If you are a certain age, a good deal of your childhood days were spent traversing the Oregon Trail. Not literally, of course, but figuratively: It was one of the most successful games played during the early age of computers. History teachers wrote The Oregon Trail as a way to get their students interested in the history of the United States. Surprisingly, it worked, and became one of the most popular games of its time.
I am a part of that group of children that spent a lot of my time traveling out West on the Oregon Trail. Not only figuratively, but also in a literal sense. The Oregon Trail is also an integral part of my history.
My maternal great grandfather Ervin Hamilton and his family had an experience of a lifetime crossing the rugged terrain of the Wild West. It is estimated that there are an average of ten graves for every mile of the trail. Considering those odds, it is a small miracle that Ervin and his family lived to tell their story.
Ervin was born in Kansas in 1842 to a banker and his wife. When Ervin was just ten years old, my great great grandfather Frank (Ervin’s father) made the decision to relocate his family to eastern Oregon. The American Dream was leading them and 500,000 fellow American’s out West. The whole family, including seven brothers and sisters, two school teachers and another family, packed up to move. This is their story.
My father Frank, was a banker, so we were more affluent than most fellow migrants. We had $2,200 of cash on hand. We loaded our covered wagon with food staples such as flour, lard, sugar, bacon and coffee. Mom added sacks of beans, rice and dried fruit to the wagon to augment the diet.
“What about drinking water, Pa?” I asked.
“We’re taking some ole jugs along and filling up whenever we come upon a creek.” He answered, matter-of-factly.
Pa added boxes of bullets, a rifle, hunting knife and spare parts to fix the wagon: tongues, axles, and extra wheels.
I remember mother screaming from the house at my brothers and sisters and I, “Go pick out two sets of clothes, each of ya!”
“What kind of clothes?” my brothers and sisters inquired.
“Well, we need two sets. One for the chilly nights, and one for when the sun is high and hot on our heads,” replied my mother, “We don’t have room for nothing else in that wagon except the essentials. Pa warned me that our Prairie Schooner can’t carry no more than 2,500 pounds. So, we can’t pack nothing except for essentials! Only two sets for each of ya, remember that! Now run along and gather up your clothes.”
Once our wagon was laden with supplies, pa declared, “Well, we are all ready to go, the wagon train leaves in the morning.”
We left Independence, Missouri in early April. The plan was to give ourselves enough time to make the 2,000 mile trek during good weather months. Before we even reached the Kansas River, the children spotted the first tombstone. I ran ahead to have a closer look. Here lies Stinky, it read. He Stinks.
“Frank! That’s not very nice,” my mother scolded.
“I bet Stinky does. Stink,” my brother said, “Now he does, anyway.”
The graves were endless: Avalon, Joelle, and Hairy. Here Lies a Father. I loved running ahead to see what the next tomb would read. Each one seemed to make me laugh harder than the last: Fletch Ulens. Diane Per, Missy Pants.
“Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Finally, just before we reached Fort Kearney I read a tomb that turned my mood somber. “Deff Cating: Died of Pooping,” I read, and asked solemnly, “How do you die of pooping?”
“It’s called dysentery,” mother explained to me. This terrified all of us that there was a possibility that too much poo could be deadly. Even so, the word sounded funny. Dysentery, we sniggered amongst ourselves, similarly to the way we used to whisper opossum back at home. It became a game to us. We poked and prodded each other in the ribs as we tried to sleep and hissed: Dysentery.
The journey would take four months or five, people had told us. You can’t leave too late or you won’t be able to make it over the mountains before winter. Unfortunately, that same fear caused us to leave to early. As we witnessed the white snows turn to heavy rain, our mistakes played out in real time in front of our eyes. The rivers were all running high due to the spring rains and The Big Blue wasn’t an exception. The ferry to cross the river cost 35$. Pa and mother agreed that it was money well spent.
Mary caught a bad case of typhoid just past The Big Blue. Pa tried anything he heard would possibly alleviate her pain: move slowly, eat more food, and stop to get some rest. Still, Mary wasn’t getting better. Mother suggested we get back on the trail and try and make it to Chimney Rock.
“Perhaps we can trade for medicine there? It can’t hurt to try!” mother pleaded.
Unfortunately, there was no medicine to buy. There was never any medicine. We didn’t have much choice but to continue on. When we reached the outskirts of the town, the trail steepened. Here was the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. At Fort Laramie, Mary could barely open her eyes and we knew she wouldn’t make it any further. We stopped to rest here for a few nights, to give her a proper burial. I won’t ever forget how difficult that was for our family.
As the spring months turned to summer, we made our way through the mountains. I remembered mother telling us we would need two pairs of clothes, one for when it was hot. I never imagined it would get this warm in the Rocky Mountains. Glad I listened to mother. It got so warm that the meat even seemed to cook in our mouths. Pa would fill up the jug of water, and I swore I could watch it start to boil.
Coming up to The Green River, we could see that the smoldering heat had drained it. We watched wagon after wagon ford it easily.
“We should have no problems crossing her,” Pa informed us.
As our schooner was crawling up the bank one of the oxen stumbled. The kerosene spilled onto the beans. Consequently, that night we choked down the kerosene flavored beans.
“Mother, I can barely eat these beans, can’t we just throw them away and get some more when we get to Fort Hall?”
“Absolutely not, food is way to scarce, we daren’t throw anything away. You will eat the beans tonight, or you will go hungry. Your choice.” Replied Mother.
It seemed that our cruel meal of kerosene soaked beans was an omen of what was to come. I was so hungry the next day that I ate some berries I found. Turns out, they were rotten, and I become violently ill. Pa decided it was a good idea to stop and rest for a few days, until I was better. A few days turned into weeks. As if rest would heal me.
“It’s the only thing that we can do.” Mother said tearfully.
We watched wagon after wagon pass us. “You’d best get on,” they said. “Winter’s coming.” The passers-by must have taken my illness with them. By some miracle, the next day I began to improve.
We had to travel as fast as we could to try and make up for lost time. Our pace was steady, although we didn’t make it to Oregon before the first blizzard befell us.
“Can’t the weather be nice for just a couple of days??” I whined as the sun peaked out at me.
“Hang in there kids, we’ll be there in a few days,” Pa informed us.
As we crossed the last river into Oregon City, I could see the tears of joy streaming down my mother’s face. “By George, we’ve made it,” she exhaled.
As our dilapidated Prairie Schooner groaned into town I heard a bystander proclaim, “Don’t yawl go feeling sorry for yourselves.” You made it,” He said. “You’ve won.”
We had, in fact, made it.
Three years later the whole family moved to Iowa, Louisiana to farm rice. After living there for five years, they moved again to Texas to strike oil.
Finally, in 1852 they moved from Texas to Pigeon, Michigan. They built a house made of red brick, bought land, and started to farm the rich loamy fields surrounding it. My mother ended up buying that house from her grandparents, and that is the house that I grew up in.
Traveling across the country in a covered wagon is something that I will never experience. However, I am proud to live vicariously through my ancestor’s personal journey of the Oregon Trail.