Charles George Davis has devoted a big chunk of his life to researching and recording the history of the American Far West. Though his writing skills range from exasperating to downright laughable, he’s produced another valuable book. (See Feb. 23, 2010 for my comments on Oregon-California Trails.0

The Oskaloosa Company–Last Wagon Train to Skinner’s in 1847, is the story of the author’s family’s trek across the plains and about the opening of the famous Applegate trail into Southern Oregon.

I knew that some emigrants had gotten into trouble trying to cross the mountains into Oregon and needed rescuing, but I’d never connected in my mind the winter of 1846, the year of the Donner Party, and the storms that bogged down the Oregon settlers the same year. The Oregon folks were more unlucky than the Donners and bore much less responsibility for their dilemma. They’d been told a new wagon trail was open, a road built by previously arrived settlers in the southern Willamette valley near what is now Corvallis,  road built not only to encourage new settlement but to serve as an escape hatch should a threatened war with England over the boundaries of the Oregon territory ever develop. However, a number of folks–the Applegate Brothers included–never followed through on their highway-building commitment, and the emigrants were compelled not only to nurse battered and sickly animals, humans, and equipment that had struggled over two thousand miles from June to October, but to hack themselves a road through virtually uncharted wilderness. And it wasn’t a flat and fruited plain they had to cover. It was mountainous, timbered, rocky terrain completely hostile to wagons and oxen.

Those who followed in 1847 (Davis’ forebears) had a somewhat easier time of it, but they still suffered plenty before and after their arrival. All in all, it’s a rather sad tale. These are folks who planned well, started off with all the supplies required, only to arrive at their milk and honey destination nearly destitute. Once there, disease and misfortune turned their attempts to build a new life into a nightmarish struggle to survive. The patriarch of the group, D.D. Davis, within the first year, lost his wife to measles, then two daughters within five years after that. There were other such epidemics–measles, typhoid, TB–in the community, and the whole area became a memory to be shunned and avoided for the other Davis children and later generations, who moved out of the area and seldom/never returned even to visit.

All in all, it’s a sad story, but in the telling, Davis introduces us to a wealth of detail about life on the trail and on the frontier. He also clears up a number of confusions about the genesis of the Applegate trail, it’s relationship to other emigrant roads coming out of Nevada to CA and to OR, and treats us to a western history bonanza of great proportions.

A buddy and I plan to retrace the Applegate Trail from Winnemucca to the Willamette River valley next week. More about that on our return.

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