Merced County Genealogical Society
CROSSING THE PLAINS IN 1856
By Frances Helm McClure
(Written for my great-grandchildren, Byron Keever Lighty, Jr.
Charles McClure Lighty and Louis Porter Guth, May 13, 1934)
My father, Allen Helm Sr. was born in Tennessee, December 25, 1801 and my mother, Elizabeth (McClure) Helm was born in North Caroling October 27, 1810. The first years of their married life were passed in Missouri, on a farm 12 miles from Lexington, the county seat, and five miles from the small village of Greenton.
On this "old home place", all of my brothers and sisters and I were born. The house was a two-story structure, set in a clearing and surrounded by walnut and fruit trees. The kitchen -- as was the custom in the South, where negro slave-women did the cooking -- was located in a separate building, a short distance to the rear of the main dwelling house. All of the cooking was done on an immense fireplace.
I was born on April 9, 1846, and when we started for California -- April 1, 1856 -- I lacked eight days of being ten years old.
Four deaths in our immediate family delayed our start, and made it a sad one. My father had planned to come much sooner. My brothers, Benton and Henry, who had already gone to California, had written back such glowing accounts of this State that my father, and all of us, were eager to join them in the "new land". But after my father had arrangements made and had sold the old home, my brothers Riley and Edward were taken ill with typhoid and after lingering some time, passed away. It was then too late in the year to begin the long journey across the plains, so my father rented the Carlyle place, near the old home, and we stayed there until the Spring of 1856. In the meanwhile, before our departure, my brother Benton had come back from the West to be married, and my brother Riley's young wife, and my sister Jane's husband, had died.
On April 1, 1856, however, we finally started, and oh how excited all of us children were at the thought of the long ride, about which everyone had been talking.
In our party were my four brothers, four sisters, two nephews, my little orphaned niece, (Betsy Thompson) and sister-in-law Nancy (Barker) Helm. We went by a small town, called Chapel Hill, and our party stopped there and did some trading and bought some candy and gave it to us children, which was a great treat. In those days, we did not often get store candy to eat.
Our party had three wagons. One of these, a spring-wagon with a canvas cover, was drawn by a span of mules (Halup and Jallop) and was driven by my father. In it rode my mother, my little niece, Elizabeth, my youngest brother and sister, Charles and Nancy Margaret. The two other, larger covered wagons were drawn by oxen. My oldest brother, Benton, drove one of these, and a hired man (his wife's brother, Buck Barker) drove the other and also helped my two brothers, Wesley and Allen ( who rode horseback) to look after the loose stock which my father was bringing with him. In the wagon with my brother Benton and his wife were my sister Melinda and I. While in the one, driven by the hired man, rode my sisters Louisa and Jane, and Jane's two little boys, John and Jim Barker.
(Note: The above two ox teams got frightened and ran some little distance. Benton Helm thought it a lot of fun but his father was very angry he thought Benton was in some way the cause. Allen Helm was driving the other team as Buck Barker had left for Missouri return.)
This is the way in which all of our family rode during that long six-months journey.
Others had planned to travel along with us. Some of them were relatives of our family and others were just friends. They had all agreed to start at the same time, from wherever they had been living, and join my father on the road. So, as we traveled along, these families "fell in" with us. One of these was my mother's sister, Aunt Nancy Hopper, with her husband, Uncle Charles Hopper and their family. But, before them, the Foster family (George Foster, his mother, two unmarried sisters and a married one, Mrs. John Kesterson, (a niece of my mother, with her husband and little boy), and the Burton brothers -- Tom and Charles -- had joined us. The Burris family also traveled with us. In all, the train finally consisted of 30 wagons, while we were in the worst of the Indian country.
Each family had its own wagons, stock and provisions. But for protection against Indian attacks, they wanted to camp as near to one another at night as they could. Because the stock had to be fed, wherever grazing was to be had, made it impossible for such a large party to remain close together all the time.
Those that had loose cattle with them, had to stand guard at night, and be on the watch all day, to keep the Indians from driving off their herd. The whole train had almost to creep along. Wherever there was good grass, short stops would be made to let our stock feed. And, in desert regions, we had to travel by night on account of the heat. Tom Burton, who had been appointed captain, always rode ahead of the party and pitched out the camping place for us.
(Note: Benton's wife, Nancy, rode side saddle on a fancy mare named puss the entire distance along with others and helped drive loose stock. A cow bell on one of the milk cows is now in possession of Clyde B. Czerny, another one in possession of Albert Helm . A good average of Ox team traveling was from 9 to 12 miles in a long day.)
At first, we didn't see any Indians. But it wasn't long before our troubles began. And all of them weren't Indian troubles. The stock required constant attention. One time, the loose cattle got frightened and stampeded. All the men got busy and tried to keep them back from the wagons. It couldn't be done, however, and as they went running past us, the oxen, drawing the two schooners, became frightened also and began to run away.
I was riding in the wagon with my sister Jane and her two little children at the time. (We children used to change about from one wagon to the other, whenever we could-- just for the fun of it.) I don't know how long the stampede lasted. Only a few minutes, though, I guess. But the big wagon shook and jolted us as we went pell-mell over the rough ground. My brother couldn't stop the oxen any more than he could turn them from the direction that they were headed. But luckily for us, one of the animals-- named "Old Broad" -- finally stumbled and fell. His body was dragged a little ways.
Then, one wheel passed over him, and he was caught between the wheels. This and his weight stopped his team-mate -- and just in time!! If we had gone 10 steps farther in that direction, we would all have been killed. It took the men quite a Chile to get "Old Broad" out from between the wheels and yoked up again, so that we could go on. Another time, my youngest sister, Nancy Margaret, fell out of the wagon, and one of the heavy wheels passed over her. She was so badly injured she couldn't walk for a long time and all the rest of her life she was troubled by the injury to her hip.
There were lots of buffalo on the plains then too. Often we sighted bid herds of them. And one time we saw a large bunch of them, not so very far from where we were camped. They began to look as if they were headed toward us. So, our captain got on his horse and went to turn them another direction for they said that whenever the leader of the buffaloes started, he hunched his head down and never looked up to see where he was going or what was ahead of him, and that the whole herd would follow him that way and run over anything that happened to be in their path. So, out captain rode to where they could see him. As soon as they caught sight of him, they turned and went away in the opposite direction.
We had to cross some rivers that were pretty deep. The Platte River was so deep we had to stay there all one day, while the men cut down big sapling trees. They lashed these together, making a raft to ferry the wagons across. Ropes were tied to the trees and the raft was guided with these, and the wagons kept them from going down stream. They had to swim the stock across.
We moved slowly, we were in sight of Pike's Peak for many days. In one place, we could see it so plainly that it didn't seem far from our road, but it must have been miles.
At another place, where we camped, there was a spring of cold water, and about three steps from it, a hot one -- so hot that it would burn you finger. There were no holes dug, where these springs were, the water was just running out over the top of the ground. All of us children had a lot of fun playing here. My sister, Melinda, and I always had to mind the smaller children, whenever we camped, and we were never allowed to go farther than a few feet from the wagons, for fear of Indians.
Even when we were gathering "buffalo chips" or sagebrush limbs to cook with, we had to stay close to the wagons. But we were all young enough to have a good time playing every chance we had.
I think it was at the same camp, where the hot and cold springs were, that we saw the rock pile they called the Devil's Gate. It wasn't far from our camp, and when the grown-ups went to see it, all of us children trailed along.
That is how I happened to get the chance to walk through it. It was a lot of rocks, with an open space between them, and with a long rock laid across the top -- like a gate, with an arch over it. All of us walked through it, before going back to camp.
For miles we would travel and see nothing but sagebrush. And, the little prairie dogs would come up out of holes, like squirrel holes and bark at us, then dodge back underground again. They were as cute as could be. We also saw lots of coyotes and a few mudhens. We never killed these, however, for they weren't good to eat.
One time, the train had stopped to water the stock. (They didn't all water at one time, but after the first one got through, they would drive out a ways and stop there and wait until all of the wagons had taken their turn.)
This time, a man and his wife, who had been before our party, drove out a little distance from us, and stopped to wait. I was out of our wagon and I saw that this woman was holding a baby her arms. So I went to their wagon and stood looking up at the baby. The woman then held the baby up so that I could see it plainly and asked me if I'd like to get in the wagon and hold it for a while. I told her, "Yes," and up I got. I was happy as could be, for I always like babies.
I, straightway, forgot all about time. Soon my mother was looking anxiously for me. She didn't know where I had disappeared to. In her search, she came and found me up there in the wagon, still holding the baby. These people had been with our train once before, though, and she knew them and knew that they were nice and had meant no harm and would have let me out of the wagon when it was time to move on. The baby was pretty and cute, and I remember the woman kept saying to her husband, as she looked at me, "Oh, isn't she pretty? She looks just like your little sister."
In all those months we were on our way, I don't think the fear of Indians ever really left us. And, our fears were not groundless. One time, my sister, Louisa, was riding horseback a short distance ahead of our slow-moving wagons. She had a fine saddle horse, and liked to ride with my brothers, Wesley and Allen -- who were driving -- whenever our father would let her. This time, my brothers happened to see the Indians. They told my sister to ride as fast as she could to get to the wagons. The Indians had been hiding in some brush, waiting for us to come up to them.
When my sister started back toward the wagons, they took after her. Father saw her coming and saw what was happening. He jumped out of the wagon and started on a run to meet her. And he was just in the nick of time, for as he grabbed the reins on one side of her horse's head, one of the Indians grabbed the other side.
In a flash, my sister was off the horse and ran to get in the wagon. If the Indian had beaten my father to her, they would have led her horse on a run into the brush and taken her captive. That was what they had intended to do, because that was one of their tricks.
As soon as the men saw what was taking place, they stopped the wagons and got out their guns ready to fight. But when the Indians saw that, they fetched a blood-curdling whoop and turned and went away -- disappearing in the brush.
That was the last we saw of them, but it wasn't long afterward that we knew there was going to be more trouble. For three days we knew that our train was being followed and watched. There were gulches and rocks and brush all along our road -- and during these three days, now and then, the men of our train, or the boys who were driving the loose stock, would see an Indian's head raise up, out of a gulch, or peer around some rocks or brush. And then, on the third day when we had stopped to prepare and eat dinner, quite a few of them appeared and came right into camp.
At first, they pretended they had come in to try and trade for tobacco, bacon and powder for their guns. But the men could see that they were taking in everything about our train -- seeing what we had and how many of us were in our party and all.
The place, where we had stopped, was near a creek. I don't know if it was dry of not. I don't remember going near it, to see if there was water in it, for the Indians scared me too badly to be at all venturesome for a long time. But I did remember that there was high grass all about. This had made our train stop at that particular place so that the stock could feed and rest while the women-folks were busy cooking and we all had our noon meal.
My father and mother had two small, light sheet-iron stoves. These had been set up on the ground, a fire made in them and mother and my older sisters and sister-in-law were busy about them, getting our dinner ready. We had lots of provisions with us, and always had plenty of good hot food to eat. Dough would be "set", and bread baked in the stoves; and we had lots of dried fruits and cans of honey for sweets.
I remember watching the Indians as I helped take care of the smaller children. The Indians were all stark-naked, except for a breech cloth. They came right up to our stoves, shoving themselves in among our women-folks, who were cooking and kept peeking into the pot that was boiling; whatever food that was being cooked for our meal.
Our men-folks, my father and big brothers -- kept telling them to keep back out of the way and let the women get the cooking done. They paid no attention to these requests though. Finally, one of our men couldn't stand seeing these dirty, naked savages shoving our women around no longer ..... he picked up a piece of flat board from one of our wagons and lambasted one of the bucks, just as he was stooping over to look at something in one of the cooking pots on the stove.
Immediately, the whole lot of the Indians got on their horses and left the camp. Then, because we had heard so many of the awful things they had done to white people who had quarreled with, or attacked them, we knew that our train would now have trouble with them over this blow struck with that flat board.
Our men started getting the camp ready for a battle. They drew the wagons up in a circle, forming a corral. And as other wagons came up and heard what had happened, they joined their wagons in our circle. My brother, Benton, said there were 30 wagons altogether in our camp that afternoon and evening.
In this circle of wagons was where all the women and children were told to stay if an attack was made. And, two men were chosen to act as their guard -- one at one end of the camp, the other at the opposite end. The rest of the men had to stay outside the circle to watch the stock, which had to be fed as long as possible. We all knew that the Indians would try to stampede our animals and drive them off, as soon as they started to attack.
A little later in the afternoon, just as we had expected, the Indians -- now in a large party, which they had probably gone away after -- rushed upon our camp. With whoops and yells, they started circling the camp, shooting with both arrows and guns, though most of them used arrows. And besides shooting at our wagons, they set fire to the grass as they circled about, and the men, who were guarding the cattle, had to fight these fires, as well as fight for their lives and their stock.
As soon as the fight began, all of us children were put into the false bottom of one of the big wagons. Boards were then laid across over us, and bedding and provisions piled on top. I had to take care of my little brother and sister and nephews and niece. It was so hot in there I thought I would smother. And, outside in between the yelling and shooting, I could hear women-folks crying and praying. Some of them, too, were molding bullets as the fight went on; my sister Jane was one of these who helped make these.
Finally, the battle ended. An Indian, who had been fighting from behind a rock and peeking over it, was hit by a bullet fired by one of our men. My brother, Benton, saw him when he was hit, and told us that he seemed to jump up about six feet, and then topple over backwards. Then, as soon as that happened, all the other Indians stopped fighting and we always thought that the one we killed must have been their leader or chief-- for they galloped to him and put his body across one of their horses. Then, with a horrible whoop, they all rode away. We looked for more trouble than ever that night, but they never came back.
When the battle was over, both men who had been guarding the wagons, were found to be wounded. Both had been shot at with guns and they had bullet wounds that had to be taken care of. The men, who had been guarding the stock weren't hurt, although Charles Burton's horse had been shot from under him. He had traded another horse for this much prettier one, from the Indians during that visit earlier in the day. And they seemed to single him out to kill. But loss of the horse didn't make Burton stop fighting for more than a few seconds. The men said that he got to his feet "cussing" as hard as he could, and went right on shooting at the attackers.
After the battle was over, we didn't leave this camp, but stayed there that night. There wasn't much sleeping done, for everyone expected the Indians to come back to fight again and try to wipe out our train, like we had heard stories of them doing. But they didn't bother us any more.
The next morning, Dr. Matthews came to our camp, and took care of the two boys that had been wounded. The Matthews' party had been traveling just one day behind us. He had tried to make our camp the day before -- when he had seen Indians following them, just as we had, and expected trouble with them-- but had been unable to make it. The Indians attacked his party, that same day they did us, and he lost all of his stock. Having these, may have been why the Indians did not try again to drive off ours, our trains being so close together as they were.
Dr. Matthews was a nice-looking man, much younger than my father. And, while he was there, another party came into our camp. These were a woman, two little children, her husband and brother. The Indians had taken everything from them -- their wagons and horses and food. Had just left one old whit horse for the woman and two children to ride. These children were so small, I remember, that she had to hold them both in her lap. And the Indians had taken away every bit of their clothing, leaving them bareheaded and I can see yet how their little faces were all blistered and the skin cracked open and sore. The woman was bareheaded too and the Indians had taken her shoes, and those of her husband and brother -- and these two men were left afoot. The sand was so hot that their feet were burned. They had been trying for three days to catch up with us.
They wanted my father to bring them on to California. They had no money-- the Indians had taken it too. So my father told them he would take them in and feed them and make room for the women and children in the wagons and bring them to California but that the two men would have to walk and help with the cattle. The men said they wouldn't do it. And when they said that, my father told them what he thought of them. Dr. Matthews was there yet and he heard all that was said. And when my father went to pay him for the care of the boy's wounds, he said, "Mr. Helm, you don't owe me a cent--- for telling these men what you thought of them!" So they got in with some other party besides ours. They were two big, stout men, and it looked like they ought to have been glad of the offer my father made them, as they had nothing at all, and with us, they would always have had plenty to eat, and been well taken care of, for my father was a kind and just man though he would not let anyone put anything over on him.
I was always thankful that the battle ended as it did, for when the first Indians were there in our camp before the fight, they would look at my sister Melinda and me, and then talk to each other and laugh. Both of us had pretty auburn hair. I guess the Indians thought they would scalp us, if they got us, as they say they liked red hair. And, they surely came near to getting ours. Would have, if our men hadn't put up such a hard fight afterwards too, and they all said that if they hadn't killed that one big Indian, our train might not have been able to hold out long enough against them to win.
There were a lot more Indians than we had men in our party, and the two, who had been guarding us and the wagons, and already been wounded -- one man was shot in the arm, and the other one in the leg -- and this would have soon weakened them. It all came out all right, though, and the doctor that next morning said they would get along all right.
After Dr. Matthews had gone back to his party, our train left this camp, none of us would ever forget, and we started on our way again. And that was our last Indian trouble.
There were other anxious times for us, though. And we saw lots of things that made us sad. Crossing the Rockies, a woman in another party we had met, died and had to be buried there where our wayside camp had been made. And further on, when we were getting nearer to California, our cousin, one of the youngest children of our train, the Kesterson's little boy, was stricken with fever and died. He had been the pet of our train and it was one of the saddest moments of our whole journey, when he was buried there on the prairie, his little grave marked only by an oak sapling and rocks heaped on the mound to protect it from burrowing wild animals.
We did not drive our wagons across the grave, as I have heard many of the trains did to keep the place a secret from the Indians. And, the way the Indians buried their dead, I might add, wasn't burying at all, for they placed the body upon a high scaffold made of saplings and left it there, exposed to the sun and weather. We saw several of these along our way. I was always glad when we finally got out of sight of them.
My sister Louisa helped to take care of the little Kesterson boy during his long illness. In this way, she contracted the fever herself. And six weeks after we got to Stockton -- on October 5, 1856 -- she passed away.
Before California was reached, though, we came through Nevada. I remember the morning we came thorough Carson City. It had rained on us the night before. Carson City was a very pretty place. In Nevada, we traveled along the Humboldt River -- I don't remember how many days. We had to travel so slow and it took us so long on the way. I was too young to remember all the camps we made or places we passed. I do remember the Platte River, and of passing Fort Bridger; and that it was some place below Salt Lake that my mother's sister, Aunt Mary Killian and her husband, left us to go to Salt Lake City to join the Mormons. It was years before this, in Missouri, that my father had taken a part in helping to drive the Mormons out of the State and I guess it was back there that my mother's sister had been halfway converted to that religion.
Mother never saw her sister again; some years later some of our kinfolks visited the Killians in Salt Lake City, so they reached their journey's end safely, the same as we did.
There is one camp, too, in Nevada, that I have never forgotten. We reached the place one evening, after dark. We drove our wagons out to one side of the trail and made our camp. It wasn't until the next morning that we found out we had camped on some graves. It gave us all a terrible feeling. But we had not disturbed the mounds very badly. I remember that we were in a clump of pine trees, the first pines we had seen.
Besides Aunt Mary Killian and her husband, there were other separations of our party. My sister-in-law's brother had left us, even farther back, to stay in Montana. And, after we crossed the mountains into California, the Hopper family left to go to the Russian River district, where some relatives of Uncle Charlie Hopper were already living and settled there. Mother and father visited them in later years, while Aunt Nancy Hopper was still alive. And the Fosters, Kestersons and Binghams went to Sonoma.
My father, though, headed directly for Stockton, for by this time my sister Louisa was so terribly sick, he wanted to get her to where there was a doctor as soon as possible. I remember watching the wagons of the others driving off and leaving us to take another direction. But while we all felt sad at parting from our kin and our friends. I can see now that our anxiety over my sister kept us from feeling the separation as deeply as we would have otherwise. It was also the things connected with her illness and death which always remained clearest in my memory of our arrival at Stockton and our stay there. While it was heartbreaking to give her up -- for she was a young lady, and we all loved her so much,-- it did not seem so bad as it would have been had she died on the lonely plains, like that poor woman, or the little Kesterson boy. We could always remember her as being buried in a nice place, in the Stockton cemetery.
When she was gone, we again moved on -- the last lap of our journey -- going from Stockton to Merced County.
On these final three days of our long, tedious journey, we crossed a number of creeks that had no bridges over them, as they do now. One night, we stayed with a friend of my father's at the Merced River. They treated us so nice, and the next morning, the woman fixed up a big lunch for us to take along with us that day, so that we did not have to stop and cook. On the third day, we reached Mariposa Creek, where my brother Henry was living and near where the Savannah schoolhouse is now.
Here my father rented the Fitzhugh house for us to live in, until he bought a place from a man named Vance. From the Vance place -- upon which my father built a house, which is still standing, although it has been moved to a different location near there -- my father and mother moved to White Rock, Mariposa County, and settled on what is now called the "Jim Helm Ranch." And it was here, in 1876, that my father passed away and where my mother also died, almost 10 years later in 1886.
They were always such a happy and devoted couple. I do not ever remember hearing them quarrel. And both of them were always so good and thoughtful with us children. And, looking back I know it was their love and kindness and forethought for us children that made the long trip across the plains one of so little hardship, actually, even in the midst of almost hourly dangers. You children can always feel proud that they are your great-great-grandparents.
by Frances Helm McClure
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The Conestoga Wagon were large, sturdy wagons with high sides. Their strong, broad wheels made them capable of crossing rutted roads, muddy flats, and the non-roads of the prairie. An unusual feature was a curved floor, designed to reduce load shifting-- and Conestogas were capable of loads up to six tons. The Conestoga carried enough goods for a large family and could travel at a good speed. They were usually pulled by oxen but some used dray horses. It was very sturdy and could handle bad roads.
The Conestoga wagons were made of wood with canvas stretched over wood battens forming a large loop and were larger than most wagons.
The Conestogas were nicknamed prairie schooners because their high, white canvas tops gave the appearance of sailing ships, especially when traversing the sea of grass of the American prairie.
A typical wagon train would have between ten and thirty wagons and between 50 to 150 people. Often a fifth of the pioneers were women with children sometimes outnumbering the men. Not all travelers had wagons as some traveled by horse and some shared with other families due to the cost. The wagons, livestock, goods and equipment had a value of as much as $700,000. This was not the value in Missouri nor even in California, but somewhere in between where goods had a high cost of transport. This value was high enough for the Mormons, with the help of the Indians, to attack the wagon train in Mountain Meadows and steal everything, even the clothes off the dead.
Even with the average of #350-700 per person the actual cash carried was about $1.00 per person. Some indian tribes charged 25 cents to travel over their lands. To the Indians this seemed a reasonable sum considering all that the pioneers had. To the pioneers it was a major part of their cash on hand. These charges by the Indians and their means of collecting caused much tension for the travelers.
The pioneer shopping list contained flour, sow belly (salt pork, or bacon), beans, sugar, coffee, salt. Coffee was made by throwing coffee into a pot of steaming water and brought to a boil. After a few minutes it was taken from the fire so the grounds could settle. It was a bracing drink, especially welcome after the sun has set on the prairie.
Some of the wagons had a convenience feature called a "Flapp-a-doodle". This was a box bolted to the rear of the wagon. Part of the rear of the box was a hinged door with hinged wooden legs attached so when the door was lowered the legs would swing by gravity to form legs to hold the door into a horizontal table. Inside the box was a series of shelves with doors. The shelves were filled with food and cooking utensils, therefore the Flapp-a-doodle was a combination kitchen table and cupboard.
Fuel was difficult to find, especially on the prairie. If the children could not find sufficient twigs or the men couldn't find dry trees to chop down, Buffalo chips were burned. Dried naturally in the sun they were good enough to cook with but no one's favorite fire.
There were other staples tobacco and whisky. Whisky was used mostly for medical purposes. Whisky was distilled to 90% alcohol or 180 proof to keep the weight down and shipped in small kegs. This had no color but was clear as water. If the whisky was to be drunk it was diluted with a strong coffee to give it color and flavor. Many added snake meat to add flavor.
Usually though, the whisky was used to make an infusion of herbs to make a medicine. It could extract chemicals from medicinal herbs and given to ill patients. Undiluted whisky was applied directly to a wound or a knife to prevent infection.
All of this mad pioneering possible because of the advanced technology of Conestogas. The Conestoga made the trip possible but not an easy task. We owe a lot to those who did it.
Return to Tales From The Past