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by Hal Amick, San Mateo, CA

The 1852 journey of the Whitaker/John family to Oregon receives fairly terse treatment in two sources. In a publication about pioneer families in Clark County, Washington, we read that Jacob John was in Mahaska County, Iowa up until "the spring of 1852 when, accompanied by his family and grandchildren, they started across the plains to Oregon on the 1st of May. The trip took nearly six months. They arrived in Portland late in October and spent the winter there." [Ref. 1] Jacob's son, Summerel A. John, who made the trek as a boy, recorded the following in his family Bible: "Jacob and Rachel John, leaving their friends, came to Oregon in 1852 with their family. They was 6 month in crossing the great plains with their ox teams, finding the country c covered with Indians." [Ref. 2] From other sources we can construct a more vivid description of the journey.

The motivation of this group can probably be captured in a newspaper article from 1931, which described 17-year-old Isaac Whitaker accompanying "a group of pioneers who had decided to go west in search of greater opportunities. His father, [Summerel] Whitaker [Rachel John's brother], had made the trip west in 1849 during the gold rush, which had proved to be a profitable trip." We also know that another Mahaska County pioneer family, the Squire Bozorth family, had preceded them in 1845. Nothing is known about how these two families communicated, but Jacob evidently knew roughly where to find his former neighbor. [Refs. 3 and 4]. The wagon train left Westport, Missouri (near Independence on the Missouri River, now part of the Kansas City metro area) on May 1, 1852. Isaac Whitaker's son Frank recalled hearing that there were forty wagons in the train, each drawn by three yoke of oxen. Jacob John's son, Summerel, recalled a much larger number: "There were about 100 wagons in our train, and they were pulled by from three to as many as nine yoke of oxen." Frank Whitaker's information was second-hand, but had been observed by a young man. Summerel's information was first-hand, but was observed by a ten-year-old. Using either number, quite a few people were involved. [Refs. 1, 3, 5 and 6]

What was the makeup of this wagon train? We know from numerous accounts that Jacob and Rachel John and all of their living children—some married with children of their own and others who were still relatively young were at the core of the group. We also know that the party included several members of the Hutson Martin family from Vermilion County, Illinois. Jacob's daughter, Mary Jane, had married Hutson Martin, Jr., in 1841, and this couple and their five-year-old daughter Martha were living with his father in Illinois in the 1850 Census. The Martin family had been in Vermilion County for several decades, and were neighbors when the Jacob John and Summerel Whitaker families lived there prior to moving to Mahaska County, Iowa. Young Isaac Whitaker was also along, though he only stayed a few years.

  • It appears that the following people were in the wagon train (among others):

  • Jacob and Rachel John
  • their children ....
  • William C. Bedwell (husband of the late Sarah John) and his second wife, Elizabeth; Mary, daughter of William and Sarah
  • Isaac Whitaker, age 17 (Rachel's nephew)
  • Joshua and Sarah (John) Delay [Sarah appears to have been Jacob's sister]
  • Hutson Martin, Sr.; some of his children (not clear yet which ones)
  • Harvey Martin (probably a grandson of Hutson Martin, Sr.)

    The traditional route from Westport was across the Missouri River, along the Kansas River westward to the branch of the Blue River, turning northward and following the "Little" branch of the Blue into what is now Nebraska, cutting across to the Platte River at Fort Kearney. A 1931 newspaper article about Isaac Whitaker, one of the young emigrants, said that the party "traveled up the Platte River, experiencing many scrimmages with unfriendly Indian tribes and hunting buffalo which was one of the chief articles of food." [Refs. 3 and 7]

    During this period in American history, children were accustomed to a difficult life and participation in family chores. The children on this trek were no different. Summerel A. John, the youngest son of Jacob and Rachel John, who was nine years old when the trip began. He described his role in a newspaper interview in 1914:

    Like most trains, we had quite a band of loose stock extra oxen and milk cows. Harve Martin, a boy of about my own age, and myself were assigned the job of driving the loose stock. No we didn't like it much. Following along in a cloud of dust raised by the wagons and the loose stock was not as pleasant as skylarking ahead of the train; but we had it to do, so we did it. [Ref. 6]

    The journeys across the frontier to the Pacific coast were fraught with hardships beyond the comprehension of most modern Americans. Health problems, particularly cholera, plagued virtually all wagon trains, including this one. Accidents could damage or destroy wagons, equipment or livestock, as well injure members of the party. So far from medical help, such as it was at the time, minor injuries could be fatal. Although there are no records that members of this party were lost to Indian raids, they were an ever-present threat to all wagon trains. [Ref. 7]

    On the way, Hutson Martin Jr., Mary Jane's husband, died of cholera and was buried beside the trail. The exact location is not known, but it is thought by some to be in present-day Nebraska. His 27-year-old wife, Mary Jane, and his seven-year-old daughter, Martha, were forced to leave their wagon and belongings, as it was thought that cholera was a contagious disease. They joined the wagon of Allen and Elizabeth Gilson (Mary Jane's sister) for the remainder of the journey. Only much later was it learned that contaminated water was the cause of the malady. [4] On another occasion, four year old Sarah Alice, the Gilson's daughter, was stricken with diphtheria on the trip, but fortunately she recovered, to marry and have eleven children. [Ref. 5] (Mary Jane remarried in Washington, but had no more children. Her only child, Martha, died as a teenager.)

    Over sixty years later, Summerel still had vivid memories of a stampede he witnessed:

    "It is certainly a terrifying sight to see the oxen running down a long grade pellmell, the wagons bouncing along and babies and other loose things bouncing off. Suddenly a weak wheel will gvie way, down will go one side of the wagon, and you can hear the screams of the women folks. I'll tell you how this stampede occurred, though I didn't tell anyone till long after we got to Oregon.

    "One day Harve and I were driving the loose stock. We had an old ox whose feet were sore; he had been taken off the wagon, as they thought a few days with the loose stock would rest him so, he could be used again. He simply wouldn't keep up. We were following behind the train. Harve and I hot tired throwing clods at him, so at last I thought of a plan. 'I'll go ahead a ways,' I told Harve, 'and hide back of some sagebrush beside the road. You drive him along. When he comes opposite to me, I will jump out, give a yell and throw my hat at him. Maybe that will scare him and he will trot ahead and catch up with the rest of the cattle.'

    "I went ahead and hid, and when that old, lazy, sore footed ox came along I jumped out, hollered as loud as I could, and threw my hat in his face. He stopped stiff legged, bawled and then with his tail in the air went down the road like a race horse bolting through the loose cattle. They gave a snort and with tails up struck out after him. The loose cattle ran past the wagons as tight as they could go and every ox in the train began bawling and running. We were just starting down a long grade, and there was no stopping them till they started up the hill on the other side. We had to lay over a day. Some of the oxen had fallen and were dragged along by the others till their necks were broken. Quite a few of the wagons had been broken beyond repair. They cut loose the dead oxen and by repacking and abandoning some of the things they needed least, they got under way. When I looked back at the three broken wagons we were leaving and the oxen whose necks had been broken, I felt pretty bad about it. Harve and I 'crossed our hearts and hoped to die' if we ever told. They asked us, but we told them we didn't know. They concluded, it was a coyote or a rattlesnake that had stampeded the loose stock. I didn't tell till years afterward. [Ref. 6]

    The party followed the Platte River past the landmarks Chimney Rock and Register Cliff in western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming, before reaching Fort Laramie. [In 1995, the author carefully examined Register Cliff for any of the names known to be part of this party. None were found.] The party probably replenished their provisions at Fort Laramie before moving on up the Platte. [About forty miles from Fort Laramie the party passed Horseshoe Creek, near the present town of Glendo. One of Isaac's grandsons would return sixty years later to homestead and one of his granddaughters--the author's grandmother-- would become the area's first schoolteacher.] Later they followed the Snake River in Idaho, with Washington Territory as the main objective.

    When supposedly within fifty miles of their destination, Isaac Whitaker, who was then 17 years of age, in company with his uncle, left the wagon train and set out on foot to finish the journey. It was later discovered that they were 150 miles from their destination, and many hardships were endured that nearly resulted in starvation. The weary travelers had exhausted their food supply and in a weakened condition were often forced to crawl on their hands and knees to rest their feet which were badly blistered. Their lives were saved when they came upon a camp of friendly Indians who furnished them with salt fish and other food sufficient to last the remainder of the journey. [Ref. 3]

    The group arrived in Portland on October 28, 1852, and spent the winter there. In the spring of 1853, Jacob John located the Bozarth family along the north fork of the Lewis River in Clark County and decided to settle near them. He filed his Donation Land Claim, of 316.57 acres, on Twp. 5 N, Sec 8 & 17, R 1 E on March 5, 1853. [Ref. 1]

    Summerel A. John recorded in his Bible this postscript regarding the Indians:

    They was peaceable until 1855. Then we was called away from our homes by the Government to a fort for protection until the soldiers could allay them. That was the last of the Indians. [Ref. 2]


    1. 1. Clark County Pioneers: A Centennial Salute, by the Clark County (WA) Genealogical Society, Family History Library (Salt Lake City) call number 979.786 H2c, page 15, profile of Jacob John family.
    2. 2. Family Bible of Summerel A. and Olive I. John [courtesy Malcolm Blanchard]
    3. 3. "HAS A LETTER 76 YEARS OLD: Frank Whitaker Cherishes Letter Written by His Grandmother to his Father, Isaac Whitaker", Almena Plaindealer, July 30, 1931 [courtesy Maxine Graf]
    4. 4. Clark County Pioneers: A Centennial Salute, profile of family of Squire Bozarth Sr., p 477
    5. 5. Clark County Pioneers: A Centennial Salute, profile of Allen Gilson family, p 173:
    6. 6. "In Earlier Days," a column by Fred Lockley, The Oregonian, Portland, Oregon, May 2, 1914
    7. The Road to Oregon: A Chronicle of the Great Emigrant Trail, W. J. Ghent, Longmans, Green and Co., New York, 1929.

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