The following is Chapter Six of my story about a pair of free black siblings making the journey to California in 1849:
Chapter Six - Gateway to the West
April 4, 1849
St. Louis. Finally! I have never felt so relieved to leave the floating death trap that was the ALBERT P. SIMPSON. Four more passengers keeled over before we finally berthed at St. Louis' levee. I wondered why the city officials did not put the SIMPSON's passengers under quarintine before we could disembark.
"Why bother?" Alice had replied. According to her, half of St. Louis' citizens have already keeled over from cholera since last December. She felt it would be a miracle if we manage to depart St. Louis . . . alive. Ever since leaving Cleveland, I have detected an increasing sharpness in my dear sister's tongue. Am I now facing the real Alice Fleming? I hope not.
The city's citizens have developed their own cure for the deadly disease - cholera masks. A person could perchase one for ten dollars. Alice says that I should not even bother. She claims that cholera came from bad food and milk, and not the air. Naturally, I could not take the word of a nineteen year-old girl from a well-to-do family over any respectable doctor. So I went ahead and purchased two masks. Alice refused to wear hers.
St. Louis struck me as a grander city than Cinncinati. I was informed by a deckhand on the SIMPSON that it was the biggest city west of Pittsburg. However, Cleveland seemed a lot cleaner. The river traffic that docked near the levee seemed twice the amount we had encountered in Cinncinati. Just above the levee stood an elegant white building with an olive green, dome-shaped roof.
The mass of humanity that we had first encountered in Cinncinati seemed twice as big, here in St. Louis, only with added touches - red-skinned Indians, trappers, blue-coated Army officers and soldiers, and olive-skinned Mexicans. I gather that the latter were among those who drove the freight wagons along the Santa Fe Trail. And naturally there were slaves. After all, Missouri happened to be a slave state. Mind you, they were not the occasional fugitive slaves captured by bounty hunters. They were black men, women and children shackled together in long coffles and hearded into Lynch's, the city's slave pen on Market Street. What sad-eyed, ragged creatures they were! The expressions on their faces seemed to indicate resignation to their fate.
Alice suggested that we purchase more supplies for our trip west. I told her there was no need. We will have plenty of opportunities for that in Independence. "But the merchants there will charge the earth!" she insisted. Alice had learned this bit of news from an old fur trapper she had met aboard the ALBERT P. SIMPSON. When did she find the time to become aquainted with some trapper without my knowledge? This soothsayer of the Plains had recommended we travel to Independence by land, instead of a Missouri River steamboat. Alice added that it would be cheaper and we would not arrive at the jump-off point too soon.
"The perfect time for a wagon train to depart from Independence is early May," she added. Leaving Independence before that period of time meant the possibility of being snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas. She also suggested that I trade the horses for mules or oxen. Horses were unsuited for pulling wagons over a long distance. And we should travel light as possible. "He also suggested that we never take short cuts."
Feeling slightly intimidated by my sister's surprising knowledge of traveling across the plains, I replied sardonically, "Anything else?"
Alice had nothing further to say. Thank goodness. I wish to God that mountain man had minded his own business. However, a voice at the back in my head whispered that I should heed the advice.
April 6, 1849
We spent two days in St. Louis, outfitting for our journey. We purchased lynch pins, rope, chains, barrels, flour, bacon, cornmeal, beans, dried apples, coffee and other equipment. And as Alice had suggested, I traded my team of horses for mules. It saddened me to bade farewell to those wonderful animals. They had accompanied us from Cleveland and I will miss them.
During our two-day shopping spree, our wagon joined three others to form a small camp not far from Jefferson Barracks - an Army outpost southwest of the city. Among our new companions were a middle-aged couple from Kentucky named Robbins. Alice managed to form a surprisingly quick friendship with Mrs. Robbins, a habitual gossip. We also became aquainted with two families from Pennsylvania on their way to Oregon. And lo and behold, the old trapper who had made Alice's acquaintance on the ALBERT P. SIMPSON had joined our little company. His name was Lyman James and he did not look as old as I had imagined. At least somewhere between fifty and sixty years old. Like the Robbinses, Alice and myself, he was bound for California. Only he chose not to travel by wagon . . . just his horse and a pack mule.
We spent our last night around a campfire, listening to Mr. James' recollections of his years as a mountain man. A night of tales about rendevouses, near escapes, Indian war parties and the Western landscape brought back memories of Mr. Whitman. I asked Mr. James if he ever knew my former benefactor.
"Ephraim Whitman?" he asked. A wistful expression appeared on his face. "By God! I haven't heard that name in years! One of the best trappers I have ever known. And a good friend. He taught me and Joe Wright all about the fur trade. Heard he had settled somewhere in Ohio."
I told him that Mr. Whitman had ended up in Cleveland. I also informed him about my benefactor's death, last month. The former trapper seemed to age within seconds. "Poor old Ephraim," he muttered. "At least he had lived a good life." It was the best ephitat anyone could have given Mr. Whitman.
End of Chapter Six