The Pioneer Story of Nancy Russell Thomas (1892)

  • By Nancy Russell Thomas (1892)
  • Posted 1/08/2004
  • Essay 5623
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This story was published in the Tacoma Ledger on November 13, 1892. It was submitted by Liz Russell. Nancy Russell Thomas was born on September 15, 1832, in Ashland, Ohio. She came west with her parents, Samuel Woodburn Russell and Jane Sprott Russell, and her seven siblings. The Russell family arrived at Alki in 1853. In 1854, Nancy married John M. Thomas, and they lived in the White River area. They had nine children. Nancy Russell Thomas died in November 1902.

Walked across the Plains and Over the Mountains to Pacific Slope

She Started with a Pony, but Indians Stole It and Nearly Everything Else

Followed by Wolves -- Ague in Portland -- Reminiscences of Indian Massacre and War

No Disgrace to Work in Those Days -- No Preachers, Lawyers or Doctors – Truly a Pioneer Woman

On January 10, 1852, accompanied by my eldest brother, T. S. Russell (now deceased), I left Ashland, Ohio for Auburn, Indiana, to join my folks, who were preparing to come to Oregon across the plains. We left that place February 15th, with three yoke of oxen, four cows, three heifers, and two wagons. There were nine of us in the family -- my father, S. W. Russell, Mother, three brothers, three sisters and myself. John Hawk and family of Dungeness, and Elliot Cline of Thurston County came with us

Concerning the first of the trip I cannot say much, as I was sick most of the time. I remember an old Dunhard preacher that came with us about 20 miles to cheer us up, and when he left us he sang:

I’ll shout salvation as I fly
I’ll shout salvation till I die.

Little our friends thought we would ever get to the Pacific Coast. We crossed the line between Illinois and Indiana on the first day of March. The weather was very cold. We encountered snow, rain, hail, and sleet all through both states. We stopped and looked over the Joliet prison in Illinois, which was being built. We lay over four days at Morris to rest. On March 17th, we reached New Boston and stopped there four weeks to rest and buy feed for the cattle. We were advised not to buy horses or mules on account of the Indians. We could not find a place to cross the river till we got to Fort Madison, and then the settlers advised us not to try the old flatboat. (The steam ferries were not many then.) In spite of their entreaties, we risked it, and arrived safely on the Iowa side. There we were joined by ten men who were going to California, and two families – Horr’s and Pattens – going to Oregon. They traveled a short distance with us and then we lost them till we got to Sweetwater, Wyoming. At Farmington, Iowa, we lay over four days waiting for mother and brother Tom to return from visiting mother’s brother James Sprott of Keokuk.

Then we began to feel heartsick, and also to realize what we had undertaken. All were strangers we met, but then we were not looking for friends. We left home for a place where we wouldn’t shake nine months out of every twelve with chills and fever. We traveled zig-zag across Iowa to escape high streams and arrived at the Missouri River. The flatboat used to ferry emigrants across had sunk and drowned a man and a boy, and a number of cattle. Our men assisted them in raising the boat, and after laying there seven days we got across. Others, who had been there for weeks, were afraid to cross, so they waited for the steamboat which came a few days afterward. All that then represented the new great city of Omaha was a small cabin.

There we fell in with a company of Mormons who were just from the old country. Our men folks helped them in a good many ways, such as fording streams, yoking their cattle, etc. They traveled with us till we were within 40 miles of Salt Lake City, Utah, when they left us to go to that place. We were sorry to bid them goodbye, as they had proved very agreeable company.

We had little trouble with Indians except once. Some white men had built a pole bridge and gave the chief an order to collect $1.00 for a wagon, 50 cents for a man and horse, and 25 cents for a person. This was on the Elkhorn River. We rebelled against paying so much, but settled with very little difficulty. We organized a company, and a man by the name of Allen was chosen captain. The next morning the captain did not get up till we had our breakfast almost ready to eat. He wanted us to break up camp and go without eating, but we wouldn’t do it, so he drove on and left us and we didn’t see him any more until we got to Olympia.

After we left the Elkhorn we saw the first grave. We met a Pawnee chief there, who wore a silver medal tied around his neck with a buckskin string, which Martin Van Buren had given him during his administration. We arrived at Fort Laramie one month after we had crossed the Missouri River, and a few days afterward we parted with Hawks and Cline and never saw them again.

At that time, the cholera was raging on the plains. Every little while we could see them burying their dead. A great many that died we thought did not have cholera. Two cases I remember -- one that of a young man from the same place we came from. He came to our camp at 7 o’clock in the morning and bade us goodbye, said his folks were afraid of the plague and were going to push right on. At one o’clock we found his grave. The other was a deaf and dumb man from Fort Wayne, Indiana, whom we saw there before we left. He called on us before and bade us goodbye. He intended going to California where he had some friends. Mother gave him some bedding and provisions. Shortly after, we came to his grave with a headboard which told us that some doctor had found him dying with cholera and stayed with him till he was dead and buried him.

We drove slowly along, most of the time with just our two wagons, sometimes with others, which was more pleasant than being by ourselves. On the north side of Laramie, sister Mary and I went into the camp of a Sioux Indian, and there found a little baby about ten months old, with blue eyes and white hair. We supposed it belonged to some white folks there, so didn’t think much about it. We rode along for about half a day, and met and Indian with four little white-haired children and driving a white man’s team. We found out then that their parents had been murdered by a man hired to drive their team, who had given everything but their money to the Indians. He was finally caught and hanged. At the edge of the road leading to where he was hanged a finder board was fastened on a tree, with “Fresh Beef for Sale” written on it. A great many went out and found him hanging there.

There were marriages, births, and deaths all along the road, which carried a great deal of excitement. There were no deaths with us, for mother was very careful what we ate and drank. On Sweetwater we met with ten men we had parted with at Fort Madison, who kept in company with us until we came to the junction of the California-Oregon roads. Here we were joined by a family named Kauffman, going to Oregon. About noon the next day we came to a small stream of water where there were several families camped, and here, Mrs. Judge Hays, of Yantis, dies from the effects of the measles, on the 4th of June.

On the 4th of July, we were at the South Pass, in the Rocky Mountains, and thought we were nearly at our journey’s end. Here we met two white men and three squaws (their wives) going to Fort Hall. They belonged to the Hudson Bay Company. When we reached Snake River, we found it a dangerous place, but nevertheless there were a great many making boats of their wagonbeds to ferry their families over. It looked foolhardy to us, and I guess a great many found it so, for there were several drowned. We passed through Great Rondo Valley, and saw several Indians and their ponies, with a good many American horses. My father traded a young cow to their chief for a good pony, and that night he was peddling beef from that same cow at 20 cents per pound.

We met a young man in what is now Idaho. He told us not to stop short of Puget Sound if we were looking for health, so when we reached the Columbia we met some Indians who said they would take us to The Dalles for $25. As we were short of provisions, two families – Gaylors and Sheltons -- having joined us, we thought it was best to take them up on their offer. It was the first ride we had ever taken in canoes, and we found it pretty dangerous. We found we couldn’t get to The Dalles on account of the rapids, so we traveled 125 miles to the Des Chutes River. There we found four men with cattle belonging to the Olmy brothers. We stayed there a week, and were well treated.

On the 15th of September I was 20 years old. That same day my two brothers, whom we left at the Columbia River, came with the wagon overland. One brother left us on Bear River, Oregon, to drive a team for a widow lady whose husband had died on the plains. On September 16th we started for The Dalles, where we laid three days while my father disposed of all but one yoke of oxen. We had lost but one ox and two heifers on the plains. We chartered an old “yawl” to bring us to the Cascades, and here we took passage on the J.B. Flint for Portland. We reached there in the morning, after a long and tiresome night, there not being room to lie down on the boat. Oh, how discouraged we were, and there was as much ague there, if not more, than there was in Indiana.

We easily found work in Portland. Mother kept a boarding house and I went to work for a minister’s family. We had plenty to eat, but had to work hard for it. People say, “You must have had good times then.” Of course we did but they do not realize what hardships we had to endure. Everything was very high. Flour was $48 a barrel, sugar was 25 cents per pound, bacon was 50 cents per pound -- hardly fit for soap grease, potatoes were $3 per bushel. Coffee was the cheapest thing we could get, it being 25 cents a pound, and everything else was in proportion.

We laid in our supplies before we left [in ...] April, for Puget Sound. Cowen, Moxlie, Garrison, Hilery Butler (now in Seattle), and a widow lady by the name of St. Martin came down the Columbia and up the Cowlitz River with us in an old flatboat in charge of Captain Henry Winston, ex-sheriff of Pierce County. We women folks walked most of the way. We stopped at Mr. Garner’s while waiting for the boat and he treated us to hard bread. That was the name given to him by emigrants. We proceeded to Cowlitz landing, and stayed at Goodell’s two days. I rode horseback from there to Olympia, and drove cattle while my mother took care of the children, who had the measles.

While at Olympia we stopped at S. Sylvester’s, who kept the only hotel in the place. There were only three or four white women there besides us. Mrs. Shelton and Mrs. Close I remember meeting there. We stayed there seven days, and helped with the cooking and sewing. We left there on the 26th of April and chartered a scow owned by old Captain Rogers, who was killed a year or two afterwards by the Indians out of revenge for a worthless Indian that was hanged in Seattle.

We arrived in Seattle the 28th and stayed there two days, when they sent for us to go to Alki Point to start a boarding house, that being the principal place outside of the Garrison at Steilacoom. We went to a house that belonged to A. A. Denny and Captain Lowe.

I think that every pioneer that crossed the plains ought to be canonized or made saints of. But then, we were happy and healthy, and had plenty of wild game, clams, oysters, salmon, and wild fruit, and good pure spring water; had neither doctor, lawyers, or preachers; lived by the golden rule and had trouble with no one.

When the Fourth of July came, we had a nice little picnic. There were sixty-three for dinner. We set the table in Mr. Smith’s store. That night over 100 came, and we had a grand time dancing. But, understand, we would not have had such a go[o]d time if Captain Collins had not just come in with a big cargo of provisions from San Francisco.

About this time Captain Renton started a sawmill, which furnished employment for a great many. My eldest brother and myself worked there. I cooked for the hands. My brother Robert came with the cattle about the middle of August from Steilacoom, by the beach, as there were no wagon roads then.

My father being a carpenter, he found plenty to do. We were acquainted with every one along the Sound then. It was no disgrace to work in those days. In February I was married to John M. Thomas from Indiana, who crossed the plains about the same time as we did. He worked in the sawmill. We are still living on the old donation claim on which we first settled.

On April 4th, Captain Barton and G. McConahan were drowned just below Vashon Island. We were out walking, and there came up an awful storm. Someone made the remark it would be a bad time for a canoe out there, and it was but a few minutes before someone came in and told us of the capsizing of one.

Sometime that spring an old man named Young, left there with a demijohn of whiskey, and not long after Dr. Cheery [Dr. Wesley F. Cherry] came up and said he had been murdered by the Indians. Dr. Cheery’s brother, Tom, F. M.Tyner, and R. Phillips went to arrest the murderers, and they were attacked by the Indians. Dr. Cheery was mortally wounded and died next day -- Tom was shot through the hip; Tyner was shot through the mouth; Phillips was wounded in the top of his head. On May 26, a lady named Ayers dies, and on the same day there was an eclipse of the sun. The Indians asked if that happened every time one died. I had forgotten to say that Governor Stevens had arrived through the Natchez Pass with five men and pushed right on to Olympia.

Nothing more of interest happened till July when my husband and Ephriam McFarland, and Bell of Pierce County, came up the White River. Mr. Thomas located the donation claims where we now live; the others not liking the looks of the Indians did not stay. In May, 1854, we built a small house and moved on our place. The notorious Whitson, who figured so in the massacre of our neighbors a year o[r] two afterwards, moved up the river in a canoe. I was always afraid of him. In October there were several families moved on the river: Cox’s, Kirkland’s, C. C. Thomson from Louisiana, Lake boys and King’s from Iowa, D. A. Neely’s from Missouri, Kersand and Cooker from Wisconsin, Will Brannan’s from Illinois. Mrs. Neely’s was the first child born on the river, and mine, Mrs. Aaron Conger of Ellensburg, the second. Mrs. Will Brannan’s was the third.

Everything was peaceable till June, 1855. When I was alone one day two Indians came to kill me. We had the house fill of provisions. The dog scared them away.

The fall of ’54 was a great time. The Indians came from all over the Sound for salmon. We didn’t fear them until the next summer. But they were preparing then for the outbreak. My mother was always afraid of them.

The fish weir was built at our place and they carried of tons of dried salmon. January 11th the river overflowed the whole valley; then men who had been away came home and stayed two weeks. On the 22nd we had another overflow. Out folks and Mr. Neely went to work again. We all had to work for our bread, and butter we could not get. After this, we had a very nice winter. In March, we put in a garden, of which the Indians had the benefit.

On July 11th we had an election in our house. Allen Porter was there and said redskins were getting saucy; be believed there was going to be trouble. The men laughed at him, but it set me to thinking and watching, and there was not a strange Indian came into camp but that I knew of it. I was teaching at this time; had taught for six weeks. There were eight miners at our place fixing to go back to the mines. Amasa Miller was the only one that came back. The others were killed by the Indians.

There was no one afraid but Porter and I. Sometime in September he came in the morning. The Indians had run him all night long. His clothes were torn from him, his flesh scratched as if torn with iron hooks. I wish some of these “know-alls” could have seen him, as “seeing is believing.” He was so exhausted when he came to the river he did not have strength to get in the canoe without help.

All the families left their homes for Seattle, where we stayed two weeks. Acting Governor Mason and Judge Edward Lander said there was no danger and advised us to go back. May they be tormented through eternity by the ghosts of the murdered. We came back on Sunday night and found everything safe. Tuesday night Riley (a man we knew on the plains) and Cornell came and advised us to leave. We couldn’t get away to go and had to depend on the Indians. On Thursday old Whatoon, Seattle’s brother, sent his son, Charley, with a canoe to take us to Seattle. Oh, how the rain did pour. We stayed at Collin’s that night. They didn’t give us anything to eat, nor let us make a fire. Tired out, we lay down in our damp clothes, and in the morning had wind and tide to contend with. We got to Seattle at two o’clock Friday; met Frank Clark, late of Tacoma, who said we were foolish to be afraid. My father and husband were going on the jury in ten days, and stayed to take care of things. We meant to come home after courts if everything was all right.

After we left, my husband lay by the tent one night and heard old Kanasket trying to get old Whatoon to join them in war against the whites. He offered Watoon ponies and every other inducement to join them, even said the King George men would help them. Whatoon said “No,” and said he wouldn’t take to them. Old Whatoon tied to get the families that stayed on their places to leave but they wouldn’t. They said they might be killed and lose everything. They started to build a fort in an out-of-the-way place, as there was none on the river. October 21st, I met D. A. Neely. He said he had just brought his family from Tumwater, and was coming up home the next day. About two hours later Joe Lake came in, shot through the shoulder. He said he knew the neighbors were all killed; he had heard shots fired and women screaming. Still, the sympathizers said “nonsense.” October 22nd, a company of volunteers was organized with H. H. Tobin as captain. I know positively there were only four married men in the company. They were D. A. Neely, H. H. Tobin, G. A. Cox, and John M. Thomas. They came up the river and buried the dead.

Three families were murdered. They found Will Brannan on the floor all torn to pieces; found Mrs. Rannan in the well dead with her baby in her arms; Mrs. King was found out open with her breast cut off; Mrs. Jones was shot through the body and beaten with a musket till she was a mass of bruises. Mr. Jones was sick with typhoid fever at the time. He and King were burnt up in their houses. Their bones were picked up and buried with their wives. Enos Cooper was found and buried where he fell and his body never removed. King’s baby was never found. Little George was taken prisoner and brought to Seattle in the spring, after he had been well taken care of by “Spoon Bill,” an Indian.

Mrs. Jones’ three children were saved partly by Indian Nelson. Her oldest child was her husband’s – Johnnie King, seven years old. He said Nelson snapped his guy at them three times and it wouldn’t go off. He told them to go, they were saved. He went to all the settler’s houses and found them either gone away or lying dead. He then went back to his own house and found his mother alive. She asked him were he was going; he told her to Seattle, if he could get there. She told him to go and “God bless him.” He started for the river and met an old Indian, Tom Clutson, (still living, now peddling fish and well treated by all) who told him to go with him to camp and he would give him something to eat, if he could keep the baby quiet. He put them under mats and baskets, and kept them till the moon got up, then took them in a canoe, well hid, to the mouth of the river. Then Old David, an Indian who was feeding the hostiles from the man-of-war, took them aboard the man-of-war. Mother and I took care of them five months, then they were taken back to Ohio by their Uncle Surail.

On October 28th a company was organized, and C. C. Hewett was elected captain. This was a week after the massacre. The volunteers were camped in sight of where I am now writing. Father and my three brothers were in the company. December 4th Lieutenant Slaughter started from Puyallup with a company of men. Lieutenant Harrison of the revenue cutter, Dr. Taylor, man-of-war Decatur, while camped in William Brannan’s house (Captain Hewett was there also on a visit) were ambushed. By the Indians and eleven killed and wounded. Lieutenant Slaughter was killed and his body buried at Steilacoom. Taylor, Hewett, and Harrison were not touched.

I moved to Port Orchard January 3rd, and was there till the 19th. Charley Whatoon warned me off again. Said the Indians were going to attack Seattle within ten days. He thought it would be the next Sunday. (His father had moved to Port Orchard.) I came back to Seattle with my baby (we were both sick), my husband staying till the day before Seattle was attacked, being out on the bay the night before with two Indians. There was nothing brave to do but to defend ourselves.

The Decatur had been disabled on Restoration Point by a treacherous pilot. The Indians would have caught a good many people if there hadn’t been a shell thrown from the Decatur into Tom Martin’s house. He was stealing produce along the river and selling it. The Indians were in his house preparing for the attack. Fifteen Indians were reported killed. Two white men were killed b[y] the Indians when the attack was made. First was Milton Holgate, who, while standing with several others on the steps of the Fort, was shot and instantly killed. Bob Wilson, a cook in the Elliott house had just stepped to the door and was shot and lived but a few minutes. They threw fire all night trying to burn the Fort, but didn’t succeed.

A company of volunteers was organized in February. My husband served thirty-three days in the voluntary service, then was transferred to the regular service under Captain F. T. Dent. He and William Bucy were recommended by Colonel W. H. Wallace as good scouts and interpreters. I came up to the Fort on the steamer Tramer when she brought supplied for the soldiers. J. B. Parker and Captain Horton owned her. When I got to the fort the soldiers had just gone out on a nine day scout. I stayed over night and went back to Seattle, where I stayed ten days, and then came back up the river and found them gone again. There wasn’t even a commissary officer there. On that scout they found and Indian camp on the Cedar River, and clothes they had stolen from the people when they burned all of their houses. Still, people think we did not lose anything.

The Spring of ’56 I was living inside the stockade in a little house. Two men-of-war vessels came. The John Hancock and the Massachusetts, commanded by McDougal and Swartout. Captain Sterrat commanded the Decatur.

The Sound Indians were very docile that summer, but we were tormented terribly by the British Indians. In October, one morning I stepped to the door just in time to see the British Indians fire into a sloop and kill two men; the other man hid. The men-of-war were cruising up and down the Sound in search of hostile Indians. But we were troubled no more with outbreaks from them.

In July I moved over to where Sidney now is, and stayed there and cooked for loggers till September. From there I moved over to Chico; stayed there till March and then moved to Colby.

I was truly a pioneer woman. I was the first white woman on the White River and also in three places above mentioned. The first five years of my married life I moved seventeen times. If it hadn’t been for H. L. Yesler we would have fared worse than we did. But no man ever went from him in need; now he gets curses rather than thanks.

I think every pioneer woman should have a word to say about the state flower. The wild Honeysuckle or the LaCamas would be suitable, as they grow in all parts of the state.

All my folks are dead now but two sisters – Mrs. Tanner of Seattle, Mrs. Crowe and myself.

Signed: Nancy Thomas

Prolochia, Washington


This account, submitted by Liz Russell, was first published in the Tacoma Ledger on November 13, 1892. Details of Nancy Russell Thomas's life were taken from Seattle Genealogical Society Bulletin Vol. 38, No. 4 (Summer 1989), p. 180.

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