A Story of Pioneering by Nicholas V. Sheffer (1825-1910), Part 1: Oregon Trail

  • Posted 10/10/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7975

In 1909, Nicholas Sheffer (1825-1910) was Whatcom County's oldest pioneer. He prepared his reminiscences for The Lynden Tribune, which ran them in three parts in August of that year as "A Story of Pioneering: Being a Personal Narrative of Early Days in Northwest Washington, told to the Tribune by N. V. Sheffer, of 1854." HistoryLink.org was made aware of this account by Whatcom County family historian Susan Nahas who connected Sheffer's information with the HistoryLink.org story of Julia Benson Intermela (1855-1907), the half-Duwamish daughter of Seattle pioneer Henry Yesler (1810-1892). In Part 1 Sheffer treks from Indiana to California to Puget Sound. (Note: Sheffer's original spellings have been retained.)

A Story of Pioneering

Though I am a good mathematician and a fairly good writer I only attended school three months. The rest of my education is the result of digging in later years, since I came to the coast.

I was born in Indianapolis, Sept. 18, 1825. It was there I first met Ezra Meeker, when he was only a slip of a boy, for he was much younger than I. We lived in Indianapolis until I was 10 or 12 years old, when my parents went to Williamsport, Ind. Where I grew to manhood on the banks of the Wabash River.

My father was a carpenter. I worked with him from when I was beg enough to turn the grindstone until I was a man grown, and until I was considered a very good carpenter.

It was in the spring of 1850 that I started for Oregon, with two yoke of oxen and one yoke of cows. The company with which I started was overloaded, and made slow progress. We were harassed by Indians, and a number of the party died from the cholera which broke out in our train. It was getting late in the season when we reached the summit of the Rocky Mountains at South Pass. The train was demoralized and I was afraid it would never get through. Myself and the owner of three other wagons concluded to cut loose and make for Salt Lake, which we did, the main train taking to the right and we to the left. I have never heard anything of those who stuck to the main trail from that time on. We made very good time after leaving them and reached Salt Lake safely. It was our intention to go on to California over the Sierra Nevada mountains, crossing near the Humbolt Lake, but we were informed in Salt Lake that it was too late in the season. They said we might get over the mountains on snow shoes, but that we couldn't take the stock through.

There was a train of Mormons going south to reinforce a colony which Lyman and Rich had established at San Bernardino, Cal. We got permission to travel with them and had a very pleasent time, with the exception of one snow storm that caught us at the rim of the great basin at what afterwards became famous as the "Mountain Meadows." The snow fell to a depth of 14 inches, but one day's travel down the mountain put us out of it and out of winter travel. There was a captain of president of the train and a captain to every ten wagons and all of the captains acted as a council or cabinet. Every thing was conducted in perfect order. There were guards and stock herders and every man in the train did his turn. We had very little trouble from Indians and seen none after we left the waters of the Rio Virgin. We crossed the deserts without suffering for either man or beast. When we got to the Mobard, generally a dry wash, we found a raging torrent. It delayed us several days, but we spent New Year's Day, 1851, in San Bernardino.

Our party stopped in the settlement for only a short time. I had started for Oregon -- all this country was then Oregon -- and my compass pointed this way. Me and my party struck out up the coast. We found some good traveling and some very bad, almost impassable -- one place in particular, in a canyon we were three days making eight miles. Some places we had to take our wagons apart and carry them part by part for some distance. But our men as well as our women were of good metal, and we made it -- because we had to. It was a happy day when we arrived at the mission of San Jose. We could see the Bay of San Francisco, and some shipping. Mr. Robinson and myself had become pretty short of money, clothing and provisions. In a year on the road our families had worn out their clothes, shoes and things, and learning that the wagon road over the Shasta mountain was not yet completed, we disposed of our ocen and wagons, keeping the cows, and went to work for John M. Horner. Wages were good -- $4 and $5 a day. After we finished Horner's house we got a job across the bay at San Raphel [San Raphael]. Mr. Parker agreed to move us over, he having a large boat. He took the whole show at one load -- both families, five cows and all of our dunnage. After finishing Parker's hotel we bought some lots and built us some houses to live in. Work was not so plentiful so we went to San Francisco -- only about three hours sail -- and worked there a few months.

We saw so many coming out of the mines with big purses of gold dust that we got the fever. We left our families at home and went up the Yula [Yuba] River and started mining. There we remained until July 1854. A young man named Burdock was one of our neighbors. He often visited our cabin. He never tired of talking of Puget Sound which had just been cut off from Oregon and made part of the new territory of Washington. He was very anxious to go there and he revived the old Oregon fever in me and we agreed to take first boat from Frisco that we could get. He went to Frisco to arrange for our passage and I went home to get ready. I left my family with Mr. And Mrs. Robinson, where I knew they would have proper care.

I do not remember the exact date of leaving Frisco. Our trip on the ocean was a new experience to me. I was not sick as is usually the fate of inexperienced travelers, but Mr. Burdock was sick from the time we started until we arrived at Port Townsend and was inclined to return without taking a look at the country, but after a few days ashore he had recovered his spirits.

We arrived in Port Townsend about the middle of September. The weather was fine and the few white men there were very friendly. There were only 10 or 12 men and 3 women. Frank Pettigroe [Pettygrove] and F. B. Hastings [Hasting] had their wives with them and there was a young lady with the Hastings family who afterwards married Alford [Alfred] Plummer, the original locator of the land on which the principal part of the town lay.

We heard favorable reports of Bellingham Bay, of the country round it and of a coal mine that was being opened there. We determined to see it. We hired an Indian of the illustrious name George Washington, who had a good sized canoe, but he and his partner were as ignorant of the English language as we were of Chinook. For a small consideration we hired an interpreter named No-Nosed-Charley, he having had his nose bit off in a fight. He lived with the white people most of the time and could talk English. In fact during the Indian war he was a great help to the citizens of Port Townsend.

When we got our blankets and provisions and guns and the five of us ready for embarkation the canoe brought around. It looked to me like the load would sink it, but it was able to take loads three times as large with perfect safety. We came around the lower side of Whidby [Whidbey] Island and followed up the coast until we were near where Anacortes is located now, when we struck across through the islands for Bellingham Bay.

We landed at the mouth of Whatcom Creek. There was a large number of Indians around the bay -- some of them at Spualicum and Sehome and where Fairhaven was afterwards located by Don Harris. They lived in houses constructed of slabs or boards split out of cedar timber. I saw 15 or 20 men, but only one white woman that I remember of, and that was Mrs. Eldridge.

We stayed at that camp there or four days, looking at what country we could see. It was all a dense forest down to the water's edge. The Indians told us there was a large lot of land without timber at Samish and we got some Indians at Sehome to take us there. (Our Indians had gone to visit the Lummies at the mouth of the Nooksack.)

We found the prairie at Samish as we had supposed it would be, nothing but an extensive salt marsh, interspersed with innumerable sloughs. Burdock was looking for farming land. He said the idea of clearing a farm in the timber made him sick at the stomach. I was looking for a place where I could work at my trade, and believed that I had found it. I believed that Whatcom was bound to be quite a town.

When we left Samish we went to the mouth of the Nooksack where we found our Port Townsend Indians. The Lummies told us, through our interpreters that the Indians grew quantities of potatoes up the river. Burdock wanted to go see. We had to change our canoe, and take what is called a shovel-nosed canoe, one that is propelled by both paddles and poles.

On the trip up the river we saw a white man, somewhere near where Ferndale is now, but got no information from him that was of any value. The second day we came to a big [log]jam, about three-fourth of a mile above where the beautiful town of Lynden is now located. We would have had to make a portage if we had gone further up the river, and so we decided to go back. We had failed to find any potato farms.

We saw where someone had started to build a cabin on the north bank, near a swampy prairie, which was the only sign of a white man's work that we saw the whole trip.

When we got back to our camp on Whatcom Creek where we had left some of our things with an old gentleman who had a rough cabin, we were glad to be there. I think he was working for Henry Roeder. It was raining and we got in with him. I don't recall his name but we stayed with him for several days. We had plenty of provisions and fish and game were easy to get, so we were in no hurry to get away.

One day we were lounging about the camp when we noticed a commotion among the Indians. Charley and our other Indians came running up and told us to hurry and get into the canoe -- that the northern Indians were near and that they were very bad and maybe come to that camp -- maybe go to Port Townsend -- that they must hurry and take the news.

They did hurry. It was raining and the wind was blowing. There was a Whidby Island Indian went with us to carry the news to his tribe. He left us this side of the island and cut through the woods. The Indians were stripped almost naked and worked as I never saw them work before or since. They did not seem to mind the cold wind or rain. The waves in the open were running high and they made the canoe leap from one to another. Night overtook us when we were out about an hour and a half. How they kept their course I do not know, but morning found us close to Whidby Island, and our speed did not seem to diminish. We wanted to stop and get some breakfast. The Indians made us understand that we could stop if we wanted to but that they would go on without is, and that settled the matter, of course. We arrived in Port Townsend cold tired and hungry and sleepy, but we had changed our minds about the seaworthiness of an Indian canoe, for it had been a terrible trip over the waters of the strait when they were at their worst. There were times when the waves seemed to be hills on both sides of us, and it seemed certain we would be swamped, yet we always managed to be on top.

I will confess that I had partaken of a little of the fright of the northern Indians. We had no arms except my rifle and Burdock's shot gun and we would have stood poor show in standing off a fleet of canoes such as they used to bring when they came on one of their raiding trips in those days. I heard afterwards that the scare arose from a party of Indians who had been in Victoria on a trading expedition and had stopped at [Simiamoo] on their way back to the north. They had whiskey and were bad enough at such a time.

I was staying with Mr. Hastings [in Port Townsend]. He told me it would be cheapest for us to buy a canoe and paddle ourselves to Olympia, so I got him to buy one for me. I was then owner and captain of my own vessel of transportation. We bought a 29-foot square tarpaulin that could be used as a shelter tent, and we also go a lot of advice. The latter (most contradictory) we bottled up for future use.

We still had a lot of provisions that we bought in Frisco and we stored them in the canoe. The most cumbersome of our luggage was my tools and we took them out of the chest and wrapped them in bundles covered with cedar matting made by the Indians.

Seattle A Village

We set out for Olympia and intermediate points paddling our own canoe. I think we touched at every place of importance on the route, and we made a few mistakes for inexperienced navigators. We soon learned to travel with the tide, and not against it which is an important lesson in life. I had learned a little Chinook and by using my few words and many signs we were able to make ourselves understood by the Indians whose camps we stopped at. As a rule the Indians were not beggars, but they were great traders and would barter for anything we had. We could tell when we were near one of the camps by the smell of dried salmon.

On the third or fourth day we reached Seattle, then a little village of not more than 25 white people. We got acquainted with the leading men -- Yesler Williams or Williamson [Dr. Joseph Williamson] who had quite a store, and Denny, who lived over the hill about a mile away. Of these gentlemen I will tell you more later on. Most of the white men on Puget Sound then, whose wives were not with them, had Indian women for housekeepers, clam diggers, etc.

We stopped there long enough to get what information we wanted about the course to Olympia. By that time the novelty of paddling had worn off and it was only hard work -- Burdock was a good worker and we got along very well. We learned the main channel to Olympia and started out again.

And No Tacoma

There was no trouble in procuring game -- ducks, pheasants, and deer were plentiful and could be had without much bother or delay.

When we passed where the city of Tacoma now stands there was no sign of white man or white man's habitation that we could see. At Steilacoom there was a sort of trading post that formerly belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company, but we did not stop there.

The weather was bad. It rained most of the time and I began to feel like I would like to quit the life of a navigator and spend a little time the house where I could be dry a part of the time at least.

When we got in sight of Olympia the tide was going out so we made for camp for the night. The next morning when we got up the tide was going out again and it kept going until we began to think the sound was going dry. We had to wait for the incoming tide to float our boat. When we finally reached Olympia we tied up to a log wharf covered with a flooring of split timber. There was quite a number of houses there, probably 20 or 30, two stores, a school house, a black smith shop, and a saloon.

It was in Olympia that I met the first governor the territory ever had. A first I was predisposed against him because he was a democrat and I was a whig, but I soon got over my party prejudice. If ever the right man was in the right place it was Isaac I. Stephens [Stevens].

After finding a boarding place which was not hard to do, we went into the country visiting Chambers prairie and the country adjoining. We stayed over night with Nathan Eaton. He was a batchelor, but at that time there was a family living in his house while preparing one for themselves. The man's name was White, and the family consisted of a wife and three or four children. You will understand later why I am describing the family.

We spent several days in that neighborhood where there were several families. They had built a school house which they also used as a church.

There were a number of untaken claims that were just as good as those already occupied, but I don't think Paradise or the Garden of Eden would have satisfied Burdock then. He had had too much canoe too much rain and as they say in Alaska he had cold feet, and it was California for him and nothing else. Winter was close so we concluded to take the next boat for San Francisco.

Job Forced on Him

While waiting for the ship one day I went to Tumwater, distant about a mile from Olympia. There was a saw mill there and I noticed it was not cutting as it should cut and told the owner so. He stopped the mill and let me look it over and I told him what was wrong. His mill wright had gone to Oregon for his family and he wanted me to fix it for him.

I had gone to his house to eat dinner with him. I told him I could fix it all right but I didn't know as I would have time as I was waiting for the ship to go to California.

You aint goin' to do any ---- ---- such thing you are going to fix my mill, was his retort.

At first I didn't know what to think of him. He went on talking and insisting that I was going to do the work and told me he would send a boat to Olympia for my tools and blankets.

I informed him that I could bring them up in my own canoe and it was at last agreed that I should work of the mill until the boat came, for I would have plenty of time to get down to Olympia and get aboard after the cannon was fired which always preceded the sailing of a vessel.

A Real Pioneer

I soon discovered that I had found a diamond in the rough in my new friend, for such he was. Everybody, high or low, rich or poor, found the same generous welcome at his fireside and table. He was in reality the pioneer of Puget Sound having cut and hewn the first road for the first wagons from the Columbia river to the tide water on the Puget Sound. No man ever went to him for help and came back empty handed. Many an early settler was tided over by him until able to help himself and no tongue can describe nor mind scarcely conceive the worth of such a man to a struggling pioneer neighborhood when starvation stared us in the face a third of the time, when we were out of flour and had no meat except that we hunted for. No woman or child ever went without the necessaries of life if he had knowledge of their necessity. Such was my rough diamond -- Mike Simmons.

But to go back to my work I brought up my tools. He offered Burdock a place in his home while I worked but Burdock preferred to stay where he was, and when I got my tools was the last I ever saw of him.

Misses the Boat

The next morning I went to work in the mill. We expected the boat in about three weeks. After ten days we went deer hunting, along the edge of Chambers Prairie. We got a deer but when we got back I found the boat had come and gone and with it my partner. Simmons laughed and told me he had told me I would stay and fix his mill, and indeed there was nothing else to do except to keep at work.

I soon got his mill in satisfactory order and did some other work for him. Then I worked some in Olympia. Mr. Eaton, before referred to, came to get me to do some work on his farm. While I was out there another boat came and went.

I was considerably disappointed. I wanted to go get my family and get back and settle in Whatcom before another summer, but it was not to be.


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