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National Expansion and Reform
Traveling on the Overland Trails, 1843-1860
J. Henry Brown Describes His Journey to Oregon

The following excerpts are from J. Henry Brown's autobiography. Permission was given in 1938 for the inclusion of Brown's autobiography in the WPA Life Histories. How does Brown describe the news of Oregon and preparation for embarking on the journey? What are some of the dangers Brown discusses?

View J. Henry Brown's entire autobiography from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


The continued reports . . . through the publications of the day in regard to the then mysterious country--Oregon; their natural disposition to remove to new countries to better their condition; continual sickness in their family caused by the undrained swamps which abounded in that portion of Illinois, determined my grandfather and parents to emigrate to Oregon. They were unable to dispose of their property for two years, but finally a gentleman from New York State in the fall of 1846, purchased the property at a great sacrifice.

Preparations were immediately begun for the long dangerous trip. In the transfer of property my grandfather could not dispose of a store that he owned, consequently he determined to purchase wagons and take it with him . . . . Teams of four yoke of oxen each, wagons, necessary fire arms with ample supply of ammunition and the innumerable articles actually necessary for the trip was purchased and the day for departure set.

The "Oregon fever" as it was termed, raged fearfully, and the applicants as drivers for our teams were numerous, so there was no difficulty in making choice with the understanding that they were to drive teams, stand guard, and assist in camp duties, for their board and transportation of their clothing and tools, as most of them were tradesmen of different kinds. It was found necessary to ship a portion to our rendezvous at St. Joseph, Missouri, as we were compelled to haul feed for our teams a greater portion of the way, the winter having just broken up and the roads being almost impassible. . . .

Our train consisted of thirteen wagons, and on the morning of March 15, 1847, the teams were hitched and everything being in readiness, leave takings were exchanged in the streets of Wilmington [Illinois]. Although I was quite young the scene was indelably fixed upon my mind. Tears were shed by mother and daughters as they embraced each other for the last time on earth, and the parting kiss was given as the last token of love from the hearts that knew the parting was forever. It was as solemn as a funeral . . . . But the final hour had come, the word was given and the train started on its long, weary six months of travel and toil. After traveling a few miles we camped, but the start had been made, and nearly all for the first time in their lives experienced the novelty of camping. . . .

We continued our journey without any further incidents and arrived in due time at St. Joseph, where we remained for several days arranging our loads for the final start. . . .

Immediately upon crossing the Missouri river, we was outside of the settlements, and no more houses could be seen at that early day, except at the different trading posts or forts of the four companies. A short distance from the river we found camp and during the evening an election was held. Thomas Cox who was the eldest man, and who owned most of the wagons in the train, was chosen Captain. A few minutes after this necessary preliminary had been arranged, a stranger rode into camp and stated that he wished to go to Oregon, and would like to accompany us, if suitable arrangements could be made. As one of our teamsters had that evening decided not to make the trip, the stranger was accepted. He gave his name as Bradshaw and stated that he had been upon the plains considerably and had followed trapping. I shall have occasion to speak of him again. . . .

A bivouac of a large train (for other wagons had joined us, and now numbered 40 wagons), is a very picturesque sight, the white covers of the wagons and new tents resembled a small village, while the camp-fires shed their ruddy light on the surrounding darkness with its ever changing hues and making the increasing darkness still more impenetrable. The female portion were busy clearing away the remains of the evening meal of preparing for the early morning breakfast. The men, except those who were on guard duty would form circles around the fires, smoking and recounting the incidents of the days travel, singing songs, telling jokes at each others expense . . .

There was no particular incident transpired until we arrived at the Big Blue river, where the first fatal accident happened in a train as we came up to the banks of that stream. A boy about 8 years old was standing on the wagon tongue driving, when he lost his balance and fell beneath the wheel, which crushed his head, causing instant death. The burial took place that night, and I can recollect the strange sight, as the people stood around with light as they consigned him to rest with a boot box for a coffin.

In a few days we reached the Platte, and entered the edge of the buffalo country. The first night we camped upon this stream, we were visited by one of those thunder storms for which that part of the country is famous. The day had been very warm, and in the evening about sundown, Mr. Bradshaw discovered a small black cloud in the west, and immediately ordered 20 men to saddle horses and remain on them while the rest were securely tied to the wagons, tents extra pined, the cattle herded closely by horse and footmen. The storm could now plainly be seen coming by the flashes of lightening and the rapidly increasing roar of the thunder. It was well that these precautions had been taken, although not wholly successful. When the storm struck us, it was quite dark, which of course added to the confusion. It seemed as if the very elements were at war with each other. The blinding brightness of lightning as it apparently covered acres, followed instantaneously by the deafning crash that seemed to shake the earth, accompanied by large hailstones and a terrific wind, when all combined was well calculated to throw everything into confusion. Tents were prostrated, thus increasing the fright of the occupants; cattle bellowing as they rushed by with the storm; horses struggling franticly to break their fastenings to the wagons, mingled with the shouting of men, made an hours experience that can never be forgotten when once endured.

But the storm went by as rapidly as it came, leaving a heavy coating of hail in its track, with all the cattle gone and the horsemen in pursuit. As the clouds cleared away and the moon and stars came out, they were enabled to follow and gradually herd them together, and by 10 o'clock next morning we were again on the move.

We traveled several days up the Platte. The last morning before we crossed the river, we were detained over two hours to allow a tremendous herd of buffaloes to pass across the road about a quarter of a mile ahead of us. There was at least 500,000 head of these animals, and the thundering noise they made as they galloped along could be distinctly heard at our camp. The reason that Bradshaw did not allow us to proceed was that there was often great danger of losing our live stock. When the herd passed, we went ahead and arrived at the ford of the Platte and immediately proceeded to cross. We were compelled to keep the teams constantly moving as it had a quick sand bottom, and the water so muddy that it was impossible for us to see into it an inch. As my fathers team had gone about half way cross the stream, the leaders turned back and came near turning over the wagon containing the family. My father was compelled to jump out into the stream, waist deep and very cold and made across along side of the team. He caught cold, and that night had a chill, which was followed with an attack of the mountain fever from which he never fully recovered. . . .

We arrived at Fort Laramie about June 15th 1847, and remained one day, where we witnessed the first War Dance. There were about 5,000 Sioux Indians who were forming an expedition against their hereditary enemy the Pawnee nation. . . .

July 11th we reached the summit of the Rocky Mountains and passed over it in a gentle ridge, where the water flowed on one side to the Atlantic and on the other to the Pacific, the point we so desired to reach. . . .

. . . On July 24th my father died, he had about recovered from the attack of fever caused by getting wet in the Platte, but caught cold and suffered a relapse without any hope of recovery. There was no physician in our or any available train. We were compelled to travel, and having no spring wagon along, the roughness of the road, with the heat of the weather greatly aggrevated the disease, and its progress was rapid. He died about midnight and was buried at sunrise in the morning . . .

There had nothing transpired of interest, except that our teams were beginning to get poor and suffered a great deal from sore feet, and it was found necessary to lighten up our wagons, a process that was continued for the rest of the journey by the entire emigration, and many useless articles that had been hauled for a 1,000 miles were thrown out and left by the side of the road, as an instance, some one in advance of us, had hauled an entire weaving loom, --timber and all, as if there was no timber in Oregon. Our real suffering as an emigration commenced when we arrived in the Snake river country; barren, rocky, and great scarcity of water. In due time we arrived at Fort Hall, then owned by the Hudson's Bay Company, but built by Nath. J. Wyeth, an American. Capt. Grant was in command, and had lived at that lonesome and desolate place for several years before.

We left here and traveled down Snake river and encountered great difficulty at times in obtaining water. . . .

When we arrived at Powder river, the general topography of the country changed; valley streams and mountains were covered with timber, the grass was also better, but the exhausted stock did not seem to recripreate, they died all along the road, and had been for over 200 miles in our rear. In crossing the deserts they had laid down and died with wonderful frequency, the air was so dry that there was not as much smell emitted as is generally supposed.
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View J. Henry Brown's entire autobiography from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.