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  Cover Story January 20, 2011     

Stagecoaches, Oregon, and Gold!
by lyle davis

Stage Coach RouteSan Diego County has had its share of stagecoach history . . . but probably none has been recorded by as great a writer as one Samuel Clemens, known to most of us as “Mark Twain.” In the following feature, Twain recounts his journey via stage coach. Lean back, relax, and drift back to a rougher time . . . when life was not quite as easy as we have it. Enjoy the read:

In 1861, Mark Twain's (real name Samuel Clemens) brother Orion was named Secretary of Nevada Territory. Twain joined his brother for the trip west. (Some contend the young Twain deserted from the Confederate Army to do so.) Eleven years later Twain described his journey in the book “Roughing It.” Although its approach is humorous, the book's descriptions are accurate. As Twain notes in his preface, ". . . there is information in the volume; information concerning an interesting episode in the history of the Far West, about which no books have been written by persons who were on the ground in person, and saw the happenings of the time with their own eyes."

The movies create an idyllic impression of riding the overland stage - smooth travel in roomy comfort. Twain paints a much different picture - passengers crammed together with mailbags, jostled by every bump, breathing dust, and at the mercy of Mother Nature. However, for its time, the stagecoach offered the latest technology in travel, carrying its careening passengers across the Western Plains at speeds greater than any other transport available.

Starting Out

Twain begins his journey in St. Joseph, Missouri, the starting point for the overland route to Sacramento, California. Twain and his brother Orion discover that passengers are limited to only 25 pounds of baggage. After shedding much of their luggage, the intrepid travelers are on their way across the plains of Kansas.

Last Stage Coach"Our coach was a swinging and swaying cage of the most sumptuous description - an imposing cradle on wheels. It was drawn by six handsome horses, and by the side of the driver sat the 'conductor,' the legitimate captain of the craft; for it was his business to take charge and care of the mails, baggage, express matter, and passengers. We three were the only passengers this trip. We sat on the back seat, inside. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags - for we had three days' delayed mail with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it strapped on top of the stage, and both the fore and hind boots were full. We had twenty-seven hundred pounds of it aboard, the driver said - 'a little for Brigham, and Carson, and 'Frisco, but the heft of it for the Injuns, which is powerful troublesome 'thout they get plenty truck to read.' But as he just then got up a fearful convulsion of his countenance which was suggestive of a wink being swallowed by an earthquake, we guessed that his remark was intended to be facetious , and to mean that we would unload the most of our mail matter somewhere on the Plains and leave it to the Indians, or whosoever wanted it.

We changed horses every ten miles, all day long, and fairly flew over the hard, level road. We jumped out and stretched our legs every time the coach stopped, and so the night found us still vivacious and unfatigued."


The next day, the stage suffers a breakdown, forcing its passengers to evacuate while repairs are made. The conductor lays the blame for the mishap on the extra weight of too many mailbags. After throwing half the mail onto the prairie, the stage resumes its journey. Orion's large Unabridged Dictionary causes trouble along the way.
"Whenever the stage stopped to change horses, we would wake up, and try to recollect where we were - and succeed - and in a minute or two the stage would be off again, and we likewise. We began to get into country, now, threaded here and there with little streams. These had high, steep banks on each side, and every time we flew down one bank and scrambled up the other, our party inside got mixed somewhat. First we would all lie down in a pile at the forward end of the stage, nearly in a sitting posture, and in a second we would shoot to the other end and stand on our heads. And we would sprawl and kick, too, and ward off ends and corners of mail-bags that came lumbering over us and about us; and as the dust rose from the tumult, we would all sneeze in chorus, and the majority of us would grumble, and probably say some hasty thing, like: 'Take your elbow out of my ribs! Can't you quit crowding?'

Every time we avalanched from one end of the stage to the other, the Unabridged Dictionary would come too; and every time it came it damaged somebody. One trip it 'barked' the Secretary's elbow; the next trip it hurt me in the stomach, and the third it tilted Bemis's nose up till he could look down his nostrils - he said. The pistols and coin soon settled to the bottom, but the pipes, pipe-stems, tobacco, and canteens clattered and floundered after the Dictionary every time it made an assault on us, and aided and abetted the book by spilling tobacco in our eyes, and water down our backs."

The Way Station

Way StationEach evening, the stage announces its approach to a way station by the driver blowing a bugle. The way station offers sparse comfort.

"The station buildings were long, low huts, made of sun-dried, mud-colored bricks, laid up without mortar (adobes the Spaniards call these bricks, and Americans shorten it to 'dobies.)The roofs, which had no slant to them worth speaking of, were thatched and then sodded or covered with a thick layer of earth, and from this sprang a pretty rank growth of weeds and grass. It was the first time we had ever seen a man's front yard on top of his house. The buildings consisted of barns, stable-room for twelve or fifteen horses, and a hut for an eating room for passengers. This latter had bunks in it for the station-keeper and a hostler or two. You could rest your elbow on its eaves, and you had to bend in order to get in at the door. In place of a window there was a square hole about large enough for a man to crawl through, but this had no glass in it. There was no flooring, but the ground was packed hard. There was no stove, but fire-place served all needful purposes. There were no shelves, no cupboards, no closets. In a corner stood an open sack of flour, and nestling against its base were a couple of black and venerable tin coffee-pots, a tin teapot, a little bag of salt, and a side of bacon.

By the door of the station keeper's den, outside, was a tin wash-basin, on the ground. Near it was a pail of water and a piece of yellow soap, and from the eves hung a hoary blue woolen shirt, significantly - but this latter was the station-keeper's private towel, and only two persons in all the party might venture to use it - the stage-driver and the conductor."

The Pony Express Rider

Pony Express RiderThe passengers eagerly await the spectacle of an encounter with a Pony Express rider racing his load of mail to its next transfer point.
“Presently the driver exclaims:

Every neck is stretched further, and every eye strained wider. Away across the endless dead level of the prairie a black speck appears against the sky, and it is plain that it moves. Well, I should think so! In a second or two it becomes a horse and rider rising and falling, rising and falling - sweeping toward us nearer and nearer and still
nearer - growing more and more distinct, more and more sharply defined - nearer and still nearer, and the flut ter of the hoofs comes faintly to the ear - another instant a whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider'' hand, but no reply, and a man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm!

The Pony Express began in 1860 and ended in 1861. Mail was carried in 40-mile relays from St. Jo. to Sacramento in 10 days.

The Mormon Emigrant Train

Mormon TrainNear Salt Lake City, the stage passes a wagon train filled with Mormons making the trek westward.

"Just beyond the breakfast-station we overtook a Mormon emigrant train of thirty-three wagons; and tramping wearily along and driving their herd of lose cows, were dozens of coarse-clad and sad-looking men, women, and children, who had walked as they were walking now, day after day for eight lingering weeks, and in that time had compassed the distance our stage had come in eight days and three hours - seven hundred and ninety-eight miles! They were dusty and uncombed, hatless, bonnetless and ragged, and they did look so tired!"

Information for this story was gathered from the archives that are readily available to the public should you be interested:

Collins, Richard (ed.), The American Frontier (1992); Twain, Mark, Roughing It (1872).
"Riding The Overland Stage, 1861," EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com.

FLast Stageolks were moving out west even before Mark Twain recorded his thoughts about it. A great many followed the Oregon Trail.

In 1889 one man wrote a memoir of ‘the early days:”

Oregon Trail 1843Across the Plains in 1843

Arthur's Prairie First Furrow Plowed in Clackamas County

When in 1843 the frontier fever assumed an epidemic form on a small scale in Missouri, my parents determined to cross the desert plains to the far distant territory of Oregon. Such a journey in those days was no child's play, performed as it was with ox teams, plodding through the dust and heat, climbing mountains and swimming rivers, and not knowing one minute what the next would bring forth.

It was men of the character and disposition to face such dangers accompanied by their heroic wives, mothers and sisters, who severed all connecting them with home and civilization and struck out boldly upon a trackless desert, known to be inhabited by howling wolves and merciless savages, surrounded by dangers, seen and unseen, who I undertake to say, were the chief event to save Oregon to the United States. Hence, I was a pioneer from necessity and in fact, and have ever looked at it without romantic coloring, but as a stern reality to fulfill a duty or destiny.

The early pioneers were forced to live mosly on bread and boiled wheat and drink pea coffee. They lived in log cabins, slept on blankets wore moccasins and buckskin pants, and endured many trials and difficulties.

I drove the foremost team down from the summit of the Blue Mountains that ever made a track on Umatilla soil and plowed the first 40 acres of land, if not the first furrow ever plowed in Clackamas County, the winter of 43, seven miles East of Oregon City, for my father, in what has been called the "Arthur Prairie" ever since that date, and lived in Oregon three long and doubtful years before the question of title to Oregon was settled between Great Britain and the United States, June 15, 1846.

I have lived under the provisional government, then the territorial government and have remained in the Willamette valley ever since Oregon was admitted into the sisterhood of states. I hold that I fulfilled my allotted part in the development of the natural resources of the country: but my labor has passed into the hands of others.

The lonely hut of the savage is gone and in its place are stately temples; the ravenous beast has fled from the face of man, and the valleys are all golden with ripening grain that awaits the harvester.

The beautiful Willamette runs onward to the Columbia as it did in the days of yore; the broad Columbia rolls its everlasting tide into the Pacific as it did when Bryant sang its praises to the world, but the light canoe is replaced by the mammoth steamship, and the shriek of the locomotive hourly wakes the sleeping echoes of its pine-fringed shores. David Arthur, Sunday Oregonian, 1889.

Gold is what drove many of our pioneer immigrants. Who could resist information like this?

Oregon Trail 1849

Supplies Fetch High Prices

On the Middle Yuba River, one miner took out 30 pounds of gold in less than a month from a claim only four feet square. Another miner dug up $26,000 worth of ore from his claim on the Stanislaus before it ran dry.

At the camp of Volcano, miners found as much as $500 in a single panful of gravel. At Durgan's Flat, near Downieville, four men dug out $12,900 in 11 days from their claim, 60 feet square; in six months it produced $80,000.

Tin Cup Diggings, near Downieville, was so named because three men who mined there made it a rule always to fill a tin cup with gold each day before quitting. Just up the river from Downieville a nugget weighing 25 pounds was found.

Gould Buffum's party of 10 made $150 on the first day, $1,000 in the first week at Weber's Creek. Moving on to the Middle Fork of the American River they made $416 (26 ounces) the first day by the pan, and about $400 the second day by the rocker.

The hard-won gold dust did not go far with the cost of supplies being so high. Miners usually took supplies with them, but seldom enough to see them through the season. The transport of three barrels of flour, one barrel of pork and 200 pounds of small stores for about 50 miles cost Gould Buffum's party $300.

At the mines flour cost $1.50 pound, pork cost $1 pound and coffee was $1 a pound. Later in the season coffee prices would rise to $3 to $4 a pound.

Editor, Historical Gazette

Oregon Trail 1856

J. Beeson Pleads Case of Indians

All the papers in the Territories, and in Northern California, are urgent for war. Even the Christian Advocate gave its countenance; and such is the excitement and clamor against the Indians, that Gov. George Curry of Oregon Territory issued a proclamation of war, with a call for Volunteers to take the field immediately. The war spirit, in one form or another, took full possession of the minds of the people. All are absorbed with anticipations of the terrors, the perils and the excitements of savage warfare.

When it was known that Gen. Wool, commander of the Pacific forces, demurred, and even refused to participate, the most intense indignation was not only felt but generally expressed. No one seems to have been capable of perceiving such a thing as humanity in the case.

Men are roaming all over the Indian country, abusing and killing the unprotected natives, until terror and natural instinct compel them to unite for mutual aid and protection. For more than 50 years our people had traveled and trafficked all through the Indian country, and had met with general kindness and protection from the Natives. It was not until the Whites had become numerous, and grossly abusive, that the Indians, from necessity, resisted further aggressions.

Gov. Curry, forgetting that he had Constables, and Sheriffs and Citizens to enforce justice and preserve peace, forthwith summons the people to war; and for this effort to "humble" and make Indians "feel our power," millions of dollars are expected and claimed of the General Government.

John Beeson
Rogue River Pioneer

Oregon: Land of Gold and Opportunity

Oregon Trail 1873

Gold Brings Immigration Civilization Soon Follows

"Not enough gold has yet been found to repay the labor of procuring it," wrote Major Benjamin Alvord, in 1853.

Many prospectors are busy along the waters of Columbia River and on both sides of the Canadian boundary. Reports of gold in Thompson and Fraser rivers, in 1856-57, produced the great "rush" of 1858 to those streams. Gold- seeking thence spread over British Columbia, and a great development of mining took place in that province in 1860-70. The Idaho mines began activities in 1860, those of John Day and Powder River, in Eastern Oregon, in 1861; those of Montana, in 1862.

It may thus be seen that the search for the precious metal on the Pacific Coast was, and is, a general and wide movement, continuing many years. Oregon's part in this movement was not detached, either in time or method. When Willamette Valley farmers went "stampeding" to the mines of Clearwater, Salmon River, Boise, Owyhee and John Day, thousands of others were going thither also, from many parts of the world, and to Eastern Washington, Montana and British Columbia.

The pioneers of Willamette Valley and Cowlitz and Puget Sound hardly stopped to think of the immensity of the gold movement. And it may be added that it included, also, Nevada and Colorado. In topography, industry, transportation, politics, the results were far-reaching.

Prospectors explored every river, mountain, lake and plain. They toiled along all the streams and over the intervening ridges. They learned the contours, the possible routes of trade, the lands available for tillage. They were the advance agents of the succeeding farmers, merchants and transportation men, the geodetic surveyors of their time. The remote sources of the Rogue, Umpqua, Willamette, Columbia and Fraser rivers were their objectives. Their needs and those of the miners located trade centers and routes of traffic, and caused the growth of cities.

Jacksonville, Scottsburg, Crescent City, Yreka, became the leading supply points in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Portland soon leaped into preeminence, as the metropolis of the region. The population of Portland more than doubled from 1280 in 1857, to 2917 in 1860. It grew to 6000 in 1865 and to 9565 in 1870.

The primitive life of the Oregon pioneers prior to the gold movement; the isolation, the remoteness from currents of the world and the Nation; the hardships of family existence; the absence of the comforts of the later day; the lack of markets and the narrow range of industry. The gold movement began the evolution of varied industry, and the later growth of the country.

The value of the gold treasure, extracted from the rocks and earth of the interior region of the Pacific Northwest and Montana, was very large in the then undeveloped condition of this region. In the best years (1861-67), the treasure amounted to $20,000,000 in gold a year, or $140,000,000 for the period. Before the gold period, which began in 1858-60, the region was the most remote, and had the scantiest white population of any part of the Nation.

News from the Eastern centers was four to six weeks old when it reached Portland, Oregon, by way of the California overland stage route, and thence by ocean steamship northward. The mails came to Portland by sea twice a month. The admission of Oregon as a state, February 14, 1859, became known in Oregon a month afterwards.

The earlier gold activities, that began in California in 1848, stimulated affairs of the North Pacific Coast. The Willamette Valley and Puget Sound then found the markets opening for farm products and lumber. Money became abundant and prices soared. Fertile areas in the interior grew in usefulness and productivity, with mining development. The valley of the Walla Walla was one of the earliest localities in this work, beginning in 1858-59. The livestock industry grew ahead of farming in the interior country.

Leslie M. Scott, compiler of Harvey Scott's History of the Oregon Country an extract by the editor of the Historical Gazette

And so, thanks to the writers of the day, and to the historians who went back and ferreted out all of these priceless gems of antiquity, these looks into the past, we are able to at least get a sense of what our pioneer immigrants experienced . . . how they saw our present day nation to build . . . even though it was then just in its infancy.

Perhaps one day in the future some latter day editor will be compiling stories about the archaic and quaint ways we, in this era, lived . . . and wonder at how we survived in such a difficult environment. We think we have it pretty easy . . . perhaps not. Perhaps this is just the beginning of the future.


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