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National Historic Oregon
Trail Interpretive Center

History Bits

With more than 11,000 emigrants crossing on the Oregon Trail before the Gold Rush, traveling could be quite congested. Along the way these pioneers, like present day Americans, had the desire to communicate and developed their own information highway.

Called the "Bone Express" by then acting Governor George Currey, this system of communication was posted conspicuously along the trail route using cloth, wood, and even human skulls. With this method westbound emigrants and "go-backs" (eastbound) could leave messages, advertisements, directions and warnings to fellow pioneers. In one instance the desire to communicate grew from love-inspired necessity. John Johnson and Jane Jones, two young pioneers who were attracted to one another but separated by their disapproving parents, developed a system of writing to each other on buffalo skulls with the code name "Laurie."

While some emigrants tampered with existing messages to insert their own opinions or humor, most remained untouched. One woman, traveling in 1852, came across penciled messages from 1849.

Native American Trade Fairs

Great intertribal meetings took place at The Dalles on the Columbia River which were important events in the lives of the Plateau Indians. In the spring, before the salmon run, the Nez Perce often journeyed down the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the rapids at Celilo Falls and The Dalles.

This was the home territory of the Wishrams, Wascos and other native peoples, and was the most important point of contact between the Coast and Plateau cultures. It was the cosmopolitan center of Northwest Indian life and the site of great month-long trade fairs.

Trading, dancing, games, gambling, ceremonial displays, and even marriages took place at these fairs. Often several thousand visiting Native Americans came to trade dried salmon meal, bison robes, and slaves from the interior for canoes, marine shells and shell beads, and fish oil from the Pacific coast. These trade goods have been found as far away as Alaska, southern California and Missouri.

The Oregon Escort

Medorem Crawford is mentioned in several of the quotes in the Interpretive Center exhibits, most from his journal of 1842 when he made the journey with Elijah White's wagon train to Oregon. Then a young man of 23, Crawford became one of Oregon's most prominent early citizens. While visiting the east in 1861, Crawford was given command of the "Oregon Escort" - a military convoy which was to accompany wagon trains across the Oregon Trail in 1862. Starting from Omaha on June 16, the company included 12 wagons each drawn by six mules, one ambulance drawn by four mules, and fifty mounted and armed men. Officers rode horses; the troops rode mules. Their ranks included a physician, as one of their duties was to provide medical assistance to emigrants, as well as providing food, mending wagons, moving baggage, and settling arguments. Upon arriving in Oregon City, the company disbanded and the equipment and animals were sold at public auction.

Medorem Crawford wrote an official report, and recommended patrols in subsequent years, to aid with maintaining the trail, and locating grass and water for wagon parties. The following two years, volunteer state units again offered patrols along the Oregon Trail, while regular army units were involved in Civil War operations.

Captain Medorem Crawford lived in Dayton, Oregon until his death in 1891. In addition to his military work, he had been a provisional and state legislator, a farmer, a state revenue collector, and a customs appraiser.