Between 1841 and 1866, more than 500,000 people followed trails to Oregon, California, and the Salt Lake Valley in one of the greatest mass migrations in American history. This collection of travelers’ accounts of their journeys in the 1840s, the first volume in a new series of trail narratives, comprises excerpts from pioneer and missionary letters, diaries, journals, and memoirs—many previously unpublished—accompanied by biographical information and historical background.
Beginning with Father Pierre-Jean de Smet’s letters relating his encounters with Plains Indians, and ending with an account of a Mormon gold miner’s journey from California to Salt Lake City, these narratives tell varied and vivid stories. Some travelers fled hard times: religious persecution, the collapse of the agricultural economy, illness, or unpredictable weather. Others looked ahead, attracted by California gold, the verdant Willamette Valley of Oregon, or the prospect of converting Native people to Christianity. Although many welcomed the adventure and adjusted to the rigors of trail life, others complained in their accounts of difficulty adapting.
Remembrances of the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails have yielded some of the most iconic images in American history. This and forthcoming volumes in The Great Medicine Road series present the pioneer spirit of the original overlanders supported by the rich scholarship of the past century and a half.
About the Author
Will Bagley (1950–2021) was an independent historian who wrote about overland emigration, frontier violence, railroads, mining, and the Mormons. Bagley published extensively over the years and is the author and editor of many books, articles, and reviews in professional journals. Bagley was the general editor of Arthur H. Clark Company's documentary history series KINGDOM IN THE WEST: The Mormons and the American Frontier. Bagley was a Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellow at the University of Utah and a Archibald Hanna Jr. Fellow in American History at Yale University's Beinecke Library. Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows has won numerous awards, including a Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the Bancroft History Prize from the Denver Public Library, Westerners International Best Book, and the Western History Association Caughey Book Prize for the most distinguished book on the history of the American West. So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812–1848 is the first of the two-volume Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails series.
Richard Rieck is Professor Emeritus of Geography at Western Illinois University.
Read an Excerpt
The Great Medicine Road
Narratives of the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails Part 1: 1840â"1848
By Michael L. Tate
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
PIERRE-JEAN DE SMET ON THE INDIAN MISSIONS
Father Pierre-Jean De Smet is one of the most recognized figures among those who directed Catholic missionary activities for the Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest. During the 1840s, he repeatedly traveled across the northern plains and Rockies between St. Louis, Missouri, and Oregon country, often alongside celebrated fur traders and among well-known emigrant wagon trains. Although it was not part of his original plan to promote the American political advance into this remote corner of North America, his writings were widely circulated among Catholics and Protestants alike. These publications, mostly compiled from lengthy letters, such as the one printed below, exclaimed over the bounties of the Pacific Northwest and popularized the economic potential of the region to families who were contemplating a relocation there. The rich details of his letters helped eloquently capture the multifaceted accomplishments of his long and fruitful life.
De Smet was born on January 30, 1801, in Dendermonde (Termonde), Belgium, to a devoutly religious family. He migrated to Baltimore, Maryland, in 1821, immediately entered a novitiate of the Jesuit order, and two years later transferred to the newly opened novitiate in Florissant, Missouri. There he completed his religious instruction while listening to the adventurous stories of trappers, river boatmen, and travelers returning from the Indian country to the west. Ordained as a priest in 1827, he taught at the University of St. Louis and made several trips to Europe between 1833 and 1837.
The young man's ambition to become a missionary to the indigenous tribes was finally realized in 1838 when he ascended the Missouri River to present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he ministered to a band of Potawatomi Indians. While at that station, he met an even more exotic delegation of Natives, representatives of the Flathead Nation from western Montana who were on their way to St. Louis seeking American missionaries, trade, and technology. De Smet interpreted the chance meeting as God's personal call to him, and he succeeded in gaining Jesuit approval to proceed to the far-distant land. During the spring of 1840, he accompanied a caravan of fur traders to the last official rendezvous at Green River, and from there he made his way to the Flathead heartland. His two wonderful months spent among these receptive people convinced the young priest to return via the Missouri River to St. Louis, where he could recruit other priests to return with him to the mountain paradise. This 1840 trip is fully described in De Smet's February 4, 1841, letter, which is reproduced and edited in this selection.
De Smet's second trip to the Northwest began from Westport, Missouri, in May 1841, in the company of fellow priests, fathers Nicholas Point and Gregori Mengarini, as well as three lay brothers—William Claessens, Charles Huet, and Joseph Specht. Guiding the party was celebrated mountain man and explorer Thomas Fitzpatrick, who possessed firsthand knowledge of much of the vast area through which they would travel. To ensure greater protection and more efficient use of manpower along the line of march, De Smet's party traveled with the equally famous Bidwell-Bartleson party, most of whose members would eventually separate from the priests at Soda Springs and turn southwestward toward Mexican California. From that juncture in the trails, De Smet and his small party of priests, lay brothers, trappers, teamsters, and pleasure seekers pushed northwestward. Eventually the Jesuits established St. Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot Valley, near present-day Missoula, Montana. Sister missions were later established among the Kalispel Indians at St. Ignatius, the Yakamas at Fort Colville, and the Coeur d'Alenes at Sacred Heart Mission.
The relative success of the northwestern missions proved that De Smet's "soft-glove" approach to Christianizing Indian nations could bear fruit if Indian spiritual traditions were also respected. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, he made several trips to Europe and the eastern United States to recruit personnel and financial resources for the expansion of these missions. In 1844, he helped the Sisters of Notre Dame establish a convent in the fertile agricultural environment offered by Oregon's Willamette Valley. Simultaneously, he led four priests into Idaho to establish a mission among the Kalispel tribe and further explored the vast hunting grounds of the Blackfoot Indians. The Blackfoot were noted for their friendship for the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company and for their enmity toward Americans ever since their first confrontation with the Lewis and Clark expedition.
Although Father De Smet completed the last of his missionary trips to the Far West in 1851, he did not disappear from the western scene. In that same year, he was an active participant in bringing together enemy and allied tribes for a great council held at Horse Creek near Fort Laramie. During the 1857–58 Mormon War, he played a visible role in trying to mediate differences between the federal government and the Mormon leadership. In the same vein, he served as an intermediary during the Yakima Indian War in northeastern Washington, when, in 1858–1859, gold miners poured over tribal lands. Finally, in 1868, De Smet was able to gain an audience with the Hunkpapa Sioux leader Sitting Bull in the aftermath of bloody fighting along the Bozeman Trail. Though he was not able to establish universal trust and peace among the northern Plains tribes, he was recognized by many Indians as an honest broker, who could fairly convey their viewpoints to white authorities. Father Pierre-Jean De Smet died in St. Louis from Bright's disease on May 23, 1873.
Because De Smet was so prolific with his correspondence, information abounds on his travels, relationships with various Indian nations, descriptions of the diverse landscapes, and personal contacts with British and American fur traders. To understand the vast extent of his experiences and his keen insights into human motivations, readers should therefore sample his Life, Letters and Travels of Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, S. J., 1801–1873, 4 vols., edited by Hiram M. Chittenden and Alfred Talbot Richardson (1905); and Letters and Sketches: With a Narrative of a Year's Residence among the Indian Tribes of the Rocky Mountains (1843). This second book was edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites and republished as volume 27 of the renowned Early Western Travels, 1748–1846, series (1906). Despite the richness of De Smet's writings, the quality of biographies about his life range broadly. The popularly conceived Black Robe: The Life of Pierre-Jean De Smet (1964), by John Upton Terrell, is readily available but superficial and error prone. Far stronger in depth of research and understanding of Jesuit-Indian relations is John J. Killoren, "Come, Blackrobe": De Smet and the Indian Tragedy (1994).
Persons interested in De Smet's association with the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson wagon train will find considerable coverage in Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., ed., The Bidwell-Bartleson Party: 1841 California Emigrant Adventure (1991); and Michael J. Gillis and Michael F. Magliari, John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer, 1841–1900 (2004).
The larger story of Catholic missionary activities in Oregon country is ably interpreted in Robert Ignatius Burns, The Jesuits and the Indian Wars of the Northwest (1966); and Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown, Indians of the Pacific Northwest (1981). De Smet's relationships with Thomas Fitzpatrick and other fur traders during his numerous overland crossings is presented in LeRoy R. Hafen, Broken Hand: TheLife of Thomas Fitzpatrick, Mountain Man, Guide and Indian Agent (1931). This includes De Smet's role in the important 1851 Horse Creek Council. Also helpful in understanding his later role as a peace negotiator among the Lakota Sioux is Robert M. Utley's The Lance and the Shield: The Life and Times of Sitting Bull (1993).
The following De Smet letter describes his 1840 journey with a group of frontiersmen to the last fur-trading rendezvous on the Green River, his warm reception among the Flatheads, and his subsequent trip down the Missouri River to St. Louis. From this first, and arguably most important, of his excursions to the Pacific Northwest, he conceived the grand plan for future Jesuit missionizing efforts throughout that region. This letter originally appeared in the Reuben Gold Thwaites edited version, which was printed in volume 27 of the Early Western Travels series. Although De Smet's original text is retained without changes in both Thwaites's and my copy, I have added new editorial notes and parenthetical commentary to the original text to better identify the people and explain the events.
* * *
PIERRE-JEAN DE SMET, "REPORT ON HIS 1840 WESTERN TRIP," FROM LETTERS AND SKETCHES: WITH A NARRATIVE OF A YEAR'S RESIDENCE AMONG THE INDIAN TRIBES OF THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS, VOL. 27 OF EARLY WESTERN TRAVELS, 1748–1846, SERIES, EDITED BY REUBEN GOLD THWAITES, WITH UPDATED INTRODUCTION AND EDITORIAL NOTES FOR THIS NEW ANTHOLOGY (CLEVELAND, OHIO: ARTHUR H. CLARK, 1906).
St. Louis University, Feb 4, 1841. To The Rev. F.J.B.
Rev. and Dear Sir:
I presume you are aware, that in the beginning of last Spring, I was sent by the Right Rev. Bishop of St. Louis, and my Provincial, on an exploring expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in order to ascertain the dispositions of the Indians, and the prospects of success we might have if we were to establish a mission among them. It is truly gratifying to me to have so favorable a report to make.—My occupations do not allow me to enter into all the details; I shall therefore be satisfied at present with giving you a brief sketch of my journey and its result.
I started from Westport [Missouri] on the 30th of April, in company with the Annual Expedition of the American Fur Company, which for this year had appointed the rendezvous on Green River, a tributary of the Rio Colorado of the West. Captain [Andrew] Dripps, who commanded the caravan, treated me on all occasions with the most polite attention. On the 6th day of our journey I was seized with the fever and ague, and have been subject to it for nearly five months. Nothing particularly worth noticing, occurred during the journey, except, when we halted in the village of the Sheyennes [Cheyennes]. I was introduced to the Chiefs as a minister of the Great Spirit: they showed me great deference, and I was invited to a feast. I had to pass at first through all the ceremonies of the calumet; the great chief approached me to shake hands, and gave me a heartfelt "How do you do."—"Blackgown," said he, "my heart was filled with joy when I learned who you were. My lodge never received a visitor for whom I feel a greater esteem. As soon as I was apprised of your coming, I ordered my great kettle to be filled, and in your honor, I commanded that my three fattest dogs should be served up." The bravest warriors of the nation partook of the repast, and I availed myself of the opportunity to explain to them the most important tenets of Christianity. I told them the object of my visit, and enquired whether they would not be satisfied to have also Black-gowns among them, who would teach them to love and serve the Great Spirit, as he wished. "Oh yes," they eagerly answered, "we will gladly provide for every thing that they stand in need of; they will not die of hunger amongst us." I have no doubt but a zealous missionary would do a great deal of good among them. They are about two thousand in number. Their language, it is said, is very difficult. On the 30th of June we arrived at the rendezvous. An escort of warriors had been provided for me by the Flat-heads. Our meeting was that of children who come to meet their parent, and in the effusion of their heart, they bestowed upon me the fondest names with a simplicity truly patriarchal. They told me of all the interesting particulars of their nation, and of the wonderful preservation of sixty of their men, in a battle against two hundred Black-feet, which lasted five whole days, and in which they killed fifty of their enemies, without losing a single man of their number. "The Great Spirit watched over them;" they said, "he knew that we were to guide you to our camp, and he wanted to clear the road of all the obstacles that you might have found on your way. We trust we will not be annoyed any more by the Black-feet; they went off weeping like women." We thanked heaven for the signal preservation, and implored its assistance for the new and perilous journey we were on the point of undertaking. The Indians of different nations and the trappers, had assembled at the rendezvous in great numbers, for the sake of the trade. On Sunday, the fifth of July, I had the consolation of celebrating the holy sacrifice of Mass sub dio. The altar was placed on an elevation, and surrounded with boughs and garlands of flowers; I addressed the congregation in French and in English, and spoke also by an interpreter to the Flat-head and Snake Indians. It was a spectacle truly moving for the heart of a Missionary, to behold an assembly composed of so many different nations, who all assisted at our holy mysteries with great satisfaction.—The Canadians sung hymns in French and Latin, and the Indians in their native tongue. It was truly a Catholic worship.... This place has been called since that time, by the French Canadians, la prairie de la Messe.
About thirty of the principal chiefs of the Snake Indians invited me to a council. I explained to them the christian doctrine in a compendious manner—they were all very attentive—they then deliberated among themselves for about half an hour, and one of the chiefs, addressing me in the name of the others, said: "Black-gown, the words of thy mouth have found their way to our hearts; they never will be forgotten. Our country is open for thee; come to teach us what we have to do, to please the Great Spirit, and we will do according to thy words." I advised them to select among themselves a wise and prudent man, who, every morning and evening, should assemble them to offer to Almighty God their prayers and supplications; that there the good chiefs should have an opportunity of exhorting their warriors to behave as they ought. The meeting was held the very same evening, and the great chief promulgated a law, that for the future, the one who would be guilty of theft, or of any other disorderly act, should receive a public castigation. On Monday, 6th, we proceeded on our journey. A dozen Canadians wished to accompany me, to have an opportunity, as they said, to practise their religion. Eight days afterwards we arrived safely in the camp of the Flat-heads, and Ponderas, or Pends d'oreilles.
Immediately the whole village was in commotion; men, women and children, all came to meet me, and shake hands, and I was conducted in triumph to the lodge of the great chief Tjolizhitzay, (the Big face.) He has the appearance of an old patriarch. Surrounded by the principal chiefs of the two tribes, and the most renowned warriors, he thus addressed me: "This day Kaikolinzosten (the Great Spirit) has accomplished our wishes, and our hearts are swelled with joy. Our desire to be instructed was so great, that three times had we deputed our people to the Great Black-gown in St. Louis, to obtain a father. Now, Father, speak, and we will comply with all you will tell us. Show us the road we have to follow, to come to the place where the Great Spirit resides." Then he resigned his authority to me; but I replied that he mistook the object of my coming among them; that I had no other object in view, but their spiritual welfare; that with respect to temporal affairs, they should remain as they were, till circumstances should allow them to settle in a permanent spot.—Afterwards we deliberated on the hours proper for their spiritual exercises and instructions. One of the chiefs brought me a bell, with which I might give the signal.
The same evening about 2,000 persons were assembled before my lodge to recite night prayers in common. I told them the result of my conference with the chiefs; of the plan of instructions which I intended to pursue; and with what disposition they ought to assist at them, etc. Night prayers having been said, a solemn canticle of praise of their own composition, was sung by these children of the mountains, to the Author of their being. It would be impossible for me to describe the emotions I felt at this moment; I wept for joy, and admired the marvellous ways of that kind Providence, who, in his people, to announce to them the glad tidings of salvation. The next day I assembled the council, and with the assistance of an intelligent interpreter, I translated into their language the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Apostle's Creed, the ten Commandments, and four Acts. As I was in the habit of reciting these prayers, morning and evening, and before instructions, about a fortnight after, I promised a beautiful silver medal to the one who would recite them first. One of the chiefs rising immediately, "Father," said he, smiling, "that medal is mine," and he recited all the prayers without missing a word. I embraced him, praised the eagerness which he had evinced of being instructed, and appointed him my Cathecist. This good Indian set to work with so much zeal and perseverance, that in less than a fortnight all knew their prayers.
Excerpted from The Great Medicine Road by Michael L. Tate. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
List of Maps,
Pierre-Jean De Smet on the Indian Missions,
Nancy Roberts Kelsey, "Own Story of Her Life",
Medorem Crawford, "Trip Across the Plains",
Jesse Looney, Letter from Oregon,
John M. Shively, "Route and Distances to Oregon and California",
Willard H. Rees, Letter to Mother from Oregon,
Richard Grant, Five Letters, 1844–1847,
Lucy Jane Hall Bennett, "Reminiscences of a Trip Across the Plains",
Lilburn Boggs, "Route to the Pacific",
J. M. Harrison, "Recollections",
Henry King, Letter to His Parents,
Amanda Esrey Rhoads, Letter to Her Parents,
Augustin M. A. Blanchet, Letter to Msgr. Peter R. Kenrick,
William Porter, Letter to His Family,
John Borrowman, "The Roughest Road I Ever Saw",