‘All this for Oregon’

Event highlights the historical trail, family’s 1853 trek across U.S. to reach present-day Camas

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Published:

 

If you go

  • What: “Columbia River: Layers of History” symposium.
  • Where: Heathman Lodge, 7801 N.E. Greenwood Drive, Vancouver.
  • When: Starts at 8 a.m., Saturday; ends with Jack Nisbet’s 7 p.m. keynote address.
  • Registration: $45 (does not include meals; people can register on Saturday).
  • On the web: www.octa-trails.org

Schedule

  • 8 a.m., welcome; 8:15 am., Steve Fountain, Layers of History overview; 8:45 a.m., Bob Setterberg, Missoula floods; 9:30 a.m., Sam Robinson and Sarah Hill, Chinookan-speaking people of Cathlapotle; 10:30 a.m., Barb Kubik, Corps of Discovery in Clark County; 11:15 a.m., Bob Cromwell, Fur trade and forts Vancouver and Colvile.
  • 1 p.m., Alys Webber, Scottish fur traders and their American Indian wives; 1:30 p.m., Larry Bafus, A.J. Bolon, Oregon Trail emigrant and Clark County’s first sheriff; 1:50 p.m., Lethene Parks, The 1853 diary of Amelia Stewart Knight; 2:25 p.m., Richard Engstrom, Clark County descendants of an Oregon Trail family; 2:55 p.m., Lethene Parks, Peter Skene Ogden, trapper, explorer and chief factor; 3 p.m., achievement award to Dan Ogden; 3:30 p.m., Tanisha Harris, African-American workers at World War II Kaiser shipyard; 4 p.m., Bob Cromwell, Pearson Airfield; 7 p.m., keynote speaker Jack Nisbet, Geography, flora, fauna and fur-trade history of the Columbia River.

A week into the journey, and things aren’t going well.

It’s not just the mud and the rain. Two of Amelia Stewart Knight’s children have the mumps; another boy seems to be getting sick; another just broke his saddle girth.

And “husband” is scolding everyone.

One of her daughters said something the pioneer mother was feeling herself. It is part of Amelia Stewart Knight’s diary entry for April 16, 1853: “Almira says she wished she were home, and I say ditto. ‘Home Sweet Home.'”

More than 2,000 miles later, Amelia and Joel (the diary referred to him only as “husband”) found their home sweet home in what is now Camas.

The Knights were among a half-million people who went west on the Oregon Trail and associated routes in the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s. Many Clark County residents can trace their families’ arrivals back to the Oregon Trail era.

The Knights’ journey is documented better than many because of the diary Amelia started when they left Monroe County, Iowa, on April 9, 1853.

“She wrote just about every day,” Vancouver historical researcher Lethene Parks said.

Not a complainer

“Her diary is notable because she didn’t do a lot of complaining.”

Amelia Stewart Knight’s home-sweet-home moment on April 16 is the only time when she even seems to be having second thoughts.

The Oregon Trail is bringing people to Vancouver again Saturday — this time for an exercise in history. The Oregon-California Trails Association is teaming with the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation for a symposium at the Heathman Lodge.

Speakers include two local symposium organizers who also are members of the sponsoring groups. Historian Barb Kubik, secretary of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, will discuss the Corps of Discovery in Clark County. Parks, a two-term secretary of the Oregon-California Trails Association, will discuss Knight’s diary.

Oregon Trail diaries offer an unusual perspective on a significant era in American history, said Steve Fountain, a history professor at Washington State University Vancouver. Their authors seemed to realize they were participating in something historic and wanted to document it.

“A lot of these are written not as private diaries, but as narratives people will want to read,” Fountain said.

Fountain, who kicks off the symposium with a “Layers of History” overview, noted another interesting aspect of the emigrants.

“These are people who are doing middling and better; not poor people,” Fountain said. “People who are doing just fine are risking life and limb and traveling for months getting to a place they’ve never been.”

‘The Western bug’

By 1853, wagon trains had been heading west for a dozen years, so the Knights followed a well-worn path.

“It wasn’t an easy trip for anybody,” said Parks, immediate past president of the Clark County Genealogical Society. “Women did all the things they had done at home, but under more difficult conditions.”

And a wife had little to say about the move: “Her husband got the Western bug, and a woman hardly ever had a voice in the decision.”

While Independence, Mo., was the acknowledged start of the Oregon Trail, the Knights’ began their trek from Iowa along the Mormon Trail. At what now is Council Bluffs, a steamboat ferried them across the Missouri River (“after a great deal of trouble to get the cattle all aboard”) and they headed southwest to join the Oregon Trail.

Amelia had seven children — Lucy, Jefferson, Plutarch, Seneca, Almira, Chatfield and Francis — and the eighth was born in Oregon.

“She was pregnant, and she walked almost all the way,” Parks said.

The challenges she chronicled include dangerous river crossings; long stretches with no drinkable water; sick and injured livestock; and plenty of foul weather.

After traveling 18 miles through heavy rain on June 1, she wrote: “The men and boys are all soaking wet and look sad and comfortless … altogether we are a poor looking set, and all this for Oregon. I am thinking while I write, ‘Oh, Oregon, you must be a wonderful country.”’

On Aug. 8, they headed down the trail without one of their children. After stopping to fill water containers, “We left, unknowingly, our Lucy behind. Not a soul had missed her until we had gone some miles, when we stopped for a while to rest the cattle. Just then, another train drove up behind us, with Lucy.”

‘The journey’s end’

The final entry is dated Saturday, Sept. 17, when the Knights camped near Milwaukie, Ore. But her entry continues with what was a most eventful week.

“A few days later, my eighth child was born. … After this we picked up and ferried across the Columbia River. … Here husband traded two yoke of oxen for a half-section of land with one-half acre planted to potatoes and a small log cabin and lean-to with no windows. This is the journey’s end.”

As it was for many Clark County pioneers. Another speaker, Richard Engstrom, will discuss two of the Oregon Trail arrivals on his family tree.

“The Bersch family arrived in 1853 and settled in the Burton area,” where SEH America is now, Engstrom said. “The Dietderichs arrived in 1868 and settled in Salmon Creek.”

Parks, by the way, developed an interest in Oregon Trail history through her late husband. One of Dick Parks’ ancestors arrived in Oregon in 1846.

Her family’s first Westerners arrived in 1881, Parks said: “They waited for the train.”