The riverboat eased to the dock in Cairo, Illinois, and the passengers departed, carrying their hand luggage up the rip-rapped riverbank to the top of the levee. Last to debark was a sturdy man with a full beard, whose clothing pegged him as a Quaker. He wore his wide, flat-brimmed hat squarely on his head. Because his heavy suit coat and vest were inappropriate for the occasion and the warm weather, he had doffed his coat and carried it on his shirt-sleeved arm. As he observed the activities on the riverfront, his Quaker dress left him uncomfortable, both physically and mentally.
He had ridden riverboats for the last ten days and was glad to be ashore again. The trip from Cadiz, on the upper Ohio River, had taken longer than he had expected. He moved to the nearest riverboat office on the bank and inquired about boat passage to St. Louis. The agent informed him that a boat would be leaving for St. Louis within the hour.
Albert seated himself on his traveling bag where he had a bird's-eye view of the numerous activities on the riverfront. It was a beehive of activity. The river was high due to spring rains, and boats were being loaded at a feverish pace to take advantage of the high water to navigate the upper reaches of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
A group of wagons loaded with firewood drew to a halt and a burly foreman appeared with a group of Negroes. The foreman instructed the crew to begin unloading the four-foot logs of firewood from the wagons onto the riverboat. The gangplank was wet from a recent shower and the men were slipping as they carried the heavy logs up the gangplank. One teenage boy suddenly fell. The heavy log caught his leg, ripping open a gash. The boy scrambled to get up and shoulder his log again. He slipped a second time and fell against the rough log. The foreman screamed obscenities, cursing as he lashed him with a bullwhip. The boy cried out as each lash cut across his back. Albert quickly left his seat and, as the foreman swung his whip again, caught the foreman's hand and wrenched the whip from him. Using the butt end as a club, Albert floored the foreman with a single blow to the head. When the foreman attempted to rise, Albert applied the whip butt again, and the foreman subsided with no more resistance. He lay still, held his head and moaned. The man started to get up once more, and Albert again threatened him with the whip. While the foreman lay still, Albert made him an offer to buy the slave boy. The man was in no position to argue, so he agreed to sell the boy to Albert. Albert released his grip on the foreman, reached into his money belt and paid for the slave boy. The foreman accepted the money and yelled to the other slaves to resume loading the firewood.
The scene on the levee caught the attention of several onlookers. Here was a white man interfering with a foreman managing a group of Negro slaves. Cairo was considered a free town, but it bordered on several slave states and was one of the most important Mississippi River trading points; slavery there was more or less a fact of life. Albert's interference into everyday practices on the dock drew scowls of irritation from some of the spectators. He realized that he might be in trouble. His hatred for slavery in general and the mistreatment of the Negro youth in particular had ignited his temper and overwhelmed his good common sense.
Albert turned his attention to the injured Negro boy, helped him to his feet and moved with him to the top of the riverbank where several people had gathered. Albert summoned two Negro women and asked if they knew where the closest doctor could be located. They assured him they did. He gave the women some money and told them to take the boy to the doctor.
Observing the hostile attitude of the crowd, he quickly retrieved his bag and disappeared down the busy Cairo street. A few minutes later the local constable arrived. He heard the foreman's complaints but was unable to find Albert. When he inquired where the "damned nigger-lover" had gone, all on the riverbank gave him a blank stare with no response. The constable shrugged and walked off down the street muttering to himself, "Damned abolitionists!"
Albert strode quickly through the crowded street and turned into the next side street. Deciding to stay out of sight, he found a small hotel and asked the clerk for a room for the night. He requested a meal be sent to his room, purchased a newspaper and retired.
As he read the local newspaper, he became aware that the movement westward by immigrants seeking new land was much greater than he had expected. The migration along the Oregon-California Trail, and other trails, had become a migratory wave of historic proportions.
Very early the next morning, Albert boarded the riverboat headed for St. Louis. In reviewing his conduct with the foreman the day before, he realized he had breached his Quaker upbringing and jeopardized his well-being and perhaps his life. Slavery anywhere incensed him, sometimes to the point of acting imprudently.
He debarked in St. Louis and traveled by another boat to Westport, Missouri, the end of his river journey. Although the Oregon Trail originated in Independence, it was Westport, the busy river port at the junction of the Kaw and Missouri Rivers that supplied most of the westbound travelers with necessities for travel along the Trail.
Albert was not informed about climatic conditions and rigors on the western plains. He asked one of the many trail outfitters in Westport what he would need to travel up the Trail. With help from the friendly shopkeeper, he purchased the necessary basic food supplies such as bacon, beans, flour, shortening, sugar, coffee, hardtack and a few cooking utensils. Albert also purchased a sturdy bay gelding, complete with riding equipment, and some camping necessities. He then replaced his Quaker clothing with frontier apparel better suited to the rigors of the western climate.
The next morning he headed up the Oregon Trail into the Kansas-Nebraska Territory. He was on a mission from the Ohio Town Company of Cadiz, Ohio, to scout
the new territory for a place where forty Quaker families could find homes in a new land. His excitement mounted as the rolling prairie grasslands unfolded before him. His curiosity was aroused as he passed several wagon trains along the way. Most of the wagons were adaptations of the big Conestoga wagons used by Eastern teamsters. The basic covered wagons were smaller than the Conestogas but were very sturdy and covered with heavy canvas to repel the sun and storms. They were sometimes referred to as "prairie schooners." Most were heavily loaded. A few were drawn by horses and mules, but more often by oxen. Albert had been advised that oxen and mules were preferred over horses. Indians would raid the wagon trains to steal the horses, but they had no use for oxen or mules. He also noted that the wagons did not always follow one another along the Trail but often drove two or three abreast. The wagons driving abreast did not cut deep ruts into the prairie sod, which would slow down the following wagons.
Albert, a keen observer, was learning a lot about life on the frontier. On his first night on the Trail he camped beside a small stream and found that it was fed by a clear-running spring higher on the hillside. Believing he was alone, Albert disrobed and took a quick bath in the clear, cold water. As he dried himself, however, he noticed two Indians watching him intently. Quickly dressing, he watched the two disappear into the wooded hillside and saw no more of them. The next day, his second on the Trail, he passed a train of more than thirty wagons. He greeted them briefly as he passed by, anxious to ride further into the plains.
Astride the bay gelding, Albert topped the hill on the southern horizon, overlooking a wide fertile valley. He paused to survey the land that stretched before him. From his viewpoint he could see the Black Vermillion River meandering through
the heavy forest of giant oak, walnut, hickory, ash and cottonwood trees. He discovered that the river finally emptied its waters into the Big Blue River, a few miles downstream. He dropped the reins and allowed the gelding to graze on the tall bluestem grass.
Albert dismounted to sit atop a red granite boulder beside the trail and pulled a worn leather pouch from his inner pocket. From it he withdrew a map and spread it across his lap. With a stub pencil he circled the area on the map and made other notes. He dated his journal "June 10, 1853." He gazed dreamily across the valley, and slowly his fatigue faded into a smile of satisfaction. As a builder of things made from wood, Albert had found what he was seeking. His eyes sparkled as he imagined the things he could build from the trees growing in the valley before him.
He remounted and followed the worn wagon trail down the gentle slope into a clearing among the trees beside the river where a group of covered wagons were circled, with children playing among them. A woman stirred a large kettle that gave forth tantalizing aromas. Albert was greeted by a blond giant clad in fringed buckskin. He dismounted and extended his hand.
"Good day, sir. I am Albert Barrett from Cadiz, Ohio."
The blond giant, returning the handshake, replied, "Good day to you, Mr. Barrett. Where are you headed?"
"I am scouting the area for a group from Cadiz to settle."
"We are camped for the night. Won't you join us for some food and fellowship? My name is Jake Jones, wagon master for this group."
"Thank you, Mr. Jones. May I call you Jake?"
"Please do, and I'll call you Albert. Our women have prepared an evening meal and we would be pleased if you would join us." Albert was happy to accept the invitation.
After he had tethered the horse he had named Moses, Albert was handed a tin plate heaped with stew and topped with a large, golden brown sourdough biscuit. He retired to the far side of the circle and seated on a supported wagon tongue, hungrily devoured his supper. Jake Jones appeared with a large granite coffeepot, filled Albert's tin cup and then sat beside him. He explained that they were nine days out of Westport but were delayed in order to repair a broken wagon wheel. They were waiting for another group to catch up with them but planned to move on the next morning, whether the other wagons arrived or not. Albert cast a quick glance around the circle and determined there were nine wagons, plus a buckboard.
The wagon master inquired, "How far do you plan to go along the Trail?"
"I am not really sure. This group of Quakers wishes to move from the mountains of eastern Ohio. I am looking for a spot for them to settle. I am a builder and sawmill operator, and I am impressed with the number of mature trees here in the Vermillion Valley. New settlements will need lots of lumber for buildings."
Wagon master Jones agreed and went on to explain, "My group is from Illinois and we are anxious to see the great green country of Oregon. This is my second trip out and I think I will probably stay this time. It gets pretty rough after six months on the Trail. Last time out we buried eight of our party alongside the Trail. I hope we do better this time out."
Albert's weariness overcame him and he suppressed a yawn. Jake caught the message and bade him good night. Albert strolled to his horse, unsaddled and hobbled him and attached a bell around his neck. He turned the gelding loose to join the animals that grazed beyond the campground, guarded by a mounted horseman. Unrolling his bedroll, he bedded down beneath one of the wagons and was soon fast asleep.
Albert awakened at first light. Women in long gingham dresses and aprons appeared and scurried to build the morning campfire and prepare the morning meal. A teenage boy brought in the herd of livestock composed of oxen, horses, mules and a brindle milk cow. While the boy milked the cow, Albert secured a bar of soap and a towel from his pack and made his way down to the little creek close by. He washed himself as best he could in the cold water and returned to the circle. The aroma from the cooking fire and the frying bacon whetted his appetite. Again, he was invited to join in the meal and visit with the men.
Everyone was anxious for news from the East. The vigorous debate in Congress over the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the main topic of interest. The subject of slavery in the new territories was on the minds of everyone. Albert was questioned about when the Kansas-Nebraska Territory would be opened for settlement. He indicated that it was difficult to determine. Now, Congress was having a big squabble and neither the Northern nor the Southern senators would budge on the issue of slavery. Congress was evenly divided on votes and failed to yield on the slavery matter. Albert sincerely hoped they would abolish slavery in both the Kansas and Nebraska Territories. But there was no way of knowing if or when that would happen.
Jake's party was committed to travel the Oregon Trail for over two thousand miles. Some of those in the party realized the dangers and hazards to be faced before they would reach their permanent stopping place in Oregon. Many of them were having second thoughts and were considering stopping in the Kansas-Nebraska Territory to start a new home. However, one wagoner explained that the Oregon Territory was offering 320 acres of land to settlers, whereas the proposed allotment in the Kansas-Nebraska Territory was only 160 acres for each qualified person. That was enough to keep them on the trail to Oregon.
Albert finished his meal, returned the utensils, and thanked the ladies for such fine food. These were the first full meals he had eaten for several days, and he had greatly enjoyed the warm hospitality. He collected and saddled his gelding, secured his bedroll and sought out Jake for parting words and thanks. A sense of eagerness enveloped him. Excitement prevailed. New adventures were in the making.
He turned the gelding and rode north through the valley. By noon he estimated he was eight miles north of the campground on the Oregon Trail. The river was clear and deep with a substantial current. At one bend, he found a rocky ford and crossed to the west bank. He then rode west for nearly five miles until he was no longer in the valley. Then he turned south again until he encountered the Oregon Trail as it led west towards Alcove Springs, ten miles ahead. He followed the Trail and returned to the campground. Jake and his wagon train had moved on and the campground was vacant. Albert decided to spend another night there, so he unsaddled his horse, tethered and belled him to let him graze. Before darkness descended he sat on one of the upended tree trunks, drew out his maps and made numerous notes.
As Albert sat by his campfire that evening, the moon appeared on the eastern horizon with nearly enough light to read by. During his ride along the Trail, the rolling prairie, the unlimited horizons, the vast area's potential for farmland and the heavily timbered valleys had overwhelmed him. He had fallen in love with the land. It was a time of revival for him. The nagging sense of dissatisfaction with his Quaker brethren and the Society in general faded away and was replaced with a deep sense of contentment. He was at peace with the world.
Albert reflected on his relationship with the Society of Friends, more often called "Quakers." At the last meeting of the Friends, much time had been spent in chastising members for misconduct, disowning them for marrying outside the church and for other minor infractions. Concerns for social injustices were not discussed. Albert felt that Christian faith was missing and had been replaced with trivial matters and controversy. He realized he did not conform to many of the basic Quaker concepts of quiet, passive acceptance. He knew that eventually he must deal with his rebellion against the church.
The following morning he retraced his previous route, this time reversing direction and using a compass. As Albert rode along a game trail, Moses shied at a covey of quail that rose beneath his hooves. Later, a pair of white-tailed deer bounded through the trees and disappeared. Wild game was abundant. Albert had seen turkey, grouse, buffalo and antelope on the trail. The wild game would be the sustaining food for the settlers until they could raise their own food. This he noted in his carefully kept journal.
Back at the campground, he recorded on his hand-drawn map the location of the tract of land he had surveyed. It covered an area approximately 5 miles by 8 miles,
amounting to 40 sections or 25,600 acres. He estimated the tract would supply each family of the Ohio Town Company a section of 640 acres or more, if they wished. The rules and laws were quite vague concerning the settlement in the territory, and the proof of ownership was questionable. The latest information available was that settlers could claim 160 acres as an individual by preemption. This process involved staking the four corners, erecting some sort of shelter and living on the land until it was paid for. Settlement groups, however, could claim even more land. The process of acquiring land in the territories was largely undefined and unregulated. There was no place to register ownership of preempted land.
Albert made detailed notes that would be needed to make his report to the Ohio Town Company in Cadiz. As a businessman, he envisioned a sawmill to capitalize on the wealth of the valley. The vastness of this new land with its possibilities was staggering. His report to the Ohio Town Company would be interesting, to say the least.
At daylight, Albert mounted Moses and rode south down the Oregon Trail toward Westport. As he left the valley, he soon encountered a small band of Indians mounted on ponies. They were hunting, and several carried small game. The leader approached slowly with his hand raised, palm outward, indicating they were friendly. Albert stopped his horse and waited. He returned the friendly gesture and spoke to the Indians in his own language.
"Greetings. I am a friend, traveling through."
The leader answered in halting English, "I, too, friend. But now you go away down trail." He pointed the way southward.
The Indian's greeting was not threatening, but it was clear that Albert was to move away from the Indians' hunting ground. Albert was aware that he was in territory claimed by one of several different tribes. He was unable to determine the identity of the band but got the message that he was not to remain in their territory. Albert decided it was wise to bid the Indians farewell and rode on down the Trail.
Soon he joined the Military Road that led from Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River to Fort Riley and on west. He turned east and followed the rutted road through the hilly grassland towards Fort Leavenworth. Midmorning, he pulled aside as he met a military wagon train carrying supplies to Fort Riley. Ten mounted cavalrymen in full battle dress accompanied the four mule-team wagons. The mounted sergeant halted the wagons with his raised hand and as the teams rested, he chatted with Albert. There had been some Indian activity along the road the week before and the sergeant was anxious to know what Albert knew about the situation.
"Have you seen any Indians around here?" he asked.
"Yes, I did, just a few miles back up the Trail."
"Were they friendly or hostile?" questioned the sergeant.
"Well, they seemed friendly but they insisted I move on down the Trail and leave them alone."
"Do you know what tribe they were?"
"No, I'm sorry, Sergeant. I am not familiar with the various tribes around here."
"Well, we've got Kickapoo, Sac and Fox, Otoe and Potawatomi in these parts. I'd guess they were Potawatomi. The government in Washington is trying to make treaties with all of them. But the Indians are wary. They have been promised weekly rations if
they stay on the reservations, but nothing has happened so far. They're hungry and I'd guess they were out hunting."
"That's right. They were carrying small game on their ponies," answered Albert. "They were headed northwest along the Oregon Trail."
"Thank you, mister. By the way, what is your name and where are you headed?"
"My name is Albert Barrett and I am headed for Fort Leavenworth."
The sergeant gave the go-ahead signal, and the wagon train moved on west towards Fort Riley.
Late the next afternoon, Albert approached Fort Leavenworth. The town rose from the riverfront towards the fort. A major cavalry post, the fort commanded the town and all the areas west of the Missouri River. Riverboats crowded the dock areas, and the town was buzzing with activity. Albert located the local livery stable and struck a deal with the operator to buy Moses, complete with saddle and tack. The sale was completed and with a pat on the neck, he parted company with his trusty mount.
Morning found Albert in the hotel dining room, reading the June 20, 1853 Kansas Weekly Herald, a local newspaper, as he breakfasted on ham, eggs, biscuits and coffee. The news was discouraging. An in-depth editorial discussed the big moneyed interests that were pressuring Congress to establish transcontinental routes for rail lines to the West Coast. Congress was delaying the rail routes until bona fide territorial governing bodies could be established in the areas west of the Missouri River. The Platte area that encompassed the winding Platte River in the Nebraska Territory was under consideration for a newly defined territory. Still another plan called for both the Kansas and Nebraska Territories to be opened for settlement. With Congress divided
between free- and slave-state members, much controversy developed and very little meaningful legislation was forthcoming. The success of Albert's mission depended upon the opening of the western territories for settlement. The political situation was baffling and discouraging.
Finishing breakfast, Albert paid the 75-cent bill at the counter. The friendly waitress inquired how he had liked the meal. Albert, who always enjoyed the company of the fair ladies, chatted with her for a while. His contact with the little lady made him realize how much he missed his family.
Albert's next endeavor was to secure riverboat passage back to Ohio. After several attempts, he finally secured passage to St. Louis on a riverboat leaving at noon the next day. With little to do the rest of the day, he made a tour of Fort Leavenworth.
Activities in Fort Leavenworth were at a fever pitch. The westward movement into the Louisiana Territory was beyond description. Russell, Majors and Waddell was a major outfitting and freighting company that held a contract with the U. S. Army to move supplies from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Kearny and on to Salt Lake City. The local newspaper had reported that the latest shipment by the company had moved 3,730,900 pounds of freight, utilizing 22 convoys of 85 wagons, 105 men, 7,935 oxen, 1,290 mules and 150 horses. Albert realized he was on the leading edge of pioneer expansion in the western territories. His excitement grew at the prospects of joining the movement.
Boarding the downstream boat at noon the next day, Albert whiled away the passage time to St. Louis wondering about his family in Cadiz and longing for the warm embrace of his wife, Mary. Once in St. Louis, he booked passage to Cairo and on up the Ohio River to Steubenville. From there it was a short horseback ride to Cadiz and
home. Albert secured a horse at the livery stable in Steubenville and rode rapidly towards his home. He had not seen his wife for nearly two months. Mary met him at the front door and clung to him in a close embrace, sobbing. The children hugged his legs and sniffled. William, his older son, asked how soon they could go fishing. Cyrus fingered the fringed buckskin suit and sniffed the smell of the new leather outfit his father was wearing. The boys were impressed. Albert had arrived weary and exhausted, but the warm welcome from his family soon buoyed his spirits and revived him. All he wanted now was to relax and rest for a while. That he did.