Diary of a Woman Migrating to Oregon, 1853
The experience of migrating west into territory still controlled by Native Americans was difficult and dangerous. In these diary excerpts we find the experience of Amelia Stewart Knight who traveled with her husband and seven children from Iowa to Oregon. She was pregnant the entire trip and gave birth to her eighth child on the side of the road near the journey’s end.
Saturday, April 9th, 1853 — STARTED FROM HOME [South-central Iowa) about 11 o’clock and traveled 8 miles and camped in an old house; night cold and frosty.
Thursday, April 14th — Quite cold. Little ewes crying with cold feet. Sixteen wagons all getting ready to cross the creek. Hurrah and bustle to get breakfast over. Feed the cattle. Hurrah boys, all ready, we will be the first to cross the creek this morning. Gee up Tip and Tyler, and away we go, the sun just rising. Evening — We have traveled 24 miles today and are about to camp in a large prairie without wood. Cold and chilly; east wind. The men have pitched the tent and are hunting something to make a fire to get supper. I have the sick headache and must leave to boys to get it themselves the best they can.
Saturday, April 16th — Camped last night three miles east of Chariton Point on the prairie. Made our beds down in the tent in the wet and mud. Bed clothes nearly spoiled. Cold and cloudy this morning, and every body out of humour. Seneca is half sick. Plutarch has broke his saddle girth. Husband is scolding and hurrying all hands (and the cook), and Almira says she wished she was home and I say ditto. “Home Sweet Home.” Evening – We passed a small town this morning called Chariton Point. The sun shone a little this afternoon. Came 24 miles today, and have pitched our tent in the prairie again, and have some hay to put under our beds. Corn one dollar per bushel, feed for our stock cost 16 dol. to night.
Saturday, April 23rd — Still in camp, it rained hard all night, and blew a hurricane almost. All the tents were blown down, and some wagons capsized. Evening — It has been raining hard all day; everything is wet and muddy. One of the oxen missing; the boys have been hunting him all day. Dreary times, wet and muddy, and crowded in the tent, cold and wet and uncomfortable in the wagon. No place for the poor children. I have been busy cooking, roasting coffee, etc., today, and have come into the wagon to write this and make our bed.
Friday, April 29th — Cool and pleasant; saw the first Indians today. Lucy and Almira afraid and run into the wagon to hide. Done some washing and sewing.
Monday, May 2nd — Pleasant evening; have been cooking, and packing things away for an early start in the morning. Threw away several jars, some wooden buckets, and all our pickles. Too unhandy to carry. Indians came to our camp every day, begging money and something to eat. Children are getting used to them.
Thursday, May 5th — We crossed the river this morning on a large steam boat called the Hindoo, after a great deal of Hurrahing and trouble to get the cattle all aboard. One ox jumped overboard and swam across the river, and came out like a drowned rat. The river is even with its banks, timber on it, which is mostly cottonwood, is quite green. Costs us 15 dollars to cross. After biding Iowa a kind farewell we travel about 8 miles and camp among the old ruins of the Mormon towns. We here join another company, which will make in all 24 men, 10 wagons, and a large drove of cattle. Have appointed a captain, and are now prepared to guard the stock, four men watch 2 hours and then call up four more to take their places, so by that means no person can sleep about the camp. Such a wild noisy set was never heard.
Friday, May 6th — Pleasant. We have just passed the Mormon graveyard. There is a great number of graves on it. The road is covered with wagons and cattle. Here we passed a train of wagons on their way back, the head man had drowned a few days before, in a river called Elkhorn, while getting some cattle across, and his wife was lying in the wagon quite sick, and children were mourning for a father gone. With sadness and pity I passed those who perhaps a few days before had been well and happy as ourselves. Came 20 miles today.
Sunday, May 8th — Sunday morning. Still in camp waiting to cross. There are three hundred or more wagons in sight and as far as the eye can reach, the bottom is covered, on each side of the river, with cattle and horses. There is not ferry here and the men will have to make one out of the tightest wagon-bed (every company should have a waterproof wagon-bed for this purpose).Everything must now be hauled out of the wagons head over heels (and he who knows where to find anything will be a smart fellow), then the wagons must be all taken to pieces, and then by means of a strong rope stretched across the river, with a tight wagon-bed attached to the middle of it, the rope must be long enough to pull from one side to the other, with men on each side of the river to pull it. In this way we have to cross everything a little at a time. Women and children last, and then swim the cattle and horses. There were three horses and some cattle drowned while crossing this place yesterday. It is quite lively and merry here this morning and the weather fine. We are camped on a large bottom, with the broad, deep river on one side of us and a high bluff on the other.
Tuesday, June 28th — Still in camp waiting to cross. Nothing for the stock to eat. As far as the eye can reach it is nothing but a sandy desert and the road is strewn with dead cattle, and the stench is awful. One of our best oxen is too lame to travel; have to sell him for what we can get, to a native for 15 dollars (all along this road we see white men living with Indians; many of them have trading posts; they are mostly French and have squaw wives). Have to yoke up our muley cow in the ox’s place.
Monday, July 18th — Traveled 22 miles. Crossed one small creek and have camped on one called Rock Creek. It is here the Indians are so troublesome. This creek is covered with small timber and thick underbrush, a great hiding place; and while in this part of the country the men have to guard the stock all night. One man traveling ahead of us had all his horses stolen and never found them as we know of. (I was very much frightened while at this camp. I lay awake all night. I expected every minute we would be killed. However, we all found our scalps on in the morning.) There are people killed at this place every year.
Monday, July 25th — Bad luck this morning to start with. A calf took sick and died before breakfast. Soon after starting one of our best cows was taken sick and died in a short time. Presume they were both poisoned with water or weeds. Left our poor cow for the wolves and started on. Evening — It has been very warm today. Traveled 18 miles and have camped right on top of a high, round sand hill, a fine mark for the Indians. We have also got onto a place that is full of rattlesnakes. One of our oxen sick.
Wednesday, August 17th — Crossed the Grand Ronde Valley, which is 8 miles across, and have camped close to the foot of the mountains. Good water and feed plenty. There are 50 or more wagons camped around us. Lucy and Myra have their feet and legs poisoned, which gives me a good deal of trouble. Bought some fresh salmon from the Indians this evening, which is quite a treat to us. It is the first we have seen.
Sunday, August 28th — Started last night about sun down and drove 5 miles and found tolerably good grass to turn cattle out to. Started very early this morning and drove as far as Willow Creek, 10 miles and camped again till evening. Plenty of willow to burn, but no running water. It is standing in holes along the creek and very poor. It will be 22 miles before we get water again.
Tuesday, September 13th — Ascended three steep, muddy hills this morning. Drove over some muddy, miry ground and through mud holes, and have just halted at the first farm to noon and rest awhile and buy feed for the stock. Paid $1.50 per hundred for hay. Price of fresh beef 16and 18 cts. per pound, butter ditto, 1 dollar, eggs 1 dollar a dozen, onions 4 and 5 dollars per bushel, all too dear for poor folks, so we have treated ourselves to some small turnips at the rate of 25 cents per dozen. Got rested and are now ready to travel again. Evening – Traveled 14miles today. Crossed Deep Creek and have encamped on the bank of it, a very dull looking place; grass very scarce. We may not call ourselves through they say; and there we are in Oregon, making our camp in a n ugly bottom, with no home, except our wagons and tent. It is drizzling and the weather looks dark and gloomy. Here old man Fuller left us and Wilson Carl remains.
Saturday, September 17th — In camp yet. Still raining. Noon – It has cleared off and we are all ready for a start again, for some place we don’t know where. Evening – Came 6 miles and have encamped in a fence corner by a Mr. Lambert’s, about 7 miles from Milwaukie. Turn our stock out to tolerable good feed. A few days later my eighth child was born. After this we picked up and ferried across the Columbia River, utilizing skiff, canoes and flatboat to get across, taking three days to complete. Here husband traded two yoke of oxen for a half section of land with one-half acre planted to potatoes and a small log cabin and lean-to with no windows. This is the journey’s end.
“Diary of Mrs. Amelia Stewart Knight,” Transactions of the Fifty-Sixth Annual Reunion of the Oregon Pioneer Association for 1828 (Portland: 1933), 38-40, 45, 47-48, 50-51, 53.