Things were tough in Tennessee in the middle of the 19th century. The land was poor and of little value in growing a crop that a man could sell. The timber was good but most of it had been cut to build barges to take goods to New Orleans and the wood from the barges was used to build more ocean ships. To make matters even worse, they had very little rain in the last two years. The rivers and creeks were running low and the lakes and ponds had almost dried up. There was barely enough water in the ponds to keep the livestock watered. Many of the Curran’s neighbors had already left. Some had decided to go to the Oregon territory by wagon train. Abner and Molly talked about the situation and what they should do. Should they go West like some of their friends or should they stick it out and hope things would get better. Molly had family in Michigan and they could go there but that situation would only be short term. The Currans had two little boys. They were seven and eight. Could children that young survive such a long and arduous trip? Should they take the chance of the children not being able to survive the trip? They were having a difficult time making the decision. As sometimes happens, circumstances helped them to make the decision.
While they were trying to decide, two factors happened almost simultaneously that made the decision easy. Abner was in the village purchasing some supplies for the farm when he learned that one of the families that he knew had decided against taking the wagon train. They had already built a covered wagon for the trip. A covered wagon has little use unless you are taking a wagon train. They offered to sell the wagon at a very good price. While Abner was in the village a man had come by the farm and made Molly an offer to buy the farm. It was not a great price he was willing to pay but it was better than the Currans thought they could get considering the circumstances.
That same day the decision was made. They got their money for the farm in a short time and bought the covered wagon. They already had four draft horses and one riding horse. They would have to buy supplies for the trip but the money left from the sale of the farm would give them the money they would need to live and buy supplies on the trip. The boys, Randolph and Rudolf, were excited about the adventure of moving to a new place and taking a long trip to get there. Abner and Molly packed the wagon with what they absolutely had to have and left the rest of their belongings behind. It was a short trip to Memphis where they caught a barge that would take them all the way to St. Joseph. Wagon trains were leaving St. Joseph about every week to take the Oregon Trail and they were assured that they would have no trouble joining a train.
Molly was unaware that she had artistic ability. She had bought a few art supplies a few years before but had never used them. For some reason she packed them in the wagon for the trip. Travelling by barge is a very slow and easy way of travel. Abner was able to pay for part of the trip by helping the barge men where he could. The boys were very good at fishing and spent most of the day at that endeavor. They caught a lot of fish and the barge owner bought the fish for feeding his workers. Molly had nothing to do. She was rummaging in the wagon for her sewing kit to repair the boy’s clothes when she happened on the art supplies. She pulled them out and started to do some water colors of the scenes she was witnessing. She was a natural and she was also prolific. The workers on the barge were fascinated with the art they were seeing produced before their eyes. One of the men was so taken with one of the scenes that he purchased the painting.
When the barge stopped at various ports, Molly would exhibit her paintings from the river and offer them for sale. It was seldom that they stopped that she didn’t sell one or two paintings. The good part was that Molly was thoroughly enjoying the painting. It released a latent talent that she was unaware that she had. As things turned out, the Currans made money on the barge trip and had more money when they got to St. Joseph than when they left home.
They arrived in St. Joseph and were pleased to find a wagon train they could join. The train was leaving in two weeks. This would give them the time to restock their wagon. It was also a good time for Molly to buy more art supplies. She bought enough to last for the entire trip to Oregon. The store where she bought the supplies also sold paintings. Molly showed him the three that she had left from the ones she painted on the barge. The owner of the store was very impressed with this new talent and offered to buy all three paintings at a very good price. He paid her enough for the paintings to pay for all the supplies that she needed and had some left for new clothes for the boys and Abner. She also bought some sturdy clothes that she thought she would need. Her clothing would not survive such a tough trip.
It was late March when they would be leaving civilization. The day arrived when they would leave on the trail. All of the wagons had been moved across the river on a ferry. There would be twenty-six wagons on the train. The night before they left they had a big party and dinner so everyone could meet all the other people. Abner and Molly were pleased that there was a family they knew from Tennessee. They did not know them well but they thought they were nice. The wagon master came to talk with all of the families. He introduced the scouts that would be riding ahead of the train to look for problems and see if the problems could be avoided. The wagon master was Joseph Snyder. He preferred that people call him Joe. He told everyone what he expected from them. He explained that the wagon master made all decisions and by agreeing to take the trip they would obey his commands. Everyone was well aware of this. Some people were not overly pleased but they agreed. The two families that did not agree weren’t on the train. A wagon train could be destroyed by internal dissension. They needed each other to survive the trip. He would be insisting that they move at a fast pace as they needed to complete the journey in six months.
The train left the river and headed northwest. Joe preferred the route along the Platte River until they reached the Rocky Mountains and could head northwest again. The route would take them to Fort Kearney. Joe was very friendly with the commander of Fort Kearney and he would be able to learn if there was hostile activity on their route. It took three weeks to reach the fort. The Colonel informed Joe that there had been some reports of hostilities and offered to send a patrol with the train as far as North Platte. Everyone on the train was grateful for the safety the patrol offered. They reached North Platte with one incident that caused a great deal of concern to the travelers. One family’s three year old boy had wandered off into the prairie and was lost. The Army patrol fanned out and started searching. All of the men of the train mounted up and started searching. The boy was found early in the afternoon and he was well. The incident taught all of the people a valuable lesson. They needed to have a constant watch on their children. If the army patrol had not been present the boy may not have been found.
The wagon train reached North Platte. Joe had planned on spending two days in the town but now they needed to make up the time they had lost looking for the boy. All of the people restocked their supplies. Joe explained that supplies would be scarce from this point until they reached Portland. The day of rest happened to be a Sunday so the majority of the people attended a church service in North Platte. The people of North Platte were used to the wagon trains and were very welcoming of the people.
Monday morning the wagon train left North Platte and headed northwest towards Fort Laramie. This part of the trip would take about three weeks. The train had now been on the trail for six weeks and the travelling was beginning to wear every one down. The Curran family was doing well but they were tired like everyone. The two boys were having a great time. They chased rabbits and threw rocks at quail. They had a wonderful time in a prairie dog town trying to catch a prairie dog before it could duck into its hole. Molly was teaching the boys to read and to write and to be able to work with sums. The boys did not want to learn but Molly was adamant that they spend two hours of every day studying and learning. Abner backed her up and would not tolerate the boys missing the teaching.
Molly continued to paint. Every time they stopped she got out her art things and captured what she was looking at. She had completed six paintings by the time they arrived in North Platte. She had given one to the colonel at Fort Kearney. She showed them to the general store owner in North Platte and he bought all of them to sell to his customers. All of the people on the wagon train came to Molly and asked her to paint a particularly pretty scene for them. Molly tried to accommodate as many of the people as she could.
They arrived in Fort Laramie and were greeted warmly by the soldiers manning the fort. The soldiers saw new travelers about every other week and were always pleased to see the new people. Life is lonely when stationed at a frontier fort and anything that breaks the monotony is welcome. Joe called another day of rest at the fort and the soldiers arranged a big party for the people on the train. There was lots of food, some alcohol for the men, and dancing with the post musicians playing the music. The ladies of the party allowed each soldier one dance each. Everyone had a good time.
The next day they left for Oregon. This would be the longest stretch of the trip without a military post. They would be passing through or close to some towns but they were all small and did not have much in the way of supplies. They would take South Pass over the Rocky Mountains. Joe had been this way many times and warned the people that this would be the most difficult part of the trip. When they got to the pass they would stop for three days so the horses pulling the wagons would be able to rest and get plenty of food and water. You could not get over the pass with tired horses. They arrived at the foot of the pass and Joe called a halt. They circled the wagons as usual and unhitched the horses. They herded the horses into a box canyon that had plenty of feed and water. The box canyon would keep the animals where they couldn’t run off. Each man was assigned a four hour shift to watch the entrance to the canyon. There were four men per shift and they watched the entrance for 24 hours per day.
Molly used this as an opportunity to paint. The mountains were awesome and filled her with inspiration for her painting. She completed six paintings during the two days below the pass. The people that saw them thought they were the best she had done. Others that were struck by the beauty of the place wanted to buy one of the paintings but Molly refused to sell them. She wanted them for her new home in Oregon.
Early in the morning the wagon train started up the pass. Joe insisted that they leave before dawn so that no wagon would be caught on the pass when night fell. Joe was right in warning them. The trip over the pass was brutal. The horses were working very hard and the people were staying out of the wagons to lighten the load for the horses. Only the very young children could ride. By the time they reached the top of the pass it was past noon. Joe assured them that the trip down would be easier but trickier. You couldn’t let the wagons go to fast or they would get away and start free-wheeling down the mountain. The horses would not be able to stop the wagon and, most likely, the horses would be killed. Everyone rode on the way down. The wagon drivers had to keep the brake on for the entire trip. Just as the sun was going down the last wagon came to the flat area at the bottom of the pass. That last wagon was driven by Abner Curran.
They were assured by Joe that they were now half the way to Portland. They had been travelling for three months. They had seen some marvelous things and had some joyous times. The work was difficult but rewarding. The next stop would be Fort Hall and then Fort Boise. Joe kept pushing them to hurry. This was not a good time to slow down. The winter was coming and it was already mid-July and they had three months of hard travel ahead.
Joe had proven to be an excellent wagon master. He kept a very close watch on the horses and could sense when the horses had to rest and he made certain that they got rest. Without horses the wagon train would be in trouble. Joe was not as concerned about the people. They were not working as hard as the horses and the people knew when they had to rest and could climb into a wagon to sleep. The horses did not have that option. At Fort Boise, Joe made a deal with a horse trader to replace some of the horses that Joe sensed would not be able to make it all the way to Portland. The horses would be fine with a few weeks of rest and eating to fatten up.
In early September the wagon train crossed into the Oregon Territory. They were now six weeks from the end of the journey. They joined the Columbia River at Whitman’s Mission. Everyone was excited. The land was green and growing and beautiful. They reached the town of Pendleton on the third day of October. Abner and Molly loved this area and decided that they did not need to go further. They inquired about land for farming and found that the government had land for sale that they could afford. It was beautiful and they were very happy they had left Tennessee for this paradise.
Their land was a two hour ride from Pendleton. It had everything that the family had hoped to have. There was a small spring that fed into a lake so they would have clean drinking water. There were trees that were tall and straight for building a house. There was fertile land for growing a crop. Abner and Molly had brought apple tree cuttings with them and they had been diligent about keeping the cuttings moist and viable. They had enough cuttings for a fairly large orchard. Abner could grow corn and beans and vegetables. There was a nice pasture where they could raise cattle.
They went into Pendleton to buy what they would need to get the family settled but found they did not have quite enough money to get all that they needed. Fortunately, Molly had brought along twenty-two paintings that she still had from the trip. She set them on the sidewalk to offer them for sale. The man that owned the largest store in town saw the paintings and bought every one of them. He also told Molly that he would buy twenty paintings a month if she wanted to paint them. The store owner had a brother in Portland that owned an art gallery and he knew that his brother could sell them at a nice profit.
Now they had enough money to get everything they needed and still have some money left. Molly’s fame as an artist was growing. The paintings that she had sold on the journey were now being sold for two and three times what the original owner had paid for them. The gallery owner in Portland made a special trip to Pendleton with a wagon load of art supplies. Molly had only been painting water colors because that was the supplies she had. The gallery owner brought oil paints and canvas and an easel and a palette and a variety of brushes for Molly. The gallery owner repeated his brother’s offer of buying twenty paintings a month and he would pay twice as much for oil paintings. Abner and Molly were excited about the possibilities that this offered. Abner made a special room for Molly to paint. It would be shielded from the dirt and debris that is associated with a farm. Molly devoted four hours per day to painting. She also did her other chores and made certain the boys did their school work. They were now attending a local school about a mile from their home.
The gallery owner paid another trip to the farm. He told Molly that he was getting offers for more paintings at an even higher price. He told Abner and Molly that he would be paying her three times as much for the art she sent him. The increased income took all of the pressure off of the family and they were now enjoying life.