Elijah Elliot promised a wagon train of 1,000 men and women that his route to Oregon would save them time and energy. He actually had never seen the route.
By 1853, many travelers had emigrated west via the Oregon Trail. The next step was making the route easier and creating new destinations. Entrepreneurs in the Willamette Valley of Oregon started one such venture. Some businessmen commissioned John Diamond, W. M. Macy, Joseph Meadows, Alexander A. King, W. T. Walter, J. Clarke, William Tandy, and Elijah Elliot to explore the middle fork of the Willamette River for a route over the Cascade Mountains. The route would leave the Oregon Trail at Nyssa on the Oregon border and travel west through the Bend area to end at Eugene, 75 miles further south than the end of the main trail.
While Diamond and his friends blazed the new trail, Elliot traveled east along the Columbia River. He arrived at Boise to meet a wagon train that was bringing his family to Oregon. Elliot bragged about the new route, claiming it would cut three hundred miles off their trip. He said it would be easier since there weren’t as many mountains and a milder climate. He claimed there was plenty of grass for the animals. What he didn’t tell them was that he had never seen the route they would travel. Lured by the promise of an earlier arrival in the Willamette Valley, approximately 250 wagons carrying 1,000 people decided to take a chance on Elliot.
Elliot struck west about September 1, 1853. For the first few days, he led the wagons over the same route followed by Stephen Meek, another pioneer trailblazer. This part of the trip was uneventful, though the travelers did have to cross the Malheur River several times. By the fourth day the travelers were making good time and passed Harper and then Westfall.
At first there was ample grass along the river. But after few days, the route turned rough and rocky. There was very little water. In some places they had to double-team the oxen to haul the wagons. Yoked oxen dropped in their tracks and refused to travel further. When the wagon train reached Malheur Lake, Elliot led the wagons around the lake to the south. Unfortunately, marshes lined the route making it slippery and soggy. The wagons were delayed for several days getting through this area.
Once they passed the lake, they struggled across a dry desert. Many streams were dried up. The livestock collapsed and died from dehydration or wandered off and never came back. Some travelers abandoned their heavy furniture and family heirlooms to lighten the load.
Elliot headed toward Diamond Peak, but didn’t reach it until October 2. Unfortunately, the road he expected to be built was not there. Several problems with the developers delayed work on the eastbound road. So the pioneers had to hack their way through the forest. The emigrants quickly used all their remaining staples. The game was quickly disappearing. Though there were edible plants, the emigrants were afraid to try any of them. Everything not needed for survival was abandoned to lighten the load for the remaining animals. It wasn’t long before they abandoned the wagons. Each person took what he or she could carry.
Elliot sensed the desperation of the situation and sent out another scouting party. Martin Blanding made it to a town named Lowell, a few miles southeast of Eugene. A young boy discovered the exhausted man collapsed in a field. Men from Lowell organized a rescue party.
The emigrants were too weak to travel right away, so the rescuers returned to Lowell several times for food. When the emigrants recovered some strength, they followed their rescuers to Lowell. Despite the arduous journey, about 1,000 people, 4,000 cattle, and 2,000 other livestock animals were alive to be rescued.
- Brogan, Phil F. “East of the Cascades,” Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1964.
- Menefee, Leah Collins and Lowell Tiller. “Cutoff Fever III,” Portland: Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1977, Volume LXXVIII, No. 2.