The Applegate Trail--1846 (II)
Bill Long 2/15/11
Looking at the Records
3. So, then I began to try to "backfill" the history from June 1846, going back to the time before the Applegates actually led the expedition to figure out how it came about that there was such a trail in the first place. I first went back to the time when they arrived in Oregon, then moved forward. And, there is where I discovered the big tragedy... The Applegate clan, with three brothers, wives and more than 20 children, were in the first big Oregon Trail wagon train, the "Great Migration of 1843." Things went reasonably well until they got to the Dalles, OR, on the Columbia River. Then, when many of the children and men were taking rafts down the Columbia, one of the rafts capsized, killing two of the Applegate boys. Griefstricken, the Applegate brothers vowed that they would seek out a safer route in the future, if and when they had the opportunity.
4. The opportunity to do that didn't arise for a few years, and it was the confluence of personal and social need that provoked it. And, it was the story leading to the building of the road, especially a story from 1845, that intrigued me. I found the standard and most recent books on the subject, Shannon Applegate's Skookum and Charles Carey's History of Oregon, somewhat useful but not complete. Here is my telling of the story.
a. The 1843 Oregon Organic Act, adopted in July of that year, served the Provisional Government only for two years. The chief feature of this Act was the establishment of a three man executive counsel, along with a legislative committee. In the June/July 1845 session, the legislative committee, at Jesse Applegate's suggestion (he was one of the 13 members of the legislature) urged the submission of a revised Organic Act to the voters of Oregon. His colleagues concurrend with him on July 4, 1845. Then, on July 26, 1845 the voters approved the measure by a "majority" of 203 votes, as the Oregon Archives tells us. The legislature now was required to have a minimum of 13 members, and, for the first time, the Provisional Government had a Governor. It was George Abernethy, of the Methodist mission.
So, the legislature reconvened on Tuesday, August 5, 1845 in special session and met for about two weeks. I was interested to see that the legislators took their oath to faithfully "demean themselves in office." Sometimes you just have to read the original texts to see the actual flow and selection of words. Jesse Applegate, politically savvy as he was, got himself on both the Roads and the Ways and Means (appropriation) committees. Thus, if he was thinking about a road in the south, and one which the legislature would either authorize or fund, he was certainly on the right committees. This special session of the Provisional Legislature adjourned on August 20. The regular session would convene in December 1845.
b. It seemed that everything was going Jesse's way. The new Governor, George Abernethy, in his December 2, 1845 message to the Legislature, indicated a number of his priorities. One of them had to do with road-building. We can almost hear Jesse rubbing his hands together. But what seemed to make the moment most propitious for road-building is not that people were sympathetic to the Applegate loss but because of the unfortunate experience of those who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1845. The trek had become wildly successful in just three years, and more than 3,000 decided to make it in 1845. But they ran into considerable difficulties, with lack of supplies, conflict among members, disastrous leadership and threat of Indian attack. As an example of the disastrous leadership, take the example of the Meek brothers, Stephen and Joe. They convinced upwards of 1,000 of the emigrants that an easier way to the Willamette Valley than crossing the Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon existed. It entailed cutting through Vale, OR (on the Idaho border), then heading across the Eastern Oregon desert to the Willamette Valley. But they didn't count on the fact that they would lead people into stony and impassible roads, with no water for miles. Disaster ensued; many oxen died daily; disease was rife, and probably at least two dozen of the emigrants lost their lives.
So, with these realities in the immediate past, we now understand Abernethy's words in his Dec. 2, 1845 letter to the Legislature. I found those words online, and the words both piqued and didn't satisfy my interest. Here are some of Abernethy's words:
"A large Emigration has this year crossed the Rocky Mountains, and the individuals who comprised it are now in our midst and made one with us after passing through many scenes of difficulty and privation; there has been more suffering than usual among the Emigrants this present season ...principally in an attempt made by some of them to shorten the way, they failed in their object and many of them perished in consequence of the difficulties they encountered...in an untried route [a not-so-oblique reference to the Meek brothers]."
But rather than suggest a fitting memorial for those lost, he continued:
"Something should be done by us to facilitate the arrival of Emigrants...nearly all the difficulties they encounter occur between Walla Walla [i.e., the Whitman mission] and the settlements and..between the Dalles and this place..."
He was referring to the two impossible spots--the crossing of the Blue Mountains in Oregon and the route down the Columbia River from the Dalles. So, the time seemed ripe for another route or two. He went on:
"Two plans have suggested themselves to me; one is to employ one or more of the old settlers who profess to be acquainted with the pass, leading through the mountain from Fort ? or thereabouts to the upper settlemnts of the Willamette."
In this first alternative, the select person should have had some experience in a section of the route (which section will be part of my discussion below), noting the distance between watering places, the condition of the trail, etc, and whether there are deserts or other inconveniences. Then, he discussed the other plan:
"The other plan is to complete the road that has been commenced by McDarlow (this is a transcription error; it should read 'Mr. Barlow') and others south of Mount Hood."
Now came the important point.
"Either of these plans will require funds and I would recommend that a committee be appointed by you, whose duty it shall be to inquire into the feasibility of either of the plans to obtain subscriptions (i.e., taxes) from the settlers of the Colony..."
At first glance, by reading the web page, I seemed to have the information I needed. Jesse Applegate and brothers (Lindsay and Charles) had vowed in 1843, after losing the boys, that they would find a simpler way to get to the Willamette Valley. They had taken up residence in Salt Creek, about 15-20 miles west of today's Salem OR. I don't know (another question to answer in the future?) to what extent they had already developed an interest in Central or Southern Oregon. The clan eventually relocated to Yoncalla, about halfway between the CA border and Portland (or about 40 miles south of current-day Eugene) in 1851. They might have even been the ones that Governor Abernethy had in mind in developing the first of the two alternative routes. The reference for the second one seemes obvious--and Barlow indeed improved his route and charged a toll, which the legislature authorized in Dec. 1845, beginning in 1846.