Biography of William Chapman

WILLIAM CHAPMAN. – The immigration of 1847 was large, and without accident, with the exception of those unfortunate members of it who remained at Doctor Whitman’s until the massacre. Mr. Chapman belonged to the arrivals of that year, and was closely connected with the sufferers of savage fury.

He was born in Schuyler county, New York, in 1824, moving to the West in 1843. In 1847 he left Havana, New York, in company with John and Ronald Crawford, traveling with them to Independence, where they separated. There he joined John Wright, traveling with him to the Kaw river, where they joined the company of John Bewley. The train was delayed by high water on the Kansas; and it was the third of June before the company was well under way, – the latest of the season. However, they overtook the Oskaloosa train, with seventy-five wagons, under Captain Smith, and with their own twenty-five made a respectable cavalcade.

Some distance out they met with a singular adventure, which will sound like a mythical tale to the future generations. Camp had been made just at sunset, when one of those innumerable herds of buffalo, which once thundered over the plains, began to cross on their front. Fearful that the host of moving animals would overwhelm the camp, they set a strong guard, which also surrounded the cattle, lest they should be drawn off in the press. The buffalo herds were all night in passing; and the guards were compelled at times to give back. In the morning it was found that forty yoke of oxen had been swept away. This disabled a part of the train. Some, undaunted, put cows in the place of the missing oxen. One who had lost all followed the buffalo herd many miles, hoping that his animals had tired and dropped behind; but he did not find a solitary hoof. In this dilemma, those who had animals divided with those who had not; so that none were compelled to return.

One of the pleasantest men whom they met on the plains was Vasca, near Laramie, a mountain man of forty years standing and partner of Bridger. He used to shoot game, and say casually, “When you get to so and so, look about so far from the road and you will find an antelope.” Though virtually supplying the train with meat, he took no pay whatever.

Arriving at the Umatilla, a détour was made for provisions to Doctor Whitman’s; and Miss Esther Bewley and her brother Crockett remained there, the former being sick, and the Doctor desiring her to teach in the Mission school as soon as she should recover. Mr. Chapman came on to the Willamette, effecting the journey from The Dalles by a canoe to Switzer’s landing, whence he walked to Oregon City, meeting with favors on the way from J.M. Stevens. For his first work at the city, he was paid in an order upon Abernethy & Co., but upon presenting this at the store found that they had nothing in stock except salt, flints and whetstones. Being unable to make use of these commodities, he gave his order to a friend Wallace, and proceeded up the valley. At Salem he met John Courtney, one of those good-hearted men so abundant in Oregon long ago, who told him that he had plenty of flour in his cabin by the Calapooia, and that deer were abundant, and that he had better bring his rifle and stop with him over winter. Chapman, being in somewhat straightened circumstances, accepted the invitation, but was not long suffered to remain there. Another use was need for his rifle. The Whitman massacre had taken place; and he was called away to fight the Indians.

From East Portland, in Captain Maxon’s company, under Colonel Gilliam, he went to The Dalles and participated in the campaign on the Des Chutes. Before going to Umatilla, the Colonel found it necessary to clear the infected region between. Proceeding up the east bank of the Des Chutes river, the troops met and drove the Indians before them, but found them in force once more at the next crossing. To pass the river, it was necessary to move on a narrow ledge exposed the entire distance to the fire of the savages. A flank movement was therefore made, a storming party taking the Indians from behind and dislodging them. Craig, the guide, who with every seventh man had stayed behind with the horses, had a fat cayuse pony killed and roasted for the boys on their return; and the chase was resumed the next day, the Indians finally being scattered in the mountains. Coming back to The Dalles, from whence they had been away for four days, they found supplies, and went on up the Columbia, making camp at the Wells Springs.

Striking out at this point for Whitman Station, they had passed no more than a dozen miles on the plateau before they found themselves surrounded by a large number of savages in their war paint. A line of battle was formed, and the Indians driven from their stand. This was a sharp but desultory fight, lasting from morning until night. Eleven of the Whites were wounded, and a number of the Cayuse Indians slain, the head chief, War Eagle, the great medicine man, being among the number. His body lay all day on the field. The Indians fell back and left their horses, and were skulking in the sage-brush. The Whites followed the same tactics; and there was a random, irregular fire, every man shooting wherever he saw an enemy, and often popping away into empty bunches of sage. No order of battle was preserved; and frequently one from either side found himself alone in the midst of enemies. As night came on, the warriors on both sides crept back to their camps. and Craig, who had been living with the Nez Perce, crept through the lines to their camp. These Indians, who were on the ground, were neutral, or, if anything, favorable to the Whites. Craig found his brother-in-law, an Indian chief, and arranging a truce, made an agreement with the Nez Perces to proceed to Whitman Station. The march was thenceforth in company with these Indians, who went side by side as escort. On the Umatilla the two parties camped near each other; but before the Whites arose in the morning the Nez Perces had disappeared.

Turning off now to Fort Walla Walla for supplies, the Americans found McBean, who was in charge unwilling to furnish ammunition. Colonel Gilliam assured him that he had but little powder and shot left, but what little he had might be used in order to get more. McBean then answered; “here am I, and there is the door to the magazine. You can help yourselves; that is all that I can do for you.” Helping themselves accordingly, the volunteers set out for Whitman Station. They halted there for three weeks, while the peace commissioners were arranging for the surrender of the murderers, and while some of the Indians were busy running off their horses. The final pursuit of the Cayuses to Idaho belongs rather to the main history, to which we refer the reader.

Returning to the Willamette valley, Mr. Chapman found employment on Howell’s Prairie with old Mr. Simmons; and, with the wheat he thus secured as pay for his labor, he purchased an outfit to go to California to the gold gulches. Returning by water in 1849, he was married to Miss Esther Bewley, and in 1852 went to Yamhill county, taking up his Donation claim near Sheridan, where he has since remained, and has made of it one of those remarkably good farms of old Yamhill with crops that never fail. During the last three years his sons have had the management of the place.



History of the Pacific Northwest Oregon and Washington. 2 v. Portland, Oregon: North Pacific History Company. 1889.

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