Speelman Wagon Train Journey
This account was written by Michael R. Speelman, son of Nelson Speelman and Elizabeth Creighbaum Speelman. Michael was born in 1849 in Lee County, Iowa and never married. He was 13 when he crossed the plains. He died May 24, 1936 and is buried in the Wingville Cemetery.
Our thanks to Doug Romaine and Garret Romaine for providing the Speelman Family Journey. Doug is the grandson of Elizabeth Creighbaum Speelman. Garret is the author of Gem Trails of Washington
Our party consisted of my father, mother, and family, three families of Gardners, A.J. Worley and family, Josiah Creighbaum and family and Grandmother and Grandfather Creighbaum. We left Lee County, Iowa, on April 14, 1862, destined for the state of Oregon. The mode of conveyance was by prairie schooners and ox teams, mainly, with a few horses.
Ten Wagons in
At the start, our train consisted of about 10 wagons and teams, my father having two teams of oxen of six yoke in each team. My job from the beginning to the end of our journey was to drive and herd the loose stock, of which our party possessed quite a number, and for this task I was furnished saddle horses by the different members of our wagon train, and I also received a small sum of money for my services.
From Lee County, Iowa, we proceeded across the open prairies on the northerly branch of the Oregon Trail, to Council Bluffs, western Iowa, at that time being sparsely settled. At Council Bluffs our train was increased until we had some 15 wagons, others having joined our party en route.
In 1862 there were no railroads in the Iowa country and to the westward, and the habitations of the whites were few and far between. Council Bluffs at that time was a small trading post and was immediately across the Missouri River from Omaha, to which place we crossed the river. There was a small town of about 1000 people. Here we replenished our stock of provisions and necessities for the long journey across the plains and beyond the Rockies. From Omaha we proceeded westward, crossing the Loupe Fork of the Platte and from thence for many days were on the plains proper. On reaching Loupe Fork we saw numbers of Indians of the Pawnee Tribe; the first Indians any of our party had ever seen, who had not severed their tribal relations. They were at peace with their white brethren at the time and were great beggars.
Crossed Great Plains
I now began to realize that we had left our old home town in Iowa and were going into the vast western wilderness. Traveling about three days from Loupe Fork we reached Freemont, Nebraska, a small place built mostly of sod houses. This was the last settlement we saw until we reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming, although we passed sod houses at intervals along the tail sheltering a few soldiers whose duty it was to protect the telegraph lines. I have no remembrances of passing Fort Kearney, that being the junction of the two trails, the one from Iowa and the main Oregon Trail, traveled by our party and by thousands who had gone before us. From Fort Laramie we followed the North Platte to the Sweetwater River in Wyoming, a region known at that time as the “Sand Hill” country, the first hills encountered.
At a distance these hills appeared in the form of clouds by reason of a mirage, a strange but common sight on the plains and deserts. Here we were in the country of the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes of Indians, fine-looking stalwart people, who were on good terms with the whites, peaceable and friendly.
There were no buffalo in sight in this region, although it was noted as the great buffalo country, but antelope were there by the thousands, feeding on the grass-covered hills as far as the eye could reach. Following up the Sweetwater we approached South Pass, and somewhere along the river the first tragic episode of our journey was enacted.
Murderer Tried; Executed
Just ahead of our train were two partners from Denver, Colorado, traveling by wagon, Scott and Young being their names. It seems that they had a quarrel on the road and Scott hitched up the team one morning and forbade Young from joining or following him, under threat of death, and left Young alone on the plains. Young had a saddle horse and a rifle and he followed Scott, overtook him, and shot him dead. Scott fell off the wagon seat onto the double trees. At this juncture came a train of some 300 wagons bound for the Grande Ronde Valley, Oregon, under the leadership of a man named Kennedy. Kennedy’s party took the body up and gave it a proper burial, and then Kennedy arrested Young.
There was a small military party near the scene, at the crossing of the Sweetwater, and it was deemed advisable to deliver Young to the military authorities, but they refused to intervene in any way. Kennedy thereupon took the law into his own hands and empanelled a jury and gave Young a fair trial; the jury finding him guilty of murder in the first degree. Young was then sentenced to death by either hanging or shooting; he being given the choice of which alternative he would prefer, and he chose the alternative of being shot.
Young’s execution took place early the next morning on the banks of the Sweetwater, 12 men having been chosen to perform the execution of Young. I was present and observed everything that occurred. A grave was excavated and Young was driven out alongside his own grave; he was blindfolded, and was asked whether or not he had anything to say why the execution should not be carried out. He declined to make any statement. Kennedy gave the order to fire, and rifles rang out, and Young fell dead and was buried on the banks of the Sweetwater.
Kennedy Stirs Resentment
After this episode there arose, among the members of Kennedy’s train, a great indignation against him that could not be quieted. With the result that this large train of 300 wagons broke up into small parties and they all fell far behind in the race to the Pacific states.
At a distance from South Pass we had our first glimpse of the Great Smoky Mts. and of numerous snow-covered peaks. We couldn’t be convinced at first that we were looking at snow, it being the month of July and the weather very warm, and none of us had ever seen snow at that time of year – all of us having lived on the prairies.
In my occupation of driving and herding the loose stock, I could travel much faster than the wagon train and frequently I would drive ahead or take a cut-off across the hills and allow the stock to graze. On one occasion, in the South Pass country, I drove the stock ahead of the train and off the trail some distance where I found a small basin in the hills, with fine grass. There I let the herd scatter and feed, and I got off my saddle horse to let him graze on the fine bunch grass.
Presently my horse got scared and gave a snort, and looking up I saw, to my horror, a party of Cheyenne Indians mounted on horses and gaudily bedecked in war paint and feathers, bearing down on me. I thought my time had surely come, but summing up all my courage I got on my horse and rode out to meet them. They saluted me with the usual Indian salutation “How.” Trembling and excited, I managed to question them as to where they were going.
They said, through their spokesman, who could speak a little English, that they were going on their way north to fight the Crow tribe of Indians. This information greatly relieved my mind, and reassured, I told them that the Crows were not good, but that the Cheyenne were heap good Indians, which seemed to please them greatly.
Gave Indian His Cap
The Civil War was on at this time and all the boys whose folks were Union sympathizers wore soldier’s caps. I had one at the time I met these Indians, and one young buck made signs to me that he would very much appreciate it if I would give him my cap. It is needless to say he got it without further parley. I returned to camp bareheaded and once in awhile I would rub my hand over the top of my head to see if I had my hair left.
The latter part of July we reached South pass in the Rocky Mountains and a few days later crossed over the divide near the head of Sandy River, and from there we took the Landers cut-off, the most northerly route, and the shortest route to the northwest. Besides, we had heard of the placer gold strike in the Salmon River country, and had some idea of going into that territory. We shortly arrived at Green River; the waters that year being extremely high, and not fordable.
There was no ferry there, and we found hundreds of people and wagons on the banks of the river, all attempting to devise some means of getting across with their wagons and property. We were fortunate to have with our party some good boatmen, and they set about to caulk and tar our wagon beds, making of the wagon beds serviceable boats with which we ferried ourselves and goods over Green River, and the livestock across by swimming.
From Green River, we came along the trail to the Wind River Mountains, and in that vicinity we camped on a creek, which we called Stampede Creek, by reason of the fact that for some cause which we were unable to discover, all of our stock stampeded and scattered throughout the mountains. It was three days before we gathered them all up. Luck was with us, for we did not lose a head of our stock. Inhabiting the wild recesses of the Wind River Mountains were numerous renegade bands of Paiute, Bannock, and Shoshone Indians, bent on murder and plunder, and here we had to maintain a close lookout at all times so as not to be taken by surprise by these renegades. Near the edge of the timber in the Wind River Mountains we came upon the scene of a recent massacre by some of these bands of renegade Indians.
Three of Party Killed
Of a small party consisting of five men from Denver, Colorado, three had been killed and two escaped. Three bloody shirts were hanging on a tree at the scene of this tragedy, to give warning to passersby on the Old Oregon Trail. The dead men had been buried by some party preceding us. The Indians had stolen the horses and mules and had scattered the goods of the Denver party all over the ground.
I learned the particulars of this tragedy afterwards in Baker, Oregon, from one of the survivors. He said his small party were surprised and attacked by a small band of Indians, but he and one of his partners managed to get into the thick brush and escape, afterwards joining a wagon train bound for the Pacific Coast. The murdered men had considerable money in twenty dollar gold pieces, and it is a significant fact that in the Snake River country on several occasions, Indians appeared in our camp and offered as high as $20 for a small box of caps. They offered twenty dollar gold pieces for percussions caps and ammunitions. Undoubtedly these were some of the Indians guilty of having murdered the three men from Denver, but at that time we were not acquainted with the details of the massacre, and had no knowledge that the Indians had robbed the dead men of their money.
We again came into the Old Oregon Trail at Fort Neuf, near where the city of Pocatello now stands and this was also near Fort Hall. Here the trail divided, the main trail crossing the Snake River and the other and less traveled trail following the south side of the Snake River, and not crossing the Snake at all. We chose the latter route and followed the south and west side of the Snake River from Fort Neuf to the present site of Huntington, Oregon. We then followed up the Burnt River, part of the time along the river and part of the time we had to take to the hills until we reached a point near Weatherby. From here we left the canyon of the Burnt River, went up into the hills for quite a distance and followed the contour of the hills on the north side of Burnt River until we reached the Straw Ranch on Alder Creek, an old stage station in the early days, and now owned by John Troy, who has a fine farm on this old historic site.
Crossed Virtue Flat
From the Straw Ranch the Oregon Trail crossed the low range of foot hills to the northward into the vicinity now known as Virtue Flat, and we camped at what was known as Mud Springs, a short distance below what is now the Virtue Mine, little dreaming of the wealth of gold lying almost at our feet.
In 1864 the Virtue Mine was discovered and located by an old prospector named W. H. Rockefeller, and for many years it was a great producer of gold. At this time we had heard of the Powder River placer mines and of the town of Auburn, so our party headed in that direction. The next morning after leaving Mud Springs we came into the pass in the hills near the present Flagstaff Hill mine, and had our first view of the luxuriant grass, and from Flagstaff Hill presented at that early date as imposing a sight as it does at the present time. Reaching the Powder River Valley, we left the Oregon Trail and headed up the valley toward Auburn, camping on the east side of the Powder River near the Campbell Street bridge. The rye grass at this place was then as high as our covered wagons and covered all of the present site of the tourist camp grounds.
It was then the 5th day of September, 1862, and our little caravan had been on the road from Iowa to Oregon for nearly five months, a journey that can now be made in comfort by railroads in about three days, and by auto in not to exceed 10 days. Just across the Power River on the west side, there as a small log shack built of cottonwoods, presided over by a man who introduced himself as Coyote Evans. He had his cabin well stocked with flour, bacon and most important of all, booze. He did a flourishing business with the pilgrims from the east as well as those from western Oregon and Walla Walla. He was located at the crossing point on the Powder River for all roads leading to the mining camp of Auburn.
All of our party remained in Oregon, and nearly all of them stayed in the Power River valley. But of the pioneers of ’62, nearly all have passed to the great beyond.
“They belonged to
the legion that never were listed.
They carried no banner nor crest.
But split in a thousand detachments
Were breaking the ground for the rest.”
My father went over to Washington Gulch with his family, including the writer, and here, on the 8th day of September, 1862, was born my brother, David Speelman, now residing in Haines, he being the first white child born in Baker County. Having now concluded to take up a farm and settle down in the vicinity of the placer mines, my father built a log house on the site of the present farm of S. B. Baisley near Salmon Creek.