It seemed to pioneer Tabitha Brown that the entire East Coast population had converged on the frontier town of Independence, Missouri. Thousands of excited immigrants tended to their livestock and their wagon trains that were filled to overflowing before beginning the long journey across the plains west. The congested river city was the start of the Oregon Trail. Everywhere you looked, heavily laden mules wagged their large packs, bristling with shovels and picks. Teamsters led oxen and mule teams down the dusty thoroughfares pulling generations of families and supplies. All were giddy with the possibility of a prosperous life beyond the Rockies. Accompanied by her grandson, sixty-six-year-old Tabitha wove in and out of the busy storefronts and tent shops, watching merchants selling a variety of goods, from apples to moccasins.
Numerous blacksmiths all around pounded out shoes for a line of horses, and music from saloons drifted out into the street enticing people to step inside before heading off.
As Tabitha marveled at the sites and sounds, she recalled visiting the area shortly after she and her now-deceased husband had married. The location had been a wilderness of solitude and silence then. Now prospectors, engineers, promoters, adventurers, gamblers, and soiled doves had flocked to the thriving hamlet. Two-story buildings had sprouted like wild weeds and cabins and churches followed suit.
In 1846 Tabitha decided to leave her home in Hickory Grove, Missouri, and move to Oregon. Her son Orus had returned from the lush Williamette Valley of the Northwest and convinced his mother and extended family to relocate. His enthusiasm for the farming opportunities there was infectious. Weighing one hundred pounds and dragging a partially paralyzed leg, Tabitha packed her belongings and eagerly looked forward to the move. She was a tenacious woman whose life in Missouri had been a mixture of heartbreak and joy.
Born on May 1, 1780, in Brimfield, Massachusetts, Tabitha was educated as a teacher and taught school for a few years before marrying the Reverend Clark Brown. The pair then moved to Missouri where Clark served as an Episcopalian preacher. The couple had three children: two boys they named Orus and Manthano, and a girl they called Pherne. After Rev. Brown died in 1817, Tabitha returned to the teaching profession to support her family.
Tabitha not only made the trip west with her son Orus, his wife, and their eight children, but traveled with her daughter, her husband, their five youngsters, and Tabitha’s seventy-seven-year-old brother-in-law, former sea captain, John Brown. She made her way down the long trail with the help of a cane and periodically rested her weary frame in a rocking chair that was loaded and unloaded from the back of her wagon.
A gold prospector in 1849 noted in a letter home that “the overland journey is one of the most unfortunate undertakings to which man may allow himself to be lured, because he cannot possibly have any conception before starting of this kind of traveling.” That was certainly the case for Tabitha and her family. In spite of the unforeseen obstacles and personal disabilities, the widow was determined to reach the spot her son called “Paradise.” From the moment the party left Independence, Tabitha’s excessively attentive family watched over the senior citizen. Although she preferred to do for herself, her children insisted on seeing to her every need.
Tabitha and Captain Brown’s wagon was one of sixty in the train. To make traveling a little more manageable, the leader of the expedition divided the train into fifteen platoons of four wagons each. On the days Tabitha’s platoon and wagon were in the lead she happily drank in the passing scenery. A cloud of dust created by her fellow sojourners’ wagons obscured her view of the landscape when her vehicle rotated to the end of the caravan, however. An average day’s travel was nine to ten hours long with an hour break at noon. Tabitha felt as though the trip was being rushed.
“Some people in this train have only one thing in mind,” she noted in her memoirs. “They just want to push everybody to the limit to get to Oregon as fast as they can.”
Her son explained that they had to hurry along to avoid heavy rains or unexpected snowstorms over mountain passes. She understood his reasoning but felt it was unlikely given the time of year they were traveling.
“When the oxen need rest and we’re camped in a place with good grass and water, we ought to take advantage of it,” she later wrote.
During the first leg of the journey, the emigrants crossed the Big Blue River in Kansas near Alcove Springs and then followed the Little Blue River into Nebraska. Tabitha spent part of the long drive watching her daughter sketch the sights, reading about the Oregon territory, and playing word games with her grandchildren. At times her wagon and a few others lagged behind the pilot vehicle to enjoy the scenery and rest. Orus eventually became too frustrated to continue on with those he believed were slowing the entire train down, and a decision was made to split the wagons up to make better time.
Orus and his family and twenty-nine other wagons were going to move on ahead after they reached a spot called Ash Hollow, three miles south of Lewellen, Nebraska. Ash Hollow was the steepest descent on the trail. The pioneers’ belongings had to be tied to the wagons and the wagons lowered down the green embankment below. Everyone had to walk alongside the vehicles and the teams. Tabitha was required to do the same but realized soon after she started that she could not make it over the pass on foot. She agreed to be carried down the precipice by two of the strongest men in the party.
The elderly woman’s knowledge of the rocks and plants on the route was educational for the children on the journey. She taught them the names of the various flowers and trees, and stony landmarks such as Chimney, Courthouse, and Jail Rocks. All three of the natural landmarks helped settlers find their way to their final destinations.
Tabitha found one of the most interesting trail markers to be Post Office Rock. The name of the site was etched into the granite ledges and contained a number of letters left behind from people in preceding trains. Some of the notes contained warnings for travelers continuing along the trail. “Upon leaving the North Platte area,” the tattered notes read, “the journey gets difficult. Ahead is fifty miles of dry desert with only one good camping spot.”
Tabitha and the others pressed on in spite of the hardships that lay ahead. The hot sun baked the wagon trail, and everyone who dared sit inside their canvas enclosures. The elderly Miss Brown plastered a smile of resolve on her face and urged her ox team through the loose sand. When the weight became too much for the animals to manage, nonessential items had to be unloaded from the wagon and deposited in the desert. Tabitha gave up her iron pots and pans, cooking utensils. And a carved walnut bedstand.
Lack of water was a hardship not only for the pioneers but for the livestock pulling the vehicles. They dragged their feet, panted, and bawled for refreshments.
“It was pitiful to hear,” Tabitha wrote in her journal. “We couldn’t wait to reach the Sweetwater River in southern Wyoming and relieve their agony.”
When they arrived at the eighty-foot-wide body of water, they filled their canteens and water barrels and gave the animals a chance to replenish themselves. After only a day’s rest, the wagon train moved on toward Independence Rock. The party made it to the most famous of all the Oregon Trail landmarks on July 4, 1846. Thousands of emigrants who had previously passed through the area had carved their names on the massive boulder. Tabitha referred to it as the “Great Register of the Desert,” and with her permission her grandson proudly etched her name into the stone.
The wagon train pilot led Tabitha and the other travelers further down the trail through the granite walls of Devil’s Gate where they began to steadily ascend the south pass of the Rockies. The precarious road was closely lined with emigrants.
By August 9, 1856, Tabitha and her fellow pioneers had traveled more than 1,400 miles. After passing the American Falls on the Snake River in Idaho, the group made camp and began discussing the next leg of the journey. They had been on the trial for more than three months, were extremely tired, and on more than one occasion, had been forced to abandon a portion of their belongings. Tensions were running high and most just wanted to get to their new home in the Willamette Valley quickly. The leaders of the group decided to venture off the well-established trail and pursue a cut-off promoted by gentleman on the train named Jesse Applegate.
Applegate was a veteran traveler and assured the group that the new route he had discovered would get them to the settlement quicker than the traditional course. Applegate’s route had many dangers associated with it—rugged terrain, the possibility of encountering bad weather, and warring natives who were upset by the encroaching presence of white men. Tabitha and many others agreed to take the trail.
Ninety-eight men, fifty women (including Tabitha), and several children were a part of the team that followed Applegate across northern Utah and Nevada and over the mountains of southern Oregon. The trip was grueling; at times they were on the move for forty-eight hours straight in order to make it through the desert.
Livestock, too weak to continue on, had to be left behind. Overgrown trails toppled and destroyed wagons. Indians killed some of the oxen and milk cows and drove off herds of beef cattle. Rain and hail storms drenched the roads and washed them out. Tabitha’s brother-in-law’s health began failing due to exhaustion and overexposure to the elements.
In addition to the other concerns for safety and lack of food, Tabitha worried that she wouldn’t be able to make it to the camp in Oregon because of her age and fretted over the problem that it could pose if she too got sick. The loss of animals meant that more personal effects had to be left along the trail to assure that the remaining mules could haul the wagons. Tabitha finally parted with her rocking chair near the Rogue River. So many pack animals died that eventually several of the wagons had to be abandoned all together. The pioneers were forced either to walk or ride one of the horses that was well enough to carry them.
“I rode through the Umpqua Mountains in three days at the risk of life, on horseback, having lost my wagon and all that I had but the horse I was on,” she wrote.
Tabitha and John got separated from the train for a short while. John had fallen behind because he was ill, and Tabitha stayed with him to help. She managed to make a crude canvas lean-to in a copse of trees and guided John to the location where he could be protected from a pouring rain. The following morning the pair was found and reunited with their party.
The Applegate route proved to be more of a speculative roadway than a tried one. By the time Tabitha and the other settlers who had chosen to follow the so-called trailblazer reached the banks of the Willamette River in Oregon, they were out of food, their clothes and shoes were completely worn, and they were too weak to travel long periods of time. An advanced team had to be sent ahead to the settlement to secure provisions and bring them back to the cold, beleaguered group.
Tabitha and her fellow travelers finally made it to their destination on Christmas Day 1846. They arrived at a camp called Oregon City. Rain continued to pound the settlement, which consisted of three or four dozen dwellings, and everyone scrambled for a dry place to rest their weary frames. Tabitha sought protection from the elements at the home of a Methodist missionary.
“It was the first house I had set my feet in for nine months,” she later wrote.
Once the sun had come out and Tabitha’s family had an opportunity to set up tents and purchase provisions, they quickly sent for her. She was not willing to relocate, however. She had decided that no house would be large enough to hold her daughter or son’s family, along with her and her brother-in-law.
“I’ve got to Oregon, as I intended to,” she gently explained to her grandson. “But I’ve lost my wagon and all my possessions, except for what I have on my back and the little dab in my saddlebag. And there’s Captain John to be looked after. He can’t live out his life in a tent.”
Although Tabitha’s family objected, she insisted on looking for a job to provide for herself and Captain John. She’d hoped to acquire a position teaching, but in the interim took a job as a housekeeper for the Methodist missionary.
“I twiddled my thumbs all the way across the plains and let them make an old woman out of me,” Tabitha penned in her journal. “But now I’m here and going to have my way for a change.”
Tabitha’s children moved to homesteads on the Tualatin Plains near the town of Salem and Willamette Falls. She visited whenever she could afford to do so. She enjoyed her work and looked forward to the day she could return to the field of education. A coin found in the fingertip of one of her gloves provided her with the financial incentive to realize her goal.
“What I supposed to be a button—was worth six and a quarter cents,” Tabitha noted in her journal. “I bought three needles, traded some old clothes to Native women in return for buckskin and worked them into gloves for the Oregon ladies and gentlemen, which cleared me upwards of $30.”
The funds made it possible for Tabitha eventually to accompany missionary Henry Clark and his family to Forest Grove, a town west of Tualatin, and take in orphan Indian children who needed a home and wanted to learn to read and write.
“He (Rev. Clark) proposed to . . . establish a school in the plains,” Tabitha recalled in 1854. “I was to go into the log meeting house and receive all the children rich and poor, who wanted to learn.”
Within the first year of starting the school and orphanage in March 1848, Tabitha had twelve children in her care. They used the church as both a classroom and home, but it was clear they needed more space.
“Mr. Clark fell trees and built a school and houses for teachers and visiting clergy,” Tabitha remembered. “Those parents who were able to pay, were ask to contribute a $1 a week for board, tuition, washing, and all. I agreed to labor for one year for nothing, while Mr. Clark and others were to assist as far as they were able in furnishing provisions. Our students ranged in age from four years old to twenty-one years old.
The Tualatin Academy, as it came to be known, was chartered by the territorial legislature on September 26, 1849. In addition to their daily studies, students and residents helped maintain the grounds, did laundry, cooked, cleaned, and cared for the milk cows and chickens. Tabitha taught classes, oversaw all the domestic activities, lent support when needed, and settled any disputes that arose between the youngsters.
In the beginning the only book at the school was a Bible. Donations from local businesses made it possible for readers, spellers, math, and history books to be purchased. A missionary had brought two hundred such volumes to the territory by ship. The school grew both in the number of the students and in the buildings necessary to accommodate them. Seven years after Tabitha began teaching at the facility, the school’s charter was amended to include the name of the outgrowth of the Tualatin Academy, the Pacific University.
Tabitha worked at the school for ten years. During that time she managed to save enough money to purchase her own home and eight other pieces of property in Forest Grove. When she died at the age of seventy-eight, she had more than $1,000 in cash. Five hundred dollars of the money she had saved was donated to the academy.
Tabitha Brown passed away at her daughter’s home on May 4, 1858. Although the academy closed in 1915, the university is still in existence. It has achieved high ratings in the category of private regional and liberal arts universities and is now best known for its College of Optometry.