Look Back: Rascally wagon dealers, oxen

The drawing above depicts how the Stephenson party may have appeared as they traveled the Oregon Trail west. Though yoked oxen were slower than horses or mules, for pulling loaded wagons or plowing hardened soil, they were stronger. (Photo Provided)

The 1853 journey of the John Stephenson family to Oregon continues in the letter written to A.M. “Mack” Sterrett, editor of the Parkersburg Gazette: This portion of the letter finds the Stephenson party preparing to leave St. Joe (St. Joseph, Mo.).


Sefford Dils became dissatisfied and left with his brother-in-law. I traveled considerably through the country and, Mack, I know you never saw such a country. I hadn’t the slightest notion that the Lord ever made as rich land and to lie so well, just rolling enough for drainage. But who would live here? The wind hardly ever stops blowing and will blow from every point of the compass in an hour.

I never got my oxen until the third, and notwithstanding they were contracted to me for well-broken oxen there were not more than three yoke out of the twelve that could be yoked without roping, and, had I not previously bought five yoke of well broken animals, we could not have gotten along at all. We left St. Joe on the 5th, with four wagons hauled by seventeen yoke of oxen. The two wagons that Uncle Jake made for me can’t be beat; they are of the right size and well built. The two I got made at Marietta are as mean as the others are good. They cost me $219, besides $24 freight, and, as soon as William came with them, I was so mad that I swopped [sic] the fine spring wagon for a common one that I could have bought for $75 and paid $30 to boot. I next paid $44 for fixing the Marietta wagon to suit and then we only put a half a load into it. I was treated rascally in them wagons.

The oxen I purchased in St. Louis cost me $71 per yoke and I paid $75 at St. Joe for each of the five yoke I bought there. The teams are good but some of them are troublesome to yoke of mornings, and, none of the boys being used to handling cattle, it comes hard on me. – I have to be on the watch all the time. Some of the boys do as well as they can, but they don’t know. John, yesterday ran his wagon against a large cotton wood tree, two feet and a half across the stump, and (I know you will think I am telling a yarn, but it is a stubborn fact that) the jar of the wagon knocked the tree down, falling across the wagon tongue, to its own depth in the road, and never hurting an ox, man or wagon! Such a thing you could hardly believe, even if you saw it. It frightened John so that he could not eat his supper. – I went to work and soon made another and better yoke than the one that had been crushed.

Concluded next week.


Bob Enoch is president of the Wood County Historical Society. Would you like to help preserve our past for future generations? The society offers informative monthly meetings and an interesting, 20-page quarterly newsletter. Dues are just $15./year. Send to: WCHPS, P.O. Box 565, Parkersburg, WV 26102.