Home -> Miscellaneous Books -> Reminiscences of a Pioneer -> Chapter 2 - First Winter in the Willamette Valley

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Chapter II.

Our First Winter in the Willamette Valley.

The winter of 1852-53 will forever be memorable in the annals of pioneer days in Oregon. Indeed, nothing comparable had been experienced by immigrants in former years. Deep snows encompassed us from without, and while we were sheltered from the storms by a comfortable log cabin, and were supplied with a fair amount of provisions such as they were, a gloom settled over all. Cattle and horses were without forage and none could be had. Reduced to skin and bone by the long and toilsome journey across the plains, they were illy prepared to stand the rigors of such a winter. In this extremity recourse was had to the forest. The Oregon woods, as all are aware, are covered by long streamers of yellow moss, and in the cutting of firewood it was discovered this moss was devoured with a relish by cattle and horses.

Then began the struggle to save our stock. From early morning to night the ring of the ax was unceasing. The cattle, especially, soon learned the meaning of the cracking of a tree and bolted for the spot. To prevent them being killed by the falling trees, the smaller children were pressed into service to herd them away until the tree was on the ground. The stock soon began to thrive and cows gave an increased amount of milk which was hailed with delight by the small children and afforded a welcome addition to their bill of fare - boiled wheat, potatoes, meat, and turnips.

Thus wore away the terrible winter of 1852-53. I say terrible, and the word but poorly expresses our situation during that memorable winter. To fully understand our situation one has but to imagine oneself in a strange land, far from human aid, save from those environed as ourselves. We were three thousand miles from "home," surrounded by a primeval wilderness, in which ever lurked the treacherous savage. Happily for us and for all, no annoyance or real danger threatened us from that quarter. A few years before, a salutary lesson had been taught the savages. The deadly rifles of the pioneers had instilled into their bosoms a wholesome fear. Information had reached the settlers that the Indians contemplated a massacre - that they were going to break out. The information reached them through the medium of a friendly Indian. The result was that the settlers "broke out" first. A company was formed, consisting of about all of the able-bodied men within reach. The savages were encountered on the Molalley and after a sharp fight were dispersed or killed. Several were left dead on the ground. The whites had one man wounded. Thus the war power of the Molalleys was destroyed forever.

In this connection I wish to make a digression, which I trust my readers will pardon. It has often been urged that the white man has shown little gratitude and no pity for the aborigines of this country. This I wish to refute. The Indian that brought the word of warning to the white settlers was ever after the object of tender solicitude on the part of those whom he had befriended. I have seen that Indian, then old and possibly worse off for his association with civilization, sitting down and bossing a gang of Chinamen cutting and splitting wood for Dan'l Waldo. The Indian, "Quinaby," always contracted the sawing of the wood at $2.00 per cord and hired the Chinamen to do the work for 50 cents per cord. He had a monopoly on the wood-sawing business for Mr. Waldo, Wesley Shannon, and other old pioneers. It mattered not to "Quinaby" that prices went down, his contract price remained the same, and the old pioneers heartily enjoyed the joke, and delighted in telling it on themselves.

But enough of this. Spring came at last and a new world burst upon the vision of the heretofore almost beleaguered pioneers. We had wintered on a "claim" belonging to a young man named John McKinney, two miles from the present town of Jefferson. He had offered his cabin as a shelter with true Western hospitality, including the free use of land to plant a crop. Accordingly about twenty acres were plowed and sown to wheat. This work was performed by my elder brothers. Meantime my father had started out to look for a claim. Nine miles north of Eugene City he purchased a "claim" of 320 acres, paying therefor an Indian pony and $40 in cash. To this place we moved early in May, and there began the task of building up a home in the western wilds. A small cabin of unhewn logs constituted the only improvement on the "claim," but a new house of hewn logs was soon erected and a forty-acre field inclosed with split rails. We had plenty of neighbors who, like ourselves, were improving their lands, and mutual assistance was the rule.

As summer approached it became necessary to return to our wintering place, where a crop had been sown, and harvest the same. Accordingly, my father, accompanied by my two older brothers, the late Judge J. M. Thompson of Lane County, and Senator S. C. Thompson, Jr., of Wasco, then boys of 12 and 14 years, went back and cared for the grain. The wheat was cut with a cradle, bound into bundles and stacked. A piece of ground was then cleared, the grain laid down on the "tramping floor" and oxen driven around until the grain was all tramped out. After the grain was all "threshed out," it was carried on top of a platform built of rails and poured out on a wagon sheet, trusting to the wind to separate the wheat kernels from the straw and chaff. By this primitive method the crop was harvested, threshed, cleaned, and then sacked. It was then hauled by ox teams to Albany where a small burr mill had been erected by a man named Monteith, if my memory serves me correctly, and then ground to flour.

And then, joy of joys! We had wheat bread. No more boiled wheat, nor flour ground in a coffee mill, - but genuine wheat bread. You, reader, who probably never ate a meal in your life without bread, have little conception of the deliciousness of a biscuit after the lapse of a year. As Captain Applegate once said to the writer, referring to the first wheat bread he ever remembered eating: "No delicacy, - no morsel of food ever eaten in after life tasted half so delicious as that bread." It must be remembered that Captain Applegate crossed the plains in 1843 and was therefore an "old settler" when we arrived. His trials were prolonged only a matter of eight years; but looking back, what an eternity was emcompassed in those eight years.

One of the leading characteristics of the Anglo-Saxon is that on coming to the western hemisphere he brought with him his wife and children, - his school books, and his Bible. As soon, therefore, as a spot for a home had been selected and a rude shelter of logs erected for loved ones, the neighbors began discussing the question of school. It was finally arranged that we must have a school, and the cabin of a bachelor settler was tendered and accepted, and my father chosen as teacher. Logs were split open and placed on legs, with the flat sides turned up to serve as seats. The floor, - well, Mother Earth provided that. It was sprinkled and swept out with "split brooms" twice daily. To prevent the pupils getting lost in the tall grass of the prairies, furrows were plowed from the settlers' cabins to the school house. This also served as a protection to the barefoot girls and boys going to and from, school. My father belonged to the old school and did not believe in "sparing the rod," and as a result, it became indelibly impressed upon my juvenile mind that he used the rod upon me to better preserve order among the other pupils.

In those days girls dressed in "linsey woolsey," while the boys of all ages wore buckskin pantaloons and hickory shirts. Now, buckskin is well calculated to stand the wear and tear of even a robust boy. Yet there were awkward drawbacks. The legs of the pantaloons absorbed too much moisture from the dew-bedecked grass and they would stretch out to almost any length. The boy, therefore, must roll them up at the bottom. Arrived at school, however. the drying process set in, and he, perforce, must unroll the legs. As the boy occupied a sitting position, the legs of his buckskins set to the crook of his knees. Imagine, if you will, a row of boys ranging from 12 to 17 years, standing in a class reciting their lessons, straight as hickories, yet the pantaloons of every mother's son of them still sitting down. But it mattered little to the boy of that day, as he had only to wet them again, stretch them out straight and wear them to "meetin' in the grove" Sunday.

There was no aristocracy - no "four hundred" - in those primitive days. All dressed alike, ate the same kind of food, and every man, woman, and child was as good as every other man, woman, and child, provided they were honest, kind neighbors, ready and willing to render assistance in sickness or in need. In fine, these pioneers constituted a pure democracy, where law was the simple rule of honesty, friendship, mutual help, and good will, where "duty was love and love was law."

One must not imagine that life was wholly devoid of pleasures in those days. The young of both sexes always rode horseback, whether to church in the grove, or going the round of parties, candy pullings, or kissing bees. O, how in my young days I did dote on the candy pulling and the kissing bee. To my young and unsophisticated mind they were divine institutions; and, even now, after the lapse of so many years when the "heydey in the blood is tame," how I look back upon those few days with unalloyed pleasure.

Among the early pioneers, I mean the great masses, there was a stern code of morals little understood at the present time. Exceptions there were, to be sure, but I refer to the people as a whole. One instance will serve as an illustration. The beaux and belles, in linsey-woolsey and buckskins, were assembled from the country around and about. My father had sent me along with brothers and sisters to bring back the saddle horses, as there was not stable room for all. Other neighbor boys were there on a like errand. We were sitting on our horses and ready to start, when several of the young ladies, among them my sisters, came out of the house and told us to wait. Presently, practically all of the girls came out with hats and riding habits and a consultation was held in the front yard. While they all stood there a man and a woman came out, mounted their horses and rode away. We were then told to go on home with the horses. I afterwards learned that the whole trouble originated in the fact that the lady who had ridden away was a divorced woman. To present-day readers, this may appear absurd, prudish, but not so to the men and women of that day. This is not repeated here to "point a moral," but merely to "adorn a tale" of pioneer days.

For excitement, the frequent Indian uprisings, and more frequent Indian scares, afforded abundant material upon which the young enterprising and adventurous spirits of the day could work off their surplus energies. Hunting, too, afforded a pleasurable and profitable pastime to the young when not engaged in the work of building houses, barns, and fences, and the boy of ten who could not pick off the head of a grouse or pheasant at thirty or forty yards was only fit to be "tied to mama's apron string." In times of danger age was no bar, the boy of 14 marched side by side with the gray haired volunteer, or remained at home to protect "mother and the children." I well remember once when the neighborhood was thrown into a turmoil of excitement. A large grizzly bear had left his mountain lair and was playing havoc with the cattle and other stock in the valley. News reached the school house and my father at once dismissed school, hurrying to join those in pursuit of the robber. Arriving at home he mounted his horse, and taking his rifle and revolver galloped away to join the neighbors. Now, I wanted to go and see the fight, but was curtly told to stay at home. No sooner, however, than my father had got fairly started than I mounted a pony and followed. I was warned that punishment would follow. But what cared I for punishment at such a time? Go I would, though promised a dozen whippings.

The bear had taken shelter on a small mountain stream that coursed through the valley, and was bordered on either side by a narrow strip of ash, thorn, and rose bushes, while beyond this was the level prairie. In spite of scores of men and dogs the huge beast made progress towards the mountains. Baying dogs and the quick snarl of the rifles marked the rapid progress of the beast which at length reached a wooded ravine near the home of "Squire" Miller, that led up the mountain, where a mile above an old Indian was camped. The bear evidently came upon him unawares, but whether he was asleep or was getting water from the small stream, was never known, for, with one sweep of his mighty paw, the grizzly completely disemboweled the Indian, strewing his entrails fifteen feet on the ground. Half a mile above the body of the Indian the fatal shot, among many, was delivered and the chase was over.

As the neighbors gathered triumphantly around the dead body of the monarch of the Oregon forest I saw for the first time sitting on a horse, a boy destined to make a name in the world of letters, C. H. or "Joaquin" Miller. I remember him as a slender, light haired boy, several years my senior. During subsequent years it was given me to see much of this boy, at school, in the mines and later as an apprentice in the Eugene City Herald, a newspaper of which he was the editor.

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