Denny Party on the Oregon Trail by Dorothea Nordstrand

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 2/15/2004
  • Essay 5647
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This account of the Denny Party's journey to the Pacific Northwest from Illinois was written by Dorothea Nordstrand (1916-2011). Nordstrand writes: When I started school in 1921 at the old Green Lake School, two of my classmates were Denny Grindall and Loretta Jennings, who were cousins. I believe they were both descendants of Arthur Denny. Perhaps that triggered my interest in the Dennys. In any case, I have always enjoyed reading about that family and have gathered much information over the years. This is the story of their journey to the Pacific Northwest on the Oregon Trail.

The Denny Party on the Oregon Trail

"Journal of the Route to Oregon Kept by A. A. Denny. April 10th, 1851. Left home at 3 o'clock p.m."

Those simple words mark the beginning of one family's historic trek along the Oregon Trail.

Some who braved the hardships of the trail were poor, hoping to find fertile land and kinder climate in the west. Some looked for gold and some were seeking adventure. And some of them had simply been born with an overwhelming need for change.

In this latter category were John Denny, born in Kentucky in 1793, and his son, Arthur, born in Indiana in 1822. In these two men, that roving spirit was very strong, a restless urge that was bred into their very bones. The Denny family line can be traced back to the Danish Vikings. Progressively they appear in France, England, Scotland, and Ireland, ever moving westward seeking new surroundings. They emigrated from Ireland to America in the mid-l700s, and settled for a while in Pennsylvania. Thence, they moved to Virginia. Then, in 1787, they are found in Kentucky. Soon, they made their way across the Ohio River into Indiana. In 1834, when his father died and John became head of the family, they moved again. This time, it was to Illinois, where they stayed long enough to help build the prosperous farming community of Cherry Grove.

Here, for a while, they seemed content. John and his wife developed a thriving farm and raised eight fine sons. Their four older sons married and started families of their own, nearby. One of these, Arthur, held the post of County Surveyor. They were comfortably off and held in high regard by their neighbors.

John gained prominence in the Illinois State Legislature where one of his closest friends was young Abraham Lincoln. Stories tell about the time when Abe and John, both ardent Whigs, were locked into the statehouse at Springfield by members of the opposing party to ensure a quorum. They climbed out of the second story window to escape, rather than to let a vote to be taken on an issue the Whigs strongly opposed.

John might have gone far in Illinois politics had not the opening of the Oregon Territory aroused in him the Denny wanderlust. Several years passed until John could stand it no longer. He was 58 years old by then, remarried after the death of his first wife, and now the proud father of his first baby daughter, but he was restless.

Arthur, fourth of his sons, shared his feeling. By 1850, the itch to move on had become almost unbearable to these two men. Letters from friends who had braved the Oregon Trail and were now happily established in the fertile Willamette Valley in Oregon were the final straw, and on one especially cold day in Illinois, John and Arthur made the momentous decision to pack their wagons and follow others along the Oregon Trail.

This was a time of tears and sorrow for the members of the family who were going and for those who chose to remain behind. They knew they would probably never see each other again and for some the severing of ties was heartbreaking. And yet, the lure of a new life in a new place spurred them on.

On April l0, l85l, having disposed of their farm homes and most of their belongings, the Denny Party made an emotional departure from Cherry Grove. There were four sturdy, covered wagons; three drawn by four-horse teams and one by a single span. There were extra horses and four dogs.

The 15 people who comprised the party were all related, although some bore the surname "Boren." Arthur had married Mary Ann Boren in 1843, and, five years later, widower, John, wed Mary Ann's widowed mother, Sarah Boren. The other "Borens" were her son, Carson and unmarried daughter, Louisa.

John, his wife, their baby daughter, Loretta, and Sarah's daughter, Louisa Boren, were in one wagon. Arthur, his four-month-pregnant wife, and their two young daughters, Louisa Catherine and Margaret Lenora, had the second. The third was for Carson Boren, his wife and their daughter, Gertrude. The fourth was for John's four unmarried sons, James, Samuel, David, and Wiley. There were seven men, four women, and four little girls in the wagon train. Each family's wagon contained all of that family's worldly goods, and the fourth carried their provisions for the long trip.

They crossed the Mississippi River at Burlington and rolled across sparsely settled Iowa. Three weeks after they left Cherry Grove they reached Kanesville (now Council Bluffs, Iowa), at that time the last outpost of civilization. There they camped for six days to make ready for the next part of the journey.

Then, a steam ferryboat took them across the Missouri River to meet the Old Immigrant Road beside the Platte River. Hundreds of earlier travelers had worn this into an easy-to-follow trail with double ruts left by the iron-bound wheels of the heavily loaded wagons. The trip beside the Platte River was uneventful, except for some stormy weather and the ever-present threat of quicksand around the stream. There was muddy but drinkable water in abundance and willows grew along the riverbank for firewood.
On Friday, June l3, two months and three days out of Cherry Grove, they made their last camp on the Platte.

At the start of the journey it was planned that Arthur would lead the group, but his life-long problem with malarial fever cropped up, making him too ill to do more than lie in his wagon with chills and burning fever, so his father, John, became the wagon master. Now, another of the Dennys, 19-year-old David, made his worth known.

Young, strong, and always optimistic, he was in his element on the trail. He was their best driver, handling a four-horse team as though born to it. He was the best marksman and fisherman, keeping them supplied with fish and game. He scouted the trail ahead and did double guard duty at night. His energy was boundless. Each day was high adventure to this Illinois farm boy and it gave him a chance to shine in the eyes of his sweetheart, Louisa Boren.

The next part of the Oregon Trail led across the endless, arid plains of Wyoming and was much more difficult than it had been along the Platte River. Although the immigrants could see the Rocky Mountains ahead, they never seemed to get any closer. Between them and those beautiful mountains lay a whole month of cruel desert travel. Grass and flowers withered and died in the unbearable heat as they toiled along, day by day. Along this part of the trail they passed heaps of household goods abandoned by earlier immigrants, sacrificed to lighten the load for exhausted horses and oxen. Piles of white-bleached bones attested to the collapse and death of hundreds of these patient animals. Even more daunting were mounds marking the graves of people like themselves but who would never see the "promised land" of which they had dreamed.

Some died of cholera and many simply succumbed to the dreadful, unrelenting heat. Finally, to save their lives and spare their horses, the Denny Party took what shelter they could find during the heat of the day and rolled their wagons during the evening and the relatively cooler night hours. When, at last, they reached the Green River, people and animals all plunged into the cool water for blessed relief.

Independence Rock, on the great plain of the Sweetwater River near what is now Casper, Wyoming, was a milestone of tremendous importance to travelers of the Oregon Trail. On this enormous rock, 1,900 feet long and 700 feet wide, towering 128 feet above the desert floor, earlier travelers left their names and painted messages for those to come later. The Dennys and Borens left their signatures, too. From there, they followed the Sweetwater River into the vast tumble of mountain range called the Rocky Mountains. Finally, on June 21, they reached the summit of the Rockies at South Pass.

At that time, Oregon Territory included the present states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and much of Montana. The eastern boundary of the territory was the summit of the Rockies, the Continental Divide. There were still weeks of grueling journey to be endured, but, at least they were out of the horror of the desert country without loss of life, either human or animal. They were now in thickly wooded mountain country with clear, rushing streams, and, most welcome of all, shade.

They felt newly alive. Now, finally they were in Oregon, although there were many weeks of hard travel between them and their goal. In this mountainous country, nights were cold, but the days were pleasant and the mountain meadows were starred with flowers. Game was plentiful and the accurate marksmanship of David Denny and Carson Boren added game to their diet for welcome variety from the usual cornmeal, flour, bacon, and beans. At Soda Springs, David and his love, Louisa, caught plump trout, another pleasant change for the trail-weary people.

A few miles west of Soda Springs the Oregon Trail divided, the south fork toward California, and the northwest fork onward to Oregon. Shortly beyond the division, they reached the walled fort of the Hudson's Bay Company's post, Fort Hall, on the Snake River in what is now southeast Idaho. They still had 700 miles to go, but they had now come two-thirds of their awesome way.

At Fort Hall they were told that the Shoshone Indians they would encounter soon were not to be trusted. Recent wagons had been attacked and horses stolen. This was unwelcome, but important, news to the immigrants, as the Indians they had met heretofore had been friendly.

Twice in the next weeks they had to take defensive action. Another time, an Indian brave brought a string of horses to their camp and demanded they trade Louisa Boren to him for the horses. He was so persistent in the face of their refusal that they became alarmed. They broke camp and left as quickly as they could and that night they didn't stop at all.

In the evening of the following day, after another close encounter, they were relieved and overjoyed to join up with John Low's wagon train of six men and two women who were camped on the bank of the Snake River. John Low was taking a herd of purebred cattle to the Willamette Valley, where he hoped to find fine pasturage for his animals. The two families traveled together from then on. Together they made an impressive train, giving each other protection and assistance in the grueling miles ahead.

In the rough Blue Mountain country, the streams were deep and swift, and there were many to be crossed. They learned to caulk their wagon beds with tar and tallow and paint them with tar on the outside to float them across like barges, while men and animals swam. The Blues were much more rugged than the Rockies, with steep cliffs and sheer rock walls obstructing the trail where wagons had to be winched up or down by chains snubbed around trees. (Now, more than 150 years later, scars still remain to be seen on many of the ancient trees.)

At Burnt River they encountered a man named Brock, who had been to the Puget Sound country in what is now Washington State. He described it as rich and untamed, with huge forests, a mild climate, and land for the taking. Arthur, particularly, was excited by what he heard and remembered it while they continued their trek to the Willamette Valley.

On August l, they made camp on the Umatilla Flats, at the place where the Oregon Trail meets the great Columbia River. The Umatilla Indians were farmers and fishermen and they traded the immigrants fresh vegetables and fresh salmon for such things as clothing and staples. One diary states, "The salmon was so large we had to cook it in a washtub." It was really relished after all the weeks of staple food.

They stayed a few days in this pleasant place to gain strength for the hardships to come. Many were weary and ill from the long journey and were glad to rest awhile. It was well they did.

From Umatilla, the trail now led westward high above the southern bank of the huge, swift-flowing Columbia River. It was a rough trail strewn with huge boulders making it necessary for everyone to walk and to drag the wagons around and between the obstructions. They reached The Dalles on August 10, nearly exhausted. They had been on the trail for 80 days and covered l,765 miles since crossing the Missouri and starting along the Old Immigrant Road. They calculated they had averaged 18 miles a day, very good for covered wagon travel.

Here at The Dalles they decided to divide their company. Mary Ann was in the last stages of pregnancy and had also come down with mountain fever. She was very ill and it was evident she could not survive another mountain crossing. They chartered two open boats to carry the women, children, and most of their baggage downstream, with Arthur Denny, Carson Boren, and John Low for protection, while the rest of the men struggled over the rugged Barlow Pass across the south shoulder of Mt. Hood with the wagons, the teams of horses and John Low's precious herd of cattle.

Even the river route was far from easy. A few hours out, the boat containing the men began to leak and had to put in to shore to be mended and the two boats became separated. Whenever the wind came up, they must scuttle for shore or capsize. This happened several times while they were on the river. The boatmen on the boat carrying the women and children got very drunk and that boat would have gone over the tremendous falls at the Cascades if Louisa Boren hadn't heard the noise of the turbulent water ahead and demanded that they be taken to the shore where they spent the night, grateful to be safe.

They had not seen anything of the other boat since they had taken to the river, so they could do nothing but wait there on the shore, sick with worry and alone for four more days until at last the second boat appeared. Imagine the relief all around when they knew at least this part of their family was safe.

A man named Chenowith had recently built a tramway to by-pass the white water of the Cascades. The little band of immigrants piled their possessions onto a handcart and pushed it over the rails to below the falls where Mr. Chenowith had a rickety, old brig, the Henry, which he had used to bring materials up the river to build his tramway. He sold them passage on this almost-derelict vessel to carry them down river to Portland. The Henry ran aground on the mud flats near Vancouver and was stuck there until the tide came in again to refloat her. The old boat carried them across the river to the mouth of the Willamette and anchored for the night.

The next day, she ran aground again on the mud flats three miles below Portland. The disgusted passengers took their possessions ashore and found lodging for the night. The next morning they procured some hand-carts and walked and pushed their way to Portland, where they were relieved to find the rest of their people, just coming in from the horrendous trip over the Barlow Pass.

They arrived August 22, l85l. They had been on the trail for 134 days and had covered an estimated 2,000 difficult miles. Now, John was satisfied. The Willamette Valley offered the climate and land for which he had been searching. The hard trip across the Oregon Trail had eased the restlessness in him and he was ready to settle down to farming along with his wife, baby daughter, and three of his younger sons.

Not so, Arthur. His urge was still to find a new land and start a new settlement. He didn't want to settle down quietly on land that had already been tamed. He couldn't forget the talk of the man, Brock, at Burnt River and felt in his bones that the Puget Sound country was where his future lay.

Arthur had no trouble convincing his willing henchman, brother David, that their star lay to the north. In due time, their journey continued and in November of that year of l851, Arthur and David and other members of their family established the tiny settlement on Elliott Bay in the Puget Sound country that has grown into the present-day city of Seattle, Washington.

Arthur Denny had found his Place of Destiny.

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