THE TERRIBLEST ROUTE OF ALL
The story of the Longmire-Byles Wagon Train of 1853 as told by:
George H. Himes, and
with supporting documents edited by Gary Fuller Reese Tacoma Public Library. Tacoma, Washington 98402. 1984.
PART ONE: The Lucille McDonald Story from The Seattle Times.
PART TWO: James Longmire, Erastus A. Light, Van Van Ogle, George H. Himes, David Longmire
PART THREE: Supporting Documents,
Use of the Naches Pass by the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1842,
First attempt to building a Naches Pass Road,
List of contributors to the second road,
Story of the road crew by Robert S. Moore,
Theodore Winthrop visits the Road builders,
A note by Edward J. Allen,
A note about the Road in 1853 by Theodore Winthrop,
John Mullan's 1862 note about the road,
Rev. H. K. Hines discusses the success of the Naches Pass Road,
List of Pioneers of the Longmire-Byles Wagon Train of 1853,
A note on the Wright Family,
A letter from Andrew Burge about the road building crew,
A trip across the pass by Ezra Meeker in 1854,
A note about Lafayette Balch's support for the road,
The Longmire-Byles wagon train of 1853 was very much like many of the hundreds of wagon trains that crossed the Great American Desert in the late 1840s and the 1850s traveling from the Mississippi River to either California or Oregon. Those who made up the train came from several states, were generally unknown to each other until the start of the trip, and they joined each other for companionship and safety as they crossed the Plains. Their luck was perhaps better than many other wagon trains for they lost only one person who died near the end of the journey, they had sufficient food for most of the journey and they had no real confrontation with the Indians as they traveled west.
The major claim of the Longmire-Byles Wagon train had to a place in history was the route that they chose to follow after they arrived in the Oregon Country. Thinking that Puget Sound probably had more to offer than the Willamette Valley the members of the wagon train chose to take what they thought would be a completed road across the Cascades to the Sound. They became the first wagon train ever to attempt crossing the Cascades north of the Columbia River.
Their adventures including time wasted on taking a wrong trail, being shocked with finding the road unfinished, and the actual crossing of the Cascades by way of Naches Pass are the basis of this publication.
Forty years after the event James Longmire and Erastus Light, who were members of the wagon train, dictated and wrote their reminiscences of that journey for publication in the Tacoma Ledger which was sponsoring a contest for pioneers to describe life and times on the frontier. The Longmire account was later published by Binfords and Mort of Portland in a work they entitled First Three Wagons which described the John Bidwell migration to California in 1841, the Elijah White wagon train to Oregon in 1842 and the activities of the Longmire-Byles wagons of 1853.
Van Ogle was interviewed by the Washington Historical Quarterly in 1922 and his remembrances published here are part of a longer account which included his experiences in the Indian War of 1855 which were published in the October, 1922 issue of the Washington Historical Quarterly.
Robert Longmire and George Himes were small boys on their trip and their accounts reflect remembrances of their own experiences and communications with others who were there. Mr. Himes, whose account was published as part of the proceedings on the 35th annual session of the Oregon Pioneer Association published a list of those who were members of the wagon train and David Longmire added to this list when his story was published in the Washington Historical Quarterly in 1917.
The editor of the Binfords and Mort book, Alfred Powers, wrote the following about the trip:
The only whole distance wagons were by the terriblest route of all, over the roadless Cascades to Puget Sound. The Bidwell party abandoned their wagons on the Salt desert; five years later these were used by another party as firewood for cooking their suppers. The Elijah White company left some wagons at Fort Laramie, some at Green River and all the rest at Fort Hall.
What follows is the story of "...the terriblest route of all..."
It begins with an account written by Lucille McDonald of the Seattle Times whose many years of historical writing has added much to the public understanding of the early days in the Pacific Northwest. Information from other sources is also included but the major portion of this collection is the reminiscences of those who were part of the wagon train.
Theodore Winthrop's account of his trip across the Naches Pass is perhaps a little too "cute" for modern taste but his description of the work done by the road builders gives a good impression of what was being done. Later Winthrop met a detachment of U.S. Army soldiers on the Yakima side of the pass and his description of this meeting is reproduced in his book The Canoe and The Saddle.
After some criticism of his account, George H. Himes, wrote the following in an attempt to lend more credence to his reminiscences:
I began the preparation of my article, as printed in the Transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association, 1907 at the request of James Biles one day when I was his guest at Tumwater. "Why, Mr. Biles," I said, "I am not the person to write an account of the trip through the Naches Pass. Some one or more of the adults ought to do it. I was nothing but a boy and am not positive about the facts. I remember many of the details of the trip, that is, I think I remember them."
Finally, upon Mr. Bile's insistence, I said, "I will jot down my recollections, make several typed copies of the same, and send one to every adult that can be found that belonged to the party and ask for criticisms."
That was the course I pursued and among others that I read my account to in person was Van Ogle in his home in Tacoma. Before that, however, the substance of it was recounted in Van Ogle's cabin one night when I stayed with him when he lived close to the spot on the Puyallup River where we crossed in 1853. Then again I went over it with him when I stayed all night with him in the Soldiers' Home in Orting.
Nelson Sargent, the oldest son of the Sargent family, an adult when he came west to California with his father in 1850, saw my account. All in all, the portions of my paper relating to the trip through the mountains passed the scrutiny of at least twenty adults of our company.
James Longmire did not see it, as he was away more or less during the years that the copies of my paper were being passed around from one to another. Finally, I found that he had caused an account to be prepared giving his recollections of the trip through the Cascades and after I saw it I was amazed to observe the substantial agreement there was in our accounts.
The account (Mine) was read to David Byles when I was a guest at his house, just a few weeks before he was killed by the railroad near Elma. His brother, Charles N. Byles, once in the banking business in Montesano, also read my account. However, he was not an adult when making the trip in 1853.
Anyway, my account will have to stand for what it is worth on the basis of whatever value there may be in any expression uttered by me. So note it be.
George H. Himes. "The Oxen at Naches Pass," Washington Historical Quarterly XIV (January, 1923), pp. 78-79.
Gary Fuller Reese.
Tacoma Public Library.
LUCILLE MCDONALD'S ACCOUNT OF THE NACHES PASS TRAIL
By Lucile McDonald, Published in the Seattle Times, November 1 and November 8, 1953.
As soon as the creation of Washington Territory became a fact in 1853 the several counties on Puget Sound, some of them newly formed, considered steps to insure the opening of a northern route into Puget Sound country that year.
General Joseph Lane, delegate to Congress from the Oregon territory, obtained a twenty-thousand dollar appropriation for this purpose in January, 1853, but the money was not available to the settlers on the west coast.
While the means for paying for construction of the road were still in doubt, an Olympia committee composed of the Reverend Benjamin Close, Olympia Postmaster A. W. Moore, James Hurd, John Alexander and Edmund Sylvester, hotel man and townsite proprietor, agreed early in June, 1853, to receive names of volunteer workers and to accept contributions of cash or supplies for the road builders.
They collected about one thousand, two hundred dollars. Edward J. Allen, a twenty-two year old engineer, set out with Whitfield Kirtley, George Shazer, and John Edgar, a retired Hudson's Bay Company shepherd, to view a trail over the mountains described by The Rev. Francis N. Blanchet in his journal of 1848 and used sometimes for bringing furs from the inland country to Fort Nisqually. Indians living near Edgar's house on the Yelm prairie said the men would find the route impassable because of snow.
Undeterred, the group headed toward the Puyallup River, striking it three miles beyond the point where a previous road had been completed in 1850 to Porter's prairie. This earlier effort of settlers to open a wagon route over the mountains halted at the A. L. Porter land claim, three miles south of present day Enumclaw and two miles from Buckley.
Allen described the trail from there on:
We struck up a small stream to the right, crossed the White River Valley to the Greenwater, then up Greenwater Canyon to Ahnepash River on the east side of the summit then to Bumping River."
It is assumed that Ahnepash may have been the Little Naches River. Allen said that "...at the ridge between Drift River and the Yakima River..." believed to have been near Rocky Flat between the Naches and Wenas Rivers, two men turned back to carry the news of their findings to Olympia and the two others continued blazing the road.
The party reported that route, "...so feasible that we consider it unnecessary to survey any other trail." It was well watered, with plenty of grass, important considerations for wagon caravans. They estimated the distance from Muck River to the summit as eighty miles.
Captain George B. McClellan of the Stevens Railroad survey party also was out looking for a road, but his delayed arrival in Olympia tried the patience of pioneer businessmen anxious to have their new townsites attract migrant population. Meeting July 9, 1853, they decided "...the eleventh hour has come and the road must be made ready."
Accordingly two crews set forth, one under Kirtley and one under Allen, some of the men obtaining equipment at cost from Lafayette Balch, Steilacoom townsite owner and merchant. Major Charles H. Larnard, newly arrived commandant at Fort Steilacoom, bolstered their determination by sending an express message asking McClellan to spare part of his men to help the citizens.
Allen's party was made up of eighteen men, among them: A. C. Burge, Thomas Dixon, Ephraim Allyn, James Henry Allyn, George Gathers, John Walkers, John H. Mills, R. S. More, R. Forman, Ed Crofts, James Boise, Robert Patterson, Edward Miller, Lewis Wallace, James R. Smith, John Barrow and James Meeks.
They cleared the earlier road for a distance of about six miles and then altered the course so as to escape the three worst hills on the whole route. Allen said that these, being heavily timbered had been fired. When the men returned after reaching the summit they planned to clear the route more thoroughly.
By August 20, 1853, Kirtley's party had finished swamping out the eastern end of the road to the summit where, at an elevation of about 5,000 feet, they found grassy meadows suitable for grazing animals in the wagon trains.
Theodore Winthrop, who passed there a few days after Kirtley quit described the eastern descent as "..an elaborate inclined plane of very knobby cordroy down the steepest slope." He said his Indian guide preferred aboriginal paths to this effort of the white man.
Winthrop, previous to this, on August 26th, visited Allen's camp on the Greenwater and shared the latter's blanket for the night. He wrote of the robust, good-natured road crew to whom it was but play for any one of them with his ax "...to whittle down a cedar five feet in diameter."
At the camp Winthrop dined and breakfasted on coffee, bacon and toasted flapjacks with molasses, served at an enormous bonfire, which powdered the country roundabout with its ashes.
In the morning Allen walked a short distance with Winthrop on the trail. At the summit Winthrop again saw a white man, Lieut. Henry C. Hodge, a member of McClellan's party, who had been detached from the military group and sent with a message for Fort Steilacoom. The lieutenant was sitting in a meadow writing his day's observations when Winthrop and his Indian guide passed.
Hodge went down the west side and on his arrival at the road building camp expressed approval of the settler's steps toward making the route passable.
However, by then Allen was ready to admit that the task required much longer than anticipated and he feared his crew might not finish that season. Also, nothing had been heard from the immigrants. Nelson Sargent, a young man from the vicinity of Olympia had gone over the trail late in August expecting to meet members of his family in a westbound wagon train. No news had been received from him. The road builders, discouraged, suspended work and returned to Olympia. Allen explained, "We still have some three miles of road to finish before crossing the White River for the last time." He said his men had put fire to this stretch on the way out. Burning was a standard method of land clearing both for Indians and white persons.
Allen was confident that after 1853 the Cascade Range no longer would be a bugbear adding, " We have but one really bad hill down the mountainside, which is, with our limited time and means for improving, without a doubt a bad place, but can be made with but little outlay very good. It is not to be compared with Laurel Hill on the other route." He referred to a difficult portion of the Barlow Road around Mount Hood.
The white River country looked so good to some of Allen's workers that they staked claims there. The leader went on to his own home on Budd Inlet, to find that the house had been destroyed and two thousand dollars worth of cut timber on his property had been burned while he was absent.
By this time the settlers doubted they could turn the tide of immigrants toward Puget Sound because it was so late in the season and part of the road still was no more than a trail. It was late in September, 1853, when Postmaster A. W. Moore of Olympia made a final effort to turn the tide toward Puget Sound over the newly built Naches Pass route.
Moore left by horse for the east side of the Cascade Mountains planning to meet Governor Isaac I. Stevens and persuade him, if possible, to enter Olympia by the settlers' road.
Already young Nelson Sargent had ridden out from Olympia in the direction of Walla Walla and Indians brought word that he had met his father, who was with an immigrant party of thirty-six wagons led by James Longmire. When Nelson found them they were camped at Grand Ronde.
Sargent told of the wagon road built directly to Puget Sound and assured the party he had traveled it and that work doubtless had progressed to the summit, as a crew still was clearing the way when he had seen it a few weeks earlier.
Accordingly the Longmire party left the Oregon Trail at Umatilla and struck out for Fort Walla Walla, ferrying its wagons across the Columbia on a flatboat made of driftwood lumber.
Young Sargent, who could speak some Chinook, made a bargain with the Indians to swim the stock. The tribesmen demanded pay before they would commence.
"We gave them eighteen dollars and they brought up twenty-five canoes, forming them in line below the crossing," Longmire related. "We drove our stock into the river and they saw to the opposite shore in safety. Next came the horses and when they were about in the middle of the stream the Indians laid down their oars and made signs, which I understood to mean more money."
The party crosssed the Yakima River and reached a canyon at Wells Springs which seemed an insurmountable obstacle. Indians, who had followed them, got off their ponies and marked on the ground two roads, indicating by dots the "sleeps" or camping places. At the end of the roads they indicated "soldiers."
Thinking the shorter route would be better, the whites went northeast as far as White Bluffs on the Columbia. The Indians followed them and the settlers suspiciously ordered the tribe to keep at a distance. Next day all retraced their steps to Wells Springs. Nelson Sargent had gone in another direction to look for the settlers' road and came back with word that he had found it.
The party traversed the formidable canyon September 18, then went on to Coal Creek, the Selah Valley and on to the Wenas where a member of the group, John Aikin, was dispatched to ride ahead and seek supplies. Next the caravan reached the Naches River, following it four days and crossing it sixty-eight times. At the summit grass was found and the wagons stopped for two days' rest.
Three miles father to the west was Summit Hill where the most storied episode of the trek took place. The steep descent was accomplished only after cattle were sacrificed for the purpose of making rawhide to augment the scanty supply of rope with which to lower the wagons three hundred yards down the slope.
An end of the rope was tied to a wagon axle, and the other end, thrown around a tree, was held by the men of the party. One by one the wagons were eased past the danger point, then the ropes were loosened and the vehicles continued another quarter of a mile with locked wheels to the Greenwater. The only wagon lost was that of John W. Lane. A rope broke, the prairie schooner was smashed and the Lane family made the remainder of the trip on horseback.
By this time Aikin had reached Edward J. Allen's road camp, arriving there just before it was abandoned. Allen, hearing that the wagon party was in need of food, sent three hundred pounds of flour from the worker's supplies into the mountains, then accompanied Aikin to Steilacoom and Olympia for more. Michael Simmons and others got together one thousand pounds of flour, onions, and other provisions and sent a party back with Aikin.
Meanwhile Andrew Burge, of the road building party, was traveling along into the mountains with packhorses laden with Allen's donations of food. At Summit Hill he saw two whitewomen, Mrs. James Longmire and Mrs. Erastus Light, and their children walking.
"My God, women, where in the world did you come from?" he demanded, seeing them shrinking back in the bushes to give his horses room to pass on the narrow trail.
When he saw the wagons he tried to persuade the men to camp on the summit meadow, saying the trail he had come over was too narrow and had not been finished. Unable to convince the immigrants that they could not pass, he left the food he brought as the wagons were badly in need of it. As Burge returned to Steilacoom, he blazed trees and left notes tacked up to guide and encourage them.
His messages read, "a shade better," or "a shade worse," and so on.
The wagons crossed the Greenwater sixteen times and the White River six times. The dreariest pull, Longmire said, was over Wind Mountain, "which was covered with heavy fir and cedar trees, but destitute of grass, with a few vine maples on whose long leaves our poor oxen and horses had to live for seven long days, not having a blade of grass during that time."
Logs were made into bridges to cross creeks, some being laid alongside windfalls, already on the trail. The men walked in order to ease the pull for their tired, half starved oxen. Finally the leaders came out on Porters' claim but the owner was in Olympia. They made their seventh crossing of the White River and reached Connell's prairie, thence to the Puyallup where humpback salmon were running and they had a fish feast.
On the way they had been heartened by the appearance of several other settlers. A day after Burge reached them, another Sargent boy, Wils, accompanied by Orington Cushman, hiked in from Olympia and paid a visit to the mountain caravan. At a ford on the White River before they descended Mud Mountain three Tumwater boys delivered the supplies from Michael T. Simmons.
On October 8, when the wagons were on the Nisqually Plains, a party of well-dressed horsemen approached. They were members of the Olympia committee which had raised the road funds. Longmire said that when the two groups met he was wearing torn and ragged pants and a cap. One of his boots was missing and he wore in its place an improvised moccasin made from the hide of a cow killed a few days earlier.
"Our embarrassment," he recalled, "soon was dispelled by a copious draught of good old bourbon, to which we did full justice while answering questions." Scarcely had the Olympia welcome squad departed when another group rode up from the rival town of Steilacoom.
At Clover Creek the men decided to leave the womenfolk camped near the home of Mrs. Mahan and ride to Fort Steilacoom. While the party was still there Dr. William F. Tolmie, factor at Fort Nisqually brought the gift of a cartload of dressed beef.
"Distribute it to suit yourselves," the doctor said. The immigrants offered to pay for the beef, but money was politely refused. "It is a present to you," the doctor insisted. With this gift he issued a formal warning that while settlers were welcome, they must not take up land belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company.
Both Olympia and Steilacoom opened their arms to the newcomers and mass meetings were called to welcome them in the two towns.
Lucile McDonald, "The First Crossing of Naches Pass," Seattle Times November 1 and November 8, 1953.