By J. L. Starkey
Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.– William Faulkner
Uncle Morris didn’t cite his sources.
It’s true. The Rowe Saga does not include a works cited section or a bibliography . I wonder if Uncle Morris laughed as he included cryptic clues in place of citations, but I don’t care why he did things that way. He has made me a better researcher, and I am thankful for that.
One of my favorite parts of “The Rowe Saga” is the section about Morris Bigelow Rowe’s 1850 journey on the Oregon Trail. I first read about Morris B.’s adventures when I was twelve years old, and from that moment on, I was in awe of the man. My great-great-grandfather traveled on the Oregon trail! He was a pioneer whose life story rivaled a western novel, and it was all 100% true!
I mean…it was all true, wasn’t it?
Thanks to the journal of John Wood, I can finally answer that question.
The real, absolutely true story of Morris Bigelow Rowe (or something like that)
According to “The Rowe Saga,” the 1849 discovery of gold in California caused quite an uproar. With dreams of striking it rich, 72 men left Ohio the following year with plans to travel to the “gold diggings” via the Oregon Trail. Morris B. and his brother James were part of that group, as was diarist John Wood.
Oh, those pesky sources. The only citation Uncle Morris used in his narrative was a disclaimer that the information “…was taken from the diary of John Wood’s, published in 1871. A copy of the original is worth several hundred dollars today.”
In a strange twist of fate, this week I found a copy of that diary, just in time for the “Dear Diary” prompt in the 52 Ancestors Challenge . I like to think that Morris B. had a hand in the timing of that!
I’ve spent the week learning so much about that amazing journey. Detailed and meticulous, John Wood wrote a journal entry every single day during his four-month journey. His work was published in 1852 with the ridiculously long title:
Journal of John Wood, as kept by him while traveling from Cincinnati to the gold diggings in California, in the spring and summer of 1850, containing an accurate account of the occurrances, transactions and circumstances daily. Also, an account of each tribe of Indians, description of the country passed through each day, quality of soil, & etc. etc. Together with a table of distances from Missouri to Oregon, emigrant’s route, & etc., etc.
Today, the book is simply known as The Journal of John Wood, and it is truly a treasure, although surprisingly little has been written about it . A digital copy is available at archive.org, but if you’re hoping to find a hard copy, you may be out of luck. The book has been out of print for decades, and existing copies are worth thousands of dollars .
Like most members of Generation X, I grew up playing The Oregon Trail computer game, so I pretty much jumped for joy when I found the journal. Did John Wood write about supplies, clean water, broken axles, and dysentery? Did he mention Morris B. by name? Would I finally find out if Uncle Morris’s retelling of events was true?
The journal was my first-class ticket to find those answers…but without all of that cholera and dysentery.
The Oregon Trail: Fact or Fabrication?
According to “The Rowe Saga,” the group of 72 would-be gold miners from Ohio arrived at St. Joseph, Missouri, in April 1850 on the steamer James Menninger. One month later, they departed for California, a place John Wood described as “the El Dorado of their hopes.”
While the first leg of the trip seemed inconsequential, it was eerily prophetic. The steamer (which was actually called the James Millinger) made headlines during its return voyage due to an on-board outbreak of cholera.
Sadly, in the months ahead, the disease would become all too familiar to the men from Ohio.
In “The Rowe Saga,” Uncle Morris briefly described the group’s struggles and included scant details about an Indian attack that was resolved when Morris B. gave a lame ox to his attackers. By the time the men arrived in California, they were apparently “…without cattle or wagons, [and] only the things they could carry were saved.” Despite all of that, the men worked in the mines during the winter of 1850 and returned to Ohio in the spring of 1851
Easy enough, right?
Well…no. It seems that Uncle Morris neglected to mention a few important details in his retelling of the story.
John Wood: Observer, Writer
Uncle Morris was truthful in his narrative, although he watered down the facts to some extent.
John Wood, however, did no such thing.
Raw and powerful in its honesty, Wood’s journal includes detailed descriptions of the risks the men faced along the Trail. Every day, they lived with hunger, a lack of potable water, and the threat of Indian attacks.
And casting a shadow over everything, there was always cholera.
On 5 June, Robert Duncan became the first of the 72 to be “taken bad with the cholera.” On that day, a doctor “…told Duncan that he must soon die,” and five days later, that prediction proved correct. In the days between Duncan’s diagnosis and his death, an additional three men succumbed to the disease.
By the time Duncan was buried, three more had passed away.
The group’s experience was far from unique; after Duncan’s death, Wood wrote, “We now seem to be traveling through a graveyard all the time.” Still they continued on their journey, and the days turned into weeks.
John Wood continued to write it all down, every single day.
“You have arrived at a town.”
On 13 July, the group arrived at a place “…where the road forks, the right hand leading to Oregon…and the left to California.” Two men chose the right turn, but the rest opted to go left. After all, they were going to strike it rich!
The group continued along the Trail with cholera tagging along as their unwanted companion. On 16 July, group member David Pucket fell victim to the disease. An ambitious young man, he made the journey “…to get money enough to educate himself, that he might be useful in the world.” The men buried him ten miles east of the Green River and then continued on the Trail.
And John Wood continued to write it all down.
By August, some harsh truths descended upon the men. Their provisions were almost gone, they were running out of options, and their numbers were dwindling. Of the original 72, just 24 remained.
What of Morris B.? How was he faring? Fortunately, he was doing well and maintaining a low profile…at least until 22 August 1850.
John Wood wrote it all down, of course.
It seemed that Morris B.’s “minor” Indian attack was not so minor after all.
Facts and Truths
Morris B. and John Wood knew that Indians might be preparing to attack, but they felt relatively safe on that August day when they fell back to the rear of the group as they struggled to drive two injured steers. It was a careless move, according to Wood, and it would have tragic repercussions.
Isolated from the rest of the group, Morris B. and John soon found themselves pursued by over 100 Indians armed with guns and intent on attacking. Wood wrote that the Indians were “flanking around us…[and] they fired on Rowe and myself.”
The encounter ended peacefully, although the men were “compelled to leave one steer” with their attackers. Wood’s version of the incident up to that point closely matched the retelling in “The Rowe Saga.” Maybe it was all true?
The incident did not end there, however. In a tragic turn of events, the next day a group of emigrants, seeking “satisfaction from those Indians,” staged a counterattack. The battle lasted for four hours and resulted in fifteen deaths.
“Wait just a moment!” I said to myself. “Uncle Morris said that Morris B. let the Indians have the lame oxen, and then he continued on his way! What happened to that ending?”
Facts are funny things, aren’t they? Uncle Morris’s narrative was factual, for the most part. But…change a word here, omit an event there, and suddenly, you’ve left out some pretty important truths.
Did Uncle Morris deliberately whitewash the story? I will always wonder if he did, but unfortunately, I will never know the answer to that question.
What I do know is that John Wood and Morris B. both made it to California relatively unscathed, and that several months later, they returned to Ohio and resumed their normal lives.
But something changed in John Wood during those months on the Trail. His final journal entry speaks of profound loss and grief, of disillusionment and pain.
Facts and truths? Yes, John Wood had a few questions about those things…
Oh, what has this California Expedition not done for mankind; how many useful lives have been lost; how many hearts has it broken;
how many husbands and wives, fathers and children has it forever separated; how many souls has it sent to eternity unprepared;
and how many more are yet to be forever ruined?– John Wood, 15 September 1850
- Rowe, Morris E. “The Rowe Saga.” Lillie’s Pond. Retrieved from http://lilliespond.blogspot.com/2013/03/v-behaviorurldefaultvmlo.html.
- Wood, John, and Henry R. Wagner. “Journal of John Wood.” California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 6, no. 4, 1927, pp. 360–363. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25177906.
- Wood, John, Journal of John Wood. Chillicothe: Addison Bookwalter, 1852. Retrieved from archive.org.
- “Old Diary of Gold Rush Days Takes on Four-Figure Value,” Lansing State Journal, Lansing, Michigan, 4 Mar 1962, p. 36, col. 3-4. Retrieved from newspapers.com. (See also: “100th Anniversary,” Chillicothe Gazette, Chillicothe, Ohio, 17 Mar 1964, p. 7, col. 8. Retrieved from newspapers.com.)
- “Steamboats,” The Louisville Daily Courier, Louisville, Kentucky, 4 Apr 1850, p. 3, col. 7. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Cholera on the Steamer James Millingar,” The Morning Courier, Louisville, Kentucky, 1 Jun 1850, p. 3, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
Quotes from The Journal of John Wood reflect the vocabulary and spelling in use at the time of its initial 1852 publication.
John Wood’s book sound fantastic, I’ve got to look for it. And it’s so cool that Morris did get mentioned. But so awful for so many families to have suffered the loss of their men to cholera.
We grew up on stories about Morris B…but we never heard about just how bad things actually were during that trip west!
That diary is a great find. I have read so many things about the California gold rush (being the topic of my book), and it always stuns me just how many tragic tales there are from that event. And mostly for naught.
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