“Momma, please don’t go,” I whispered, doing my best to hold back my tears in the dim light of a single candle.
She opened my hand, pressed four Double Eagle twenty-dollar gold pieces into it, and then tightly wrapped my fingers around them. “Try to forgive me,” she said with a tortured smile. With her finger tips, she studied my face, as though committing it to memory. I watch her pick up her suitcase and then walk out the door, quietly closing it behind her hoping not to wake papa.
I should have run after her, but I was torn between disbelief and anger. How could she leave us on this of all days – the very day we were to begin our journey on the Oregon Trail! Twice before, momma had run off, changed her mind, and come back. Yet, when I opened my hand and discovered she kept the fifth gold coin for herself, I knew she wasn’t coming back this time. My heart sank as I heard a horse trot past the window and listen as the sound of its hooves faded into nothingness. For years. Momma kept the gold pieces hidden from papa, and now the secret of their existence was in my hands. I hardly knew what I was doing when I hurriedly sewed the coins into the hem of my skirt before the rest of the family woke up.
The only disparaging word papa ever had to say about momma was that she was a pistol of a woman. His words hit the mark for that’s exactly how I remembered her. Yet, even when they argued, which was often, he said she was the spice that made a hard life worth living.
It would be years before I precisely understood what he meant.
At birth, I was named Haden Pemberton after my beloved grandmother Haden McKenna, whom I never met. I was a second child, born shortly after my twin brother, Asbury, who was named after our grandfather Pemberton. For sixteen years, Asbury and I considered our family to be just as normal as any other.
Our four-room log cabin was small and growing smaller with the arrival of each new sibling. The five children of Mildred and Oliver Pemberton were happy there, growing corn, practicing our reading lessons after supper, and waking up to the crow of our annoying rooster. It was home, and I for one, would always miss it.
Several yards behind the cabin was a foot-high white picket fence, that surrounded the family graveyard. Three generations of Pembertons were buried there, the earliest dying not long after the family settled on the plains west of Fort Raccoon, later named Fort Des Moines, and still later became a bustling little town simply called Des Moines, Iowa.
We five Pemberton children would have happily stayed in Iowa had circumstances been different. As it was, papa sold the farm, leaving us no choice but to board our covered wagon, join our neighbors, and make our way from Iowa to the Oregon Territory,
Papa was tempted to head west, citing four specific reasons. First, by a drought one year and a disastrous flood east of the Racoon River the next. Second, a cholera outbreak in the east was spreading our way. Third, the country was suffering civil unrest over slavery. Fourth, and mainly so, it was due to the influence of Mr. Harford Grays.
A wealthy man, Mr. Grays already owned nearly all the farms around us. Twice a year, he came offering to buy our land, but papa always refused. It was during the first winter snowstorm of 1852, that Mr. Grays came to the house, partook of a cup of coffee, and gave papa a letter that would change our lives. Several pages long, the letter specified exactly what was required to successfully complete the two-thousand-mile journey. The reward, the letter stated, was to take up residence in the beautiful and bountiful Willamette Valley.
Each evening for two weeks, papa studied the letter and by the end of the second week, he had the Oregon fever. Our neighbor Mr. Johnson convinced his family of six to join us, and Mr. Finley agreed on behalf of his wife and four sons. However, letters sent to friends and family depicted the journey as harsh as well as deadly, only to find Oregon considerably less than glorious. Sadly, the warnings in those letters were ignored.
There was much to do that winter. We needed to leave Iowa before the melting snow raised the water level in the many Iowa creeks that had to be crossed before reaching the Missouri River. Papa was convinced we would see Nebraska in less than ten days, a distance of over one hundred and thirty miles.
We children were allowed to name the two teams of oxen papa bought, though the oxen didn’t appear to care what they were called. They only understood four English commands that, when shouted, instructed them to go left, right, forward and stop. In any case, they were named Hill and Dale, Valley and River, after the land that lay between Iowa and Oregon.
Asbury and twelve-year-old Emery helped papa with the many chores the letter suggested be done in advance, while I helped mamma with the sewing, mending, baking, milking, churning, and anything else that needed to be done. At age nine, Mary Louise was in charge of gathering the eggs, seeing that the chickens were fed and watered, and keeping five-year-old Harriett out of trouble. Harriett was a very curious child, always into and out of everything that caught her eye. Happy were we when mamma insisted Harriett take a nap. She rocked her in her beloved rocking chair, and inevitably momma’s eyes closed as well.
The infamous letter had drawings of exactly how to build a frame thereby turning an ordinary farm wagon into an oiled canvas covered wagon. But before that, the wheels had to be removed and the wagon turned upside down so papa and the boys could cover the bottom and the sides with tar. Tar would make the wagon float across the rivers without letting the water in, but oh how I hated the smell of it. My complaints were useless since papa said the tar was to fix worn out shoes on the feet of four oxen. and a tub of tar would be traveling with us.
Each family member needed two pairs of good shoes, not counting the hand-me-down shoes, oiled hats and bonnets, bandannas, and rubber capes to protect us from the rain. We needed to prepare rubber sheets in which we could roll up our mattresses and blankets each morning. Momma and I carefully packed bandages, ointments, Caster oil, whiskey, opium, laudanum, morphine, camphor, smelling salts, needles, and several spools of thread for mending.
For food, we could take eggs so long as they were packed in cornmeal, but taking chickens was out of the question. We would certainly take the cow for milk, huge amounts of flour, lard, sugar, coffee, salt and baking soda. Of course, a bushel of corn kernels to be planted in Oregon was essential! When they could, papa and the boys went deer hunting. By spring we had a good bit of dried fruit, pinto beans, salted and dried meat.
We were poor, but we certainly never knew hunger – that would come later.
Same size boxes had to be built, to form a level sleeping area in the wagon for cold, rainy, or windy nights. Papa put a false bottom in one of the boxes, making it a safe place to hide his money. He bought two paraffin lined barrels – a large one with a spigot near the bottom for water, and a small one in which to pack salt pork mixed with grain. The letter recommended two spare wheels and axles which were tied to the bottom of the wagon. We would need mamma’s copper Dutch Oven for cooking, papa’s four brass buckets for hauling water, three candle lanterns, and the tools needed in an emergency. Papa didn’t smoke, but the book said to take plenty of tobacco to trade with Indians and whites alike. It didn’t mention extra shirts.
It was easy for our parents to agree on most of the things we were to take, but it wasn’t long before there arose a certain amount of contention. Mamma wanted to take the ornate mirror and dresser she inherited from her grandparents. Papa said no. She begged to take the rocking chair, but papa shook his head. Mamma packed every spare item of clothing we owned in a wooden box, which papa promptly dumped out on the floor. “One change for each of us!” he shouted. Momma stomped her foot, vowed they would wear as many layers as possible, and ignored him. Next, she refused to leave her cat. Papa hated that cat and the constant stream of kittens it managed to produce. Taking Sutter, our sheep dog was fine, but not that cat!
The need for guns and ammunition for hunting as well as protection was essential. Papa and his sons already owned bowie knives and Whitworth sharpshooter rifles, which even Emery knew how to shoot. As well, he decided to take the sword and the musket papa’s grandfather carried in the Revolutionary War. For mamma and the girl’s, papa bought a fourteen inch .36 caliber six-shot Colt revolver. Mamma hated guns, so papa taught me how to clean and shoot it.
At last, all the preparations were finished, and the morning of our appointed departure had arrived.
When papa got up and roused the rest of the children, he seemed unconcerned by momma’s unexpected departure. That was before her horse came back without her. I feared the worst. Had the horse thrown her and left her dying somewhere beside the road? If papa considered the possibility, he didn’t say. Instead, he tightened his jaw, the way he always did when momma managed to annoy him.
We stood beside the wagon and watched as papa and Asbury hooked up the oxen teams and then Papa turned to his oldest child. “Go on ahead, son. The others wait for us at the crossroads and they won’t wait forever. As soon as I talk sense to your mother, we’ll catch up.” He mounted the horse, nudged the mare’s sides with the heels of his boots, and rode down the lane.
End of chapter 1
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