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A West Virginian on the Oregon Trail

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
June 30th, 2014

Blog post by Jane Metters LaBarbara, Assistant Curator, WVRHC.

Though the West Virginia and Regional History Center’s collections focus on the history of our state and the central Appalachian region, their scope extends across the globe.  West Virginians have travelled far and wide to see and do incredible things, and the WVRHC keeps their stories for posterity.  These travelers include WVU students who served in World War II and documented their experiences abroad (see A&M 120); businessman Stephen B. Elkins, who lived in Santa Fe, NM in the 1870s and recorded information about illegal land speculation in his letter book (see A&M 3979); and poet Maggie Anderson, who collected information on the Danish Resistance Movement when she traveled to Denmark in the 1990s (see A&M 3956).  Today’s post is about Reverend Edward Evans Parrish, a native of Monongalia County, WV who took his family west on the Oregon Trail in 1843-1844 and kept a travel diary for most of the trip.

Generation Xers and Millennials may remember playing a computer game called “The Oregon Trail” as children.  Players adopted the role of wagon leader and took their parties from Independence, MO to Willamette Valley in Oregon.  Rev. Parrish’s journey reflects many aspects of the game, though his diary begins more than 700 miles east of Independence.  He and his family boarded a steamboat in Marietta, OH in mid-October of 1843, and took a series of boats to Platte City, MO.  They spent the winter there before setting out for Oregon in April 1844 with a large party of other travelers.


Painting of a Steamboat on the Ohio River at Wheeling, W.Va.

Painting of a steamboat docking at the Ohio River at Wheeling, WV, from 1845.
The Parrish family may have taken a steamboat much like this one on the first leg of their trip,
from Marietta to Cincinnati.


Parrish’s diary is full of observations on the health of his fellow travelers, the weather, the landscape, and the various obstacles that their traveling party encountered.  Players of “The Oregon Trail” may remember the challenges of river crossing, which were true to life.

“Tuesday, May 14.  The day spent in trying to cross sixteen wagons over the Wolf River on a raft, but it proved a failure and we had to build two canoes.”

A problem frequently mentioned by Parrish was the tendency of the group’s cattle and horses to wander.  This seemed to aggravate the travelers’ relations with the Native Americans, as you can see in the entries below.  Most of Parrish’s mentions of the Native Americans describe them as civil or well-behaved, with the exception of a few thefts recorded in the November entries.

“Tuesday, May 21. … Preparing to make an early start, but the cattle are not all up.  Indians accused of driving them off.  Indians not guilty, cattle found…”

“Thursday, May 23. … Heard from a detachment of soldiers who went after the Indians.  They … found four oxen and two cows killed by the Indians…”

Another situation Parrish encountered which is simulated in the computer game is the disparity between hunting ability and meat preservation ability; it was easy to hunt more than the amount of meat that could be transported back to camp.  In one entry, Parrish recounts the excitement of hunting and describes the process before his writing turns to disappointment at the amount of food wasted.

“Friday, July 12. … The game taken had been antelope [probably pronghorn], until yesterday; then the fun began.  Buffalo racing is a business of much diversion, indeed. … Forty thousand pounds of the best beef spoiled in one night…”


Miniature Covered Wagon Part of Arthurdale Elementary School Project, Arthurdale, W. Va.

Can you imagine trying to keep meat from spoiling while driving through the Great Plains in a wagon like this?  This miniature covered wagon was part of Arthurdale Elementary School Project in 1981.


The diary entries also reveal the pioneering nature of the expedition.  Though immigrants had begun traveling the Oregon Trail years before, the route was not firmly set, and those who had never made the trip before were relying on the reports of others regarding preferred camp grounds and even the suitability of their destination.

“Monday, September 2. … A Mr. Robinson who has been four times to Oregon is now with us.  He has given a good account of the country, which has relieved the minds of several of our company who had become dissatisfied through the lies of a young Smith, of notoriously bad character, who has just come from Oregon.”

The Parrish family weathered many trials on the trail and finally reached their destination in December 1844.  They stayed in camps and in boarding houses until October 1845, when they finally moved into their own home, two years and one day after starting their journey in Ohio.

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