Sustenance and solace for Oregon Trail pioneers.
The Kettle That Carried a Family Forward
By Karen Schwartz
| Photography by Nils Ericson
How this kettle nurtured the future
This kettle was among the few possessions that made the treacherous
Oregon Trail journey with the Brown family into the unknown land of Western America. Imagine the meals it cooked, the family it fed as they traveled toward the unknown. Today, it has helped one man understand his heritage much more deeply than ever before.
An extraordinary discovery
The kettle sat for years at the
Oregon Historical Society. Then came Loren Kohler, who was on a quest to find out more about his family. He found a distant cousin, and after a great deal of digging, a link to pioneer Lucinda Brown, his fourth great aunt. Lucinda, her husband and three young children left what, by all accounts, seemed a relatively comfortable middle class life in Illinois, sold most of their belongings and packed up the rest in a wagon to make the 2,000 mile journey west in pursuit of better fortunes in 1847. The Oregon Historical Society had received the kettle as part of a larger donation of items from John Leech, another of Lucinda’s descendants.
An inspiring journey
The kettle tells the story of an important chapter in American history: The Brown family was among a group of overland immigrants who traveled to Oregon in 1847. Intending to claim land and farm, they set out from Independence, Missouri, and followed a route over the Rocky Mountains taken originally by fur traders. In years to come, this route came to be known as the Oregon Trail. The journey itself was fraught with dangers. “They were families, they were farmers, many had kids,” says survival expert Sam Sheridan.
They had almost no support–only the things they had with them in their wagon.” The kettle was among the items that made the cut for the Brown family. “The kettle is pretty typical of the kind of thing to have come over the Trail,” says Helen Fedchak, the Oregon Historical Society’s curator of collections. “It’s on three legs and has a handle, so it would be able to sit on its own or hang over the fire. It seems a pretty good, all-purpose cooking vessel.”
Rewards for those made it
While the journey was challenging, there was a big payoff for those who made it: Because the government wanted the pioneers to help expand the young country, it promised free land. But the journey west had to be timed just right. If embarked upon too early, there would be no grass for the animals to eat–a fatal mistake. If they departed too late, the pioneers would get caught in winter snows. Spring was the best time to go. A severe Midwest depression made the Western prospects even more appealing, and the number of pioneers on the Oregon Trail soon increased exponentially. In 1843 a thousand more people made the journey. From then until the first Transcontinental Railroad’s 1869 completion, over 500,000 people traversed the trail, traveling for roughly six months in covered wagons pulled by mule and oxen.
Tragedy for the Browns
The Browns were among those who took the challenge, but it not without paying a hefty price. Overcome by illness, Lucinda’s husband died on the way, leaving her stranded en route with three children, a wagon and all her worldly goods. She was forced to bury her husband in an unmarked grave, a common practice employed by the pioneers to avoid their corpses being dug up by animals or Native Americans. Graves were dug in the middle of the trail and run over by livestock, making them difficult to find. Because of this practice, estimates of the number of deaths among those who traveled West vary wildly.
Lucinda Brown had no choice but to persevere with the journey they had embarked upon. “That tenacity and perseverance,” marvels Kohler. “Some people turned around. But everything I have learned about this family–they were not the type to turn tail.” Lucinda completed her journey, and, according to records, in 1848, she staked her claim to 640 acres of land in Benton County, Oregon. Within the next decade, pioneers claimed 2.5 million acres of West Coast farmland. The Homestead Acts that followed gave away nearly 10 percent of all U.S. land.
A connection to his heritage
Seeing and touching the kettle was an amazing moment for Kohler. “I had no clue,” Kohler says. “To learn about it was one thing, but seeing it for the first time was just incredible.” Despite its age, the kettle is still in very good shape, says Fedchak. Kohler finds its existence remarkable. “The fact that the family used that over all they experienced is just overwhelming to me,” says Kohler. Restoring the connection to his ancestors and learning their part in shaping the American story has been transformative for Kohler. “It’s like finding parents you never knew,” he says. “I had gone 57 years without knowing about them. I’m only now knowing who I am.”
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