The old antique store looked as old outside as the furniture, household items and other assorted junk I found on the inside. I wouldn’t have ventured inside except for the fact I was in Salem, Oregon for review of one of my building designs with the city Building Codes people. Because of my schedule and the time of the Monday meeting, and also to get the lowest fare, my flight left O’Hare at a little after four on Saturday afternoon, flew to Atlanta, Georgia of all places, and then on to land in Portland, Oregon at about seven that night.
In Portland, I rented a car and drove another hour to get to Salem and my hotel. By the time I got checked in and settled, then got a burger and fries from a fast food joint, it was after nine. I fell asleep watching a movie on TV.
I had all day Sunday to do whatever I wanted to do. I just didn’t know what that was. I’m an architect, and I enjoy looking at buildings, so after breakfast, I asked the desk clerk if there were any older buildings around. The little brunette smiled and said I should go to Stayton to see the covered bridge. She said it wasn’t the original covered bridge, but had been built in the exact same manner as the one that burned after being moved from Thomas Creek to the park.
It was a pretty drive of only a few miles, so I followed her directions and was soon walking through the bridge and examining the truss design used by the original builders. It was on my way back to Salem for lunch I passed the old building that sat beside a river. It looked interesting so I pulled into a parking spot and went inside.
The building, except for the front, had been sided with white steel siding on the outside and the roof was new-looking brown sheet steel. The front and inside were the original logs. There was no ceiling, just the rough hewn beams that supported the same rough-hewn rafters and purlins of the roof. I was looking up at them when I heard a man’s voice.
“Don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Costs too much, but they’ll outlive any o’ them newer ones made outa factory lumber.”
He looked almost as old as the building with his bald head and stooped posture. The furrows in his face got deeper when smiled and it was obvious the gleaming white teeth he showed me were dentures. He grinned at me and his eyes sparkled with life through the wire-framed reading glasses perched on the end of his nose.
“Yep, these old log buildings’ll last a long time yet, long’s as you keep the roofs in good shape. This’n was the original saw mill building built by ol’ Drury Stayton back in 1866. When it closed up, they took out the wheel and live shafts, but over there’s the hole where the wheel shaft come through. I left it when they sided the building so’s it’s look more proper. That’s what they said, the building commission – it needed to look more proper – like they’d forgot all about how Stayton got started. Either that or they were ashamed it used to be a logging town for a while.”
The old man grinned at me again.
“You looking for somethin’ in particular? I got about everything you can think of in here. Most folks would have just throwed most of it away if I hadn’t taken it. I like old stuff.” He chuckled. “Must be ‘cause I’m pretty old stuff myself.”
I said I was an architect and I liked looking at old buildings to see how they were made.
He waved his hand.
“I can do you one better’n that. I got a few books over here someplace…used to be in this drawer…yep, here they are.”
He lifted a stack of eight old books in his shaking hands and offered them to me.
“These are all about building stuff when they didn’t have no sawed lumber, just trees and axes and two man saws. Got ‘em from a man selling off his great grandpa’s stuff. Kids today don’t have no need to know how they used to do things and he didn’t want ‘em. Been savin’ ‘em for just somebody like you to come along. I’ll take ten for the bunch.”
It looked like he could use the money and I wouldn’t miss the ten, so I walked out of the antique store with them in a paper sack. Once I was back in my hotel room, I opened the sack to have a look.
What the old man said was true for all the books except two, and those weren’t really books as such. They were hand written journals, one by a man and one by a woman, and were of their experiences when traversing the Oregon Trail in 1850.
The books were made of pretty good paper like a lot of books were in those days, so the pages weren’t really brittle and the ink hadn’t soaked through both sides. It was difficult to read both. The man’s handwriting was almost a scrawl, the woman’s, a flourishing hand I’d seen before in pictures of old manuscripts. I sat down to read the woman’s first, and after fifteen minutes realized I had a valuable piece of history in my hands. After reading a few pages of the man’s journal, I realized two more things. One, both journals should probably be in a museum collection somewhere, and two, the two people had traveled the Oregon Trail together.
The woman was Elizabeth Mayes Crocker, the wife of Samuel Crocker, a farmer from Missouri, and the man was Jedediah Marshal. Jedediah, or Jed as Elizabeth referred to him was Samuel’s “hired hand” and had made the trip as such for the free transportation and meals his work would earn him.
As I read, I began comparing the entries in both journals for the same dates and discovered there was a story worth retelling. It was a story of high hopes and crushing despair, of strong men and strong women, a story of hardship and satisfaction, a story of tears and joy. It was a story that deserves to be known outside of the confines of the library in Salem where both journals now reside, protected from the further ravages of oxygen and moisture by carefully regulated atmospheric controls, and secreted from view by any except a select few.
I make no claim of being a great author. I merely relate the situations that resulted in the journal entries as I believe they might have happened. The words of both Elizabeth and Jed conveyed both pictures of those situations as well as the emotions those situations caused each to feel. Those emotions led me to imagine the conversations between them as well as with other people. It is my hope both Elizabeth and Jed would be pleased at my telling of their story.
“You can not be serious, Samuel. Oregon is so far away and the way is difficult and dangerous. You would leave all we have here to go there?”
“Elizabeth, what do we have here? Just a house Mr. Owens lets us live in while I farm his fields and tend his stock. When was the last time you bought material for a new dress? When little Mary was born, did you not tear up your best dress for material to make her baby dress? Does Martin not wear pants made from those I have worn out?”
“But it is safe here and we know the people who live here. Who lives in Oregon? I have heard there are savage Indians who live there. And who travels along the same path? Reverend James says the ruffians who go to California to mine gold do. They are nothing but riff-raff who would steal the shirt from your back without so much as batting an eye.”
Samuel smiled and squeezed Elizabeth’s hand.
“What you say is all true. We have a roof over our heads and we do not want for food. But what of the future? There will be no work on the farm for Martin when he comes of age. What will he do then? Mary can find a man who will care for her needs, but Martin will have to fend for himself.
“In Oregon, a man and wife will be given six hundred and forty acres of farmland. Given…can you believe that? All that is expected is they make improvements to the land and make it productive. A single man will be given a hundred and sixty acres. Martin is nearly thirteen and only a few years after we reach Oregon, he will qualify for his own allotment.
“We will have to work hard, but with that much land, we will be able to have the things I can never give you if we stay here.”
“How would we afford to make the trip? Mrs. McClairy’s son did last year. She told me at church he had to have a wagon and oxen to pull it and enough food to last the trip.”
Samuel patted her hand.
“I have given both much thought. The railroad will buy logs for ties if I cut them. By the winter, most of the farm work will be done. Martin can help me cut trees and saw them to length and I’ve already asked Mr. Owens if I might use one of the teams to drag the logs to the railroad. He agreed if I pay him a dollar a day. I’ll get half a dollar for each log and Martin and I should be able to cut twenty a day. That will yield nine dollars a day. Over the winter, well be able to save over seven hundred dollars. That will buy a wagon and six oxen to pull it.
“We have two milk cows and three hogs. If I sell one cow and butcher all the hogs, we should be able to buy enough food if we take along the hams and bacon from this year and what vegetables you can dry. We already have enough clothes, pots and pans and tools. I will need a rifle and ammunition, but…well…we won’t be able to take much of our furniture, so we can sell it to pay for those.”
Elizabeth was worried and those worries were increased when she told the women of the Methodist church about their plans. A few had received letters from other family members who had made the trip and those letters were filled with gruesome tales of graves alongside the trail and of travelers begging for food when their own supply ran out.
Elizabeth was a good wife, though, and trusted her husband’s judgement. She planted extra seeds that spring and by fall had filled basket after basket of leather britches beans, potatoes, carrots, and onions. From the woods around the farm she had gathered wild blackberries and dried them. In the fall, she and Mary had picked and dried and sulfured apples from the tree in their back yard. When the days of late fall cooled, Samuel butchered the hogs and Elizabeth cured the meat with salt, sugar, and maple syrup. Samuel then smoked them until they were cured well enough to keep for the months on the trail.
All winter long, while Samuel and Martin cut logs and dragged them to the side of the railroad, she mended every stitch of clothing they owned except for what she cut to make new clothing for Mary and Martin. Her mother gave her some material which she used to make two new dresses for herself and Mary. Samuel’s mother gave her two heavy quilts and material scraps to sew more.
On March 25, 1850 Samuel’s father drove them the twenty miles to the gathering point for the wagon trains in Independence, Missouri. The wagon was piled high with things they wanted to take along and Mary and Martin had to sit on top of Elizabeth’s hope chest. Elizabeth had refused to sell that chest. Her father had made it with his own hands, and just as it had before she and Samuel were married, it held her wedding dress and the two quilts her mother had made so Elizabeth and her future husband would have blankets for the winter. Also in the chest were the two new quilts Samuel’s mother gave her and the baby dresses Elizabeth had sewn for Mary and Martin before they were born.
Samuel had laughed when she put the baby dresses in the chest.
“I doubt you’re going to need those again. Why don’t you give them to your sister?”
Elizabeth hadn’t replied. She just carefully folded the dresses and put them in the trunk. They were her way of remembering the tiny babies she’d held to her breast so long ago. Mary was ten now and Martin was twelve. Elizabeth needed a way to remember how they came into this world since they were growing up so quickly. She also had thoughts about Mary’s future children. They would need baby clothes too, and Elizabeth longed to see Mary’s babies in the same dress.
In a rough wood box were the cooking things they’d need along the way – just a frying pan, a dutch oven, a tea kettle, and a couple large pots. In another was all their clothing and six others held their supply of dried vegetables and fruit. All the boxes were the same size. Samuel had learned the correct size to fit in the wagon bed to allow a narrow passage for walking between them. The height was the same to allow for two serviceable, if hard and narrow beds.
On top of these boxes at the rear was a wood cage that held six hens and a rooster. The hens would furnish fresh eggs along the trip. The rooster would be there to increase their flock when they reached Oregon.
Jewel, the milk cow Samuel had decided to keep was tied to the rear of the wagon.
They unloaded Samuel’s father’s wagon and while Elizabeth watched over their goods and supplies, Samuel and his father went in search of a wagon and oxen of their own. It was late in the day when the yoke of six massive oxen pulled the heavy prairie schooner wagon up beside where Elizabeth, Mary and Martin sat. It took an hour to load all the boxes and Elizabeth’s hope chest in the bed. Samuel then built a fire beside the wagon, and Elizabeth cooked a meal of leather britches beans, ham, and potatoes. Samuel’s father didn’t join them. He’d left for home as soon as the oxen had been hitched to the wagon. Both sets of parents had met at Samuel’s and Elizabeth’s house to help load the wagon. They’d said their good-byes there along with the request they write letters when they could. Samuel’s father didn’t want to be seen crying in the midst of so many strangers. He knew it was the last time he would see his son.
The next morning was spent filling the two water kegs that rode on shelf-like supports on each side of the wagon. Once that was done, Elizabeth and Mary climbed to the seat at the front of the wagon under the overhanging canvass top. Samuel spoke to the oxen who began to slowly pull the wagon to the area where supplies were sold. Martin walked proudly beside his father.
After purchasing the wagon and oxen, Samuel had four hundred dollars left. A hundred dollars of that went to purchase enough flour, sugar, salt, and other spices to last them through the trip. A spare wagon wheel, spare axle, and spare tongue cost another seventy five. He bought a new Henry rifle with 100 cartridges for an additional twenty dollars and a double barrel shotgun with 100 shells for another twenty.
Samuel intended to hunt wild game as they moved across the land to supplement their food supply, but thought it prudent to take along some beef just in case. For sixty dollars he purchased six steers that would feed them if necessary. If not, he could sell them for much more in Oregon. The cattle dealer had four heifers for the same price, and Samuel bought them too. He had noticed there weren’t many milk cows with the other livestock on the train. There would always be a need for milk, butter and cheese, and if he had the cows, he could sell the milk. The four heifers would be the start of his milking herd when they reached Oregon. Ten dollars for chicken feed completed his purchases and left him with seventy five dollars for ferry fees and anything else they needed along the way.
When Samuel came back to the camp driving the cattle he had another man with him. That man was tall and rather slim, and his clothes looked very worn. Samuel introduced him as Jedediah Marshal, and told Elizabeth Jedediah would be making the trip to Oregon with them. Jedediah had been working for the man who’d sold the cattle to Samuel, and had asked if he needed someone to drive them. At first, Samuel had said he couldn’t afford to pay a hired hand. Jedediah had said he’d take the job if Samuel would buy him a suit of new clothes and feed him along the way. Samuel had accepted the offer.
Jed had little to take with him, just two other changes of clothes, his winter coat, and an extra pair of shoes. These were wrapped up in the three wool blankets he would used to make a bed under the wagon every night.
After waiting in the staging area for the rest of the wagons to assemble, on Monday, April 1, 1850 the Wagon Master gave the order to move out. Slowly, the line of a hundred heavily laden prairie schooner wagons rolled out of the staging area and headed west. Samuel and Martin walked beside the oxen. Jed drove the cattle at the rear of the wagon. Elizabeth and Mary rode on the wagon seat for a mile or so, and then decided it would be easier going if they walked as well. The road was little more than a path over the prairie and the wagon had no springs to ease the jolts. The oxen were slow so they didn’t have to walk fast to keep up and walking was less tiring than holding on to the wagon seat for dear life. In order to spare their shoes, Elizabeth and Mary took them off and walked barefoot just as had Samuel, Martin, and Jed.
Because many of the wagons had livestock behind them and the livestock raised a lot of dust, the wagons spread out until they were a comfortable distance from the wagon in front to avoid constantly breathing in dust. As a result, the wagon train was stretched out over almost a mile.
In a meeting of the wagon train after the church service on the Sunday before, the wagon master had explained how the trip would progress. He would lead the wagon train as a guide, but the members would also elect a Captain and a Lieutenant to represent them. Between the three of them, they would decide the various affairs of the wagon train such as rules to be obeyed and punishments for those who did not.
The wagon master would match the speed of travel to the speed of the oxen, but if a wagon was slower than the rest, they would have to travel longer to keep up. Their times of travel would be from daybreak until sunset unless they were delayed because of weather or other calamity. If that happened, they would travel some at night to make up the lost time. This was necessary in order to cross the mountains before winter closed the trail.
That first night, it was already dark when Samuel drove into the next spot in the circle of wagons and yelled whoa to the oxen. He and Jed un-yolked them and then drove them and the other cattle to the grazing grounds beside the wagon camp while Martin gathered firewood from the nearby trees. Elizabeth began making supper and as soon as the fire had burned down to coals, she sat the stew pot over the glowing bed of heat.
After the meal, the wagon master called the men of the wagon train together for the election of their officers. After some debate, Mr. Hayes, a doctor, was elected as Captain, and Mr. Jordan, a carpenter, was elected as Lieutenant.
The first order of business was establishing a guard watch. As the wagon master explained, there was always a danger of livestock wandering off in the night. This would cause a delay in travel, so a few men should be assigned to watch over them as they grazed.
There would also be some danger from Indians. While most Indians were peaceful, they sometimes stole livestock from wagon trains. The guards would be on the watch for such a thing and alert the camp if they suspected that to be the case. As they traveled deeper into the west, wolves and pumas also were a danger.
Samuel came back from the meeting and told Elizabeth he and several of the other men would stand guard over the grazing animals for two hours at which time others would take their place. Jed would serve as a guard later on during the night.
Samuel was excited about the events of the day and wanted to talk about what he’d seen and what they’d do tomorrow and the next day. Elizabeth was just tired. She had walked over twenty miles that day and still had fixed three meals, fed the hens and rooster, and gathered the eggs. She listened until Samuel had eaten his fill, then put the pot under the wagon seat, climbed inside and laid down on the bed she’d made on top of the left row of boxes. She was asleep by the time Samuel laid down on the other bed. Mary and Martin were already asleep on beds on the floor of the wagon.
As Samuel lay there waiting to fall asleep, he was proud of his family. Elizabeth hadn’t seemed as excited as he was, but she hadn’t complained. Mary had helped her mother fix their meals, and seemed excited by what she’d seen along the trail. Martin was becoming a man, and wouldn’t sit still for being treated like a child anymore. The last few miles, Samuel had let him drive the oxen, and he’d done a good job.
Jed had done a good job too by keeping the cattle right behind the wagon. Cattle were known for being obstinate sometimes, but Jed had kept them together and moving when they wanted to stop and graze.
Morning was announced by the clanging of a spoon in a large kettle by the wagon master. Elizabeth prepared biscuits by the light of a lantern while Samuel and Martin built a fire. Her dutch oven baked them almost as fast as her oven back home, and they went well with the slices of ham Mary fried. By the time the sun peeked over the horizon, breakfast was done, the oxen were yoked, and Jed had the cattle standing behind the wagon. The wagons moved out at the command of the wagon master and slowly trundled over the rough, rutted road.
After two days, Samuel was confident in Martin’s ability to drive the oxen. He picked up his rifle and walked away over the plains to hunt. He came back two hours later with the rear quarters of a pronghorn antelope slung over his shoulders. That night, they had their first taste of the wild game that would eke out their food supplies. Samuel thought it was a little like mutton. Mary and Martin said it wasn't as good as beef, but was still good. Elizabeth ate it because she was hungry, but wished she’d had a proper stove to roast it with potatoes and carrots. Jed said it was the best antelope he’d ever tasted. Elizabeth was certain it was also the first, but his compliment made her feel a little better.
On Thursday evening of that week, the wagon train reached the Kansas River. At a meeting of the men in the camp that night, the wagon master explained the river was too deep to ford and they’d have to use the ferry. The fee for the ferry was five dollars a wagon and fifty cents for each head of horses and cattle. He’d keep the wagons camped on the other side until all hundred had made it across.
When their turn for the ferry came that afternoon, Samuel paid the ten dollars and drove the wagon onto the ferry. Elizabeth was terrified by the trip. The current of the river swung the ferry raft in an arc down the river and caused the ropes to stretch frightfully. She had never liked being on the water, and seeing the raft drifting down stream filled her mind with visions of the raft tumbling over and drowning them all. She clasped her arms around Mary and Martin, somewhat to protect them but mostly to make herself a little less afraid. Her heart pounded away in fear until the raft bumped onto the platform on the other side of the river and she didn’t wait for Samuel to drive the wagon off the ferry. She walked quickly onto the platform and pulled Mary and Martin after her.
Jed followed on the next trip with the cattle, and once they were all safely on shore, Samuel spoke to the oxen and started them toward the encampment.
Saturday was another long drive from sunup to sunset and as Elizabeth cooked supper that night, she was looking forward to Sunday. She assumed since there was a preacher and his wife traveling in the wagon train there would be a church service and a day of rest. She was dismayed when the same clanging of the pot announced morning the next day. There was a church service, about a half an hour long just after breakfast, but then the wagon master started the wagon train on the road again.
Day in and day out it was the same. They woke to the clanging of a kettle. The men would see to the livestock while the women made something to eat. Once the first rays of the sun peeped over the horizon, the wagon master would start the wagon train on its way. They would walk until dusk except for a brief stop for a noon meal. Samuel would hunt every other day while Martin drove the oxen. The countryside would pass slowly by. The only diversions in this routine were the obstacles the wagon train had to pass.
One such obstacle was the Big Blue River. Unlike the Kansas River, there was not yet a ferry across the river. The Big Blue wasn’t as deep as the Kansas, but it was too deep to ford with a wagon. The men of the wagon train spent a day cutting cottonwood trees and lashing them under the wagons, then caulked all the wagon bed seams to prevent leakage from splashing water. The wagons were unloaded and the canvas covers removed, then pushed into the water and pulled across the river by a rope pulled by oxen the men swam to the other side. The contents of the wagons was wrapped tightly in the canvas top from the wagon and then pulled across the river on log rafts as were the people. Livestock were herded together to make the swim from one side to the other
Crossing the Big Blue had taken almost four days, so Elizabeth had only to prepare meals and care for the hens and rooster. She was happy for the rest. She still trusted in Samuel’s judgement that moving to Oregon was a good thing, but she’d never been so tired in her life. She knew the other people in the wagon train were just as tired. She had expected there might be talk around the fires at night or maybe a dance on some nights, but that had not happened. The people just ate and then went to bed.
Elizabeth knew Samuel was tired as well. She and Samuel had agreed that sex would not be possible during the trip since the children would be sleeping in the wagon with them. It would also have been risky for her to become pregnant during the trip. Still, she had liked the kisses he’d given her the first few nights and she liked the way he sometimes touched her when the children and Jed weren’t looking. That had all stopped after three days. Samuel was so tired he often nodded off while eating.
On and on the wagon train rolled across the prairie of Kansas. The prairie grasses seemed to grow faster than the buffalo they often saw could eat them. By the first of May, the grass was so tall only a man’s hat was visible as he trudged along. The canvas tops of the wagons had been bleached white by the blazing sun and on the rare occasions Elizabeth sat in the wagon seat, they looked like the picture of ships on the ocean that hung in her mother’s house.
I was easy for a child to become lost in the tall grass, and that did happen one afternoon to the Brown family. Their eight year old son was chasing a rabbit when last seen, but after half an hour, his mother realized he was gone. The Brown’s pulled their wagon to the side and began to search.
As Samuel passed by, he asked why they had stopped and upon learning the reason, pulled their wagon aside as well. Four other families did the same and the group commenced to search. After two hours, they found the boy lying down and crying. His mother scolded him, then hugged him to her breast.
Half an hour later, the group of six wagons started after the wagon train and arrived an hour after darkness had fallen over the prairie. Only the ruts in the trail and the lights of the campfires had enabled them to find the camp. Elizabeth sternly cautioned Mary and Martin about leaving the wagon. She knew if they hadn't found the boy before dark, he would probably have not survived the night. They often heard the howling of wolves now once the night turned black. Even a grown man would probably be killed by wolves, much less a small boy.
It was two weeks later, just after the wagon train had passed Chimney Rock, that Mary cried out in pain and then limped to where Elizabeth walked beside the wagon. Elizabeth knelt down and asked Mary what had happened. Mary lifted the hem of her dress and revealed two small bleeding punctures on her right calf.
“I heard a noise and went to see what it was. It was a snake, a big snake, and it bit me. It hurts, Mother, it hurts really badly.”
Elizabeth yelled at Samuel to stop the wagon. When he saw Mary’s wound, he asked Jed to run and fetch the doctor.
Jed and the doctor arrived several minutes later by which time Mary’s leg had swollen to twice it’s normal size and she was moaning in pain. Dr. Hayes took one look at the wound and then reached into his leather bag. He took out two bottles, one of whiskey and the other containing a clear liquid.
“I will treat the wound with ammonia to neutralize the poison”, he explained. “You must make her drink as much of this whiskey as possible if she is to recover.”
Elizabeth explained she did not believe in adults drinking whiskey, much less a child. The doctor nodded his head.
“I understand, Ma’am, but in this case, whiskey is a medicine. She must drink it in order to have a chance.”
While Dr. Hayes applied the ammonia to the two wounds, Elizabeth held the bottle to Mary’s lips.
“Drink this, Mary. The doctor says you must.”
Mary took a small sip, then coughed and sputtered.
“It is awful, Mother.”
“I know, child, but you must drink as much as you can.”
As Mary drank more and then lapsed into a coughing fit, Jed asked the doctor about using gunpowder and eggs as a poultice. The doctor smiled.
“Young man, though that old remedy is still used by some, medical science has been proven it to be ineffective. The only remedies approved by any knowledgeable medical man these days are what I have just given the child. I will admit it has had limited success, but it is the best thing for her, and is the best I can do. Her fate is in God’s hands now.”
After drinking nearly half the bottle of whiskey and coughing up a lot of it, Mary fell asleep. Samuel carried her to the wagon and placed her on the bed. Elizabeth sat down beside the child to watch her through the rest of the day.
Samuel started the oxen forward again in order to catch up with the rest of the wagons. Elizabeth held Mary’s hand and prayed to God to save the girl’s life. When they arrived at the circle of wagons, Elizabeth was still praying. Samuel, Martin, and Jed made a supper of cold ham and raw carrots washed down with water. Samuel brought three blankets from the wagon and he and Jed slept that night beside the fire.
Try as she might, Elizabeth couldn’t stay awake all night. Samuel found her the next morning kneeling on the floor of the wagon with her arm around Mary and her head resting beside the girl. Tears came to his eyes as he felt Mary’s forehead. It was cool. He felt Mary’s chest and detected no heartbeat. Their daughter had passed on to her reward. Gently, he shook Elizabeth and told her.
It seemed cruel to Elizabeth to have her only daughter buried without a coffin. She had wept until she could weep no more, and then stood numbly as the men dug a grave beside the trail. She barely heard the words Reverend Mitchell said before he and the doctor lowered Mary’s body into the shallow grave. She turned away as they began shoveling the dark soil of Kansas into the hole.
Mary was so young, and had so much of her life ahead of her, a life that had been taken by a creature of the Devil. Was this what God had planned, that Elizabeth would be robbed of her daughter because of some past transgression? Elizabeth tried to think of something she had done in the past that would cause such punishment against her. She found nothing she believed would do that, but surely there was something.
Was this her payment for searching for a better life? That must be it. God had intended for her family to remain poor but pious, and in trying to better themselves had upset that intention. The cost of that better life was Mary’s young life.
At the sound of the rough cross made of cut branches being driven into the ground, Elizabeth turned back to Mary’s grave. The low mound of earth had been covered by rocks to keep the wolves and other animals from digging it up. She walked to the cross and touched it. That rough cross would be the only mark her Mary left on the world, and then only her name carved into the side of the crossed branch.
Over the days that followed, Elizabeth grieved their loss, then accepted it as God’s will, and finally began to understand that it was God’s way of testing her belief in that will and her belief that all things happen for a purpose. She did not know what that purpose was. Perhaps God needed another angel, she thought, and then imagined Mary with a golden halo and pure white wings. Mary would make a good angel, she thought. The girl had never been any trouble at all. She was always good and polite to others.
Two weeks later, the wagon train reached Independence Rock, but passed on by. There was little grass for the livestock and without grass, the oxen would weaken. They found grass two days later, and the wagon master called a halt for two days so the livestock could rest and eat their fill. Samuel took advantage of the time to replace the rear wagon axle. It had cracked after going over a large rock in the trail. Samuel had lashed the crack with rope as a temporary repair, but now used the spare axle he’d bought to replace it.
Jed kept mostly to himself except for helping to replace the axle. Elizabeth thought him a little standoffish. It was true he had only joined them for the free passage to Oregon he’d earn for his work, but he seemed to want to stay by himself. He slept under the wagon at night, and while he always said her cooking was really good, he preferred not to eat with them. She couldn’t understand why unless it was that he felt as if hired help shouldn’t be friends with the employer. Samuel had felt that way about their landlord in Missouri.
Jed knew the reason, a reason he could never tell anyone. Two years before coming to Independence, he’d gotten into a fight over a woman. He was taller and heavier than the other man, and had been winning the fight when one of his punches knocked the man backwards. The man had fallen and hit his head on the iron tire of a wagon. Jed had rushed to the man’s side thinking to boast he had won the fight and the woman. Instead, he found the man gasping his last breath. Jed had run then, just picked up some clothes and blankets and started walking west. He knew he’d be charged with murder and hung if he was caught.
He’d had a beard then, but shaved it off when he got to Independence. He’d also let his hair grow until it brushed his shoulders. He was glad he’d done both. Three weeks before Samuel had hired him, he’d seen a wanted poster on the wall outside the marshal’s office in Independence. The drawing of the man on the poster was him and he was wanted for murder. The reward was a hundred dollars. Jed knew he had to leave Independence as soon as possible, but at his wage of two dollars a day, would never be able to save enough money for what would be required.
No, he couldn’t tell anyone, and especially he couldn’t tell the Crocker family. They were a kind, church-going family. If they knew of his past, they’d make him leave. He knew if he became friendly with them, sooner or later they would want to know his past and he wouldn’t be able to lie about it. The murder had really been an accident, but they wouldn’t understand that. His only hope was to keep to himself until they reached Oregon, then take his parcel of land and start his life over.
On July 4, the Wagon Master said they were nearing Soda Springs. They wouldn’t camp there because the water was too alkali for people or animals, but it marked a little over half their journey. The next day, they passed Soda Springs and continued on until they found a small stream with good water and good grass for the livestock. That night, Mrs. Breedan gave birth to a daughter and all the women in the wagon train came by to see her.
Elizabeth felt a lump in her throat when she remembered that Mary had looked the same way when she was born. The little girl was still very ruddy and her tiny cheeks pumped in and out as she nursed at Mrs. Breedan’s breast.
Mrs. Breedan was worried, or so she told Elizabeth and the other women. When her other children were born, she’d had milk two or three days earlier. This time, there was none. Little Chloe was trying to nurse, but didn’t seem to be bringing the milk down. Dr. Hayes said Mrs. Breedan was quite worn down, but if she started eating more, the milk would come. He suggested in the meantime she should feed Chloe with cow’s milk. He had brought along a glass bottle with rubber nipple for just such a happening as he’d heard of the same thing in a letter from another doctor who had made the trip the year before. He lent it to Mrs. Breedan with instructions to clean both the bottle and the nipple well after each feeding. Elizabeth volunteered some of Jewel’s rich milk and Mrs. Breedan accepted her offer.
Elizabeth stayed with Mrs. Breedan on and off for the next three days and brought a small pail of fresh milk three times a day. Chloe did not like the rubber nipple and took little milk at each feeding. After a day, she began to cry constantly and Elizabeth took to holding the tiny girl in order to give some respite to Mrs. Breedan. After three more days, Chloe became silent and Elizabeth could see the little girl was wasting away. When she took milk to Mrs. Breedan the next afternoon, the woman was sitting on the wagon seat and holding the baby tightly to her breast.
Elizabeth could see by her color that the baby was dead. She climbed up on the wagon seat and put her arms around Mrs. Breedan. The woman was not crying. She only stared out at the expanse of the prairie, and didn’t seem to even recognize that Elizabeth was there. Elizabeth asked if she could hold Chloe for her. Mrs. Breedan turned then and her face was blank as she spoke.
“No. Chloe must stay with me from now on. I’ll never let her go again.”
Elizabeth tried to explain that Chloe was gone.
“Mrs. Breedan, Chloe is…Chloe has gone to be with God.”
“No she hasn’t. She’s just sleeping. When she wakes up, I’ll have milk for her. I dreamed it last night.”
“Very well, I’ll just stay here with you until she wakes up. Would that be all right with you?”
Mrs. Breedan looked at Elizabeth and smiled.
“Chloe and I would like that.”
The other wagons passed them by, and Samuel stopped their wagon behind that of the Breedan’s. He and Mr. Breedan talked for a while, and then Samuel walked up to where Elizabeth sat. Elizabeth climbed down from the wagon seat and led Samuel to the rear. When she stopped walking, she had tears in her eyes.
“Mrs. Breedan’s little Chloe is dead.”
“I know. Mr. Breedan told me that and that he can’t get Mrs. Breedan to let her go. We need to bury the baby and get started again.”
“I know, but she needs some time to understand. You and Mr. Breedan start the wagons. I’ll stay ride with Mrs. Breedan.”
Two hours later, the Mr. Breedan and Samuel drove their wagons into their spots at the rear of the train. Samuel and Jed un-yolked the oxen and Jed drove them to the grazing ground. When Samuel walked to help Mr. Breedan, Elizabeth got down from the wagon seat.
“Mrs. Breedan understands now. I told her our Mary would take care of Chloe in Heaven, and she seemed to accept that. Samuel, I buried Mary without a coffin. I won’t let that happen with Chloe. Find some way to make one, and bring me Mary’s baby dress from my hope chest. Mary doesn’t need it anymore and Chloe deserves to go to her Maker in more than a blanket.”
Finding a carpenter to make a coffin wasn’t a problem. Finding wood in the area was. Samuel made the rounds of each wagon and explained the reason for his visit. Every family donated a small scrap of wood, be it the top of a now empty food crate or a small piece split off a wagon tail gate. The women dug into their boxes of clothing and rags and donated small pieces of fabric. Most of it wasn’t what would normally line a coffin, but it was all they had.
Little Chloe, dressed in Mary’s white baby dress, was laid in the ground under a cottonwood tree beside the camp the next morning. Mr. Evens, one of the carpenters on the journey, had pieced together the donated wood into a strong if not beautiful coffin, and his wife had stitched together the scraps of material to make a lining. Elizabeth had helped Mrs. Breedan dress Chloe in Mary’s baby church dress, and walked beside her to the site of the small grave. Mrs. Breedan kissed Chloe on the forehead, laid her in the coffin and then turned and fell sobbing against Elizabeth’s shoulder.
Mr. Evans nailed the lid on the small coffin and Elizabeth saw that he’d chiseled “Chloe Breedan” into the lid. Reverend Mitchell said a short burial service and then Mr. Breedan placed the coffin in the grave. As they had with Mary, the men filled the grave with earth and then covered it with rocks. Elizabeth watched the little cross that marked Chloe’s final resting place as their wagon passed by.
Death was to become normal as the days and miles went by. The Ferguson’s son developed dysentery overnight and was dead by the next night. The James’ daughter caught her dress on a wagon wheel when climbing down as the wagon rolled over the prairie. She was pulled under the rear wheel which rolled over her midsection. Elizabeth was thankful that the girl had died quickly and didn’t seem to be in pain. Mrs. Erickson was already fifty eight when the trip began. She was found dead by her husband one morning. The doctor said she had died of exhaustion.
Injuries and illness were a day to day occurrence caused by fatigue and by the land over which they traveled. Elizabeth herself was forced to ride on a bed in the wagon after she developed a fever. The fever racked her body for a week before it finally abated, and she was too weak to do much for another week after that.
She thought maybe losing her daughter and then becoming ill herself was the end of their troubles. According to the wagon master, they were just a month from The Dales. After reaching The Dales, they would either take the toll road around Mt. Hood, or raft the wagon down the Columbia River. After all the miles and hardships, the end was in sight. Elizabeth thought God was surely done testing them.
Two days later, the wagon train arrived at the Snake River. The Snake wasn’t very deep, only about four feet at their chosen crossing point, but it was too deep to drive the wagons across because the wheels wouldn’t touch the riverbed. The men of the wagon train again caulked all the seams on the wagon beds in preparation for floating the wagons across. The next day, the wagon train started over the river with the men walking on each side of the oxen to keep them going in a straight line for the other shore.
Elizabeth sat on the wagon seat as Samuel and Martin started the oxen down the embankment and into the water while Jed stayed on shore to help drive the rest of the cattle of the wagon train across. She felt the wagon lift as the wheels lost the bottom and then begin to swing downstream in the current. Samuel was on the downstream side and spoke to and prodded the oxen to keep them moving. Martin was on the upstream side and urging the oxen forward as well.
Martin was nearly up to his neck in the water but was doing his best to mimic Samuel. Then, he stepped off into a hole in the river bed. His head went under the water as he was swept under the second yoke of oxen, then resurfaced as he was swept downstream by he current. Samuel yelled at Elizabeth to stay with the wagon and then began going downstream after Martin as fast as he could. In less than a minute, both Martin and Samuel were swept around a bend in the river and out of sight. Elizabeth screamed for help. Men who had already crossed the river and had seen what had happened began running downriver to rescue Samuel and Martin. One of the men in the wagon in front let his own wagon pass by and then drove Elizabeth’s wagon to the opposite shore.
Elizabeth was frantic by the time the oxen pulled the wagon up the embankment and then into the camping spot for the night. She stood on the wagon seat in hopes of seeing Samuel bringing Martin back with him. That still had not happened when the last of the wagons pulled up into the camping area. Jed and a few men brought the rest of the cattle across the river. While other men drove the cattle to a grazing spot, Jed un-yolked the oxen and drove them to join the rest. When he came back, Samuel and Martin had still not returned. He tried to comfort Elizabeth as best he could.
“I wouldn’t worry, Mrs. Crocker. That there river ain’t very deep. Soon’s they got their footing, they’d have climbed up the bank and started back. That current’s pretty strong, though, so they’s likely quite a ways away afore they could do that. They’ll be along shortly.”
Jed didn’t comfort her worries much. To have something to do besides think of the worst, Elizabeth asked Jed to build a fire and then started making a stew of venison Samuel had shot the day before.
The pot was starting to bubble when there were murmurs from the downstream side of the camp. Elizabeth climbed up on the wagon seat to see, and then clasped her hand to her chest.
The men were back from their search, but instead of seeing Samuel and Martin walking, she saw a dozen of the men carrying two stretchers made from small branches. She climbed down from the wagon seat and ran towards the group of men.
Jed was already there, and caught her arm as she passed him.
“Mrs. Crocker, they found Mr. Crocker and Martin two miles downstream caught under a tree that fell in the river.”
Elizabeth looked at Jed, and the sorrow on his face cause tears to stream down her cheeks.
“I’m awful sorry, Mrs. Crocker.”
The men brought Samuel and Martin to Elizabeth’s wagon and then explained what they thought had happened. The tree had fallen into the water at a narrow spot in the river. The narrowing caused the force of the current to increase and as the current swept Martin into the tree, he’d been caught on the branches and pulled under. Samuel had tried to pull him out, but had also been swept off his feet by the current and pulled under the water. Both had drowned by the time the men found them.
Reverend Mitchell and his wife walked up a few minutes later. His wife put her arms around Elizabeth.
“I don’t know why God wanted them both, Elizabeth, but He did. I’ll stay with you until they’re buried.”
The Reverend touched her shoulder.
“Sometimes, Mrs. Crocker, the Lord has different plans than we do, plans we can’t understand at the time, but plans that work out for the best. It is up to Him to decide our fate. We can only accept His will and carry on with our lives. I know that’s not much comfort right now, but you’ll see. The Lord never makes mistakes.”
Elizabeth cried for a while, but then was just numb. Her husband and her son, the last of her family, lay there on the stretchers of branches. She didn’t believe God would be so cruel as to take everything from her, but he had.
First it was Mary, her dear beautiful daughter, and now, her strong son and her husband. What could be the reason for such heartbreak? Elizabeth toyed with the idea of going back to the river and jumping in. If she waited until dark, no one would know until morning when Jed came for his breakfast. He’d see she was gone, and there would be a search. They’d find her, maybe caught under the same tree that had killed Samuel and Martin. They’d all be buried together beside the trail, and spend eternity together. She wondered how Mary would be able to find them in Heaven.
Her rational side said ending her own life was a stupid thing to do. She was still young and could start again. It would be hard, but she could. Ending things now would be making light of the sacrifices she and her family had endured.
She was still thinking about that when Jed touched her on the hand.
“Mrs. Crocker, they’re ready to lay Mr. Crocker and Martin to rest.”
Elizabeth stood quietly while Reverend Mitchell preached a longer than usual burial service. He spoke of the determination of Martin to help his family and of the courage of Samuel in trying to save his son. He spoke of how the Crocker family had helped others on the journey. He prayed God would open his loving arms to both.
One of the women then began to sing “Shall We Gather At The River”, and the rest of the people of the wagon train joined her. The sound of their voices flowed around Elizabeth and gave her some comfort. Tears still streamed down her cheeks as she watched Samuel and Martin lowered into the graves, but she felt better understanding they were at the end of their troubles in life and beginning a new life with Mary, Chloe, and the others who had passed during the journey.
After the graves were covered and the crosses driven into the ground, the other people began to file away to their own wagons. Soon, only Mr. and Mrs. Breedan were left, and they walked over to where Elizabeth stood with Jed. Mr. Breedan cleared his throat and then spoke in a quiet voice.
“Mrs. Crocker, you helped us when we needed help, and we’ve been talking. We can never thank you enough for what you did for Chloe, but since you don’t have a…since you’re alone now, we’d offer to take you the rest of the way to Oregon with us. The other families will pay you what they can for your wagon, oxen and cattle. Once we get to Oregon, you can live with us for as long as you want. We don’t expect you to tell us now, but you think about it. We’d be more than happy for you to join us.”
Mrs. Breedan hugged Elizabeth, and then she and Mr. Breedan walked away. Elizabeth had forgotten Jed was standing there until he spoke to her.
“Mrs. Crocker, I kept the stew pot from drying out, and you need to eat something. Come sit down by the fire and I’ll get it for you.”
Jed dipped her a bowl of venison stew, handed it to her with a spoon, and then dipped one for himself. They ate in silence for a while. Jed figured Elizabeth wouldn’t want to talk. Elizabeth was thinking. She surprised him when she put down her bowl and spoke to him.
“Jed, I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”
“It weren’t nothing, Mrs. Cocker. I just did what I was hired to do, that’s all.”
“Well, I still owe you thanks, especially for today.”
“I didn’t do anything much.”
“Yes you did. You stood by me and I needed that. I don’t know what I’d have done without that.”
“Whatcha gonna do now, Mrs. Crocker? You gonna go with the Breedans like they said?”
“I’ve been thinking about that since the funeral. I don’t want to do that. It would be like saying I’ve forgotten what Samuel wanted so much.”
Jed scratched his head.
“Well, I don’t see how you can go the rest of the way by yourself, you being a woman and all.”
“I won’t have to if you stay with me. Can you work for a woman?”
“I can drive the cows. Who’ll drive the oxen?”
Elizabeth’s mouth was a firm line.
“I ain’t never seen a woman driving horses or oxen. You sure you can do it? They can be mighty stubborn sometimes.”
“I watched Samuel and Martin drive them for five months. If Martin could do it, I can too. I might need some help sometimes, but I’ll make it. Are you willing to go on with me?”
“Yes, I am. I still owe you my work for the rest of the trip, so I’ll go with you. You just holler anytime you need something.”
The next morning, Jed helped Elizabeth yoke the oxen and hitch them to the wagon, then went to fetch the other cattle. When he came back, he grinned.
“Just start ‘em off slow like. They’ll probably follow the rest pretty much.”
When the wagon in front of her began to move, Elizabeth tapped the off ox with the same slender pole Samuel had used.
She then did the same with Rex, the near ox. Both began the slow walk that had pulled the wagon over sixteen hundred and some miles of prairie and mountain paths.
Jed had grinned as Elizabeth’s soft but firm voice started the oxen moving. The woman had grit in her gullet. Along the way, more than one man had given up and settled his family on the plains of Kansas or in a valley in the mountains. Elizabeth had experienced more pain and suffering than any woman should have to endure, and yet she was there, walking beside the oxen and giving them the commands of “gee” and “haw” just like any man would have done. He admired that.
After two more weeks, Elizabeth asked Jed why he wouldn’t eat with her when they stopped. Jed just said he thought it wasn’t proper since he was just a hired hand. Elizabeth had laughed.
“Jed, you’re more than just a hired hand. You’re all I have left. You come and eat with me from now on. I could use the company.”
Jed was still nervous about getting too close to Elizabeth. If she ever found out about his past, she might let him stay with the wagon, but she’d always be afraid of him. Jed didn’t want anyone to be afraid of him ever again. It had been that way back in Missouri because of his height, and he’d enjoyed the feeling of superiority. After accidentally killing a man because of those feelings, he’d come to realize that attitude would cause him nothing but trouble. Being around Mr. Crocker all those months had taught him how a man should act. He’d tried to imitate him, and liked how the other people on the wagon treated him as a result. He couldn’t let anything change that.
After two more weeks, the wagon train reached Grande Ronde, the gateway to the Willamette Valley and their ultimate destination. The mornings were cool and sometimes it felt as if snow was on the way. They were fortunate to be early enough there was no snow except the occasional skiff of white early in the morning, but they had to keep moving.
At Grande Ronde, Elizabeth had to decide if they would float down the Columbia River on a raft or take the toll road around Mt. Hood. She discussed the options with Jed. He said the river route would be faster, but after all the water they’d crossed so far, he would rather stay on land. Elizabeth was of the same opinion. She just wanted to hear Jed’s preference. Over the past month, she’d seen more of him than during all the rest of the trip and had grown to understand he was a good man with a good head on his shoulders.
She’d seen him rush to help her when she really didn’t need his help. She’d relied on his judgement at times, and found him to be right. While he still seemed a little shy around her, she’d finally convinced him to call her Elizabeth instead of Mrs. Crocker. He seemed to like doing that, and had become more friendly. He wasn’t trying to get any closer to her, but at least he wasn’t trying to get further away.
“I don’t like the idea of floating down the river and steering around rocks either. We still have enough money to pay the tolls. Let’s take the toll road.”
Jed had smiled when she said “we”. It made him feel good that she thought of them as “we” instead of employer and hired hand. It seemed as if she was thinking more and more like that. Jed wasn’t sure that was a proper thing since if she got too close, he’d have to tell her about Missouri, but it made him happy.
After a week of some of the hardest going the wagon train had experienced, the wagon master halted the wagon train at the head of a huge valley. Elizabeth could see a few fields, but mostly it was just open plain. She smiled to herself. If only Samuel could see this. Then she realized he probably had from Heaven.
There was talk around the campfires that night. Tomorrow, they’d go into the Willamette Valley and after another day would be able to register for claims to the farmland. Elizabeth was excited until she overheard Mr. Breedan telling his wife he didn’t know what Elizabeth would do now because a woman wouldn’t qualify for an allotment by herself.
As she and Jed ate their supper, she asked him if that was true. Jed put down his spoon and frowned.
“Yes, Ma’am, that’s what I heard too. A man with a family will get six hundred and forty acres. They don’t give land to women because they’re not strong enough to work it.”
“I didn’t come all this way and lose so much to get nothing.”
Jed thought for a few minutes without saying anything. Then, he looked up at Elizabeth.
“Elizabeth, you won’t have to worry. I heard from the doctor that they changed the law a couple months ago. Instead of a hundred and sixty acres, I’ll get three hundred and twenty. When I get mine, I’ll build you a separate cabin to live in. You can sell your steers and still have your cows and your chickens, and you can plant a garden so you’ll have plenty of food. You’ll be able to find a husband then and you’ll get your land.”
“You’d do that for me? Why?”
“Well, you’ve been so good to me all these months even though I was just a man your husband hired to help him out. I owe you something in return.”
Elizabeth looked at Jed. He was looking at the bowl of stew and not at her. Still shy, she thought, but he’s still a good man. He had worked hard when Samuel was alive, and he’d worked even harder since. She’d learned Jed knew a lot more than just how to drive livestock. She’d led their conversation one night into farming and found out Jed was raised on a farm.
Who would she find in Oregon? She didn’t know anyone there at all, much less know any man enough to trust what he said. It would be years before she knew enough about a man to agree to marry him. That might be too late for her.
Elizabeth had had thoughts of more babies to replace Mary and Martin. She was still young enough. Her mother had been almost forty when she had the last of her children. It had been hard on her, but she coped and raised Elizabeth’s brother into a strong, pious man. She could do the same if she started soon enough.
She knew it wasn’t the right thing for a woman to do, but neither had been driving oxen for a month or making all the decisions she’d had to make. Men, not women, always did those things, but she had done them and Jed said she had done them well. She stood up and walked to where Jed sat leaning against one wheel of the wagon.
“Jed, I don’t think I need to look for a husband.”
He looked up at her and saw her smiling at him.
“You already found one?”
“I think so, if you think it would be all right.”
Jed scratched his head.
“I don’t know why you’d need me to say it’s all right. That’s a decision you should make.”
“I already made it. He’s you, Jed.”
Jed sat his bowl on the ground beside his leg and then looked up at Elizabeth. He had to tell her so she wouldn’t be making a mistake she’d regret.
“It can’t be me, Elizabeth. You don’t know what I was back in Missouri.”
“No, I don’t, but I know who you are now. What could be so bad about how you were back there?”
Jed took a deep breath.
“I…I killed a man. I didn’t mean to, but I did.”
“How”, Elizabeth asked.
“We were fighting and I hit him a good hard punch. He fell back against a wagon wheel and cracked his head open.”
“That sounds like it was an accident.”
“Well, it was, but the law thinks I killed him. There was a reward out for me in Missouri. That’s why I wanted to come to Oregon.”
“I haven’t seen you fight anybody here.”
“No, Ma’am. I learnt my lesson back there. I ain’t gonna fight anybody ever again lessen it’s to defend me and mine, but it don’t change anything.”
“The bible says we should forgive. I can’t think of a man who deserves forgiving more than you, Jed. I forgive you.”
Jed’s mouth fell open for a second.
“You’d still have me after what I just told you?”
“If you’ll still have me, I will.”
Reverend Mitchell married them the next day when they stopped for the noon meal. There were a few whispers among some of the women that it was too soon after losing her husband, and that she shouldn’t be wearing white, but Elizabeth didn’t listen. She stood proudly in the wedding dress from her hope chest while Reverend Mitchell asked if she promised to honor and obey. She looked at Jed, smiled, and said “I do”.
Jed didn’t listen to the murmured comments either. He was still a little awestruck at it all, but not so awestruck he couldn’t pledge his troth to the woman who stood beside him. Their first kiss wasn’t long and drawn out, but then, there wasn’t time. The Willamette Valley was spread out ahead, the place that held all their hopes and dreams. The wagon train had to keep moving so those hopes and dreams could be turned into reality.
When they camped that night, Elizabeth fixed a better supper than usual, and after they ate, smiled at Jed.
“Did you like your supper, husband.”
“Yes, Ma’am. It was good just like it always is.”
“When do you have to stand guard tonight?”
“I got the stint from eight to ten.”
“I’ll be waiting for you in the wagon.”
“Oh, you don’t need to wait for me. You must be tired.”
She smiled again.
“I’m not too tired for you to make me a proper wife. You go guard your cattle. I’ll be getting ready for you.”
When Jed climbed into the wagon a little after ten, most of the camp was asleep. He thought Elizabeth would probably be asleep as well, so he took off his boots and crept over the floor toward the bed on the right side of the wagon, the bed he knew Mr. Crocker always used. He had taken off his shirt when he felt a small hand touch his shoulder.
Elizabeth didn’t say anything. She just let her hand stroke down over Jed’s bare chest and then his belly. Jed felt that gentle caress stir his loins. He unbuckled his belt and let his trousers fall to the floor of the wagon. The hand stroked lower, then lower still until it touched his stiffening manhood. Only then did he hear the whisper from Elizabeth.
“Come up here with me, Jed.”
The journals both end after two more entries. Jed and Elizabeth recorded their claim of six hundred and forty acres of prime farm land with half registered to him and half registered to Elizabeth. His last written words were “Elizabeth and I are happy to be here together”. Too few words, I thought, to describe his feelings after what had happened over the months on the train, but after reading his journal, I knew Jed wasn’t a man to use a lot of words when a few would do.
Elizabeth’s last entry was about the land claim as well. She was thrilled that she’d achieved what Samuel had wanted so much, and hoped that somehow, he knew and was happy. She then wrote that she and Jed had made plans for the future that included a house large enough for the children they wanted. Her last written words were “God did have a plan for me. I understand it now.”
After reading both journals, I wondered if they realized those plans. Some on-line research led me to some tantalizing facts. In the records of claims in 1850, there was a land claim awarded to Jedediah and Elizabeth Marshall, man and wife. While Marshall is a relatively common name as is Elizabeth, Jedediah is not, and I want to believe they are the same Jed and Elizabeth who wrote the two journals.
I searched for both names and found an entry in the record of the women’s suffrage movement in Oregon several years later. A Mrs. Elizabeth Marshall wrote an article for a weekly newspaper called “New Northwest”. The newspaper was founded and published by Abigail Scott Duniway, and early proponent and activist for women’s suffrage in Oregon.
In the article, Elizabeth stated many women had walked almost two thousand miles to Oregon while caring for their families, now held title to land in Oregon, and had helped to turn that land into productive farms. Most had done the same hard work as their men and some had done that hard work instead of men. Surely if women could do all that, they should be granted the privilege of voting for the men who determined their fate and future.
The last mention of an Elizabeth Marshall I’ve found so far is an obituary from 1901. She was eighty seven when she passed away of old age. She left behind two children, Timothy Marshall and Chloe Marshal Wilson, along with five grandchildren and three great grand children. Two husbands, Jedediah and Samuel, and two other children, Mary and Martin, preceded her in death. She had made the trip from Missouri to Oregon in 1850, had been an advocate for women’s suffrage, and was a prominent member of the Methodist Church in Slayton.
The building I designed is scheduled for completion in October, so I’ll be back in Salem to do a final inspection. I’m going to schedule my trip to give me time to go to the cemetery where the obituary said Elizabeth and Jed are buried. If I can find her grave, I’ll buy some roses and place them by the headstone. If Elizabeth was the woman I read her to be in her journal, she’d probably say roses were silly and not something she needed. I think any woman who endured all that she did and then lived on to start another life deserves more than just flowers that will quickly wilt and die, but it’s about all I can do for her. I hope she appreciates the gesture.