Crossing a River on the Oregon Trail by Oxen in 1852

As told to Elsie Odell Bennette by Beth Gowdy about John Tucker Gowdy on the Oregon Trail in 1852.

Your great grandfather, John T. Gowdy, was only seventeen years old when he crossed the plains in 1852 by ox team. By the time he was telling this story to his children, he had forgotten the name of this river.

At the end of a long hot day, the train of covered wagons drawn by oxen halted at the bank of a broad swift river. It was too late to look for the ford, so they decided to camp, and cross the next day.

The drivers unyoked the oxen, and took them to the river to drink. They were hot and thirsty, and pushed and crowded to get to the water. Soon the first ones were crowded out of the shallow water into swimming depth. One old ox took the lead, and before the men saw what was happening, all the oxen were swimming across the river. They scrambled up the other bank, and began to eat. The men could see there was good grass, so they made no effort to bring the oxen back that evening.

The next morning, without a thought of danger, one of the drivers started to swim the river, and drive back the oxen. About half-way over, a whirlpool caught him, whirled him about till he went down, and they never saw him again.

Then two men who were good swimmers said they would go. To help them, they took a fine young mare, thinking that if the current was too strong for them, they could cling to her mane or tail, and she would help them across. But the current was too strong for all of them. One of the men, and the mare, were drowned. The other man got back to camp.

They just had to have the oxen. So the next morning, another man said he would try to swim the river. To be able to swim better, he took off all his clothes. He got over safely, but he could do nothing with the oxen. They were afraid of him without his clothes, and would run from him and bawl. Finally he gave up and swam back to camp, hungry, footsore, scratched and blistered by the hot sun.

The next morning the men unpacked one of the light wagons, took off the box, corked it with rags as tightly as possible, and carried it by hand a mile up the river, where the water was quieter. They cut some saplings, made some rude oars, and fifteen men and boys got into this make-shift boat and paddled across the river. Your great grandfather was one of the boys.

They rounded up the oxen, drove them to the river, but could not drive them into it. They would whirl and get away in spite of all the men could do. It was almost dark when they got a rope on the horns of the old ox who was the leader. The men got into the boat, and dragged him into the water.

When the rest of the oxen saw their leader swimming, they plunged in and followed him to the other bank. So the men got them back to camp, then drove them a mile or so back on the trail, and guarded them all night. The next morning they brought back the oxen a few at a time, and yoked them to the wagons. They did not dare take them to the river that morning for a drink.

When all were ready, they drove to the ford several miles above the camp. They crossed safely over and went on their way to Oregon.

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