As I wrote in my last post about the Oregon Trail, the emigrants wanted to get to Oregon before the winter weather set in. Most travelers arrived by the end of October, but some were not so lucky.
One of the unfortunate travelers was Elizabeth Dixon Smith Geer. Elizabeth kept a diary of her family’s trip in 1847. The diary has been widely published on the Internet and can be found in Covered Wagon Women, Volume 1: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, 1840-1849, Kenneth L. Holmes (editor).
Elizabeth’s diary was one of my primary sources for my novel about the Oregon Trail. I used her diary as a reference point to gauge how many miles the travelers managed each day, where they camped, and what the weather and terrain were.
Elizabeth’s first husband was Cornelius Smith. She and Cornelius and their seven children left LaPorte, Indiana, in April 1847, but did not reach the Columbia River until late October. They still faced the treacherous journey route down the Columbia from The Dalles (a tumultuous cascade of rocky falls on the Columbia).
Below are some of Elizabeth’s journal entries on this segment of her trip, which she later transcribed and sent to her friends back in Indiana. This portion of the journal describes the horrors of winter travel on the Columbia and their arrival at Portland, where she and her family spent their first winter in Oregon. The trip took most of the month of November.
October 31 Snow close by on the mountains. We should have gone over the mountains with our wagons, but they are covered with snow and we must go down by water and drive our cattle over the mountains.
. . .
November 7 Put out in rough water. Moved a few miles. The water became so rough that we were forced to land. No one to man the raft but my husband and my oldest boy, sixteen years old. . . .
November 8 We are still lying at anchor, waiting for the wind to fall. We have but one day’s provisions ahead of us here. We can see snow on the tops of the mountains whose rocky heights reach to the clouds at times. A few Indians call on us and steal something from us but we are not afraid of them. Cold weather – my hands are so cold I can hardly write.
November 9 Finds us still in trouble. Waves dashing over our raft and we already stinting ourselves in provisions. My husband started this morning to hunt provisions. Left no man with us except our oldest boy. It is very cold. The icicles are hanging from our wagon beds to the water. To-night about dusk Adam Polk expired. No one with him but his wife and myself. We sat up all night with him while the waves were dashing below.
November 10 Finds us still waiting for calm weather. My husband returned at two o’clock. Brought fifty pounds of beef on his back twelve miles, which he bought from another company. By this time the water had become calm and we started once more, but the wind soon began to blow and we were forced to land. My husband and boy were an hour and a half after dark getting the raft landed and made fast while the water ran knee-deep over our raft, the wind blew and it was freezing cold. We women and children didn’t attempt to get out of the wagons to-night.
. . .
November 18 My husband is sick. It rains and snows. We start around the falls this morning with our wagons. We have five miles to go. I carry my babe and lead, or rather carry another, through snow, mud, and water almost to my ‘knees. It is the worst road a team could possibly travel. I went ahead with my children and I was afraid to look behind me for fear of seeing the wagons overturn into the mud and water with everything in them. My children gave out with cold and fatigue and could not travel, and the boys had to unhitch the oxen and bring them and carry the children on to camp. I was so cold and numb that I could not tell by the feeling that I had any feet. We started this morning at sunrise and did not camp until after dark, and there was not one dry thread on one of us – not even on the babe. I had carried my babe and I was so fatigued that I could scarcely speak or step. When I got here I found my husband lying in Welch’s wagon very sick. He had brought Mrs. Polk down the day before and was taken sick. We had to stay up all night for our wagons were left halfway back. I have not told half we suffered. I am not adequate to the task. . . .
November 19 My husband is sick and can have but little care. Rain all day.
November 20 Rain all day. It is almost an impossibility to cook, and quite so to keep warm or dry. I froze or chilled my feet so that I cannot wear a shoe, so I have to go around in the cold water in my bare feet.
November 27 Embarked once more on the Columbia on a flatboat. Ran all day, though the waves threatened hard to sink us. Passed Fort Vancouver in the night. Landed a mile below. My husband has never left his bed since he was taken sick.
November 29 Landed at Portland on the Willamette, twelve miles above its mouth, at eleven o’clock at night.
November 30 Raining. This morning I ran about trying to get a house to get into with my sick husband. At last I found a small, leaky concern with two families already in it. Mrs. Polk had got down before us. She and another widow were in this house. My family and Welch’s went in with them and you could have stirred us with a stick. Welch and my oldest boy were driving our cattle around. My children and I carried up a bed. The distance was nearly a quarter of a mile. Made it down on the floor in the mud. I got some men to carry my husband up through the rain and lay him on it, and he was never out of that shed until he was carried out in his coffin. Here lay five of us bedfast at one time, and we had no money and what few things we had left that would bring money I had to sell. I had to give ten cents a pound for fresh pork, seventy-five cents a bushel for potatoes and four cents a pound for fish. There are so many of us sick that I cannot write any more at present. I have not time to write much, but I thought it would be interesting to know what kind of weather we have in the winter.
Elizabeth’s travails did not end with finding a place to stay in Portland. Here are her journal entries from later in the winter:
January 15, 1848 My husband is still alive, but very sick. There is no medicine here except at Fort Vancouver , and the people there will not sell one bit – not even a bottle of wine.
. . .
January 31 Rain all day. If I could tell you how we suffer you would not believe it. Our house, or rather a shed joined to a house, leaks allover .The roof descends in such a manner that the rain runs right down into the fire. I have dipped as much as six pails of water off our dirt hearth in one night. Here I sit up night after night with my poor sick husband, all alone, and expecting him every day to die. . . . Mr. Smith has not been moved off his bed for six weeks . . . . I have not undressed to lie down for six weeks. Besides our sickness I had a cross little babe to take care of. Indeed, I cannot tell you half.
February 1 Rain all day. This day my dear husband, my last remaining friend, died.
February 2 To-day we buried my earthly companion. Now I know what none but widows know: that is, how comfortless is a widow’s life; especially when left in a strange land without money or friends, and the care of seven children.
Elizabeth later married Joseph Cary Geer, a widower who had also traveled from the Midwest to Oregon in 1847. His first wife also died just weeks after reaching Oregon in December 1847. Elizabeth described Joseph Geer as
. . . a man fourteen years older than myself, though young enough for me. He is the father of ten children. They are all married but two boys and two girls. He is a Yankee from Connecticut, and he is a Yankee in every sense of the word, as I told you he would be if it ever proved my lot to marry again. I did not marry rich, but my husband is industrious and is as kind to me as I can ask. Indeed, he sometimes provokes me in trying to humor me so much. He is a stout, healthy man for one of his age.
Not much romance for Elizabeth after losing Cornelius, her “last remaining friend.” But by all accounts, Elizabeth and Joseph Geer had a happy marriage for the years remaining to them. Elizabeth died in 1855.