Collection: The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail

Francis Parkman’s epic tale of the emigrants from every part of the country preparing for the journey to Oregon and California, but an unusual number of traders were making ready their wagons and outfits for Santa Fe. Many of the emigrants, especially of those bound for California, were persons of wealth and standing.

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The Settlements

The next day was extremely hot, and we rode from morning till night without seeing a tree or a bush or a drop of water. Our horses and mules suffered much more than we, but as sunset approached they pricked up their ears and mended their pace. Water was not far off. When we came to the descent of the broad shallowy valley where it lay, an unlooked-for sight awaited us. The stream glistened at the bottom, and along its banks were pitched a multitude of tents, while hundreds of cattle were feeding over the meadows. Bodies of troops, both horse and foot, and long trains of wagons with men, women, and children, were moving over the opposite ridge and descending the broad declivity in front. These were the Mormon battalion in the service of government, together with a considerable number of Missouri volunteers. The Mormons were to be paid off in California, and they were allowed to bring with them their families and property. There was something very striking in the half-military, half-patriarchal appearance of these armed fanatics, thus on their way with their wives and children, to found, if might be, a Mormon empire in California. We were much more astonished than pleased at the sight before us. In order to find an unoccupied camping ground, we were obliged to pass a quarter of a mile up...

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Down the Arkansas River

In the summer of 1846 the wild and lonely banks of the Upper Arkansas beheld for the first time the passage of an army. General Kearny, on his march to Santa Fe, adopted this route in preference to the old trail of the Cimarron. When we came down the main body of the troops had already passed on; Price’s Missouri regiment, however, was still on the way, having left the frontier much later than the rest; and about this time we began to meet them moving along the trail, one or two companies at a time. No men ever embarked upon a military expedition with a greater love for the work before them than the Missourians; but if discipline and subordination be the criterion of merit, these soldiers were worthless indeed. Yet when their exploits have rung through all America, it would be absurd to deny that they were excellent irregular troops. Their victories were gained in the teeth of every established precedent of warfare; they were owing to a singular combination of military qualities in the men themselves. Without discipline or a spirit of subordination, they knew how to keep their ranks and act as one man. Doniphan’s regiment marched through New Mexico more like a band of free companions than like the paid soldiers of a modern government. When General Taylor complimented Doniphan on his success at...

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The Buffalo Camp

No one in the camp was more active than Jim Gurney, and no one half so lazy as Ellis. Between these two there was a great antipathy. Ellis never stirred in the morning until he was compelled to, but Jim was always on his feet before daybreak; and this morning as usual the sound of his voice awakened the party. “Get up, you booby! up with you now, you’re fit for nothing but eating and sleeping. Stop your grumbling and come out of that buffalo robe or I’ll pull it off for you.” Jim’s words were interspersed with numerous expletives, which gave them great additional effect. Ellis drawled out something in a nasal tone from among the folds of his buffalo robe; then slowly disengaged himself, rose into sitting posture, stretched his long arms, yawned hideously, and finally, raising his tall person erect, stood staring round him to all the four quarters of the horizon. Delorier’s fire was soon blazing, and the horses and mules, loosened from their pickets, were feeding in the neighboring meadow. When we sat down to breakfast the prairie was still in the dusky light of morning; and as the sun rose we were mounted and on our way again. “A white buffalo!” exclaimed Munroe. “I’ll have that fellow,” said Shaw, “if I run my horse to death after him.” He threw the cover of...

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The Chase

The country before us was now thronged with buffalo, and a sketch of the manner of hunting them will not be out of place. There are two methods commonly practiced, “running” and “approaching.” The chase on horseback, which goes by the name of “running,” is the more violent and dashing mode of the two. Indeed, of all American wild sports, this is the wildest. Once among the buffalo, the hunter, unless long use has made him familiar with the situation, dashes forward in utter recklessness and self-abandonment. He thinks of nothing, cares for nothing but the game; his mind is stimulated to the highest pitch, yet intensely concentrated on one object. In the midst of the flying herd, where the uproar and the dust are thickest, it never wavers for a moment; he drops the rein and abandons his horse to his furious career; he levels his gun, the report sounds faint amid the thunder of the buffalo; and when his wounded enemy leaps in vain fury upon him, his heart thrills with a feeling like the fierce delight of the battlefield. A practiced and skillful hunter, well mounted, will sometimes kill five or six cows in a single chase, loading his gun again and again as his horse rushes through the tumult. An exploit like this is quite beyond the capacities of a novice. In attacking a small...

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Indian Alarms

We began our journey for the frontier settlements on the 27th of August, and certainly a more ragamuffin cavalcade never was seen on the banks of the Upper Arkansas. Of the large and fine horses with which we had left the frontier in the spring, not one remained; we had supplied their place with the rough breed of the prairie, as hardy as mules and almost as ugly; we had also with us a number of the latter detestable animals. In spite of their strength and hardihood, several of the band were already worn down by hard service and hard fare, and as none of them were shod, they were fast becoming foot-sore. Every horse and mule had a cord of twisted bull-hide coiled around his neck, which by no means added to the beauty of his appearance. Our saddles and all our equipments were by this time lamentably worn and battered, and our weapons had become dull and rusty. The dress of the riders fully corresponded with the dilapidated furniture of our horses, and of the whole party none made a more disreputable appearance than my friend and I. Shaw had for an upper garment an old red flannel shirt, flying open in front and belted around him like a frock; while I, in absence of other clothing, was attired in a time-worn suit of leather. Thus, happy...

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Tete Rouge, the Volunteer

The next morning, having directed Delorier to repair with his cart to the place of meeting, we came again to the fort to make some arrangements for the journey. After completing these we sat down under a sort of perch, to smoke with some Cheyenne Indians whom we found there. In a few minutes we saw an extraordinary little figure approach us in a military dress. He had a small, round countenance, garnished about the eyes with the kind of wrinkles commonly known as crow’s feet and surrounded by an abundant crop of red curls, with a little cap resting on the top of them. Altogether, he had the look of a man more conversant with mint juleps and oyster suppers than with the hardships of prairie service. He came up to us and entreated that we would take him home to the settlements, saying that unless he went with us he should have to stay all winter at the fort. We liked our petitioner’s appearance so little that we excused ourselves from complying with his request. At this he begged us so hard to take pity on him, looked so disconsolate, and told so lamentable a story that at last we consented, though not without many misgivings. The rugged Anglo-Saxon of our new recruit’s real name proved utterly unmanageable on the lips of our French attendants, and Henry...

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The Pueblo and Bent’s Fort

e approached the gate of the Pueblo. It was a wretched species of fort of most primitive construction, being nothing more than a large square inclosure, surrounded by a wall of mud, miserably cracked and dilapidated. The slender pickets that surmounted it were half broken down, and the gate dangled on its wooden hinges so loosely, that to open or shut it seemed likely to fling it down altogether. Two or three squalid Mexicans, with their broad hats, and their vile faces overgrown with hair, were lounging about the bank of the river in front of it. They disappeared as they saw us approach; and as we rode up to the gate a light active little figure came out to meet us. It was our old friend Richard. He had come from Fort Laramie on a trading expedition to Taos; but finding, when he reached the Pueblo, that the war would prevent his going farther, he was quietly waiting till the conquest of the country should allow him to proceed. He seemed to consider himself bound to do the honors of the place. Shaking us warmly by the hands, he led the way into the area. Here we saw his large Santa Fe wagons standing together. A few squaws and Spanish women, and a few Mexicans, as mean and miserable as the place itself, were lazily sauntering about. Richard...

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The Lonely Journey

On the day of my arrival at Fort Laramie, Shaw and I were lounging on two buffalo robes in the large apartment hospitably assigned to us; Henry Chatillon also was present, busy about the harness and weapons, which had been brought into the room, and two or three Indians were crouching on the floor, eyeing us with their fixed, unwavering gaze. “I have been well off here,” said Shaw, “in all respects but one; there is no good shongsasha to be had for love or money.” I gave him a small leather bag containing some of excellent quality, which I had brought from the Black Hills. “Now, Henry,” said he, “hand me Papin’s chopping-board, or give it to that Indian, and let him cut the mixture; they understand it better than any white man.” The Indian, without saying a word, mixed the bark and the tobacco in due proportions, filled the pipe and lighted it. This done, my companion and I proceeded to deliberate on our future course of proceeding; first, however, Shaw acquainted me with some incidents which had occurred at the fort during my absence. About a week previous four men had arrived from beyond the mountains; Sublette, Reddick, and two others. Just before reaching the Fort they had met a large party of Indians, chiefly young men. All of them belonged to the village of our...

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Passage of the Mountains

When I took leave of Shaw at La Bonte’s Camp, I promised that I would meet him at Fort Laramie on the 1st of August. That day, according to my reckoning, was now close at hand. It was impossible, at best, to fulfill my engagement exactly, and my meeting with him must have been postponed until many days after the appointed time, had not the plans of the Indians very well coincided with my own. They too, intended to pass the mountains and move toward the fort. To do so at this point was impossible, because there was no opening; and in order to find a passage we were obliged to go twelve or fourteen miles southward. Late in the afternoon the camp got in motion, defiling back through the mountains along the same narrow passage by which they had entered. I rode in company with three or four young Indians at the rear, and the moving swarm stretched before me, in the ruddy light of sunset, or in the deep shadow of the mountains far beyond my sight. It was an ill-omened spot they chose to encamp upon. When they were there just a year before, a war party of ten men, led by The Whirlwind’s son, had gone out against the enemy, and not one had ever returned. This was the immediate cause of this season’s warlike...

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A Mountain Hunt

The camp was full of the newly-cut lodge-poles; some, already prepared, were stacked together, white and glistening, to dry and harden in the sun; others were lying on the ground, and the squaws, the boys, and even some of the warriors were busily at work peeling off the bark and paring them with their knives to the proper dimensions. Most of the hides obtained at the last camp were dressed and scraped thin enough for use, and many of the squaws were engaged in fitting them together and sewing them with sinews, to form the coverings for the lodges. Men were wandering among the bushes that lined the brook along the margin of the camp, cutting sticks of red willow, or shongsasha, the bark of which, mixed with tobacco, they use for smoking. Reynal’s squaw was hard at work with her awl and buffalo sinews upon her lodge, while her proprietor, having just finished an enormous breakfast of meat, was smoking a social pipe along with Raymond and myself. He proposed at length that we should go out on a hunt. “Go to the Big Crow’s lodge,” said he, “and get your rifle. I’ll bet the gray Wyandotte pony against your mare that we start an elk or a black-tailed deer, or likely as not, a bighorn, before we are two miles out of camp. I’ll take my squaw’s...

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The Black Hills

We traveled eastward for two days, and then the gloomy ridges of the Black Hills rose up before us. The village passed along for some miles beneath their declivities, trailing out to a great length over the arid prairie, or winding at times among small detached hills or distorted shapes. Turning sharply to the left, we entered a wide defile of the mountains, down the bottom of which a brook came winding, lined with tall grass and dense copses, amid which were hidden many beaver dams and lodges. We passed along between two lines of high precipices and rocks, piled in utter disorder one upon another, and with scarcely a tree, a bush, or a clump of grass to veil their nakedness. The restless Indian boys were wandering along their edges and clambering up and down their rugged sides, and sometimes a group of them would stand on the verge of a cliff and look down on the array as it passed in review beneath them. As we advanced, the passage grew more narrow; then it suddenly expanded into a round grassy meadow, completely encompassed by mountains; and here the families stopped as they came up in turn, and the camp rose like magic. The lodges were hardly erected when, with their usual precipitation, the Indians set about accomplishing the object that had brought them there; that is, the...

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The Trappers

In speaking of the Indians, I have almost forgotten two bold adventurers of another race, the trappers Rouleau and Saraphin. These men were bent on a most hazardous enterprise. A day’s journey to the westward was the country over which the Arapahoes are accustomed to range, and for which the two trappers were on the point of setting out. These Arapahoes, of whom Shaw and I afterward fell in with a large village, are ferocious barbarians, of a most brutal and wolfish aspect, and of late they had declared themselves enemies to the whites, and threatened death to the first who should venture within their territory. The occasion of the declaration was as follows: In the previous spring, 1845, Colonel Kearny left Fort Leavenworth with several companies of dragoons, and marching with extraordinary celerity reached Fort Laramie, whence he passed along the foot of the mountains to Bent’s Fort and then, turning eastward again, returned to the point from whence he set out. While at Fort Larantie, he sent a part of his command as far westward as Sweetwater, while he himself remained at the fort, and dispatched messages to the surrounding Indians to meet him there in council. Then for the first time the tribes of that vicinity saw the white warriors, and, as might have been expected, they were lost in astonishment at their regular order, their...

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The Hunting Camp

Long before daybreak the Indians broke up their camp. The women of Mene-Seela’s lodge were as usual among the first that were ready for departure, and I found the old man himself sitting by the embers of the decayed fire, over which he was warming his withered fingers, as the morning was very chilly and damp. The preparations for moving were even more confused and disorderly than usual. While some families were leaving the ground the lodges of others were still standing untouched. At this old Mene-Seela grew impatient, and walking out to the middle of the village stood with his robe wrapped close around him, and harangued the people in a loud, sharp voice. Now, he said, when they were on an enemy’s hunting-grounds, was not the time to behave like children; they ought to be more active and united than ever. His speech had some effect. The delinquents took down their lodges and loaded their pack horses; and when the sun rose, the last of the men, women, and children had left the deserted camp. This movement was made merely for the purpose of finding a better and safer position. So we advanced only three or four miles up the little stream, before each family assumed its relative place in the great ring of the village, and all around the squaws were actively at work in preparing...

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The Ogallalla Village

Such a narrative as this is hardly the place for portraying the mental features of the Indians. The same picture, slightly changed in shade and coloring, would serve with very few exceptions for all the tribes that lie north of the Mexican territories. But with this striking similarity in their modes of thought, the tribes of the lake and ocean shores, of the forests and of the plains, differ greatly in their manner of life. Having been domesticated for several weeks among one of the wildest of the wild hordes that roam over the remote prairies, I had extraordinary opportunities of observing them, and I flatter myself that a faithful picture of the scenes that passed daily before my eyes may not be devoid of interest and value. These men were thorough savages. Neither their manners nor their ideas were in the slightest degree modified by contact with civilization. They knew nothing of the power and real character of the white men, and their children would scream in terror at the sight of me. Their religion, their superstitions, and their prejudices were the same that had been handed down to them from immemorial time. They fought with the same weapons that their fathers fought with and wore the same rude garments of skins. Great changes are at hand in that region. With the stream of emigration to Oregon and...

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