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Curiosity Corner: “A Clumsy Cow Column”
January 20, 2011 Gretchen Deter   
On a spring evening in 1843, young Jessie, with an aching back and chafed legs, sat astride his saddle sore horse looking at the crimson shaded sunset far off in the western horizon. When he looked past the flat prairie, the setting sun seemed to extend past the unending black silhouette of nature’s tiny castles and palaces far, far into the distant west. The vivid chromatic colors of crimson red, brilliant orange and rich gold splashed into his tired eyes reminding him of the vastness around him. He was alone at the moment, away from the rest of the travelers who were busily setting up camp along the cool, fresh Big Blue River. It had been a long, hard and dusty day with few miles traveled and insufferable delays. Lost in his thoughts, his mind tried to sort through the recent events and the tasks that lay ahead. He agonized over the daunting challenge so recently imposed upon him.
Jessie, along with his brothers, was seeking the opportunity, like so many others, to start a fresh life in Oregon. He gave up his job as a surveyor and purchased a farm in the Willamette Valley. This is part the curious story that Jessie Applegate shared in his book, A Day on the Oregon Trail.
Jessie was only 22 when he joined one of the earliest Oregon bound wagon trains ever to cross the prairies. Prior to Applegate’s emigrant group, only missionaries and traders had made the long trek to the far West. These first overland pioneers didn’t really know what to expect on such an epic journey or how to safely get to their destination. They had heard many ominous stories of rough terrain, wild rivers, daunting mountains and savage natives. The travelers came to the conclusion that the larger the group the safer the trip. This inaugural party was a cumbersome body of 1,000 emigrants, 120 wagons, and 5,000 head of wandering cattle and horses. This was like trying to move a small town on wheels and hooves. Trying to keep track of 1,000 individuals and their possessions was a daunting job. By the time they reached the Big Blue River, they realized that they could not continue in such a chaotic manner.
Up to this point the travelers had been pretty lucky. There had been no Indian attacks, no raging rivers, and they had lost no cattle. However, every morning was an agonizing adventure. While some of the pioneers had only a few head of cattle in the herd of 5,000 others had hundreds jumbled together with no way to systematically account for the numbers. The cattle wandered around lazily, munching on grass and pausing at cool springs with no interest in keeping up with the wagon train. It took too many cowboys to keep the herd moving and even then it was painfully slow.
Those emigrants with just a few head of cattle were disgruntled with the pace of the huge cow herd and the lack of discipline among the cowboys. They feared their own precious livestock would be engulfed in the massive herd. Finally, something had to change. At the crossing of the Big Blue the decision was made to split the group into two bodies. Those with fewer animals were placed in the “light column” and those with five or more head of stock were put in the “cow column”. Because Jessie seemed to be a good organizer and a popular leader, he was elected captain of the clumsy cow column. As he sat on his horse looking at the western sunset on that spring night, he tried to figure out just how he was to manage such a job as moving not only hundreds of wagons but thousands of head of livestock across the continent.
Once the “light column”, smaller and faster, moved out at a distance ahead of the cow column, Applegate set to the task of organizing his column. He created smaller units much like the military organized their armies. They were divided into platoons with each group rotating duties and positions. If one platoon was negligent or lazy, they were relegated to the back of the trail behind the livestock. This was a miserable way to travel and it didn’t take long for Applegate to establish effective discipline.
Jessie also needed a “pilot” for his cow column; someone who was an experienced scout; who had traveled the trails, knew the routes, and could communicate with the natives. The only sort of person for this job wasn’t always the most reliable nor cooperative. Jessie’s choice for pilot was an old trapper/trader who had wandered up and down the rivers and scouted the mountains. Unfortunately, he was not accustomed to answering to anyone. Other that nature’s seasonal schedules, there was little that gave this man a sense of urgency. The old trapper was going to take the cow column across the prairies and over the mountains so Jessie had no choice but to trust him with the wagons and the livestock.
A typical “cow column” day was grueling. Everyone was up at 4:00 A.M. and had better be ready to form a train by 7:00. They had to gather up the herd, which normally took about two or three hours, pack up the wagons, and assign hunters to go out and find buffalo for the travelers. Once the column was on the trail the days were usually boring for some and exhausting for others. As the routine set in and the livestock finally trailed at a manageable pace, life became orderly and bearable, even enjoyable knowing that there was opportunity and hope at the end of the journey. Jessie was a popular leader and with hard work and cooperation, he accomplished his goal: “Changing a curious clumsy cow column into an efficient body of men and cattle” moving toward that crimson sunset which Jessie saw to the West on that spring day in 1843.”


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