The grass was burned to its roots, the streams were reduced to ribbons, the mirages of the desert mocked us desperately. Rain came seldom now, and the sage-brush of the desert was white with bitter dust, which in vast clouds rose sometimes in the wind to make our journey the harder. In autumn, as we approached the second range of mountains, we could see the taller peaks whitened with snow. Our leaders looked anxiously ahead, dreading the storms which must ere long overtake us. Still, gaunt now and haggard, weakened in body but not in soul, we pressed on across. That was the way to Oregon.
Gaunt and brown and savage, hungry and grim, ragged, hatless, shoeless, our cavalcade closed up and came on, and so at last came through. Ere autumn had yellowed all the foliage back east in gentler climes, we crossed the shoulders of the Blue Mountains and came into the Valley of the Walla Walla; and so passed thence down the Columbia to the Valley of the Willamette, three hundred miles yet farther, where there were then some slight centers of our civilization which had gone forward the year before.
Here were some few Americans. At Champoeg, at the little American missions, at Oregon City, and other scattered points, we met them, we hailed and were hailed by them. They were Americans. Women and plows were with them. There were churches and schools already started, and a beginning had been made in government. Faces and hands and ways and customs and laws of our own people greeted us. Yes. It was America.
Messengers spread abroad the news of the arrival of our wagon train. Messengers, too, came down from the Hudson Bay posts to scan our equipment and estimate our numbers. There was no word obtainable from these of any Canadian column of occupation to the northward which had crossed at the head of the Peace River or the Saskatchewan, or which lay ready at the head waters of the Fraser or the Columbia to come down to the lower settlements for the purpose of bringing to an issue, or making more difficult, this question of the joint occupancy of Oregon. As a matter of fact, ultimately we won that transcontinental race so decidedly that there never was admitted to have been a second.
As for our people, they knew how neither to hesitate nor to dread. They unhooked their oxen from the wagons and put them to the plows. The fruit trees, which had crossed three ranges of mountains and two thousand miles of unsettled country, now found new rooting. Streams which had borne no fruit save that of the beaver traps now were made to give tribute to little fields and gardens, or asked to transport wheat instead of furs. The forests which had blocked our way were now made into roofs and walls and fences. Whatever the future might bring, those who had come so far and dared so much feared that future no more than they had feared the troubles which in detail they had overcome in their vast pilgrimage.
So we took Oregon by the only law of right. Our broken and weakened cavalcade asked renewal from the soil itself. We ruffled no drum, fluttered no flag, to take possession of the land. But the canvas covers of our wagons gave way to permanent roofs. Where we had known a hundred camp-fires, now we lighted the fires of many hundred homes.