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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County History: Sarah Butler’s Oregon Trail journey

By Martin Middlewood, Columbian freelance contributor
Published: March 23, 2024, 6:05am

Just east of the Kansas border at Carthage, Mo., 21-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Butler (1857-1931) opened her diary. Inside, she wrote eight sentences recording the first day of her trek along the Oregon Trail to Washington Territory. She loaded that entry with information, perhaps rivaling her family’s packing of their covered wagon. She told us they were still busy packing in the morning. Her sister Fannie’s husband, whom she formally referred to as “Mr. G.” (Gallentine), left his gun behind, and she had to carry it for half a mile. She explains it took “all hands” to get their wagon out of the mud before they arrived at Mr. G’s brother’s place for the night.

Today, with rental trucks or professional movers, it’s hard to comprehend how tightly packed the covered wagon was or how difficult the trip was. Suppose you decided to move your family across the country and bought the largest SUV you could find (your Conestoga wagon). You packed it tight with all your possessions, leaving barely enough room for two passengers in the front seats. Then you drove slowly so the others could walk alongside, making about 20 miles a day. That might almost simulate traveling the Oregon Trail.

The basic Conestoga wagon measured 18 feet long (including the tongue), 11 feet high (including the bows holding its canvas top) and 4 feet wide. It carried nearly 12,000 pounds of cargo. Wagon builders tarred the seams in the wagon’s body to keep the inside dry during river crossings. Sarah drove her wagon, determined to come west to Vancouver and make her fortune. Her brother, George, accompanied the group only to sell a string of mules and return to Missouri.

Butler made her journey in 1878, when the Oregon Trail had been in use for decades. But Sarah’s three-month trip still was rugged. She recorded the events in pencil in a lined notebook, 7-by-9 inches. Mostly, she journaled by the campfire at night, but sometimes she wrote as the group rested on the road while their mules grazed or watered. She used initials to identify people who came and went from the wagon train. She noted being stuck crossing the muddy banks of streams, nearly turning over in a wagon rut, hail and rain sweeping across the plains, furious winds, rain and high streams, a night with coal miners, a lame mule, tornado damage to a town and traveling through Idaho during an Indigenous uprising. Sarah’s diary shows her to be level-headed and less fearful than most, despite the tribulations of the trail.

Sarah hoped to become a dressmaker and had shipped a trunk of yard goods to a Vancouver friend before leaving Missouri. After traveling through Portland, she reached Vancouver on July 23 and two days later posted a solicitation for “Plain and Fancy Sewing,” which ran in the Vancouver Independent, stating she and Fannie had opened a dress shop at Main and Ninth streets. It seems to have lasted only a few months. The last ad appeared in October. Eventually, Sarah married John Jacob Wintler, a widower with five children, and bore him four more. Among them was Clark County’s first woman legislator, Ella Wintler.

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Columbian freelance contributor