15 March 2018

Lucky Escape


Week 11: Lucky

Lucky Escape: Fleeing up the Columbia River

By Myra Vanderpool Gormley ©2018

On March 26, 1856, Yakama, Klickitat, and Cascades tribes attacked American settlers who were living along the Cascade Rapids on the Columbia River in Washington Territory. Fourteen settlers and three soldiers were killed. My family was lucky — they escaped on the steamer Mary.

When the Indians attacked that morning, many settlers took shelter in a sturdy, two-story store at the Upper Cascades, owned by brothers Daniel and Putnam Bradford. Fortunately, especially for my family, the Indians failed to trap the two steamers Mary and Wasco, above the rapids. The escape of the Mary was a remarkable episode in Pacific Northwest history. The boat picked up Vanderpool and Sheppard families, who came out to her in skiffs, and then she steamed rapidly up the river to get help for the others. The Mary was not a luxury steamer, but rather was built for hard work in the swift waters of the mid-Columbia River. She also was rather shallow because of the need to be able to land at many places along the river to pick up and unload passengers, mail and freight in the rapidly growing Pacific Northwest.

History records this event as the Cascades Massacre (March 26-28, 1856) and notes that warriors of the Yakama and Cascade tribes, angered over broken treaties, and in an attempt to repel white settlers from their land, attacked settlers living near the Cascades Rapids of the Columbia River. The next day, on March 27th, 20 to 40 mounted dragoons, under Lieutenant Phil Sheridan, arrived aboard the steamer Belle from Fort Vancouver. The Yakama fled, leaving the Cascade behind, who surrendered.

For scenes and more history about this area, see:

Francis Marion Vanderpool (called Marion) married Nancy Priscilla Shepard (daughter of Henry Shepard) in January of 1853 (Lockley, Fred, and Mike Helm. Conversations with Pioneer Women. Eugene, Or: Rainy Day Press, 1981, p. 159)  and they first set up housekeeping on the Washington Territory side of the Columbia River — near what’s now the town of Stevenson.

·         Contributor: William E. Hill
·         Article Title: Oregon Trail
·         Website Name: Encyclopædia Britannica
·         Publisher: Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.
·         Date Published: February 22, 2017
·         Access Date: March 05, 2018

Marion and Nancy made the trip to the Pacific Northwest on the Oregon Trail in 1852, but whether they were in the same wagon train or not is not known, but it is possible that’s how they met. Nancy was born in Jefferson County, Iowa. Marion, although born in North Carolina, had moved to the Midwest by the early 1840s. He appears twice in the 1850 federal census — enumerated on 26 August with his father, siblings and his new stepmother, who was same age as Marion, in Dade County, Missouri, and again on 7 November in Wayne County, Iowa with relatives there. His mother (Polly Fuson) died 18 August 1849 in Decatur County, Iowa. His father (William Vanderpool), left with 10 children ranging in ages from an infant to Marion, then about 20 years of age, remarried quickly. Whether this remarriage had anything to do with Marion deciding to go to the Oregon country is not known. After all, he was a young, single man with carpentry skills — and the Oregon and Gold Rush fevers were especially prevalent in Iowa and Missouri at the time. Ironically, Nancy lost her mother (Elizabeth Mattern) in 1849 also.

The emigration year of 1852 was one of much illness and death on the trail. Most of the deaths were attributed to cholera.  However, both Marion and Nancy were lucky — they made it safely to Oregon. The diaries and journals available for that year mention seeing wagons "as far as the eye can see" both ahead and behind.  According to The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants on the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60, by John D. Unruh Jr., (published by the University of Illinois Press in 1979), it’s estimated that more than 10,000 started out for Oregon in 1852, plus about 50,000 headed to California, and 10,000 for Utah. How many actually arrived in the Oregon Territory that year is not known, but my family was among those who made the trip successfully.

By 1852 a considerable community had developed on the north side of the Columbia River, just a mile or so west of Stevenson. Its existence came about largely because of its proximity to the upper end of unnavigable water at the Cascades rapids. At this point, all travel continued by portage for some four miles around the Cascades on the north (Washington) side of the river, either by a tramway that had been recently constructed or, more commonly, by wagon road. Mary, the first active steamer on the mid-Columbia River was finished and ready for launching on September 12, 1853, and luckily for my family she was there to rescue them on that fateful day in 1856.

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