November 19, 2009

The Friday Record - Tabitha Brown

I think we often imagine those who crossed the plains on foot and in covered wagons during the great migration in the 19th Century as young and adventurous. But the truth is, not all of them were young. One woman who braved the elements and the grueling crossing was Tabitha Brown. At the age of sixty-six, she joined her son, daughter and their families on the journey to Oregon. And, she was joined by her seventy-seven year old brother-in-law, retired ship’s captain, John Brown. Tabitha not only survived a journey fraught with danger, thirst and near starvation; she went on to become “The Mother of Oregon.”

In April 1846 Tabitha and two of her three children left Missouri for Oregon. It was a 2,000 mile trip that would take nine months through bleak deserts, across swollen streams and over snow-capped mountains.

Tabitha, Capt. Brown and her daughter and son-in-law, Pherne and Virgil Pringle, listened to a “rascally fellow who came out from the settlement of Oregon,” and assured the party that he knew a shortcut to the Willamette Valley (pg 52). It would get them to the valley sooner than those taking the more established and well-known Columbia River valley trail. Too late they realized their mistake.

The trail was not suited for covered wagon and oxen. It was nothing more than a walking path, with the road often needing to be cut while the party waited and used up its meager resources.
When the party reached the Umpqua Mountains, they had to travel through a twelve mile canyon. Very few of the parties’ wagons made it through intact. The canyon was “strewn with dead cattle, broken wagons, beds, clothing, and everything but provisions of which we were nearly destitute,” Tabitha wrote, (pg. 52).

To make matters worse, while in the canyon Capt. Brown became ill. “Their food was gone and their few remaining cattle were so weak they could not move on without rest,” (pg 49). Tabitha was encouraged to leave her daughter’s wagon train with Capt. Brown in the hopes that they would catch up to the train in front. After a harrowing night spent huddled in a tent, praying the wild animals wouldn’t eat them, the couple was found by “one of the emigrants that I was trying overtake,” (pg. 50). He was hunting deer and took the exhausted and starving couple to his wagon train, where they were fed venison.

Capt. Brown and Tabitha travelled with this train until they came to the foot of another mountain range, one in which a road had to be cut. It was while waiting for this to happen that her daughter’s train caught up with them. The family was near starved. Then winter set in.
They attempted to cross the mountain range, often only travelling one or two miles a day. In a week, their food was gone. Virgil Pringle left the stranded party to reach help. No one knew if he’d make it or not. It might well be the last time any of them were seen alive.

Tabitha’s son, Orus, who started the trip with his mother and sister, had traveled the Columbia River trail and had already arrived in Oregon. He heard tales of the Applgegate Trail (as it would later become known as) trials and concerned for his mother and sister, he set out with “four packhorses with provisions” to find them, (pg. 53).

Shortly, Orus and Virgil met up and Virgil led his brother-in-law back to the stranded travelers. Tabitha related the arrival in a letter,

“We had all retired to rest in our tents, hoping to forget our troubles until daylight should remind us of our sad fate. In the gloomy stillness of the night, hoofbeats of horses were heard rushing to our tents—directly a halloo—it was the well-known voice of Orus and Virgil; who can realize the joy?” (pg. 53)

Pushing forward, the travelers finally arrived in the Willamette Valley. “On Christmas Day 1846, Tabitha entered a house for the first time in nine months,” (pg 54). The owner of the house, a Methodist minister, traded housekeeping services for room and board for Tabitha and Capt. Brown.

Tabitha soon wanted to do more for the orphans whose parents had died on the overland trails. She realized that they, as well as the Native American children in the area, needed a home. With the help of missionaries and neighbors, she established Tualatin Academy in an old meeting house where she could “receive all poor children and be a mother to them,” (pg 54).

As her charges grew up, the trustees realized the children needed a place to a place of higher education. With land donated by The Reverend Harvey Clark, Pacific University was established, a university still in existence.

And remember, Tabitha was sixty-six when she started this journey. What do you still want to accomplish in your life?

I have written on Tabitha Brown before, and you can find more information about this harrowing journey here. Leave a comment to be elegible for my monthly drawing (For my monthly blog prize, one lucky winner will receive a DVD of GHOST starring Patrick Swazye and Demi Moore.)

Today’s information was gleaned from HEART OF THE TRAIL: The Stories of Eight Wagon Train Women, by Mary Barmeyer O’Brien.

Anna Kathryn Lanier


Cate Masters said...

Love these stories, Anna! Such journeys were hardships for younger people, but Tabitha's tale is amazing. I'm so glad her letters survived. Thanks for sharing!

Mary Ricksen said...

Sixty Six holy mowly! These stories just fill me with both sadness and happiness for them.
It was a rough trail to a wonderful goal. Great post!

Emma Lai said...

Thanks for sharing more of Tabitha's story, Anna Kathryn! I've long been determined to keep living life to the fullest thanks to the inspiration of my father and husband's grandparents, who all treat each day as an adventure.

Alice Audrey said...

Interesting story, and great piece of history.

Penny Rader said...

What a story! I have a couple decades to go before I hit the 66 mark and can only imagine how hard it must've been. Makes me tired just thinking about it. I fear I wouldn't have been a good pioneer woman. Tabitha must have had a tremendous amount of energy and drive. Thank you so much for sharing her story, Anna.

Virginia said...

Great story! I could not imagine traveling for nine months like that. It had to be rough! I guess a person could get use to anything, but I like my modern things.