12/29/1836 – ?
Barnett was the youngest brother of Benjamin Simpson. The following is a newspaper article from the Oregon Daily Journal, from Portland, Oregon, published on March 18, 1925, about his experiences crossing the plains in a covered wagon on their journey to Oregon in 1846.
This newspaper article was one of three printed in serial form. I was unable to find copies of the other two articles. However, in early 2004, at Champoeg State Park, just south of Portland, Oregon, I came across the book below that contained Barnett’s entire account of the crossing of the Oregon Trail in 1846.
From Ric Costales we received another account of the same trip west written by J. T. Simpson, Benjamin Simpson’s son by his first wife Elzira.
From “Conversations with Pioneer Men” by Fred Lockley, compiled by Mike Helm, Published by Rainy Day Press, 1996.
Pioneer of 1846
Portland , Oregon
“I’m not figuring on getting married or running for office, so 1 might as well tell you the exact truth about my age and anything else you care to ask me about. I was born in Platte County, Missouri , December 29, 1836 , and was the youngest child of a family of 11. So as not to give a one-sided picture, I am going to tell you the things that are not creditable about myself as well as the things that are.
“For example, I might tell you my most vivid recollection of our trip across the plains in 1846. I was going on ten when we crossed the plains to the Willamette Valley. We crossed the river at St. Joe and camped for a few days to let the emigrants gather and to organize the wagon train.
“My oldest sister, Eleanor, married a man named John Anderson. Her son John was a year and a half older than I, in spite of the fact that 1 was his uncle. My father told me to look up a bridle that had been mislaid, so John and I started to look for it. While looking under one of the wagons John saw a stone jug. He pulled out the cork and smelled it, and said, ‘This is whiskey. Did you ever drink any corn liquor, Barnet?’ “My father was a Primitive Baptist preacher and was very strict, so 1 had never tasted liquor. I confessed that I had never drunk any whiskey and was curious as to its taste. John tipped up the lug and took a swallow and handed it to me. I didn’t like to be a quitter, so I took a swallow. It nearly strangled me, but I pronounced it mighty good.
“John thought it would be funny if he could get me drunk, so he suggested that we drink some more. We took a generous drink and then resumed our search for the bridle. We found the jug in the middle of the afternoon, and by 5 o’clock we had pretty finished what whiskey there had been in it. We went back every few minutes to take another drink. John would tip the jug up and pretend to take a big drink, and would pass it to me and urge me to drink heartily. By 5 o’clock I couldn’t walk. 1 fell in a stupor.
“John had drunk enough to make him drowsy. He sat by the camp fire. He had a new hunting coat my sister had made for him. A spark jumped out on the tail of his new hunting coat and he was so fuddled he didn’t notice it till someone saw the smoke, and by that time the whole back of the coat was burned off. “They saw he was drunk and they knew I had been with him, so they began to look for me. Presently they found me, lying where I had fallen. They carried me to our wagon and worked over me all night. I foamed at the mouth and had convulsions and they thought I was going to die. The first thing I remember was along about 9 o’clock the next morning. I heard my brother Thomas, who was not going to cross the plains with us, telling Mother goodbye and saying, ‘Don’t worry. Mother. Barnet is going to pull through all right. Give him a tablespoon of whiskey every couple of hours till he sobers up.’
“I rolled over toward him and said, ‘I have had plenty. I don’t want any more. As Iong as I live, never another drop of whiskey will ever go down my throat.’ That was nearly 80 years ago, and from that day to this I have never tasted liquor of any kind or description.
“My father, William Simpson, was born in North Carolina . My mother, whose maiden name was Mary Kimsey, was born in Tennessee . I don’t remember what year my father and mother were married, but Ben was their first child, and he was born in Tennessee in l8l8, when my mother was 21. Mother was born in 1797 and Father in 1793. Father was 53 when he started across the plains and Mother was 49. They were considered old people. They called Father ‘Uncle Billy’, and Mother, ‘Aunt Polly’. My brother Ben, who was 28 when we started for Oregon , was elected captain of the wagon train. Ben married Elzirah Jane Wisdom in 1839, when he was 21. They had one son, John T. Simpson. She died not long after her baby was born. My brother married Nancy Cooper in 1843.
When we crossed the plains in 1846, to Ben and his second wife, two more boys had been born – Sylvester C. and Samuel L. Sam was a baby, having been born about six months before we started for Oregon . Sam, my nephew, was the author of the book of poems entitled The Gold-Gated West. I guess his “Beautiful Willamette” is his best known.
“Our whole family came to Oregon in 1846 except my brother Thomas, who did not cross the plains till 1852. Tom married Rosena Buff back in Missouri and decided to let us come out and see if we like it and if we did he would sell out and come.
“When we started across the plains all our neighbors told Mother what a dangerous trip it was and how we were sure to be killed by Indians or drowned or die of cholera or be run over by buffaloes. Mother, who had heard how they buried people who died while crossing the plains, in a blanket by the side of the road, decided she would be forehanded, so the winter before we left she carded and spun and wove a lot of cloth, dyed it and cut it up and made a shroud apiece for everyone in the family. No, we didn’t get to use a single one of them. I think she cut them up after we got to Oregon and made clothes out of them. I was more interested in the hunting shirt she made for me than I was in my shroud.
“It will be 80 years ago next spring that we started with our ox teams and covered wagons for Oregon . We didn’t have any particular trouble on our six months’ trip across the plains. My brother Ben was captain of the train and he was the right man in the right place.
“The only fatality we had was one man killed. Two men went in together to come to Oregon . They pooled their resources and bought a wagon, a couple of yoke of oxen and supplies for the trip. They didn’t get along any too well. One night the driver of the outfit lagged behind. They camped about three miles from the rest of the train. The next day the driver caught up with us. When they asked him where his partner was he said, ‘The Indians must have killed him during the night. I buried him this morning by the side of the road.’
“We had not had any trouble with the Indians, so most of the folks in the train thought he had killed his partner for his share in the outfit.
No, we didn’t do anything about it. There was nothing we could do. We were in a hurry to press on to Oregon, and even if we had turned back and dug his partner up we couldn’t have proved that some prowling Indian hadn’t shot him, so we went on, but the man whose partner had been wiped out so mysteriously wasn’t very popular with the rest of the folks in the wagon train.
“The last man to join our train before we pulled out for the long trip westward from the rendezvous across from St. Joe was Uncle Ben Munkers.
The train rarely had the same number of wagons in it two days together. It averaged about 100 wagons. Sometimes some of the party would straggle and drop back with another train, or hurry up and get ahead, later dropping back to join us.
Lots of folks crossing the plains imagined the train ahead or the train back of the one they were in must have more considerate and congenial people in it. They usually found out they were mistaken when they dropped back or forged ahead to join the other train. Some folks always have good neighbors. Others always complain about having bad neighbors.
I guess it is the people themselves more than the neighbors that are at fault. “One incident of the trip that I greatly enjoyed was having a band of several hundred Indians draw up across the road and refuse to let us come on unless we would pay for passing through their country They were nearly naked and all-painted up. They danced and whooped and scared the women and the little children half to death. My brother Ben gave the word for every man able to bear arms to get his gun and march toward the Indians ready to shoot if they made any hostile move. They gave way and let us through, for they saw our men meant business.
“The chief, who spoke some English, said, You scare all our game away. Won’t each man give us a present of a charge of powder apiece to prove you are our friends?’ My brother told the men to pour out enough powder from their horns for a charge for each of the Indians.
“While they were doing this an antelope ran by. Half a dozen of the Indians leaped on their horses and took after it. They dropped it within 100 yards. They shot it with arrows. Most of the band were armed with bows, though some had guns.
“Did we have any fights on the plains? I saw only one. A woman claimed that another woman in the train was trying to vamp her husband. The lady who was doing the vamping had very abundant and beautiful hair, so the wife of the man who was more or less willing to be vamped sailed into her. It was a lively fight while it lasted. They pulled hair, scratched, yelled, and cried and fought like a couple of cats. The lady with the beautiful hair had a lot less of it when the fight was declared a draw.
“We had to stop one day to let a herd of buffaloes go by along the Platte . Two miles before they came to us we could hear a subdued roar like the sound of the surf at Newport . They fairly shook the ground. There were thousands of them. They ran along paying no attention to our wagon train, though our oxen were mighty restless at the smell, the sound, and the sight of them.
“All I need to do today, nearly 80 years later, is to shut my eyes and I can see the vast, empty plains with their rolling land waves. I can see the wagons come to a stop, see the children pile out of the wagons while the men folks unyoke the oxen and all the women scatter as soon as the train comes to a stop, to gather their aprons full of sundried buffalo chips to cook the coffee and bacon.
“What did we eat for supper? Bread cooked in a Dutch oven, or cornbread with coffee, bacon, beans, and dried peaches or apples. We had some cows along, so we usually had milk. Sometimes we had buffalo or antelope meat in place of bacon.
Sometimes the women folks rustled sagebrush or willow wood in place of buffalo chips, but the chips made a quick, hot fire, and proved very satisfactory.
“I told you I saw only one fight while crossing the plains. Well, I’ll stick to that statement, but there were a lot of fights I was in, but I was too busy fighting to stop and be an eye-witness to them. The Burnett boy was a year older than I, but I was a mite larger. My father, being a Primitive Baptist preacher, had taught me to turn the other ‘ cheek. My mother had also impressed upon me that boys who expect to be gentlemen don’t settle their differences with their fists. The Burnett boy found he could lick me, so hardly a day went by that he didn’t make my life a burden. I could hardly call my soul my own. He generally caught me where my folks wouldn’t see us fighting. I put up a half-hearted fight, usually trying to avoid punishment more than to try to hurt him.
“One day my mother saw him licking me. She pulled him off of me and said to me, ‘The time has come for you to take your own part. I want you to thrash this boy, and do a thorough job.’ I could hardly believe my ears. I hesitated, and she said, ‘You can take your choice. Either you whip this bully within an inch of his life or I will give you a worse licking than he ever gave you.’
“I knew my mother was a woman of her word, so I waded in, and what I did to that boy was plenty. After that all I had to do was double up my fists and scowl at him and he would beat it.
“One of the things I remember very distinctly is our stopping at Independence Rock. The men and women gathered around the rock and read the names of the emigrants who had registered during the preceding two or three years. Then they scratched their own names on the rock. Some of the men painted their names on with tar from the tar buckets that hung from the back axles of the wagons.
1 doubt if there are many left of those who wrote their names on Independence Rock 79 years ago. There are a few of us left, but when 1 call the roll of my former campmates who crossed the plains with me in 1846, not many are here to answer the roll call.
“You can’t spend six months with a couple of yoke of oxen in a covered wagon crossing the plains without having lots of peculiar adventures and misadventures that stick in your mind. My father and Uncle Ben Munkers were the oldest men in the wagon train. My brother Ben, who was captain of the wagon train, let them take turns leading the train with their wagons, so they wouldn’t have to swallow so much dust. If there was any wind the drivers of the wagons in the back swallowed their share of dust, for the oxen kicked up the fine alkali dust till the wagons were in a heavy fog.
“One day when my father’s wagon was in the lead a couple of young Indians met us and one of them threw up his hand quickly as a signal for us to stop. This scared our oxen, and they bolted. They ran down the hill, turned into the river, and splashed through to the other side.
The Munkers oxen also became panic-stricken and followed our wagon. Mrs. Munkers, with her son Jimmy, six years old, was riding on the front seat when the oxen bolted. She was a cripple. Wherever she went she had to carry her chair and, also, hobble on crutches. She was so frightened that she grabbed Jimmy up under one arm, reached back and got her camp chair under the other, jumped out of the wagon, as it was going full tilt, ran as hard as she could to a hundred yards or so, and then, realizing that she was a cripple and couldn’t walk, she put down the chair and sat down.
“The oxen tried to climb the bank on the other side of the river, but the wagon turned over, so they got over their scare and waited for the men to come and fix things.
“Coming across the plains I usually rode one horse and led another, or rode and herded the stock. One day I was riding a big American mare and leading her mate. I went on ahead of the train, but finally decided I had better backtrack and join it. I rode back 12 or 15 miles without seeing any sight of the train. I finally came to another train and asked what had become of the Simpson train. The captain told me Simpson’s train was about 10 miles ahead of them and I had better hurry if I wanted to get there before night. It was growing cold, so he loaned me a big coat, for I was in shirtsleeves. I retraced my way till I saw where our wagon train had left the road to camp on a small stream some distance from the road. It was about dusk. My mother was spreading the table cloth on the ground ready to serve supper.
She said, ‘Where have you been, Barnet? I haven’t seen you since breakfast time.’ My brother Ben had missed me and, being afraid something had happened to me, he and three other men had struck out to look for me. They didn’t get back till long after midnight .
“When we came to the Sweetwater, Ben decided to have the train lay over Friday, Saturday and Sunday for washing clothes, repairing wagons and drying out supplies that had got wet. We had three preachers in our train. My father was a Primitive Baptist, Elder McBride was a Campbellite, and I have forgotten what the other preacher was, but each of them preached while we laid over on the Sweetwater.
“The ox drivers decided to get a little of the dust off, so they made up a crowd to go swimming. With my nephew John Anderson, who was about a year and a half my senior, I followed them and went into the shallow water. When the men had dressed and gone, John and 1 decided to learn to swim. John said, ‘We can’t learn to swim in shallow water, so we’ll go where it’s deep.’
“1 said. ‘Go ahead. I’ll follow you. 1 don’t care if the water is a thousand feet deep.’ “We had hardly got out into the current till John was washed into a deep hole. He called out, ‘Give me your hand, quick, or I’ll drown.’ ” I started toward him, but before I got there the current had caught both of us and we were washed downstream. 1 can remember yet seeing John’s head, first under water and then coming into sight again as he whirled round and round in a whirlpool. The next thing I remember I was washed up on a sandbar and John was climbing up the bank to go back to the train and tell Mother I was drowned. We made a solemn compact not to tell our folks about our narrow escape till we got to the Willamette Valley .
“When we got to Fort Hall, some of the folks in the train took the road to Sutter’s Fort in California. Among them was my brother-in-law, Alva Kimsey. He came north to Oregon the following year. When gold was discovered at Sutler’s Fort he took the back trail and returned, but he didn’t have much luck.
“At Fort Hall my father exchanged all of the bacon and flour and cornmeal he could spare for an order on Dr. McLoughlin for a similar amount at Oregon City. This saved hauling this surplus across the Cascades. We came by the Barlow Route , which had just been opened, and it was a terror.
I guess none of the emigrants who came down Laurel Hill with men pulling on the ropes to keep the wagons from running over the oxen will ever forget Laurel Hill.
“We wintered at North Yamhill . In the spring Father leased a place and put five acres in wheat. We had a big crop. My brother James and I tramped it out with oxen. In the fall of 1847 Father took up a donation land claim in the Waldo Hills . We had 18 inches of snow that winter. Father had no hay, so he fed our cattle boiled wheat. We lost all of them but one cow and three steers.
“I went to school in the winter of 1846 to Herman Higgins, a cooper. He was a son-in-law of Reverend Vincent Shelling, a Baptist preacher. Higgins taught school, as he was a cripple, and this was about his only qualification as a teacher.
He used to make tubs and barrels during school hours. If we children laughed he would look up from his work and say, ‘Larn your lessons. Tend to business there and larn your lessons.’ I stayed overnight once at his home. They had no dishes and no furniture. We sat on the floor, and when it came time for supper his wife stirred up some dough and gave us each a sharp stick on which we put the dough and held it over the fire in the fireplace to bake.
“My first teacher in the Waldo Hills was Paul Darst. I was married June 12, 1853 . I sold my 150-acre farm in the Waldo Hills for $600 and moved to Salem . I was Sexton of the I.O.O.F. Cemetery there for 25 years.”
March 18-20, 1925