Many Oregon Trail pioneers proved they were the heroes Teddy Roosevelt spoke of.
My father was dying. His left calf looked swollen and inflamed far beyond where the rattlesnake had bitten him. His face was badly sunburned. When I finally found him after searching for several hours, he lay propped against an outcrop in direct sunlight. Stupid fool, where was his hat? It was just like him to make a bad situation worse. I dismounted and knelt beside him. Putting my broad-brimmed hat on his head, I shook his arm. “Papa, wake up.”
“Water,” he murmured. I held my canteen up to his lips. He surprised me by quickly grabbing it with both hands and drank deeply. “Samuel, thank God.”
“Where’s your horse?” I asked.
“On the other side of this ridge,” he said. “I followed a rabbit over to here.” Then he gave a loud gasp and groaned as I cut his pant leg up to the knee. Seeing the bite, I did not understand how to doctor it.
His obsession with making it big in Oregon had already killed Mama. We buried her in the Nebraska Territory. She took sick with cholera along the Platte River portion of the trail. They said you needed to travel 30 miles from the river to get sweet water. We didn’t have time for such detours. If snow fell while we crossed the mountains ... well, Papa said we just had to trust in the good Lord to keep us safe. We all got sick, but only Mama died. Now his big dream would kill him too.
I found his horse, rifle, hat, and rabbit. The last three were nearby, and the horse was where he’d said it would be. Once back at the camp, the other five children stopped playing among the wagons, and gathered about. They struggled to understand our desperate situation. I was 14. Emma, the youngest, was four. We all did what we could since Mama died. Papa and I did our best to cook meals, care for the horses, and hunt. The other children fetched water and firewood. But without Papa, there was no way I could guide us onto Oregon or even back to Indiana. We were on our own in the middle of Wyoming. The worst of the trail, hundreds of miles of mountains, still lay ahead.
We had been traveling with another family for the last two weeks. They felt terrible about leaving us, but they feared running into snow-filled mountain passes if they stayed. The father assured us another group of travelers would be along soon. If we wanted, said the mother, they could take Emma with them. It would just be until we caught up with them again. Emma and their five-year-old daughter had become great friends. Papa was unconscious. Making such a significant decision was too much for me. I didn’t know what to do? In the end, Emma decided herself. I never saw her again.
It didn’t take but a few days more for Papa to die. Drifting in and out of consciousness, he fretted about our fate. He wept when awake feeling deep guilt about his folly. He feared he had doomed us all. I was so furious with him. I regret it now, but at the time it helped me to bare my grief.
In his last, lucid moment, we gathered sadly around him. He whispered, “Oh, my poor children. What will become of you?” I put my hand on his forehead. My other brothers and sister laid their hands upon him too: one upon a leg, another an arm, and two upon his chest. In a few minutes I felt his skin cool. “He’s gone,” I said.
We were digging his grave when another group of three wagons pulled alongside. They helped us finish. One man even made a cross and carved out Papa’s name on the crosspiece. We joined their group. Actually, the women folk insisted. But we children stayed together as a family until we finally made it all the way to Oregon.
I eventually forgave Papa. Every man and most of the women on the trail had his same obsession. Oregon was the Promised Land. Their eyes glowed with a brilliance an evening campfire could not explain as they told stories of it. They conveyed awe and passion about crossing this huge, wild country. And amazing to me, having come so far, they still underestimated the difficulties ahead. Belief in the vision drove them on. I came to realize Papa wasn’t stupid; he was just a pioneer.
That was 1846. My siblings were adopted immediately into nearby families here in the Willamette Valley. Three years later they are thriving. As for me, Oregon is not my Promise Land. I guess driving my own wagon up the trail made me a bit too independent to fit in anywhere. I’ve tried to make it on my own with various odd jobs, but I feel restless.
News arrived just the other day that a fellow struck gold in California at a place called Sutter’s Mill. They said the nuggets are so big one will fill a knapsack all by itself. I think I understand Papa now. I’ll be leaving soon. It’s my turn to “dare greatly.”
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