1882 Wagon Train

There's a Long, Long Trail Awinding...

by John E. McDowell

The bulk of this document is a diary written by John E. McDowell, my great-Uncle, in 1882 during a wagon train trip from Crestline, Kansas to the Kittitas valley near Ellinsburg, Washington. I have added this preface, and an appendix which includes some photos to make the story more personal. I also added the maps to the diary portion to show the route of travel, as I believe the original diary contained such maps.

I claim a copyright on this entire document, since this is the first time it has been 'published'. I hereby grant, in advance, a license to copy this document to any direct descendant of persons mentioned herein, provided that this document not be republished, rewritten, or excerpted except with my prior written permission. My email address is linked to my name, just below.

H Marc Lewis, Spokane, WA, Dec-1995


This forward is to identify some of the persons whose name appears in this diary. John E. McDowell, the writer of this diary, and his brother, Thomas Green McDowell, were two of the five McDowell brothers to migrate to Kansas from Indiana in 1866 by wagon train. The other three brothers were Doctor Calvin G. McDowell, William Wirt McDowell, and James Lafayette McDowell.

The two brothers had married sisters but John's wife died in 1874 leaving him with two little boys, Jimmie (age 3) and Willie (age 1). For the next 10 years or so, John and his little boys made their home with Green's family. At the time of their migration to Washington Territory, Green and his wife Mollie had four children - Frank (age 12), Harry (age 5), Elmer (age 3), and Mabel (age 1).

Recently we met in Seattle the sole survivor of that little company of pioneers who had made that trip over 75 years ago. He is James T. McDowell - the 10 year old Jimmie when they made the trip. He now makes his home in Seattle and despite his advanced age - he is now past 85 - he drives his own automobile throught the streets of Seattle as well or better perhaps than he drove that span of mules over the plains and mountains of 75 years ago.

Later, after we had returned to our home in Chicago, we wrote and asked him if he would write us a story of that memorable trip. To our great delight, he sent us the diary that his father had kept while making the trip. It is a little leather bound notebook and has been kept in wonderful condition. Not a page torn nor a word blurred. In just a few places has it dimmed so much that a reading glass is necessary. It is a real and true story of those early pioneers as they struggled to make their way across plains, rivers, deserts and mountains to new virgin lands. Such stories will never be written again by people of America.

Because the diary fails to give much in detail concerning their life spent on the trip, we wrote to James (or Jim as he is known by all) and asked him to write us more fully of how life was spent by them on the trip. The following are exerpts from letters in which he has written more fully of the trip.

"Was glad to get your interesting letter and will try to furnish as much information as I can regarding our journey from Kansas to Washington Territory in 1882. We started from Crestline, Kansas, on April 18, 1882. Your Grandfather (Uncle Doc) went with us as far as Columbus. Both father and Uncle Green had brand new wagons, 3 young horses and 2 mules. A round tent (pole in center) big enough so we could all sleep in it if necessary. Had sheet-iron camp stove for cooking. For sleeping, we had feather-beds, blankets, quilts, and etc. For food, I don't believe we would have to go more than two days between places where we could buy groceries. Our meat consisted mostly of birds, deer and antelope father killed along the way. Water was quite a problem sometimes but we had water barrels on side of wagons. We had candles and lanterns for light."

"I don't know anything the folks did on Sunday except rest and read the Bible and rest for the teams of course."

"The stage stations were not too far apart (I imagine about 50 or 60 miles apart). We could get ordinary supplies such as coffee, flour, bacon, etc., there. I think we had to do without milk altogether for there was no canned milk in those days."

"The stage drivers were not our best friends. I remember they had a habit, that is some of them did, when passing an emigrant wagon they would speed their horses (four to six of them) that would throw the back wheel of stage over against the front wheel of your wagon and bust it. Uncle Green always carried a shotgun beside him to be ready for any guy who tried that on him."

"Victor, I am sending a diary which my father kept while crossing the plains and mountains from April to July when we got to Grande Ronde Valley, Oregon. Then it seems his diary was full. He got another one and continued writing but in some way it has got lost. You may not be able to get much out of this diary either for thru the years it has faded so it has to be read with a powerful glass."

"I'm so sorry about the latter part of the diary being lost for it tells why we came to locate in Kittitas Valley. The road from Yakima to Ellensburg used to go up over the mountains instead of up the river as now. I remember when we were on the mountain overlooking the Kittitas Valley, Father started singing that old hymn I've reached the land of corn and wine and all that's rich is freely mine."

Excerpt from another letter:

"Yes, I am the only one now living who made that trip. Frank was first one to die in 1892; then Uncle Green in 1896 or 7; Elmer in 1898; my father in 1901; Aunt Mollie in 1924; my brother Will in 1938; Harry in 1945 and Mabel in 1954. I have a very dim recollection of Yandel, McGines and Elder Bures."

"Father and Uncle Green each bought land. There was lots of fine land east of Ellensburg to be homesteaded but no water for irrigation. Those days you had to get land on a small creek so you could make your own ditch for water."

From another letter:

"The reason we left Kansas was on account of crop failures. I remember the year before we left just at harvest time a hail storm beat all our wheat, oats, etc., into the ground and only corn stalks were left standing. We lived with Uncle Green and Aunt Mollie after mother's death in Kansas and out here too until I was about 13. Uncle and Aunt were sure the dearest people in the world. I think you know father and Uncle married sisters."

In typing up this old diary, we have taken great pains to type it up word for word just as it is written. We did correct a few words obviously misspelled. The writer did not waste too many words telling of the day's journey. You will also not that not much time was wasted in sight- seeing. They had a goal to reach - Washington Territory - and they let nothing delay the attainment of that goal if at all possible to avoid. If at all possible to travel, they would, even when some might be sick. Only when they were desperately in need of feed for the stock or water, would they travel on Sunday.

It has been a real pleasure to produce this great story in printed form that the descendants of these hardy pioneers and their relatives might each have a copy to read. We know you will enjoy reading it.

Signed, Victor E. McDowell
(grandson of Dr. Calvin C. McDowell)
(Calvin was John and Thomas McDowell's brother)
Note: undated but probably written about 1959

— Go to the Diary itself —
— Go to the Appendix and photos —
— Look at a map of the route of travel —