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Travel tips from the Willamette Valley led to 1853 tragedy

S Meek & ElliottRAINBOW: Emigrants  who’d been sent for help were themselves rescued in the Eastern McKenzie Valley over 150 years ago. What they endured and the ground they traveled over were brought to life last Friday at the Upper McKenzie Community Center.

Telling their story was Daniel Owen, great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin Owen. As part of the eight-man advance party from the Lost Wagon Train of 1853, Owens crossed the Cascades, passed through the Three Sisters Wilderness and eventually became among the first Euro-Americans to, “Get lost in your neighborhood,” Owen noted.

They weren’t the only pioneers who got into trouble making the long overland trip to the West. Owen outlined some of the parallels starting with a history of Meek’s Cutoff, and how wagon trains got off track in both 1845 & 1853. “There were a lot of bizarre similarities, almost like history repeating itself,” he said.

Part of the errors he laid at the feet of people living in the Willamette Valley who wanted to draw more settlers to join them. Several invested in a building a new route and enticing people to leave tried and true routes that had been followed before. “Who in their right mind would do that, especially at the end of the emigrant season?’ He asked. “Apparently, my family,” he added. Newspaper articles and guide books told people the new route would be shorter and passed through areas with plenty of wood, water and good feed for animals. What 1,000 unfortunate people learned, however, was the promotional fluff didn’t mention the new route was poorly marked and had not been completed.

Similarities between the two wagon trains, of course, included that they both got lost.  Besides that, the guides leading them nearly were hung when things soured and most things that went wrong happened in nearly the same place.

There were differences. Stephen Meek, who led the 1845 wagon train, apparently had a pretty good understanding of the lay of the land in Eastern Oregon. Elijah Elliot, who guided wagons eight years later, had never been there. At a critical point in ‘45, Meek’s followers turned north and headed toward The Dalles. That relieved them of having to cross the Cascades. In ‘53, the opposite choice sent families on a route which included rough lava fields that cut through animals’ hooves and human footwear.

Having survived those and other hardships, the men of the advance party still faced challenges even after they’d made it to Separation Meadows. One false start took them down the nearby creek to Indians Falls where water seeping out of the ground nourished an alder barrier that blocked their passage.

Finally finding an aboriginal trail on Foley Ridge, the party made their way into the Horse Creek area, where Owen said they encountered, “Probably the most difficult part of the trip.” When they entered the area the men had five horse with them. One they butchered after fell in the stream. Another horse also fell and was crippled. It and the other three were let loose.

When members of the advance party met up again near Finn Rock they were in sorry shape. Owen’s great-grandad no longer had shoes but he did have an empty stomach. After meeting a rescue party from the lower McKenzie he offered to eat their dog. “Imagine, you have your favorite pet and someone wants to make a meal out of it,” Owen said. After that, the locals and their dog sort of “Eased off,” he said.

“Mostly, the story of the Lost Wagon Train is about friendship,” according to Owen. “They stuck together, no matter what they went through. In this day and age, that’s an important lesson.”

More details are in the book Owen authored after retracing the trails of the pioneers, The Lost Rescue: Parallel Diaries of the Advance Party from the Lost Wagon Train of 1853. It covers two parallel diaries written by members of Elijah Elliott’s “Advance Party.” The paperback volume, published by the Createspace Independent Publishing Platform sells for $19.95. For details go to Books-A-Million:

Image: Two guides both ran into trouble making their way to Oregon - Elliot, right, bore a striking resemblance to Chuck Connors of  TV’s “The Rifleman.”


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