WVPA Sharing

Column: History in the Hills – A trip out West

By Paul Zuros

For the Weirton Daily Times

I’m not much of a video game enthusiast. I was lucky to grow up at a time when video games were just starting to become super popular. One of the best consoles in my opinion was the NES System that came out in the mid-1980s. My next favorite is Nintendo 64 which I played a lot as a youngster. All my friends had their favorite games. There were car racing games, Mario games, first person action games, and so many more. After 64, my interest in video games waned and I moved on to other pursuits. Now that I have children, my oldest son is now interested in gaming and has a Nintendo Switch. A lot has changed since I was a child, now games can be downloaded in an instant from the internet. I tried to explain to my son that in my day, If I wanted to try a new game, I would be lucky to rent it from Heights Entertainment. The idea of a video rental store is a foreign concept to our youth.

Paul Zuros

   One game I absolutely loved growing up was called Oregon Trail. It wasn’t a video game on a console, but rather one on a computer. As a history enthusiast, the game was right up my alley. The premise of the whole operation is to get a team of four virtual players to travel the Oregon Trail from Independence Missouri to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The game takes place in 1848. One picks a team of four, each one with a certain set of skills, outfits a wagon and starts on a journey across the country. Just as the original settlers did, one will encounter trials and tribulations, from disease to drought, and skirmishes with Native Americans. The game was a lot of fun, so you could imagine my excitement when I found that it is available to download on my son’s switch.

   Playing the game again brought to mind of several stories I have heard or have read about county residents making this, or a very similar trek across the country. The kick off year for western migration was 1848. That is the year that gold was discovered in California, but it wasn’t until the next year that the famous 49’ers were making the journey. According to Mary Shakley Ferguson in her book on the history of Holliday’s Cove, there was a group of young men and a family or two who got gold rush fever. News of the discoveries had made it to Holliday’ Cove and Steubenville and many were tempted to go west. Mary writes that every stage coach and rider that came through town was stopped for news and it was common knowledge that one could make up to $1,000 a day in the gold fields. William Brown recruited six men, ranging in age from 18 -30 to make the journey to California. John Swearingen, John Piat, David Hindman, Elisha Robinson, William Knox, and William Farnsworth each paid $300 to William Brown for the journey.

   Each man had a specific skill, most were farmers who were good with animals. William Knox was a carpenter which would greatly aid the men on their journey. Two wagons were ordered from a  Holliday’s Cove carpenter, one larger suitable for two horses, and another suitable for one horse. The wagons were built to be water tight and raisable so rivers could forded or the wagons could be floated.  The group had a choice as to use mules or oxen to pull the wagons west, but mules were chosen for their swiftness along the trail.  Two men were sent in mid-March of 1850 to Independence Missouri to buy 6 mules and a horse. The rest of the group disembarked from the Steubenville Warf near the end of the month. Samantha Knox is said to have cried big tears at Cove Commons as she saw her brother pull away from Holliday’s Cove. The first stop was in Marietta for crackers for the journey. At St. Louis, they purchased hams, other meats, coffee, peas, and sugar for their journey. The group met up with their other companions and were on their way west. Mary says that their first glimpse of the praire was unforgettable as “ as far as they could see there were rows of wagons with covers of white, black, and some of all colors.”

Traveling together was recommended and at night the wagons would circle together to protect against attack. The journey continued first to Fort Kearney, on the Platte River, then about 5-600 miles west was Fort Laramie. The rivers were wide, the prairies were barren and firewood was scarce. Crossing the mountains was treacherous but the men met and traveled with a group from Steubenville and Cincinnati. On the Fourth of July 1850, the men made it to South Pass and had a grand celebration and a snowball fight. Descending into gold fields in August, the men quickly staked a claim and built a cabin as a base of operations.

   All in all, Mary says that the men didn’t make it rich, but they didn’t loose money either. The six worked on their claim until the spring. William Brown along with two others returned to Holliday’s Cove full of adventure stories to delight and captivate residents. Due to their stories, other families made the move to California. Some were not as successful as others. The Atkinson family for instance made the trek in 1852 and among their party disease and injury plagued their trip. Their son drowned on the journey and their traveling companions, some from New Cumberland met tragedy when one passed away on the trail and was buried at the base of Chimney Rock. The journey was no picnic.

   Today I get to enjoy the game from the comfort of my own home but to many from our community, this was a real life and death trip. Some made it and some were not so lucky. Fortunes were made and lost along the trail to a better life in the west.  

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