Three Island Crossing
The Oregon Trail: August 1, 1860, South Side of the Snake
My name is Sable, my husband and I left Saint Louis on the 30th of March, 1843 on a riverboat, there was a cold North wind with snow flurries. We traveled 500 miles upstream from the mouth of the Missouri to Westport, Kansas.
The Great Trek Begins
Westport was considered to be the beginning of the frontier; there were thousands of emigrants gathering up in groups to head West. Some were headed for Santa Fe, others were bound for California, and some like us were headed to Oregon.
Westport was a busy hive of activity. There were many Negroes working at various jobs and many Mexicans working for the Santa Fe traders. It was also a gathering place for many Indians and their shaggy ponies.
There were Sacs and Foxes who shaved their heads and painted their faces. The Shawnee and Delaware wore calico frocks and turbans. The Delaware are the same ones that had been allies of William Penn, but had now become the scourge of the plains. They raided from Canada to Mexico and lived solely to wage war and plunder. They adopted the culture of the horse very quickly and were excellent buffalo hunters. The Wyandot were also there; they dressed in the style of white men and worked at jobs on the docks. There were also mountain men in town. They are surely the wildest White men that ever lived. The Canadians were everywhere and were mainly of French and Indian extraction and called themselves Metis.
My husband and I drove over to the town of Independence, while waiting to join up with a good group of emigrants. There were many shops open to service the Santa Fe traders and emigrants with the necessaries for the trip west. There was a continual ring of blacksmith hammers as they were shoeing mules, horses, and oxen. The cost was three dollars a hoof; an outrageous price, but they were the only ones that could shoe your stock until you arrived at your destination. There were also shops that repaired the wagons and their wheels. Many of these wagons had already traveled from Conestoga road near Philadelphia and many people wanted their wooden wheels with their iron tires tuned up by the only wheelwrights between here and the West Coast.
My husband and I didn’t like the look of most of the emigrants, they had the nare-do-well look of ruffians, gamblers, and adventurers, among them were even more vile outcasts. My husband said such people would cause problems on the trail; especially, when things started to go wrong.
He husband insisted we wait for the right group, a solid group that could be counted on to have character and integrity, thus we would avoid many potential problems.
We eventually found a solid group that was led by Colonel Fallon, a retired cavalry officer and former plantation owner from Virginia.
Colonel Fallon was waiting for a guide when we were lucky enough to join his group. He told my husband that he doubted the character of many of the mountain men; they were often drunk and prone to fighting and gambling. Eventually he chose a Mr. Tomlin, a bona fide mountain man. He had an Indian wife and could speak the language of many of the Indian tribes, if he was unfamiliar with a particular language, he reverted to a universal sign language that seemed to work just as well as a spoken language.
Mr. Tomlin is a rough coarse man, but he doesn’t swear unless he is angry and he frets over everyone’s safety and welfare when he is in camp. He seems to have a kind heart and I feel safe with Mr. Tomlin as our guide.
He insisted on leaving right away, despite the cold winds and snow that made for miserable travel. Mr. Tomlin laughed at the complainers and told them it is better to shiver on the prairie than to freeze and starve in the mountains this winter.
The Colonel said we had to trust the judgment of our guide in such matters relating to the trail. He had selected several Captains in charge of a group of wagons, he told them to prepare to leave in the morning. He delegated responsibility among his Captains and insisted on discipline; otherwise, an act of insubordination could result in being banished from the group.
The Colonel retired from the military and gave manumission to all his slaves on a family plantation in Virginia and then sold the plantation. He could see a Civil War in the nation’s future over the issue of slavery. He didn’t want to take up arms against his own country nor his friends and family of Virginia. His life long friend and personal valet was Jim. He was given freedom, but insisted on staying on with the Colonel as an employee, so that they would always be together. Now he helped with the wagon train duties and driving the Colonel’s wagon. They were great friends and had a deep emotional bond between them.
Everyone had to agree to the terms of Colonel Fallon, the terms were foreign to many of the members, but the Colonel said they would need a new wagon master if they couldn’t accept his rules. He was used to discipline and he would have leadership with discipline or they could find another leader.
My husband stood up and said if we were to reach Oregon, we would need a strong leader; a leader who knew how to set up a defense and lead a military campaign was the best kind of leader to have and we were lucky to have the Colonel. The others agreed and swore an oath of allegiance to the Colonel.
Since I am half Cherokee, I have a keen interest in the Indians we see on the plains. My mother was a Cherokee maiden, she escaped a raid by White men and traveled to Tennessee. My father found her in a state of starvation and nursed her back to health. I was born a year later and raised in a log house as a White girl. I grew up wearing dresses, learned to read, write, and cipher. My dad was a horseman and taught me to ride and train horses.
The first group of nomadic Indians we encountered on the trail were the Delaware returning from a buffalo hunting trip. Both men and women were riding horses, they had many pack mules loaded with buffalo meat, hides, cooking kettles, and all the necessaries for life on the trail.
An old man rode up to my husband and asked who our chief was and what tribe I was from. He made a motion like he was smoking a pipe and my husband gave him a small pouch of tobacco and pointed to the Colonel. He told the old man I was a Cherokee.
A Cowboy Tries To Trade A Nice Horse For An Indian Maiden
The old man grunted his approval and gave my husband a casing of pemmican. His pony had a mane and tail full of burrs. His saddle was a wooden Spanish type covered with a blanket. The stirrups were carved from wood. He then asked if my husband would trade me for some horses or mules. My husband told him we had too many horses for the trip. The old man shrugged and rode away.
My husband and I are professional breeders and trainers. We have thirty head of horses, all breeding stock. I am much more aware of horse types and equipment than most people and I have a good eye for horseflesh..
The most colorful Indians were the Kickapoo. They were lounging at the trader’s store near Fort Leavenworth. The men painted their faces red, green, black, and white, with a variety of patterns and designs. They wore bright calico shirts and wrapped themselves in red and blue blankets. The men also wore large brass earrings and wampum necklaces; they rode the most wretched ponies of the prairie.
One of the most remarkable scenes of Indian life we saw was near the Platte, a band of Dakota were breaking camp to hunt buffalo. The women began by pulling the sewed buffalo hides from the poles that formed the foundation of the teepees and lashing the poles to the sides of horses by using a packsaddle to support the rails of the travois that would carry their earthly belongings.
In just a few minutes, a peaceful village of lodges turned into mass confusion and chaos. The lodges were spread on the ground and all possessions were spread alongside. There were piles of buffalo robes and wooden frames with painted leather sides that contained dried meat. There were copper kettles, stone mallets and ladles of horn all waiting to be stowed.
The women bustled about the business of loading up the camp in a stoic attitude while the old women screamed at one another at the top of their lungs.
The tops of the lodge poles were lashed to the sides of the horses and the butt end of the rails trailed out behind the horses to form a travois. These were braced with cross rails lashed tightly to the frame and all their worldly possessions were stuffed in baskets and then lashed to the frame.
Goods were then stacked on the packsaddle to an unbelievable height.
In twenty minutes the camp was moving the warriors broke from their meditation and joined the procession. A group of old men who were smoking a pipe while watching, mounted their ponies and rode down to join the melee. There were smiling young girls, with all sorts of gaudy decorations, riding mules and horses, they feigned bashfulness when the White men gazed at them. Boys with miniature bows and arrows wandered over the plains shooting birds and small animals. There were groups of young braves with paint and feathers racing around in groups of three or four on fleet ponies to prove their horsemanship and the speed of their ponies. Scattered amongst the throng were solemn old men with white Buffalo Robes, these were the old warriors whose age demanded a certain amount of dignity. Each packhorse had two or three small children clinging to the load, thus increasing the remarkable burden the packhorse was expected to carry.
We never asked a packhorse to carry over 160 pounds, but each of these horses was carrying at least two or three times that much.
There were countless dogs running through the exodus, they kept up a continuous howling rather than barking. I told my husband they sounded like their cousin the wolf. He thought they were nervous about moving and the confusion of the migration. My husband has a way with animals and can often tell you what they are thinking.
It was mass confusion; yet, the Indian camp was moving within twenty minutes. How different from our slow, orderly, and precise movement that seems so boring in comparison. The Indians left nothing along the trail, but along our trail are shattered wrecks of claw footed oak tables and large maple bureaus that were worth a small fortune at one time. Now that survival is in question, cherished family heirlooms from England or Europe are tossed out of wagons to scorch and crack in the sun.
The Dakota tribe traveled along side for about a half day, when we were treated to the sight of a young boy chasing a buffalo bull along the length of the wagon train. The shaggy bull came bounding out of a hollow with the boy whipping his pony closer and closer to the gigantic running bull.
The bull ran with his tail erect and his foaming tongue hanging out a foot or more while he strained his strength and endurance to the maximum to stay in front of the boy and his pony.
A moment later, the boy pulled along side the bull. He dropped the reins over the withers and jerked an arrow out of the quiver on his back at lightening speed. He let the arrow fly at the lungs and it sank deep in the chest cavity. The first arrow was followed by a second that landed next to the first arrow.
Suddenly the bull leaped at the pony to gore it with his horns. The pony leaped to the side with the boy clinging to the bear hide that served as a saddle as if he were part of the horse. The boy turned to look me straight in the eye and laughed with bravado at the danger, just before he sent another arrow into the bull’s heart.
The bull stopped and glared through a shaggy mane with red eyes at the boy on his pony. The blood was flowing from his nostrils and mouth with air bubbles indicating mortal wounds. The bull stood to collect his strength and would charge the boy.
The boy and his avoided these charges with seeming effortless movements.
After several charges, the bull stopped and struggled to get his breath with his chin resting on the ground. Finally, the bull gurgled a death rattle deep in his chest and let out a groan when he fell to the earth and died.
Several warriors rode up and within minutes, their knives reduced the huge carcass to several piles of meat stacked upon the hide. The men cracked open the leg bones and ate the marrow on the spot along with the heart, liver, and lungs.
The boy rode over on his pony and offered me a leg bone with the rich marrow exposed. I accepted gracefully and pulled a blue ribbon from my hair as a return gift. The boy was ecstatic and rode over to a young girl and gave her the ribbon. She shrieked with joy and promptly tied the ribbon in her hair as she rode her pony. She waved to me and I realized how different I was from these people who are so close to my heritage. I looked like them, but I was from another culture and I could never go back. I placed the bone under the wagon seat. My dog would enjoy it later on in the day.
We have lived a lifetime worth of experiences on this journey and we have been through some harrowing experiences that turned out well because of the foresight of Mr. Tomlin and the cool nerve of Colonel Fallon.
Mr. Tomlin keeps preparing everyone for dangers of the Snake River crossing. He is not a man who exaggerates and is not the type to make a tempest in a teapot; everyone is thinking about the crossing and the possibility of losing everything..
We have buried twenty-four emigrants since we left Independence and I fear my sweet loving husband will be number twenty-five. The Colonel insisted we camp upstream of all the previously used campsites to avoid the fever and cholera that seemed to plague the old campsites, but occasionally someone would catch the fever or chamblains. They usually lasted two or three days before they died. My husband is on his second day and he has lost all his muscles and is little more than a rack of bones. I don’t expect him to live through tomorrow. We have no children, but I am driving a huge wagon with starving oxen and I have thirty head of horses I am bring with me to Oregon. I can’t stop and I can’t turn around. My situation is becoming desperate.
The Colonel and Mr. Tomlin check in on me several times a day to ask about my husband, but he will be lucky to survive the night. He is so sick it would be a blessing if he would just pass away.
We have seen countless graves from the wagon trains ahead of us and it is terrible. The graves are seldom dug deep enough to keep the wolves and bears from digging them up and eating the bodies. We pass ten or twelve half eaten bodies a day. My husband asked that I make sure he is buried deep enough that the animals wont eat his flesh.
The problem is the time and manpower it takes to dig a grave. The ground is very hard and often must be chopped with a pick or an ax to dig just a few inches.
My husband died during the night. He was a brave man and passed on without remorse by saying that he was ready and for me to find another man who will take care of me.
Mr. Tomlin and the Colonel helped me bury my husband. They dug the grave at least four foot deep and wrapped my husband in a sheet. Mr. Tomlin built a fire over the grave with grass and brush. He assured me that the scent would be burned away and the animals wouldn’t know there was a body buried beneath. Mr. Tomlin knows a lot of wondrous things about the country; I trust his judgment and feel my husband’s body will be secure.
There is a kind older gentleman, Mr. Levin, who helps me with my wagon at night so that I have time to check on the horses. Unfortunately, there have been many horses stolen and my horse band is only half of what it was in the beginning.
Mr. Levin is an Irish Jew who has spent his life sailing around the world in search of the Sperm Whale. He started as an orphan by stowing away and worked his way up until he was a captain.
He is a learned man who would read the bible or philosophy every night.
He reads passages from the bible and the Greek philosophers to me in the evening when chores are finished and I find the strength to face the morrow. He also tells me about the wondrous places of the world that few people ever see except for men of the sea like him. He is a kindly man that is strong of character and body. Although, he is of advanced years, he works harder and longer than most young men.
I am so lucky to have three men Mr. Tomlin, The Colonel, and Mr. Levin to help me hitch up my wagon and check in on me to make sure I am safe. I don’t know what might happen without my “Three Gentlemen” as I call them.
We were three days from the Snake River Crossing when the iron tire from a rear wheel on the wagon rolled off and continued on its’ own, passing me and the front of the wagon before coming to rest against a large sage bush.
I stopped the oxen and Mr. Levin came over and looked at the wooden wheel. “It’s beyond repair,” he said.
I asked What I should do.
“Throw away everything but your most important gear and put that in the front half of your wagon. I will saw your wagon in half and make a cart.”
I looked at the oak wheel, it had disintegrated and couldn’t be repaired. Without a wheelwright, it was hopeless.
I threw away our few pieces of furniture and my husband’s belongings. No one else wanted them because of the extra weight.
Mr. Tomlin cut away the back half of the wagon, made the front wheels so that they wouldn’t turn to the side, and fashioned a back end that was ingenious with a drop down gate.
I was moving within an hour.
The oxen seemed to appreciate the lighter load. My heart hurts for their willingness to toil so hard to pull these wagons.
In the evening, Colonel Fallon came to inspect my new transportation. He congratulated Mr. Levin on an excellent job and asked if he could talk to me a few minutes.
We walked out in the high desert in the cool night air and he told me that I was in a desperate situation.
I agreed, but there was no other choice but to continue on with the trip. He told me I could become his wife before the crossing and that we could make a life together in Oregon.
I was in a state of shock. The Colonel was an officer and a gentleman, and I was a half-Indian widow; I didn’t think that any other men would take me for a wife.
I told him, “Yes, a thousand times yes. I will be a very good wife and work very hard to make your life better.”
He took me in his arms and said that it was unusual to propose so close to a widow’s husband’s funeral, but these were extraordinary times.
I agreed and he kissed me. My knees buckled and I swooned. I was in love, once again.
I was breathless after that kiss, like never before. The Colonel walked me back to my wagon and told Mr. Levin the news. Mr. Levin congratulated the Colonel and brought out a bottle of Irish Whisky. He poured out a very small amount in two glasses and the two of them drank a toast to our new life and the new country.
The Colonel asked Mr. Levin if he would conduct the service on the night before we crossed the Snake and help him with some other unrelated legal papers before the wedding.
Mr. Levin said he would be honored to help in any capacity.
I couldn’t sleep that night, because of dreaming of the future.
We arrived at the Three Island Crossing and we planned to rest up for a day before attempting to cross the fast treacherous waters of the Snake.
The Colonel held a meeting and asked everyone to write a last will and testament, so that he could disperse people’s goods in case there was an accident crossing the river. He said he didn’t like dividing the goods of deceased people and he needed some direction.
Suddenly people began to realize the danger of crossing the Snake.
The papers were written and collected by Mr. Levin. He helped people who were at a loss of what to do and wrote for those who couldn’t read or write. Mr. Levin gave the documents to the Colonel and the Colonel said he would give the documents back to their owners at the conclusion of the journey.
The Indians came to trade with dried fish and pemmican. The wagon trail people were glad to have something new to their diets.
Later that night, we had the wedding ceremony. It was a beautiful ceremony. Mr. Levin read scripture from the bible, but I didn’t hear anything. I had a new dress that I had never worn and flowers from the desert woven into my hair. Everyone was happy and forgot about the dangers of the morrow.
Hint: (From a man who has crossed a lot of different extremely wild and dangerous rivers, when the horses are swimming, get out of the saddle, hold on to the mane and the reins, and let them swim. They aren’t designed to swim with a lard ass on their back. When you stay in the saddle, you are essentially trying to drown your horse.
The driving horses and oxen fare much better, even though they are pulling a wagon, because they don’t have all that weight on their back.)
That night seemed to float by as if I was in a dream world. I had faith in the future and no longer felt the fear of being alone.
The colonel gave the remnants of my wagon to Jim, his former slave and lifelong friend. He seemed to be proud of his new possession and drove the oxen to the river with pride.
I moved my belongings into the Colonel’s wagon and felt like I had a home.
Ours was the first wagon to cross. The Colonel told me to jump downstream if we tipped over and to hold on to a small barrel with a rope tied around it. He said the water is fast enough to roll the wagon over and over, so I must swim away and stay clear of the oxen.
(Dale is a lifelong friend of mine)
He wasn’t smiling when he gave me my instructions and I realized how dangerous the colonel considered the crossing.
The pull of the river was frightening. The oxen struggled desperately against the current and barely kept the wagon from being swept away.
Once the other wagons saw how desperate our team fought to keep the wagon from being lost, some decided not to cross the river and headed South West to California, others began throwing away their precious valuables after hauling them so far.
One by one the wagons crossed the river. Mr. Levin’s wagon was swept away and he was drowned in the swift current. His body came to rest on the bank of the second island. One of the Indian boys swam over and put a rope around his chest and pulled him over to the North side of the river.
There was another family that was swept away, but their bodies went under water and were never seen again.
The river crossing has been one of the most dangerous parts of the long trip.
Jim the former slave made it across effortlessly in my old wagon that had been sawed in half by kind old Mr. Levin. He was so relieved, he was laughing out loud as the oxen pulled his new cart up on the bank of the river.
Several men began digging Mr. Levin’s grave on the upper bank of the river, above the high water marks.
He was laid in his grave and the Colonel read from the bible. It was sad, but we have seen so much tragedy on the trip, we are almost with out feeling for the loss of another. Although, Mr. Levin showed me kindness and offered encouragement; I will surely remember him for the rest of my days.
We listened to my new husband read the bible with tenderness, it was obvious that he respected and liked Mr. Levin.
He read the will after some ladies sang a church hymn.
Colonel Fallon, if you are reading this will, it probably means that I was drowned in the river. It is ironic that the one man who has sailed all the oceans and seas of the world, should drown in this wee bit of fresh water, but I accept my fate with dignity and offer no complaints.
I am a wealthy man. I arranged to have an agricultural implement and hardware store in Oregon. There will be the stock for the store and papers of remittance on the coast. I have contracted to build a store on the mouth of the Columbia.
These earthly goods and funds, I am leaving with Jim the former slave and Sable my dear friend, who has recently married. Jim is a former slave and has traveled from bondage into the wilderness, like my people so long ago, when they traveled out of bondage in Egypt to wander in the wilderness with Moses, much like we have traveled with Colonel Fallon. Sable was faced with the loss of her husband and was desperate. I was too old to offer her my hand in matrimony, but thankfully, the Colonel stepped forward to take care of her.
Do not grieve for me; I have lived a full life and have traveled the world. I accept my destiny. God speed and help all of you, David Levin.
Both of these people are honest and good people and I am sure they can run this business together, with a little help from the Colonel now and then.
Captain, David Levin
A dear friend is driving the oxen in the above photo.
Epilogue: This is a synopsis of a book I am writing. It is based on reading many journals from the Oregon Trail and of the Three Mile Crossing. It is intended to offer a different perspective to race in America and help those who are looking for alternative, an example of what might or could be if we tried a little harder.