Sunday, January 26, 2014

Birth on the Oregon Trail - 1850

Birth on the Oregon Trail
The Dalles, Oregon
October of 1850

Almost every woman who was part of a Wagon Train ,was in some stage of pregnancy or breastfeeding a baby.   Women could not vote, had no access to birth control and were expected to follow their husbands wherever they went.  

The river gave birth to the day, carrying the dreams, of those who traveled within her fertile waters. The mist drifted to meet the heavens, as the sun rose over the mountains to the east. A crescent moon lingered in the cold, clear skies.

The Grandmother had been born, in this place beside The Great River. They called the river, Thleyap Kamoon, after the mussels that grew in the water; the ones that were eaten on special feast days in the times before the wagons.

She sat facing east, as was her way in the morning.   

All summer she had watched the white men make their way up the hillsides to cut the pine trees; the trees that had watched over the village for all the time she could remember; home to her friends the coyote, the wolf and the bear.

 The trees became rafts for the wagons as they floated down the rivers and over the falls. Sometimes the wagons broke and their children drowned. They were strange little houses with wheels that they put on boats and sent down the river. She did not understand where they had come from and where they were going. She only knew that they took the trees with them.  Their soft green branches were left on the ground to fade and die and burn in their fires.

They came all summer.  More people than she had thought lived on the earth.  Just when it seemed that no more would come, these new ones arrived.  It was cold at night and she could see them shiver by their smoky fires; the women cooking while their children cried. She saw the worry in the face of the men, as they looked first at the sky and then the river.  The snows had already come to the mountain and so they had to go by the river.

She stood and tended her fire. Most of her village had been sent by the soldiers over the mountains to Warm Springs; a tribe that did not speak her language or knew the ways of the great river.  They had tried to protect their families from the moon-faced people who were killing their animals and destroying their forests but they had lost the battle and had been forced to retreat to the mountains.

It was in this time of half -light and dark silhouettes that she missed the old ways most. When the loneliness lingered and would not leave.

Tens of thousands of mothers and babies lost their homeland and often their lives,
as Wagon Trains made their way across and into their land.  Going west meant the promise of
"free" land for homesteaders.  The problem was that the land was not the
United States land to give away.   When ever one group of people is displaced for another, we can be sure
that we are hurting mothers and babies and threatening the culture that made a healthy,
sustainable life possible.  

Her tribe had been an important trading link between the Nez Pierce and coastal tribes. They had many feasts and ate the delicious mussels of the river.  This was the time when a bridge made by the gods crossed the river and there was harmony between the humans and the animals.

She had been born in these happy times.  In the time before the great diseases brought by the white men; in the time before smallpox and the measles.

Her father had been a French trapper with a face covered with hair like a bear. For this reason her forehead looked like the moon faced people and was not like the faces of her tribe. Her father had not allowed her mother to shape her head at birth, which had caused her great shame. Her father had told her mother she would be grateful one day, but the day had not yet come.  Because of her round head, the soldiers had let her stay here in the place where the singing creek came to the river. Maybe her father had seen these things coming in a dream.

She had not left with the rest of the tribe. She was too old and her place was there beside the river; in the place where the salmon returned from the sea.

Besides, she told herself, the new people would die without her small trading lodge and her grandsons to help guide their rafts down the river.

The French had named this place The Dalles because of the swift moving river and the high cliffs that nearly touched on either side.  They built a fort here and called it Fort Dalles. The wagons often stopped at the fort but others came to her to trade for food or a warm blanket.  They came here if they needed a guide to help them down the river.

 She was a woman wise in the ways of healing. Even those who lived there and did not take the rafts down the river came to her for herbs and to help their wives when they had their babies.

A doctor from the fort had come to see her and had told the translator to tell her that he was the doctor now and she should not give any more medicine to the white people. He would take care of them. She pretended not to understand him.

 Her grandmother had told her that hers was a gift that passed through her and was not hers to own or tuck away for winter. It was a gift of an abundant harvest and friendship. The old ones said they knew she would be a healer the first time she dug roots with them. That night they had made a feast for her – the little root girl with the round head and green eyes. She smiled recalling the pride of her mother and the warm tickling of her father’s beard. Her father was not like the other men of the village but she recalled the early days with happiness.  After that they let her learn the ways of helping women with birth.

A wagon was waiting to get on a raft in the morning. The mother had slept under the wagon with her young children. She was thin and as worn as the clothes she wore. Skinny, as she was, you could see that she was having a baby. She held her back as she looked out at the river.  Her husband had left with the cattle and the older children the day before.  She tried to start a fire with wet matches and green wood; the smoke covering her as her children cried with hunger.

“Use my fire. You will soon be gone down the river and have little time to make your own.”  She threw threw a branch on the fire and motioned for her to sit.

“Thank you. We left Missouri in April and were suppose to be here months ago.  I wish we had never set out on such a journey.”  She looked down so as not to let the Indian woman see her tears.

“My name is Margaret.” She added.

The Indian woman wished they had all stayed home too but ah, what was the point of such a wish.  This woman was soon to be having a baby and this land would be hers.   The French had not brought their women or children as these people did.  Some married Indian women and stayed, while others, like her father, went down the river and never returned.

“My father was French and named me Lizbet but the people here call me Grandmother.”

Margaret nodded, fatigue having not diminished her curiosity and desire for company.

 Lizbet who was known as Grandmother went in her lodge and returned with tea.

“These plants were given to us to help women with their births. “

Margaret from Missouri, alone save the company of three small children, drank the bitter tea warming her hands on the china cup and wondering about the woman who had left it behind.

She knew her new friend was watching her. Friend. This trip had taught her much about the nature of friendship.

 Friendships on the Oregon Trail were made over fires such as these. Friendships that lasted a few hours or for as long as fate allowed them to travel together
 She noticed for the first time the mist rising off the river and the colors of the hillsides that glowed golden with autumn and the morning sun. She knew she was pregnant when they left Missouri but her husband had assured her that she would have her baby in their new home, on their own land in Oregon.  With each wrong turn, each broken wheel, each river crossing and each death from cholera she knew that they would be fortunate to make the journey alive at all. She knew too that giving birth on the trail was dangerous. Babies were born too soon and too little and women were weak from traveling so soon after birth. Wagon trains tried to wait but with the threat of winter and starvation, most pressed on while mothers gritted their teeth in pain and babies cried.

A mother had died beside the Platte River. The women, with milk, took turns nursing the baby; passing the tiny bundle from wagon to wagon sharing what little milk they had to give from their own breasts till they reached the next fort where they left the baby.

Margaret remembered these things as she stared into the fire. Lizbet put her hand on Margaret’s stomach. It was hard. Margaret blushed. She had felt the pains coming all night but had no one to tell.  She had to get on the wagon.  She could not be in labor.

Her husband and the two oldest children had left with the cattle yesterday, walking along the river path. They would meet her today at the Cascades where a steamship would take them the rest of the way to Fort Vancouver.

“We can stay here for the winter,” he had told her.  “We don’t have to go on any more.” They had not ever been separated, even for a night and the worry was deep in his eyes as he set out.  She had watched until they were out of site; swallowed up by still another unknown trail.

“The baby won’t come till we are in the Willamette Valley on our own land.  Take the cattle and go. I’ll be fine.” She shooed him away with a weak laugh and a wave.  There had been a small spot of blood that morning. She knew from her other births, the baby would come soon now.

Margaret watched Lisbet turn the fish she was drying.

“The baby will be born before the noon meal.”   

 Margaret stood up and thanked her host. She would not listen to the foolish whispers of this woman.  She was not having her baby; not now. Please, not now.

“Not today, “ she replied as if stubbornness could change the future.

She left the fire and returned to her chores with determination. The wagon needed to be prepared for the trip down the river. What little they had left, would be needed to start their life in the Willamette Valley. Things would need to be tied down and covered to keep dry.  The baby would need to wait until Fort Vancouver where there were midwives and Hudson Bay doctors.

 Her back hurt but she told herself it was the result of sleeping on the ground in the cold.

As if she knew her thoughts, Lizbet came to her and began to speak and tell her about the river. How coyote made the falls so the salmon would come and bring her people food.

“The salmon are coming home to lay their eggs and then to die in the place of their ancestors. You will pass them on the river.” The old woman paused and touched the dry earth. “This is the land where my ancestors were born and were buried. You have left your mother and father to give birth with the salmon. It is a strange way to me.”

Margaret held back her tears recalling her parents and the joy of her life in Ohio with them.  Still she had no choice but to follow her husband and if need be, give birth alone without the care of women. She bit her lip and tasted her own blood, turning her head with pride and determination.

The men came and removed the wheels from the wagon after placing it on the raft with four other wagons. She searched for a familiar face but did not know these people who came from another company.  Lizbet walked beside her to the river and handed her a small blanket and in it a clean piece of string and a sharp, black rock.  “For your baby born like a salmon on the river.”

 Looking down with shame and confusion, she accepted the gift and walked with the children to the river and the waiting raft. She knew the old woman was watching her and knew that her waters had broken and were moving like the falls beneath her woolen dress. She only hoped no one could see.

Inside the wagon, Margaret put the children  on the bed. There would be no small boys falling from this raft. She pulled down one chair and put a piece of oilcloth upon it.  The pains would not be denied or stopped and she knew now that the Indian woman was right. She would have this baby on the Columbia River in a wagon on a raft.  It was her fifth baby so it would not be hard. 

“Go back to sleep. She ordered her children.  “Papa will be waiting when you wake up.”

“But Mama, we just woke up and we want to see the river. “

“ Shush. Put your heads under the blankets and sleep.”

 “Safer here than to be caught in the snow without a home for winter.  If a salmon can swim against the current all the way from the ocean to give birth in this river, well then she could too” Margaret whispered to herself between contractions.

“Are you alright, Mama?” The children looked on  from under their blankets, in fright, as she dropped to her knees with the next contraction.

“It’s just the baby.”

She tore off her woolen dress. It was all she had left and she would need it dry and clean when they arrived.   She unwrapped the things Lizbet had given her and reached for her bread bowl. Everything she needed was within her reach. The river was flowing fast.  Through a crack in the wagon cover she saw the banks of tress and cliff rush by. She looked out, trying hard to calm herself and not scare the children.  She took off her wet underthings and remained in her slip and petticoats.

The baby moved down further with small gushes of warm water and blood. She turned her back to the children peering from under their blankets and held onto the front of the wagon as she rocked back and forth.

It would be soon now.

“Dear God.”

She tried to hold back. To give herself another few minutes to calm herself and organize her thoughts but the pressure was too great. 

 Falling onto the chairs edge, she felt the stretching and burn, with only a second to reach down and catch the warm, wet baby before it hit the wagon floor. A small baby girl with eyes wide open grimaced and cried.   She sat back and laughed.  The children, on the bed, clapped.  They were all okay.

Margaret, balancing the baby on her lap, tied the cord in two places and cut it with the sharp piece of black rock that she had been given. She wrapped her baby in the soft skin of a deer and stood as the afterbirth slid onto the wagon floor with no time for the bread bowl. With the baby under one arm she scooped it up and put it in the bowl.

She tucked a clean cloth between her legs and slowly made her way to the bed where she laid the baby down with the other children.   She found a place beside them and nursed the baby.  The children, far to excited for sleep, were entertained by her stories of the salmon coming back up the river to lay their eggs in the exact places where they were born.   She told them of the cabin they were born in and of the people who loved them back home.  They were quiet with remembering and in that quiet fell to sleep.  The sound of the raftmen shouting and dragging the raft to shore work them.

 And then the voice of the Grandmother coming into the wagon to check on her and the baby.  She had known. She helped her onto shore where she had made a small shelter and had a fire waiting.
The men, who steered the raft, stopped their work and stared in disbelief. “ A baby. Never heard a sound.”

Her husband had to be steadied by the other men, so in shock he was.    

 A million questions floated through the branches of the cottonwood as their heart shaped leaves drifted to the ground.

The grandmother midwife stayed with Margaret and cooked her a stew of rabbit and bitter roots with herbs. She washed the baby and wrapped her well.

When the raft prepared to start out again she gave her a piece of her baby’s cord and told her to plant it on their new land so that the baby would love and care for that home.
Margaret held her baby in her arms as she tucked the piece of cord into her apron pocket.

The midwife placed her hand on the baby’s head and whispered a prayer in the language of her people.  She turned then and walked back down the path to her home; back to the place where the strangers entered the great river on the back of her ancestors, the trees. Back to the place where the salmon returned each fall, to the place where she had been born.

When I first came to Oregon, I was five months pregnant and did not know where we would live.  We drove across the country; following the Columbia River a long way before arriving in Portland.  I read in a museum, about a woman giving birth in a wagon while going down the river and how the people who were steering the boat never heard a thing.   There is a museum in the Dalles where the old trading post once was.  This is how I cam to write a story about giving birth on the Columbia River in a wagon train.  Birth stories gives us insight into the strength and resiliency of women while allowing us to understand the ways midwives have quietly cared for women for thousands of years. 

I always wonder if the women knew they were taking land from other women and their families, as they made their way across the country.  I know that many of them were immigrants, fleeing war and famine in Europe and most likely did not grasp the full implication of the situation.  I like to think that one mother would not knowingly hurt the children of another mother but I am not sure.  Then as now, governments wage war and make laws that hurt other people’s children in ways small and large. The people take part in these laws everyday without knowing the implication to others. In the congress of my country, I hear people raging on and on about “entitlements” and I think about all the land that was stolen and given to others and how that was the greatest “entitlement “ program of all times.  It does no good, for me a white woman, to criticize the mother in the wagon train, giving birth alone to her seventh baby.   This is my country’s story.  I come from these stories.  I cannot escape them.  As mothers and midwives, the birth and survival of every single baby is our deepest and most painfully, honest history.  They are not just the stories of birth but symbols of how our communities tended and disregarded its most vulnerable. 


  1. "Roll on Columbia, Roll On.... your power is turning out darkness to dawn, Roll On Columbia, Roll On"....

  2. Thank you so much for this story, Sarah. I found it whilst researching the wagon trains for a story of my own. My heroine is an Irish widow of the potato famine. She gave birth to her first child during the crossing. I'm not sure what her thoughts would be about the indigenous peoples, or if she would even have any at all. Something to consider.