Despite the turmoil of a nation embroiled in a Civil War, the traffic of emigrants moving westward on the Oregon Trail remained high. An estimated 12,000 people made the journey westward in 1862 alone. While portions of the Oregon Trail’s wartime emigrants branched off for Denver, Utah or California, the largest portion continued on to Oregon and Washington Territory, according to Captain Medorem Crawford, who commanded Federal troops in 1862 and 1863 assigned to the role as the Emigrant Escort to Oregon and Washington Territory.
The escort was part of a small volunteer force established by Congress in 1861 to help fill the void of Federal Regular Army troops being drawn east into the theater of war. The task of the company was providing security and assistance to the emigrant wagon trains moving westward during the summer and fall seasons of 1861 through 1864. Captain Crawford previously served under Captain William Murray Maynadier in the escort in 1861. In 1862, he was given a commission as a captain and placed in command of the detachment. Crawford had been an early arrival in Oregon in 1842 by way of the Oregon Trail himself. He was a representative in Oregon’s provisional legislature in the late 1840’s and again in the State legislature after Oregon achieved statehood in 1859.
Crawford’s command consisted of fifty men, organized as a company of cavalry, trained in basic evolutions of cavalry tactics and armed with Colt pistols and breech loading rifles. They served the role of sentinels, scouts and a mounted protection force, working in cooperation with the detachment’s herders and teamsters. The escort was extremely well organized and it was claimed to be so complete and vigilant that not a single animal strayed or was stolen during the months-long journey from Omaha to Walla Walla in 1862. A primary function of the escort was to guard against “Indian predations” and maintain safety for the wagon trains. The escort typically traveled at the rear of the emigrant trains although for 1863 it was suggested that the size of the detachment be doubled in size and take a place both at the vanguard and the rear of the enormous wagon trains that spread out along the trail. Fighting Confederates was not a matter of concern for the men of the Emigrant Escort.
Ironically, conflict between these federal troops and secessionists arose from within the escort company itself.
A correspondent for the “Nebraska Republican” newspaper from Omaha, was traveling among the emigrants who began arriving at Walla Walla, Washington Territory in August 1862. He described to the town’s newspaper, the “Washington Statesman”, a situation that faced Captain Crawford with troops of questionable loyalties and how he dealt with them. Early in the westward journey, just a few days' travel west of Omaha along the Platte River, Crawford received information indicating there were elements within his command that were “unruly, did not obey orders and talked secession.” He immediately “put measures into operation to find out how matters stood” and before the end of the night found himself fully satisfied as to the veracity of the report. He determined that these soldiers ‘would make trouble for him were they allowed to proceed farther with the train” and decided to issue their discharges and dismiss the men the next day.
The following morning, after the train was put in readiness to move and the company mounted and formed, he addressed the command and told the troops what he had investigated and confirmed. He announced that the four men whose names he was going to call out were to immediately leave. They were provided with discharge papers and payment and told he never wanted to see them in camp again. Privates R.C. Foster, J. Scanland, A.F. Smith and Robert Riley were called out and dismissed. Additionally, Crawford told the men that if anyone else who sympathized with the four stepped out they would receive their discharge, as well. Two additional men, Isaac Brown and James Chipman did so, and joined the others in being removed from the escort. With the matter concluded, the train moved off and left the six men behind at the camp near Eagle Island along the Platte.
The six may not have had an easy time finding a place to reside in Nebraska after their discharge, as anti-secessionist sentiment was running high there, as well. A newspaper from Brownville, a town south of Omaha, printed a piece simply titled “A Warning,” in May of 1863. This was near the time of the incident with Captain Crawford. The “Nebraska Advertiser” had this to say:
“A Warning - Events which have recently transpired have produced among the people of this community the solemn conviction that for the sake of the peace and quiet of our county, no stranger should be allowed to settle among us unless he can produce satisfactory evidence of being a loyal man. We may as well state that it is the firm resolve of the people of this county not to allow, hereafter, any rebel sympathizer to gain residence among us. By following this course no violence will be done to anyone. It is not requiring anyone to sacrifice their property, home or business - Hundreds of Secessionists have abandoned or been banished from Missouri and settled in Nebraska. The proper palace for all such is in the land of Dixie, and the sooner they go there, the better for them and us.”
At the opposite end of the Oregon Trail, in Walla Walla, the editors of Washington Statesmen showed little sympathy for the secessionist men, either. After the paper had recounted the story of the emigrant escort, it mirrored the sentiment of the Nebraska paper, disdainfully declaring that “it served them just right” to be discharged and left behind. “Such men would look better under arms fighting for Jeff. Davis down in Dixie,” the Statesman continued, confessing the “hope that they don’t find their way over here.” The Statesman ended succinctly, “We have no use for their kind.”
Sources: -“Discharging Secessionists” The Washington Statesman, Walla Walla WA Aug 8, 1863 p.2 - “A Warning” The Nebraska Advertiser, Brownville NE May 14 1863 p.3 -Greenhill, Stephanie, “A White Man’s Empire: The United States Emigrant Escort and Settler Colonialism During the Civil War” July 28, 2020 Journal of the Civil War Era, University of North Carolina Press - Crawford, Medorem “Report on the Emigrant Road Expedition from Omaha, Nebr. Ter. to Portland, Oreg., June 16-October 30, 1862 Official Records of the War of the Rebellion Series I Volume 50, p.155
Medorem Crawford (left) and his brother Leroy Crawford (right). This image was taken in 1864, after Medorem had resigned from the Emigrant Escort after 3 years. Leroy is still in uniform.
Image: Oregon Historical Society
Painting of wagon train on the Oregon Trail
The Old Oregon Trail from a 1907 book by early Washington pioneer Ezra Meeker.