregon Trail peaked in 1852 with 10,000 would-be Oregonians. Poor sanitation and contaminated water along the trail led to epidemics of fever, cholera, and dysentery. Those too weak to walk were jostled about in wagons like baggage. On this segment of the trail, the Blue Mountains looming ahead, sick emigrants could not afford time to recover, and many died.
... Our dear little 'Willie' is not expected to live 12 hours as he evidently has the 'Cholera Infantum' or Dropsy in the brain the Doctor tells us it is in vain to administer any medicine as he must surely die. This to us is heart rendering, but God's ways are not our ways neither is his thots (sic) our thoughts'! O! may we bow with submission to his will.
... Last night our darling Willie was called from earth, to vie with angels around the throne of God. He was buried to-day upon an elevated point, one hundred and fifty feet above the plain in a spot of sweet seclusion ... He was four years of age.... — Abigail Scot, August 25-28, 1852
The Burnt River
The Burnt River, also known as Riviere Brule, took its
name from the fire-blackened hillsides, probably produced from the fire ecology of local Indians. In 1843 explorer John C. Fremont noted "wherever the fire had passed, there was a recent growth of strong, green. and vigorous grass." Many, like Thomas Jefferson Farnham, emigrant of 1839, trekked through this canyon and found "The atmosphere all the day smoky." Some emigrants, like James Cayman in 1844, believed that "Some Indians as is their habit when they discover Strangers in their country set fire to the grass." Whatever their cause, the fires of the Brunt River Canyon provided an amazing and frightening spectacle.
This river takes its name from the blackened and burnt appearance of the hills and mountains on either side of it, and the frequent burnings on them. They are mostly covered with high bunch grass. This often gets on fire, burning for miles and days together. One of these burnings is in sight of us today. It is on the opposite side of the river from, or I should feel alarmed.
The fire in the mountains last night as was truly grand. It went to the tops of them spreading far down their sides. We were obliged to go over after our cattle at dark and bring them across the stream. The fire extended for several miles, burning all night, throwing out great streams of red agains the night sky. — Ester Belle McMillan Hanna, August
Hole Among the Hills
The ascent of the Burnt River Canyon required up to six days of back-breaking labor over what Joel Palmer, emigrant of 1845, considered "the most difficult road we have yet encountered." In 1848 Riley Root traveled eight miles up the river and exclaimed "Oh, when shall I view, once more, a verdant landscape!" In 1849 William J. Walton entered the steep-walled canyon and described it as "a hole among the hills." Emigrants chopped their way through brush along the streamed, crossed the river several times, and in several places ascended the steep walls of the canyon - accidents were common.
Traveled 15 miles crossing several spring branches yesterday and to day our road has been very crooked and hilly to day we had another wagon tip over on a very sidling hill ... broad the wagons bows all up the only damage done got some willows and soon twisted up some and went on. — Susan Cranston, August 7, 1851
We Shall Get to Oregon
Covered wagons were not the only means of transportation employed during the emigration era. A few emigrants traveled with their possessions on their backs, and some pushed carts or wheelbarrows. Methods of travel notwithstanding, the real issue was the choice of draft animals. Although horsed and
mules were indeed hitched to wagons, their lack of stamina or legendary stubbornness was problematic. Henry Cook, emigrant of 1850, exclaimed, "What perverse brutes these mules are ... Eh, the beasts. How I hate 'em!" The lowly ox was the animal of choice, and here along the Brunt River may died of exhaustion, leaving emigrants to wonder jut how they would carry on.
... passed a wagon and yoke of oxen dead by it. one wagon and family ... campt with us night before last. they went off and left us very lively, and it is their oxen dead, and they had fixed a cart of the 4 wheels, and gone on. ... 3 of our cows are sick this eve we are tented to night on a branch of burnt river, and pretty good many dead cattle to day that had died the last day or two ... our case looks desperate but some of us have faith strong enough to believe we shall get to Oregon. — Sarah Sutton, August 10, 1854
Oregon Trail emigrants trekked from Farewell Bend on the Snake River through the Burnt River Canyon to Virtue Flats, then around Flagstaff Hill into the drainage of the Powder River - today known as Baker Valley. The emigrant route along the Burnt River was extremely arduous, and one of the most lamented by emigrants. In 1843 explorer John Fremont exclaimed "I have never seen a wagon road equally bad. ..."
Loren B. Hastings traveled through this precipitous canyon in 1847 and described the trail as "up hill and down, mountainous and rocky."
"This day we traveled about twelve miles, The road exceeded in roughness that of yesterday. Sometimes it pursued its course along the bottom of the creek, at other times it wound its way along the sides of the mountains, so sidelong as to require the weight to two or more men on the upper side of the wagons to preserve their equilibrium. The creek and road are so enclosed by the high mountains, as to afford but little room to pass along, rendering it i some places almost impassable. Many of the mountains viewed from here seem almost perpendicular. ... — Joe Palmer, September 7, 1845
A Game of Skill?
Despite fantastic tales of savagery on the frontier published in more than 300 "Incian Captivity Narratives," violent encounters between Oregon Trail emigrants and Indians were rare prior to 1849. Although emigrants were ever wary of Indian attack, the most common complaint was thievery - especially horses. To the warrior, stealing livestock was a game of skill and one-upmanship, at which two could play. To emigrants, who never learned to appreciate the irony of being stranded, however, the game was at best a nuisance. At worst it was a matter of life and death. Emigrants soon
learned to guard their stock carefully.
... on a creek called Brule, we found one family consisting of five Snake Indians, one man, two woman, and two children. They had evidently but very recently arrived, probably only last night, and as they must certainly have passed our camp we feel little hesitation in believing that my lost horse is in their possession. ... We cannot even question them concerning it, as our interpreter, McCarey, left us with the trapping party. — John Kirk Townsend, Naturalist, August 26, 1834