Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

Lowell Area Pioneers on the Oregon Trail, 1853 -- Part One

(from the Dec. 31, 2002, Lowell Tribune, page 8)

Members of two Lowell area pioneer families decided to leave their Indiana homesteads to join thousands of immigrants on the crowded trail to Oregon in the early spring of 1853.

Lured by the prospects of fertile land, lofty forests, lush meadows, sparkling springs and healthy climate, some members of the pioneer Belshaw and Dinwiddie families joined wagon trains on the dangerous winding trail across prairies, deserts and mountains.

In the year 1853, Washington Territory was separated from Oregon Territory. (Oregon became the 33rd state in 1859.)

The journey in a covered wagon for six months was a severe test of strength, skill and endurance, with many weeks needed for careful plans. Many were attacked by Indians or suffered from cholera, smallpox and illness from contaminated water. Among the 7,500 persons on the trail in 1853, seven were killed by Indians (nine Indians were killed). Dozens died from illness and accidents involving firearms.

The majority of the covered wagons were pulled by oxen, preferred because of their steady strength and their ability to live on the prairie, and because their price was less than horses. Horses were weaker and needed more expensive grain. Many mules were used because they were fast and strong, but they were troublesome.

Three diaries or journals were written during that long trip by George Belshaw, Jr., by Maria Parsons Belshaw, and by a Dinwiddie family member, possibly David.

These interesting articles, featured in this story, were made available by the Lowell Public Library.

On March 23, 1853, the "Belshaw Party" left their homes in West Creek Township with 10 wagons. The 25 persons in the group included George Belshaw, Sr. (1777-1866); his wife Ely Archer Belshaw (1789-1867); George Belshaw, Jr. (1816-1893), elected captain of the train at age 37); his wife Candace McCarty (1826-1893), daughter of Benjamin McCarty (born in 1796 and who pioneered in LaPorte, Porter and Lake Counties); their three children William, Marsha and Annie (baby Gertrude was born on the trail in 1853 and lived just two weeks); three brothers of George Belshaw, Jr.: Samuel, Charles and Thomas; Thomas' wife Maria Parsons Belshaw, author of one of the diaries; her parents, Richard and Harriet Ludington Parsons; and several more relatives and friends.

The Dinwiddie family left the Hebron, Indiana, area on March 18, 1853, a few days before the Belshaw family left their West Creek Township homes. Leading the group was David Dinwiddie (1816-1871) with his wife Elsie Hildreth Dinwiddie (1827-1859); their small children: James T. (age 8), Martha J. (age 6), Harriet A. (age 3), and Joseph M. (age 2); a cousin of David, Hugh Dinwiddie, born 1812; and David's brother, Thomas Dinwiddie (1828-1910).

Their wagon train could have escaped some of the wet weather that plagued the other group. Their journal mentioned some of the hardships while crossing streams, but very few major problems on the trail, though they traveled nearly the same route.

The first date mentioned was April 11, 1853, when the Dinwiddie group was camping near the river at Des Moines, Iowa, preparing to cross the river. (The Belshaw group was traveling through heavy rain and mud near Skunk River, Iowa, on that date.)

The following are quotes from three journals or diaries as the two wagon trains are heading west for Oregon.

The Dinwiddie quotes will begin with the April date:

George Belshaw, Jr. -- "Left Lake County March 23, 1853, traveled to Momence 12 miles."

Maria Parsons Belshaw: "How sad and dreary when we behold for the last time perhaps on earth friends we have spent so many happy hours with. And then when I look for the last time at my cottage home and linger around the graves of those I fondly loved." She often prayed for a safe journey.

George: "March 24, in Will County, traveled to Bulbony [Bourbonais?]."

Maria: "Morning found us in poor health, but we have to start. Oh! Oregon, why hast thou crushed all my fondest hopes I've cherished for years?"

The Belshaw train traveled to Wilmington, then soon camped by the Illinois River. George wrote about how they crossed over on the "Aqueduct" by running wagons over by hand and noted that the ladies were "frited."

It was the aqueduct for the Illinois and Michigan canal, which connected Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River. Maria wrote that the roads were miserable, though they traveled 15 miles. They went on through Illinois counties of LaSalle, Bureau, and Henry, and after a restful Sabbath on April 3, had a pleasant drive of 12 miles the following day, until the cattle stampeded!

George: "April 4, all in one moment every team took fright and run like so many wild buffaloes -- such a running and rattling -- Mr. Parson's wagon went over endways with the family inside, bottom side up. Thomas Belshaw's team smashed against a tree, broke the wagon tongue and both yokes, while Oscar Parsons' team smashed a tree and broke up the wagon with considerable damage, no broken bones, but many bruises."

Maria: "April 4, little sister Marcia Parsons we thought could not live through the day. Oh, how thankful we feel to God for the preservation of our lives."

George: "April 5, went across Rock River to Rock Island on the Mississippi -- there came up a real tornado." Huge whitecaps were on the water, the ferry could not run, sand was flying and many of the men bought goggles to protect their eyes. On April 6 the wind abated some, but was still very windy. Maria noted that ten Oregon wagons crossed over that day and that the water was hard in Illinois and Iowa.

The Belshaw family rested for two days near the "Hapsispinaca" River in Iowa, where more repairs were made and were "fixin'" to start on Monday.

George: "April 11, rolled out this morning about 11 o'clock -- took wrong road, only got five miles."

Maria: "Lost our way, drove 15 miles, made only 5 miles. Father Belshaw's team got mired twice -- took 5 yoke of cattle to get them out, rained hard all afternoon." The train had many hardships, teams mired down, a wagon came uncoupled in a stream, bad roads, and a doctor was called for Mary Martin, who was still very sick.

David Dinwiddie: "April 11, encamped on the bank of the Des Moines. Rained for several days."

George: "April 22. I never saw the roads so bad in my life, mud up to the 'axceltres.'"

Maria: "Through mud and ditch today, crossed a bad bridge, crossed Skunk River on an old ferry boat. Traveled ten miles."

In that area their daily trip was about ten miles. (The Dinwiddie company was still in camp near the Des Moines River.) The Belshaw train traveled to Oskaloosa, Pella, Des Moines. Corn was 25 cents per bushel; 100 pounds of hay cost 30 cents. They saw lots of elk horns. Later on in Iowa the grass was short and corn sold for 2 dollars a bushel.

George: "May 8, saw 10 or 15 indians, shook hands with one, cattle was very frited, making preparations for trying the plains."

Maria: "Saw some indians, caused rather unpleasant sensations through my frame."

Dinwiddie: "May 8, Sabbath, went to ferry, a commodious steamboat." The following day they crossed the wide Missouri River, 5 dollars per wagon and one team, 40 cents a head for all other livestock.

George: "May 13, drove down the big 'Misura,' muddiest stream I ever saw." The wind blew hard and it was too dangerous to cross. They camped nearby. Nearly 100 wagons were waiting to cross. One of the captains there was killed by one of his men, and the emigrants voted to hang the killer.

Maria: "Oh, what a wicked place, swearing, fighting and drunkenness. Oh Father in heaven help us to walk in the path of duty."

Dinwiddie: "May 13, crossed over bad slough, came to the Platte River, rapid current."

George: "May 16, crost over today [Missouri River] -- drove few miles -- first night in indian territory. Found 7 indians driving 5 head of cattle off." Indians ran without the cattle which were guarded nightly the rest of the trip.

Dinwiddie: "May 16, cold day, north wind, hard rain, wind blew hard, nearly upset our tents."

Near the Papea Creek the Indians were charging 12 and a half cents a wagon to cross the bridge; at another nearby crossing, the tribes wanted 25 cents, but they took Belshaw's offer of 9 cents. At that point, a man was forced to return, for the Indians had killed 6 of his oxen. Some wagons fell off bridges and a man was lost in the quicksand.

George: "May 25, drove 20 miles, poor sandy soil. I took in 6 more wagons and 10 men for Oregon. We have 17 wagons, 27 men in company.

Maria: "Considerable wild sage, passed 15 graves. No wood nearer than 3 miles." (She mentioned that F.A. McCarty was with them - -Fayette Asbury McCarty, brother to Candace Belshaw. Two more brothers, Morgan and Jonathan, also moved to Oregon, but it is not known if they were on this train.)

Dinwiddie: "May 25, near Buffalo Creek, hard rains very little wood."

George [near Grand Island]: "May 31, killed a buffalo today, saw 12, weighs eight hundred pounds. A fine mess of beef."

Maria: "We supped on buffalo this evening, crossed Elm Creek." (Dinwiddie train was there May 24.)

Dinwiddie: "May 31, hail as large as hen's eggs, hard to keep cattle from running off. Wolves killed a cow. Severe storm."

George: "June 5, drove 20 miles, rough road, passed two springs at the end of Pawnee swamp. Killed first 'bare,' had her for breakfast. Plenty of buffalo, have to carry wood, use buffalo chips when dry."

Maria: "Traveled near the Platte today. The little islands were quite a romantic scene to me."

Dinwiddie: "June 5, hard morning rain, then beautiful, lay over the rest of our teams." (The following day he reported that they viewed Chimney Rock and some very curiously formed bluffs. Passed by a "Dog" city, dogs and owls inhabit together.

George: "June 11, drove 18 miles. Sandy soil. Saw Chimney Rock this afternoon. Plenty of grass and water, but no wood."

Maria: "Passed several graves, traveled near the river -- rocky bluffs dotted with cedars, teams and tents scattered along. I think the old pilgrims must have made the same appearance as the emigrants do. Father better. About two came to Cobble Hill. I climbed to the top and saw Chimney Rock 37 miles from us."

Dinwiddie: "June 11, fine day, but warm. 2 miles brought us to Rawhide Creek. Passed indian wigwams. Camped at noon to write letters, and shoe our horses and oxen."

The 1853 Oregon Trail story will continue in the January 2003 'Pioneer History' column with more interesting and exciting words written by the Lowell area pioneers on the trail, including a story about a little lost boy.

Last updated on July 14, 2005.

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