Julie McDonald Commentary: A Child’s View of the Northwest Trek Across the Oregon Trail


Mary Jane Mills was a child of 8 when her parents, Elkanah and Laurinda Vianna Mills, left Holt County, Missouri, on May 12, 1847, for a new life in Oregon Territory. The family of six started with a party containing only a dozen wagons but, within a week or two, joined others going west on the Oregon Trail. Their company grew to 80 wagons by the time they reached Fort Laramie.

“We traveled almost steady, never laid by, as they called it, until one day, out a month, to rest up a little and let the women have a chance to wash clothes,” Mary Jane (Mills) Brown recalled in recollections she wrote in 1913 at the age of 75.

The Mills’ wagon train was ahead of that carrying Nicholas and Matilda (Glover) Koontz and their four sons, who were with the last of the companies traveling west in 1847 under the leadership of Captain Joseph Magone.

“The grazing was fine for the first two months and the stock kept fat but got to Fort Laramie, there was poor feed for the cattle and horses, and by the time we reached Idaho, the teams got quite thin and quite a lot of the oxen died,” Brown recalled. “It made it very hard for some of the folks, but the people didn’t suffer for anything only sometimes for water.

“I think it was in Idaho we traveled forty miles without any water. That was the hardest day’s drive we had from the Missouri River to the Willamette River in Oregon.”

She recorded “two occurrences of note.” While traveling west, the company met Brigham Young, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who started Salt Lake City. “That year he moved Joe Smith’s body in a hogshead of alcohol to Salt Lake, there was no city there then, and started a cemetery there,” she wrote.

But research indicates that Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, was buried in the Smith Family Cemetery in Nauvoo, Illinois, along with his wife, Emma, and brother, Hyrum, as well as his parents, Joseph and Lucy (Mack) Smith Sr. Articles from February 1928 indicate the skeletons of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were uncovered by a civil engineer from the crumbled walls of a basement in a squalid, deserted house in Nauvoo. That settled the controversial question of where the Smith brothers were buried after they were shot and killed by a mob June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Illinois. Joseph Smith was Nauvoo mayor before his assassination. One article says his wife removed the bodies in a wagon to the “mansion house” on the Smith homestead at Nauvoo and secretly buried them, then held a mock funeral and buried caskets filled with rocks.

For more than eight decades, people believed Brigham Young and his followers took the body of Joseph Smith west to Salt Lake City. Perhaps that was what Mary Jane was told as a child. Or maybe she confused the story with the trip by the charismatic Prussian Dr. Wilhelm Kiel, who created a utopian community in Bethel, Missouri, and, threatened by encroaching civilization, sent scouts west to find a new home. In 1855, Keil planned to lead his followers to establish a new home in the Willapa Valley, and he promised his 19-year-old son, Willie, he could lead the wagon train. But Willie died less than a week before they left, so Keil and his followers created a wooden barrel coffin lined with lead, which they filled with 100-proof Golden Rule whiskey distilled by the colony in Bethel. Upon reaching the Willapa Valley, Keil decided the location was too remote for his new colony, but they buried his son on a hill north of what today is Menlo on Nov. 26, 1855. The gravesite of the boy who through the years became known as “the pickled pioneer” is protected in Willie Keil’s Grave State Park Heritage Site on state Route 6 five miles southeast of Raymond.

Dr. Keil led his followers south to Oregon, where they established the Aurora Colony, their new utopian community, today known as Aurora.

The second occurrence of note took place when the Mills family ran into General Stephen Watts Kearney, who was traveling east from California with General John C. Fremont, whom he had arrested to face a court martial on charges of mutiny and insubordination.

“He had declared himself governor without authority from the government and they traveled across the plains on mules,” Brown wrote. “It took six months to get orders from Washington, D.C. to the Pacific coast those days. There were no Pullman coaches for the people to travel in. They could ride mules or in a covered wagon or what is called a prairie schooner.”

Frémont, who led three expeditions west in the 1840s, opening California for settlement, was appointed military governor of California by Commodore Stockton on Jan. 19, 1847. But on Feb. 13, General Kearney was given federal authority to serve as military governor. When Kearney ordered Frémont to serve the Army, Frémont delayed obedience. He was arrested Aug. 22, 1847, and charged with mutiny, disobedience of orders, assumption of powers and other military offenses. Before an adjutant general in Washington City (D.C.), the popular explorer was found innocent of mutiny but convicted Jan. 31, 1848, of disobedience toward a superior officer and military misconduct. However, President James Knox Polk quickly commuted his sentence and reinstated him to the Army because of his war services. But because he wasn’t pardoned completely, Frémont resigned his commission and settled in California. He served as a U.S. senator from California from Sept. 10, 1850, to March 3, 1851, and later President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed him the fifth governor of the Territory of Arizona, an office he held from Oct. 6, 1878, to Oct. 11, 1881. He died in New York City in 1890.

As a child on the Oregon Trail, Brown was an eyewitness to history, one of the dozens of children who walked barefoot across the plains. “We had no use for shoes and left them in the wagons. The hot sand and cactus bothered us but very little.”

She continued her story.

“We traveled on our journey till we got to the Cascade Mountains, then it was hard for the road was just the Barlow trail,” Brown wrote. “Father paid his toll to pass the Gate and after climbing the mountains until we reached the summit, the men took the oxen off the wagons and let the wagons down from one tree to another for about half a mile.”

The 100-mile Barlow Road, built in 1846 by Sam Barlow and Philip Foster under authorization of the Oregon Provisional Government, enabled wagons to cross the Cascades into the Willamette Valley instead of following the Oregon Trail past the Whitman Mission to the Columbia River and The Dalles and then floating down the river to Fort Vancouver.

“Then the oxen were hitched to the wagons again and finally got down to the foot of those big mountains,” Brown recalled. “On the John Day River, the best old ox in Father’s team laid down by the road and died. We all felt like we had lost a good friend and so we had, for a more faithful old ox never lived, and when we camped near the foot of Mount Hood, there we lost the last milk cow.”

They lost animals, but the family survived.

Elkanah Mills arrived in Oregon Territory Sept. 7, 1847, the exact same day Nicholas Koontz drowned in the Snake River while his wife and four sons watched in horror.

“Father got as far as Big Sandy,” Brown wrote. “He left Mother and we four children while he went into the Clackamas Valley near Oregon City and got a team to take us to the settlement. Poor Father. I often think what a hard time he did have to make a living for us, as the country was so wild and there was nothing much for people to get to live on. But we lived.

“He split rails for 50 cents a hundred and kept us from starving, but I think he had a hard task of it. He lived on the Clackamas River the winter of 1847 and summer of 1848, and to make things harder for my dear mother, my brother only two years old got his feet almost burned off. There was no doctor in the country, so Mother doctored his feet herself and cured them up sufficiently, so he has been able to walk on them all his life.”

Next week, I’ll write about the Elkanah Mills family’s move to Washington Territory.


Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at chaptersoflife1999@gmail.com.