Monday, June 29, 2020

Dying on the Oregon Trail

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

As a kid, I loved playing Oregon Trail. The educational computer game was first released in 1971 and our teachers had us play it in school whenever they were feeling too burned out to teach. For those of you who never experienced the joy, the game went something like this. You and your team were part of a party of settlers heading west from Independence, Missouri to Williamette Valley, Oregon in 1848. You had to purchase supplies, hunt for food, and overcome various obstacles on your journey west. Along the way, you learned about history, geography, and budgeting. The game was wildly popular nationwide with five editions, and over 65 million copies sold. We ended up dying of dysentery half the time, but boy was it fun! 

Graphics from 1985 edition of Oregon Trail

In 1847, Jacob Hoffman of Elmira decided to try his luck on the real Oregon trail. Born in 1814, he was the second son of William and Sally Hoffman. At age 20 in 1800, the elder Hoffman had decided to strike out on his own in what was then the wild frontier of Elmira. At age 32, Jacob was struck by a similar bout of wanderlust and decided to hitch-hike to Iowa. He returned home with a sample of the yellow dent corn found there and planted it on his father’s farm. The natural cross it produced with the local strain was known as Hoffman Dent Corn and the family grew it for years.

Now that he’d had a taste of adventure, Jacob found it hard to stick around at home. In the spring of 1847, he walked to Olean, New York, and then took a series of boats to Independence, Missouri. From there, he joined a wagon train containing 18 wagons, 30 men, 25 women, and 40 children. Along the way, they encountered a number of things familiar to players of the game. At the Kansas River crossing, they were waylaid by Caws who demanded a tole for crossing their land. They lost 40 cattle who spooked at the sight of buffalo, but had a grand old time hunting the buffalo for meat a few days later. Although they didn’t lose anyone from Jacob’s party, the journey was a deadly one. In a letter home, he wrote “there has been more graves made this season than there has been before. I kept an account until I got 100, then I stopped.”

The group had been fairly late leaving Independence, and winter was closing in fast. In early October, they reached Dr. Whitman’s mission in Waiilatpu, just outside Walla Walla, Washington, near the border with Oregon. Jacob decided to stay and help bring in the harvest for $18 a month and then move on come spring. In retrospect, he should have kept going.

Jacob Hoffman's letter home, October 17, 1847

Dr. Marcus Whitman had established his mission near Walla Walla in 1835 in the hopes of converting the local Cayuse tribe to Christianity, but was having a tough time of it. The natives found Whitman and his wife condescending and rude, and the problem was made worse by Whitman’s refusal to pay the tribe for the use of their land, which he insisted had been gifted to him. Despite some initial interest in attending his services, relations between Whitman and the tribe grew increasingly strained. In the early 1840s, Several Cayuse fell ill eating melons and meat which had been deliberately poisoned by the missionaries to trap pests. By that time, the mission had become an important layover and re-supply stop on the Oregon Trail. In 1847, an outbreak of measles brought by passing settlers left the tribe feeling like Whitman had come to kill them. Jacob Hoffman had signed up to work in a powder keg.   

On November 30, 1847, a group of Cayuse attacked the mission. Jacob Hoffman was in the barn dressing beef along with two other men. He was attacked and wounded, but managed to fight his way clear of the barn before being struck down from behind. Rev. Henry Spaulding, a missionary whose 10-year-old daughter was present for the massacre, wrote to the Hoffman family on April 1, 1848 to tell them what had happened to their son. All told, thirteen people were killed including Jacob and Dr. and Mrs. Whitman. 54 people staying at the mission were taken captive and held until they were ransomed by the Hudson’s Bay Company on December 29th. 

Period lithograph of the Whitman massacre. Not remotely accurate according to eye-witness accounts

The attacked kicked off a larger  conflict known as the Cayuse War which lasted until 1855.  In an attempt to end the conflict, the tribe handed over the ringleaders of the massacre for trial. They were hanged on June 3, 1850, but the war continued. When it ended, the Cayuse were decimated, and the remaining natives were pushed onto reservations, opening the way for more settlers and statehood. Jacob Hoffman and the other victims were buried in a mass grave at the mission which is now a United States National Historic Site. He went west looking for an adventure and ended up playing a tragic, if pivotal, role in the history of the Pacific Northwest. 

Memorial at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site

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