Wagons Ho! Elliott trail of 1853
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The Elliott Wagon Train crossed through Central Oregon in 1853. This was also known as the Lost Wagon Train of 1853 and the trail over the Willamette Pass they used was called the Free Emigrant Road.
The purpose of the Wagon’s Ho! series is to introduce interested parties, through the magic of geocaching, to locations where early day wagon roads once crossed our now very urbanized landscape. At most of these locations you will not see any signs of the original wagon roads. However, if your squint your eyes you may be able to filter out today’s improvements and distractions for a brief moment and imagine what the raw, lonesome landscape looked like to the pioneers who traveled these roads.
In 1853 the Elijah Elliott Wagon train, comprised of 250 wagons and over 1000 immigrants, attempted an ill-fated shortcut off of the standard Oregon Trail. This route left the Oregon trail near Vail and followed the disastrous 1845 Meek route (see GCG3FW by sskamp) into the Harney Lake area and then westerly to the future site of Bend on the Deschutes River. Before arriving at the Deschutes River the wagons traveled 75 miles without water. In the desert east of Bend some of the cattle, maddened by thirst, broke for water and ended up scattered along both the Deschutes and Crooked Rivers. Some accounts state that a woman member of the train died and was buried near a large Ponderosa pine next to the Deschutes in the Bend area.
After recuperating for a few days on the Deschutes, the Elliotts headed south, skirted the eastern flank of Lava Butte, crossed through the Upper Meadows of the Deschutes (now known as Sunriver) and continued south to the La Pine area where they found trees blazed by the road building party from Eugene. As they attempted to cross the Cascades, they found that the road builders had not cleared the trees which had been fallen (the road builder had defaulted on his contract), and were impeded by downed timber, multiple river crossings, early winter snows and lack of provisions. This was 6 years after the Donner Party ordeal in which nearly half of the emigrants starved to death and a feeling of hopelessness and doom descended upon the Elliotts. They finally made contact with Willamette Valley settlers and an immense rescue effort was mounted to rescue the emigrants.
The next year William Macy lead 125 wagons and hundreds of settlers over the same route. The journey went off without a hitch. Go figure.
The location of this portion of the trail was determined by 1871 General Land Office (GLO) survey notes and 1951, 1976 and 1995 aerial photos.
The cache is not at the location of the 1853 trail. Find the cache, an ammo box off of the Larkspur Trail, and enter into your GPS unit the latitude/longitude written on the inside lid of the ammo box. Get back on the Larkspur trail and walk along the trail to the ammo lid coordinates which are where the Larkspur trail crosses the 1853 trail. Larkspur runs north-south in this area and the 1853 trail ran east-west at this point. Turn to you right. You will see, across the existing paved road, a large fallen Ponderosa pine tree. The trail went under your feet and along the toe of the hill below the fallen tree. The Larkspur trail has been improved at this location recently and this work has raised the Larkspur and covered up a trace of the Elliott trail that existed prior to the new construction. Over a thousand weary pioneers passed by this point in early October of 1853, in a few more miles they would reach the water they dearly craved.
Bonus trail location:
Once you get to the ammo lid coordinates, you can navigate to a point at an azimuth of 255° and a distance of 505 feet to a natural saddle between two rock ridges. The Elliott trail passed through this saddle, as does a major paved road nowadays. You don't need to cut cross country to get to this saddle, follow the concrete if you wish.
The original contents of the cache, for your treacherous journey over the foreboding mountain passes of the Cascade Range are:
A compass for direction.
A flashlight to guide you through the dark woods that await you.
A pair of gloves to warm your hands in the chill mountain mornings.
Waterproof matches to start your cooking and warming fires in the snow storms and rain squalls that you will soon encounter.
Happy trails, Elliotts, you’ve got a rough road ahead of you.
Further information about the Elliott wagon train can be found at:
(visit link) - Brief account of the Lost Wagon Train from the web site of End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City.
(visit link) - A genealogy newsletter with diary accounts of the Lost Wagon train (begins on page 2).
(visit link) – Diary of Benjamin Owen, who was sent on an 8 man advance party from the area of Harney Lake to seek help in the Willamette Valley. Mistaking the 3 Sisters for Diamond Peak, the party rode their horses between the South and Middle Sisters. An excerpt: “Killed another yellow leged Squirrel which we ate raw, as we did the first one Killed.”
A great, but obscure, definitive treatise on the Elliott wagon train can be found in "Cutoff Fever" By Leah Collins Menefee and Lowell Tiller which was published in the Oregon Historical Quarterlies, beginning with the December, 1976 Quarterly and continuing for the next 5 issues.
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- 1871 GLO survey notesPortion of the 1871 notes where the surveyors noted the Elliott Wagon Road (and the top of Pilot Butte).
- Portion of 1871 GLO mapI've labeled Pilot Butte and the trail location (x) on this map.
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Coordinates are in the WGS84 datum