A River Crossing on a Perilous Journey

“The heart has a thousand misgivings, and the mind is tortured with anxiety, and often as I passed the fresh made graves I have glanced at the side boards of the wagons, not knowing how soon it would serve as a coffin for some of us.”

Lucy R. Cooke, emigrant on the Oregon Trail in 1852
The sign at the Louis Vieux River Crossing.

It’s 1859. May, you think. Or is it June already? You ask Frankie, but like you, he’s lost count of how many days it’s been. You can only keep track of time by which meal you ate last – and more importantly – by which one comes next. You’ve sat in this rickety wagon the whole time, often hearing nothing but its creaking joints hour after monotonous hour as you watch the seemingly unchanging prairie slowly roll by.

The dust is everywhere; in your hair, on your clothes, and in your food. It covers everything. As you near the umpteenth river on this journey, you realize its in your mouth, too, and are ready for a cool sip of water. You wipe your eyes and see a line of wagons waiting their turn to cross, surrounded by tents put up by those who’ve decided to wait until tomorrow. Then you see several headstones. “Cholera cemetery,” somebody says, reminding you of that constant evil that has taken two of the original fourteen in your party, which started out from Ohio.

Your party’s captain, Joe Higgins, rides up on his horse, telling each wagon to form up a little ways down the river. “We’ll cross in the morning,” he says, heading to the next wagon.

After setting up the temporary camp, you wander over to where men are lowering a wagon onto the raft to cross to the other side. Four people hold on tightly to the wagon and to each other: a man, a woman, and two wide-eyed girls who let out little shrieks every time the wagon drops slightly. A driver is bellowing out commands to get six oxen across an only-slightly-less-steep part of the bank.

You learn the ferry owner’s name is Louis Vieux, a man who’s part Potawatomi and – judging by his last name – French. You find out it’s $1 per wagon to cross, which you’ll gladly pay since it’s better than driving for miles down the river to find a better place to cross. You have many miles to go, and don’t need to add any more.

The sun is giving the last red rays of light, so you go back to your bed, wait for supper, and dream about that faraway green land called “Oregon”, hoping its everything you’ve imagined.

* * * * *

“What a time to be alive!”

I bet that’s been said one way or another by someone in every generation that has ever lived. I would also wager that, sometimes, it’s said in sarcasm when referring to one’s own time.

It’s easy to look back on history with rose-tinted glasses and imagine how much better it would have been (I’m especially guilty of it). It’s always exciting! Exhilarating! Adventurous! Thinking about the pioneers moving across the open frontier to new and better places sounds so romantic. Yet, when you read about what the people actually went through, it makes the 21st century not sound so bad. Cholera, dehydration, attacks, dysentery, starvation, smallpox, and all kinds of accidental deaths. These were hard people that endured hard times in search of a better life. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 10 people who set out on the Oregon Trail never made it. Ironically, all this sounds very similar to what their ancestors did when coming across the Atlantic.

Yet, they were people just like you and me. They got bored, tired, hungry, and sick; and still kept going. It’s hard to put ourselves in their shoes, to feel everything they did and know everything they went through; and it’s easy to forget they were people just like us. It’s extraordinary to think about, really.

However, despite the dangers that this 2,000-mile journey presented, there was a quote from a sign at Vieux’s Crossing that I appreciated a lot:

“Still, the journey wasn’t all bad—there were marriage, birthday, and holiday celebrations along the way, and it was always a big day when a major landmark came into view for the first time.”

I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind, particularly in 2020: that even through difficulties and trying times, there are bright spots that keep us going.

* * * * *

Now a little about the history of this place, and about our visit.

As hundreds of thousands of people headed west on the Oregon Trail, they had to cross countless waterways. Louis Vieux’s crossing was on the Vermillion River near present-day Louisville, Kansas (which was named after him). The banks of the Vermillion were so steep that wagons had to be lowered down by ropes, floated across, then pulled back up on the other side with ropes. As you can imagine, this was a time-consuming process, which meant people sometimes camped out waiting for their turn to cross, or while waiting for the remainder of their party to come across.

The site had been used as a crossing by explorers and settlers decades before Louis Vieux began his operation, with Kit Carson and John C. Frémont crossing in 1842 and the Donner Party in 1846. In 1857, Mr. Vieux and his family moved to the east bank of the Vermillion River and began their toll bridge. They also sold grain, hay, and supplies to the pioneers, and bought supplies to ship back east when travelers realized they had brought too much. In 1859, the stagecoach to Denver began crossing here, and a stable was built on the Vieux homestead. Mr. Vieux charged $1 per wagon to cross, and during the busy season of each year, he could make as much as $300 per day. That’s more than I make now!

With the establishment of Fort Riley in 1853, the crossing also served soldiers and supply wagons moving back and forth between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. This route became known as the Military Road, and split from the Oregon Trail just west of Vieux’s Crossing. These soldiers would go on to protect the migrants on the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails.

In 1872, Louis Vieux died at the age of 62. Use of the ferry was already in decline as use of the Oregon Trail was also in decline due to the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which provided a faster and cheaper way to travel west.

There are three sites to visit when visiting this historical site. First, when coming from the east on the aptly-named Oregon Trail Road (just a few miles north of U.S. 24 in Wamego), there is the Vieux Family Cemetery, the Kansas Historical Marker sign, and an interesting entrance made by an old wrought iron bridge. Here, Louis Vieux is buried beside his first wife Sha-Note (Catherine), and his second wife, Mary, along with other members of the Vieux family. The second site is the National Historic Oregon Trail Cholera Cemetery, which is a short walk from the road, and sits on the east bank of the Vermillion. There are three headstones here, with only one having its chiseled words still visible: that of Thomas Stephen Prather, who died on May 27, 1849. It is believed that as many as 50 people are buried here. The third site is on the other side of the river, where there are headstones for seven unknown soldiers who died along the Military Trail. There are also signs with more information about the Military Road and the crossing.

It’s fascinating to imagine all the people that stood on these banks, full of dreams and aspirations. People ready to risk it all to find gold in California or to start a new life out west. Many of them did achieve what they sought out to, and many more did not. Some made it no further than this crossing, their friends and family moving on, knowing they would never come back to their loved ones’ graves. It’s a sobering thought, and one that shows the perils of living life fully.

Through it all, Louis Vieux and his family served thousands of people at this crossing on the Vermillion. He fed them, sold them supplies, got them across the river, and, I like to think, gave them a little cheer on their rough journey into the unknown. Mr. Vieux made a life for himself by helping others trying to make lives for themselves. That’s something to think about, and something worth remembering.

Thank you very much for reading!

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