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Letters by John Ball from an Oregon Expedition (1832—1833)


John Ball (1794-1884) was a member of the 1832 Nathaniel Wyeth expedition, which crossed North America from Baltimore, Maryland to the Pacific seaboard. These letter extracts describe the journey from St. Louis, Missouri, to Fort Vancouver (present-day Portland, Oregon), on the Columbia River; they were published in the Sangamo Journal (Springfield, Illinois) in 1833. The complete, original letters are transcribed at JSTOR. For a fuller description of this journey, see Ball's autobiographical account.

Sangamo Journal, 5 October 1833




Letters from beyond the Rocky Mountains.

Six letters have been received from JOHN BALL Esq. (late of Lansingburgh, ) since he left St. Louis for the Pacific Ocean, across the Rocky mountains. From these letters we have had an opportunity of making copious extracts. We commence the publication of a part of them to-day.

The climate on the west of the Rocky Mountains is remarkably uniform. It rarely rains, from the mountains to within 200 miles of the Pacific Ocean. The temperature there rarely rises above fifty degrees Fahrenheit, or falls below thirty-five at noon ; perhaps never below twenty at night, and never so high as sixty. In latitude 55 plants and trees are in flower all winter : and the business of mowing grass can never be required there : it continuing fresh and green all the year. Vegetable growth is enormous, where rain falls or rivers run. But a large proportion of the country between the Rocky Mountains and a strip of land 200 miles in width, along the Pacific, is rarely visited by rains, sufficient to sustain a thrifty vegetable growth.


Lexington, Mo. 20th April, 1832.

My Dear Friend—I arrived at this place to-day. It is about 100 miles on the Missouri river above Franklin. We left St. Louis on board a steam boat. In this we were enabled to proceed but six or eight miles beyond Jefferson, where we found but three feet water, our boat drawing six. After waiting a day or two for a channel to form, I, with others of the company, quit the boat and walked on for five days through the woods, mud and creeks, over prairies, in rain and shine—all however interesting.

But to go back to Baltimore. After waiting at that place sometime, a captain Wyeth, of Cambridge, Mass. arrived from Boston, with 21 men, bound for Columbia river. I had communicated with him while at NewYork, and upon seeing him, resolved to join his company. It is a mutual concern, called "the Pacific trading company"—Wyeth furnishing capital. The company goes to establish a trade with that part of the world by water. The trade is now carried on from this State to the mountains by land. It is the design of the company, if possible, to divert it to the ocean, believing that it will be more profitable. Houses in New York and Boston have engaged to supply goods and make shipments to any amount required.— But, sir, you know, that to see nature, and learn from her, is my grand object, and that alone will satisfy me.

You would laugh, could you see my companions and myself, of an evening, encamped in a tent, eating our supper with jack knives. We are truly an heterogenous set. The captain is an active business man, and in his way a great philosopher—all learned by observation. He goes ahead in everything, is a good hunter, fertile in expedients, and will mend a gun or a wagon, or any other implement, with no other instrument than a jack-knife. He has a brother with him, the surgeon and physician to the company. This man has had good opportunities of education, appears to be a tolerable botanist, and is a very clever fellow. The residue of the company are, for the most part, a hardy, rough, illiterate set of fellows, mostly natives from New Hampshire—still, all very well.

As to towns, I can give you but little information. Lexington, where I now am, is as large as Batestown. It is six years old. There is the town of Freedom in Jackson, and Liberty in Clay counties, about 50 miles above. These are frontier counties. The Mormonites are located in Jackson county. This is the upper part of the State of Missouri, and is considerably,settled. It has excellent land, mostly prairie, and is inhabited by emigrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. They have many slaves.

Yesterday I walked thirty miles over a prairie, and although somewhat rolling, it has an appearance of vastness like the ocean.— The river bottoms are wooded, as also the hills extending a few miles back. There is much cotton wood (a kind of poplar) on the river banks and islands. By the way, islands are constantly forming in the Missouri river, and as rapidly as they emerge above the surface, the cotton tree springs up spontaneously. The bottoms are skirted by lime stone bluffs, which continue a few miles and then are again broken, The region affords a rich field for botany—vegetation begins to spring forth. It is not, however, as forward as I expected. The season is said to be late. The grass on the prairies is from 6 to 12 inches high. Except where it has been burned over, as most of it has been, there it is not so thick, Still, fine herds of cattle, of one hundred head are seen grazing upon them. — There is not a sufficient supply of good water, nor should I think from the countenances of the people that it was very healthy.

The bed of the Missouri is a quicksand mixed with soil—the water possesses the color of well creamed coffee. After drinking it, on shutting the mouth, one can feel the grit. But still, thus it eternally flows on, at five knots per hour.

Finally, here we are to fit out—that done, we start forthwith, leaving civilization and the comforts of social life behind us. It is necessary to obtain forty or fifty horses to carry our goods, and ourselves, a part of the time. Our path launches off on a prairie on the south of the river, that ends at the mountains. The distance is said to be from one to two thousand miles, by the hunters, but doubtless it is much exaggerated. The inhabitants of this region know more of the mountains and Santa Fee, than of new York and new England, Our party goes with one of sixty under the direction of Mr. Sublette, a well known trader, to the head waters of Lewis River.—he is the best guide in the country.

I will write to you again. Your friend,



Head Waters of Lewis River,

Dear Doctor : July 15, 1833.

You see that I have arrived at Oregon, or Mexico. I think the latter. I have not yet been able to take the latitude. I am in a fine valley, eight or ten miles wide, with snowclad mountains on each side. This morning a frost—at noon, summer heat—then a slight shower of hail—towards evening a squall, and now pleasant again. Such is the weather : still the vegetable kingdom flourishes remarkably well. There is in this region considerable timber. On the streams poplar and willows, and several kinds of pines on the mountains. The botany of my journey has been much neglected. It is true, as the poet says, and he, who like myself, has traversed the wilderness, or wandered through the solitudes of nature, will often have found it so :

"Full many a flower buds to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air."

It has grieved me much to be compelled to forego opportunities of scientific observation, which otherwise I should have been most happy to embrace. But excessive fatigue, and the care of myself and horse, took away some of the interest, and most of my time. We were just eight weeks from the line of Missouri to this place. The traders call the distance 1500 miles which I think is overrated. Our horses became sore, and in consequence of which, we had to walk a great part of the way ; still, I never enjoyed an equal space of time more to my own satisfaction ; and one week's rest has fully restored me to my former state and condition.

About the middle of May, we bid farewell to the settled country, and commenced our march across the boundless prairie. It was of course a new scene and new life to me, attended with some hardships and privations ; but the novelty balanced all difficulties, and I enjoyed the journey right well. Our route was first across the line of the state of Missouri, about 50 miles on the Santa Fee road, thence northwest, crossing the Kanzas river, about 1000 miles from its mouth, near the Kanzas village, which is pleasantly situated on an extensive bottom of that river, against Grand Island, the prairie all the way continuing, and rolling like the waves of the ocean. In some places it was even hilly. Limestone and occasional blocks of primitive rock, were seen. The limestone appeared shelly and full of holes, as though worm eaten. The grass had become much diminished, and was very small and thin. The quality of the soil diminishes rapidly as you depart from Missouri, it becoming before you reach the Platte a barren, with little water and vegetation. There is a plant they call the Wild Sage, growing on most of the barren plains, from the Platte to the Columbia, so thick as to impede the progress of the traveller. It grows from one to five feet high, I saw too, along my path, many bright flowers, raised hardly an inch from the earth.

The Platte is a broad, shallow rapid stream; like all the tributaries of the Missouri, from the west, it has a wide bottom. Receding from the Platte the country is a broken gravelly plain, not affording a single tributary.— We travelled up this river, on its south side to the Forks, then up along the north Fork to the mountains. More than half of our journey was on that river. We always encamped on its bank, in a hollow square, staking our animals within, and setting a guard at night, at which each man watched his turn. Up the north fork are extensive fertile bottoms, often saline. There are salines and licks all over this country.

Our party consisted of about eighty men, and 300 horses. When under way we formed two lines, the packed animals being in the rear of the rider. The first Buffalo we met with was at the Forks of the Platte, a subject of rejoicing for it was the coming of harvest. They find excellent feed on the bottoms of this river, and hence are here found in abundance. I saw on the north branch a herd which extended 15 miles.

The country wore a monotonous appearance till we came to the Black hills. These are broken elevations of sand stone and lime. But on the left of the river the country is continuously mountainous. The river itself inclines to the north till you arrive at the mountain ; it then proceeds to the southwest. No map gives any of the mountain country alluded to. Here we first came to the primitive rock itself, the granite appears to break thro' the sandy plain and sand stone like Islands—and the earth is entirely destitute of vegetation. There is little or no timber except on streams and high mountains, and often not on these. We were consequently often obliged to use buffalo dung as a substitute for fuel.

From the Platte we took a branch coming directly in from the west called the Sweet Water, which rises in the ever-snow-clad-mountains of the highest cluster. But at length leaving it on the right, we still continued in a sandy country, as level as any we had passed, until we imperceptibly found ourselves at the head waters of the Colorado of California, a river leading to the Pacific.

In this region, about the first of July, we passed snow drifts. We doubtless were 10,000 feet above the ocean, for having taken the elevation of the place where I now am, find it to be 8500. The highest peaks are probably 14 or 15,000 feet above the level of the ocean. We travelled more than one hundred miles along the head waters of the Colorado. This river, with the Platte, the Yellow Stone and the Missouri, rise more to the northwest. Vegetation here is rather stinted.— We found frost every night, even in the latter days of June.

On the 4th July, we came to the waters of Lewis river, and on the 8th, arrived at this place. It is a rendezvous, being of previous appointment each year. After we arrived at the waters of the Lewis river, we found unusual difficulties to impede our progress, arising from the roughness of the way, which here was greater than we had experienced in any previous stage of our journey. Here for three days we toiled up and down the most difficult steeps, and through ravines and deep passes. The last range we crossed, is about as high as any part of the mountains. One night, the Indians at midnight fired into our camp with guns and arrows, and with a great shout ; but by the time we were roused and ready for them, they were off, and took eleven horses with them. Where we now are, there are many of the Flathead Indians. They own an immense number of horses : and are a fair honest set of people. We expect their company hereafter.

In two days we are again to start on our way. It is supposed to be yet about seven hundred miles to the mouth of the Columbia river : but I am not confident that we shall go a direct course. We talk of turning aside to the Salt Lake.

Your's &c, J. BALL.


FORT VAN COUVER, Jan. 1, 1833.

My Dear Brinsmade :—

Would that this anniversary of our parting could bring a meeting—that I might again press your hand and wish you happiness.— Or could I know your present welfare, and the transactions of the past year, it would be a New year's treat indeed. Have my friends been happy, or has some dire catastrophe befallen them. My first thoughts this morning were, that you had already exchanged the customary New-York greetings : for with you, you are conscious the sun rises, in point of time, more than three hours earlier than with us on the Columbia river. When you receive this, please wish all happy New-Year —you may say years, for me ; and since I know nothing of you and yours, permit me, on this day, to say something of myself.

We stopped at the place where I last wrote you in the mountains, till the 24th July, during which time a skirmish took place between the whites and friendly Indians, and a party of Black Feet Indians. It lasted most part of a day, the Black Feet having fortified themselves in some timber nigh a creek. We were about a mile distant during the action, being prohibited by our immediate Captain from joining. Hence I took no other part than to assist in taking care of the wounded, and guarding our own camp. The result was, that the whites and their friends, retreated at the approach of night ; 7 of the whites were killed or mortally wounded, and as many Indians. The enemy they supposed, they demolished, there being not more than fifty of them. Ten scalps were taken and thirty-two horses killed . The whole appeared to me a needless and rash affray ; for the Black Feet wished to avoid an engagement.

On the day I mentioned, twelve of our party , ( the rest choosing to return or to trap on the mountains. ) started with about forty trappers. This swelled our number to about fifty, which rendered our travelling safe, even though we were passing through what is considered a hostile country. We first proceeded 40 or 50 miles in a southerly direction, across the Lewis river, then south-west 300 miles along the head waters of creeks falling into that river from the south. At this point we came to streams running in an opposite direction, and parted company with the trappers. After this, we pursued a general course N. W. say 400 miles, part of the time on, and part off the Lewis river, until we finally reached the Columbia, at Fort Walawalo, nine miles south of its mouth.—Here we left our horses, and took a boat of the Hudson's Bay Company for this place, ( Fort Van Couver. ) where we arrived the last of October, having been much delayed by being in company with trappers, and pursuing the same business ourselves.

We passed a great distance through what is called the Snake country, the natives of which do not appear as well as those we saw on the mountains. The Snake Indians hunt the Buffalo. That animal, however, does not range below the American Falls. They also live on Salmon, which they dry. In this quarter, and on the Columbia, they live on fish principally. On the Wallameth, ( Multnomah ) the Camas and Wappatoo Indians inhabit. They are divided into many smaller tribes, and are not given to warfare.

On the Lewis river, I met with many warm springs, coming out of bluffs of sand stone rock ; indeed one, forms a creek of considerable size, on applying a thermometer, its temperature was discovered to be 100.

At Fort Van Couver, five of us took an Indian canoe and went down the river to Ft. George ( Astoria ) and the Ocean. You may well imagine I felt some peculiar emotions on reaching the termination of my toilsome way, and in gazing out over the apparently boundless and shoreless waters of the immense Pacific. This was about the middle of November. Thus it will be perceived we were six months on our way, though under favorable circumstances, the journey might have been performed in three.

One immense prairie extends from the mountains, with the exception of scattering trees, of the pinus genus, (mostly on the mountains, ) to the Falls of the Columbia. Along the streams are willows, and often rank grass but still as you recede from them, a thin crop of grass and shrubbery succeeds, and the soil generally becomes barren. At the Falls commences a scattered growth of oak, and at tide water, a thick growth of lofty trees, of different kinds ; still the prevailing character of the country is prairie until you get nigh the coast, where the growth of vegetables of all kinds is enormous.

In the prairie regions there is but little water. Streams may be followed down to their source hundreds of miles without any perceptible additions being made to their bulk. In travelling from the forks of the Platte river to the falls of the Columbia, I did not witness more rain than I have known to fall in other places in one day. The sky is usually serene by day, and always at night. Indeed, there is but little rain or dew along this region. From June to November, I do not believe there fell one inch of rain. It rained but few times, and then but little. Lightning, and sometimes a gust, but no rain reached the thirsty earth.

Should you enquire about our fare, you can be told in a few words. After leaving the Missouri settlements we soon exhausted all the meal, &c. which we were able to take with us. We next fed on the cattle and sheep that were driven along for that purpose.— These lasted till we met the Buffaloes at the forks of the Platte. The region of country inhabited by this animal, is that immense tract of wilderness lying between the Platte, and the American Falls on the Lewis river.— They herd in immense droves. And it is said they are of late years found id one or two hundred miles lower on the west of the mountains than formerly. It is well known that they are retreating from the Mississippi and Missouri. Wherever the Buffalo inhabit, wolves are found in abundance. We met with Elk and Deer on the mountains, and many Antelope. We saw but few animals, except the Beaver, which forms the great attraction to this quarter.

After we entered the Buffalo country we fed on the flesh of that animal , sometimes fresh, and sometimes dried, and even without salt, until we got to the middle or lower part of Lewis River. Here we were supplied with Salmon by the Indians ; for which we gave in exchange awls, fish-hooks, beads, &c. I have no complaint to make ; our living was very good. With a good appetite, any thing relishes well, and especially when it is all one has. At one time, it is true, we were compelled to dine on the flesh of an old worn out horse, and then for three or four days we subsisted on raspberries only. In the latter part of the season, however, the fruit we were enabled to procure afforded us the greatest luxuries.

Occasionally we had black, purple, red and yellow currants. All different from yours and of excellent flavor. Service berries, ( resembling sugar plums ) thorn plums, together with plenty of raspberries—these were very acceptable when we had no other food. But do not understand that I suffered from the kind of food which we were enabled to procure, nor from a want of it, at any time. Such things can be got along with much better than I imagined. The water on the route was usually good, though not always in sufficient abundance. We sometimes made a day's march without meeting any.

A few mishaps have befallen me, which however you may smile at as being trifles ; yet in a wilderness with but few conveniences and no means of obtaining a supply when deficiencies occur, it is a matter of some importance. On one occasion I was absent from my horse a few moments to set a trap ; an Indian in the mean time stole my cloak—my old favorite wrapper, which had kept me warm many a night. I had reason to be thankful, however, that the thief instead of taking my cloak only, did not take my horse and baggage with it.— The loss of the cloak was remedied by a buffalo robe I had in the camp. But the next morning one of the thieving rascals took my hatchet. This loss was irreparable.

On my return to Fort Van Couver from the ocean, where I picked up some shells, I dissolved all connexion with those with whom I came out : and next week I intend to go to the Multnomah to work a farm.

Fort Van Couver is the general depot of the Hudson's Bay Company, west of the mountains. An express arrives and departs from this place once a year, for Hudson's Bay, and also from Montreal. A ship arrives annually from England. Besides they have three smaller vessels employed in trading along the coast and in carrying supplies to the posts. To the north, along the coast, and also far inland, they have several posts. In short, their operations—trapping and trading for furs, are extended from California to the Pole. You are doubtless aware of the long standing of this company—its great wealth and extended operations over a region of country but little known to any but themselves.

The gentlemen of the company appear generally intelligent, especially Mr. M'Laughlin, who is the acting Governor. Governor Simpson himself is at present at Hudson's Bay. There is also residing here a Mr. Douglass, a naturalist ; but apprehending that they might be a little jealous of imparting their hard earned intelligence about this region of country, I have not felt myself free to make many such inquiries.

It is seven years since they commenced an establishment here, and having found it very expensive to furnish the number of persons they employ with provisions from England, or elsewhere, they have been induced to go quite extensively into agricultural practice.— Mr. M'Laughlin, having obtained a few cattle from California, has increased them to about 400. He raised last year about 1200 bushels of wheat, barley, beans, Indian corn, potatoes, and garden vegetables. This year he is extending his operations. Fruit frees have been planted ; among the rest the vine and the peach. They have sheep and hogs. Their horses they obtain from the Indians.— The pursuit of Agriculture seems to prosper well in their hands, though begun with difficulty. Mr. M'Laughlin encouraged a few men ( some of whom came here with Mr. Astor's concern ) to settle on the Multnomah, where, as I said, I intend also to settle. He has liberally engaged to lend me a plough, an axe, oxen, cow, &c.

February 22d , at Fort Van Couver.

This week I have returned from an excursion up the river Multnomah or Wallameth. It is far from the stream laid down on your maps, for its most distant source is probably not more than 200 miles in a direct course from its mouth. Its general course is South and is fed by a number of branches from the Snow Mountains already spoken of, and a ridge running not far from the coast on the west. The river at one point approaches within fifty or sixty miles of the sea.

The valley of the Multnomah may be two hundred miles in length and fifty in breadth, and a beautiful valley it appears from what I have seen of it. Extensive plains, well clothed with grass, interspersed throughout with oaks, crowded with mistletoe and lofty firs and pines, altogether presenting great facilities to settlers. The soil is generally fertile, though perhaps not equal to some on the Mississippi and Ohio. Its quality, however, I should think, through the whole of it, will average with respect to fertility and the aspect of its surface, the lands of New England.

Wherein then, do you ask, consists its advantages—I answer, in climate. For here the farmer has not to labor half the summer and all the winter to provide for his animals ; he is not compelled to fence and plough and sow his seed in one or two short months ; he ploughs, and his cattle graze the whole year. The settlers in this valley have already raised one crop ; which succeeded well. They have a few cattle, horses and hogs, all which are in good order, without feeding through the winter. Although we are in the latitude of Montreal, the farmers have been ploughing since January, the vegetables in the garden have remained uninjured through the winter. In favorable situations the grass is already springing up. On the Wallameth I saw two weeks ago, alders and willows in bloom and leaving out. Strawberries and brier bushes had continued green through the winter. Crops that are put in the ground as late as July, yield a plentiful harvest. There is a vast difference in the temperature on the two sides of the continent. Here the summers are long and fine, and every thing can be raised, that can be raised with you or even in Virginia. I have already spoken of the vine and the peach—tobacco has also been

During November, Fahrenheit ranged at noon from 49 deg. to 56 deg. One half of that month was as bright weather as any I ever saw ; during that time there was usually a white frost every night. I am informed there fell during the month 4 1-2 inches of rain. In December 9 inches ; frost but two or three times ; thermometer in the morning at 40 deg. at noon from 40 to 50 deg.—rain from the S. and S.E. ; East and North winds always brings fair weather. Half of the month of January the weather was as cold as has been known in this region; there being a constant frost. At one time the thermometer ranged as low as 17 deg.—at noon from 30 deg. to 40 deg. The Columbia river froze over, but the Wallameth did not. During the rest of January , the weather was as usual ; there fell but one inch rain. This month ( February ) has been cloudy part of the time. There have been what you would call April showers, but the amount of rain that has fallen is not great. We have had frost a few times, though in the morning the thermometer has usually stood at 40 deg. and at noon at 40 degrees—nigh the ocean it is said it never freezes.

Upon the condition of the country, generally so favorable, there is one draw back— the fever and ague, though never known before, has prevailed here for three years past ; the whites applied the usual remedies with effect, but with the natives it proved fatal— sweeping off whole villages. Their habit was when the fever came on, to plunge themselves into the water, which proved fatal to them. People, however, have generally had it but one season, and some not at all.

As to society, there is little that would be deemed such by you in the civilized world.— The gentlemen of the Hudson's Bay Company, I have said, generally are intelligent. Some of them, as also the farmers, have Indian women and half breeds, as they are called, for wives. They are well pleased with their situation, and make, it is said, very good ones---learning to perform their domestic duties—to sew, cook, wash, &c. as good as house wives, very well. They appear very fond of their children, take good care of them, and provide for their education. When I arrived here, as you well suppose, I was nigh destitute of clothing, but I was soon furnished with a good suit, made by the ladies of the post.

The natives of this part of the country are vey peaceable, seldom making war on each other or on the whites. They manifest a very different character from the Indians on the east of the mountains. The native males as well as females wear but little clothing, generally a kind of apron and a robe of dressed skin, or blanket thrown loosely about them. They wear nothing on their feet any part of the year : but those who live with whites, adopt the European dress. So also many others do in part.

Your friend, JOHN BALL.

Source: "Sangamo Journal / Illinois State Journal", Illinois Digital Newspaper Collection
Illustration: "Camp" painting, National Trails Center, Independence, MO, photo by Douglas Campbell)
Page created: 25-VI-2016
Last updated: 29-VI-2016