|In the early 1840s, Americans east of the
Mississippi were beginning to feel crowded. The forests had all been
cleared, and farms and small towns covered the countryside such that
most usable land between the Atlantic and the Mississippi River was
relegated into what might be described as the 19th century’s
version of suburban sprawl.
It was during this time, the pre-Gold Rush era, that an ambitious group
of some 300 pioneers set off from St. Joseph, Missouri, headed for
Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley. This colony of emigrants
included several contrasting figures that embody certain American
archetypes: a tight group of well-liked and conscientious leaders, and
an irascible and reckless set of dreamers and rogues whose carelessness
would lead to one of the most notorious tragedies of the western
migration. These men and their families were part of the same wagon
train, the Independent Oregon Colony, which departed Missouri in 1844
in search for adventure, equality, and opportunity in a new land.
Neal Gilliam, a former slave chaser who started as leader of the
expedition, was soon deposed because of his rash temper and incompetent
leadership. He met an untimely death in the Territory shortly after his
arrival. Emigrant Henry Sager, a charming yet hasty man, was victim to
his own folly of heading west into the harsh territories when he wasn't
prepared, lacking the basic conservative instincts to keep himself and
his family safe. He was defeated by his fatal flaw—an
insatiable thirst for adventure—before he even reached the
far side of the Rockies. His wife Naomi died soon after, leaving the
seven children in care of the surviving families.
Capt. William “Uncle Billy” Shaw and Capt. Robert
Wilson Morrison—and their faithful young sidekick John
Minto—became the subsequent leaders of the company.
They proved to be supportive and caring to each of the
families, ushering them safely west despite extreme personal hardship
and sacrifice. Once arriving safely in Oregon, they delivered the Sager
children to a mission for adoption by a white family, in accordance
with Henry Sager’s dying wishes. Shaw and Morrison went on to
lead successful lives in the Territory, establishing lucrative farms
and, in the process, forging the state of Oregon out of the egalitarian
principles of their visionary leadership.
In the summer of 2006, between terms of law school, author Twain
Braden, his wife Leah Day, and their four children retraced the route
of these pioneers, following the Oregon trail in search of emigrant
ghosts—along the original ruts formed by their wagons more
than 150 years before.
Juxtaposing the story of the Independent Oregon Colony’s
arduous journey west with his own modern-day trip, Braden presents a
moving and illuminating account of how America became what it is today.
Ghosts of the Pioneers
A Family Search for the
Independent Oregon Colony of 1844
by Twain Braden
The Lyons Press,