By Roger Knowles Thompson
John Bonser was born at Bonser's Run near the confluence of the Ohio and Scioto Rivers 6 November 1803. Located near what is now Portsmouth in Scioto Co. Ohio, the homestead had been settled by John's father Isaac Bonser, a noted woodsman, explorer and hunter, who had explored the area seven years before and had been amongst the first settlers.
The land had been newly opened by the Ohio and "French" purchases and was to become one of the first settlements of importance in southern Ohio. Its strategic importance on the Ohio River and its access to central Ohio and Chillicothe via the Scioto River, made it the ideal frontier hub.
By 1803 Isaac and his family had cleared the land at "Bonser's run" and established the beginnings of a mill and a prosperous farm, which appeared to be a social center and gathering place for the frontier community. In 1808 a long remembered Fourth of July celebration at the Bonser's homestead took place to which everyone in the settlements came. John Bonser remembered in later life that there was always a still on the Bonser farm, a practice he was to continue, and the Bonsers were not shy in their hospitality. The celebration included making a cannon from a bound tree trunk and firing salutes. The corn flowed freely, as did the oratory, and the party continued for several days.
As the settlement grew, Isaac built a gristmill on a Little Scioto tributary, and it was to contribute to the family's prosperity. He was known to be fascinated with mills and built in his lifetime at least three, overshot, undershot, and one using an Archimedes screw. They all seemed to work.
Later he was to help his son John enter the new flat boat trade growing on the Ohio. Traffic started as far north as Pittsburgh and the upper reaches, and goods were transported to the growing communities along the Ohio and Mississippi as far south as New Orleans. The John Bonser family was among those constructing boats on the banks of the river and receiving goods and produce from up the Scioto, and transhipping goods received from the East. They would transport the assembled goods south on flatboats which were sometimes little more than rafts, using large sweeps and with a crew of about eight men. When the cargo had been sold, they would return north by foot or canoe. This early trade up and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers was to develop into the legendary keel boat industry with Mike Fink and others of song and story entering deeply into the American imagination. John Bonser always thought of himself as a "river man," and his skills were to be put to good use in his later life on the Columbia River.
John's mother Abigail Burt, had been raised in New Jersey and was well educated for the place and time, and John was taught to read and write. In his maturity he was known to be quick with a biblical or Shakespearean quotation and always valued education. He later was to transport a library of over 60 books to the Oregon Territory in wagons in which every ounce of weight was precious.
By the time he was 24 years old, John had cleared land of his own and built a cabin near the Scioto. He was tall, exceptionally energetic, considered good looking, and in 1827 was married to Rebecca Halstead, who he later said was the most beautiful woman he had seen. They were married across the river at Greenup Ky., and family stories say they eloped.
Rebecca had been born at Cayuga Lake NY and was from one of the families who had suffered a great deal from the Indian and British depredations in the upper NY valleys in the French and Indian wars and the American Revolution. The Ira Halstead family had moved from New York, first to Pennsylvania, and then to Scioto county before 1820, and were to become a numerous clan. Rebecca's mother was a midwife and healer, and these skills were passed to her daughter.
John farmed as was necessary to all on the early frontier, but mostly followed the river trade. His frequent absences did not seem to inhibit the family and their first child Lewis was born in 1828, followed by Stephen Decataur in 1829 and James Halstead in 1832. The young family seems to have prospered at this time, as the commerce up and down the river was growing by leaps and bounds and John came away from this period with a considerable amount of money.
John with all his drive and energy was evidently feeling the pressure of the now well settled and fast-growing community, and decided to move to the Illinois frontier. Several generations of his forbears had been on the cutting edge of westward movement, and John later said that too many neighbors were not good for a man. In addition the national panic of 1836 and 1837 had made it clear that prosperity was not guaranteed and the Scioto region was certainly affected, as many local enterprises failed, particularly those based on land speculation. To what extent the trouble affected John is not known but many from southern Ohio went to Illinois about this time.
The family settled in Pike county Illinois, west of Springfield, and a large farm was homesteaded. There Martha Jane was born in 1837, and Julia two years later. Another child Jacob was born after this time but died young. A number of Halsteads and others from the Scioto community followed, to include several of John's brothers and sisters and their families.
The Bonsers built a fine herd of cattle, based upon stock purchased from the famous Henry Clay farms in Kentucky, and he was later to remember meeting Mr. Clay there.
While the family seems to have prospered in Pike Co., by 1845 John was again restless, and stories of the Oregon country and it's great Columbia and Willamette rivers were circulating in middle Illinois. The tract by Hall J. Kelley, extolling the new opportunities to the west, appeared to be an influence, and a copy annotated in Johns hand is in possession of the author. It was rumored that congress was considering giving a whole section of land to a settler there, and the warm climate and fertile land were said to be a perfect antidote to the often-brutal midwestern winters. The trip was carefully planned to proceed in the summer of 1846 with a large party. John was to take three large Pennsylvania style wagons pulled by oxen, and another lighter rig pulled by horses. A large herd of cattle to include special breeding stock, a few sheep, spare oxen, and a herd of horses to include several racers, were planned for.
To handle the equipment and stock, a number of the more adventurous in the Bonser and Halstead family were recruited to include Hilton Bonser, John B. Ferguson, and John Shoemaker, all nephews. Several other neighbors and relatives with their families and own equipage made up the rest of the party.
An anecdotal story says that when it came time to dispose of the family's properties the deeds and other paperwork were prepared by a young lawyer from Springfield, Abraham Lincoln. While this has not been verified, the Lincoln society museum states that Lincoln did participate in law circuits in Pike Co. at about this time.
All was assembled and the caravan set out in late summer of 1846, with the plan of wintering on the banks of the Mississippi, and obtaining the earliest possible start the next spring. Rebecca was also pregnant and it was felt she should not deliver on the trail. The trip was uneventful and camp was set up at the small community of Savannah in Andrew Co. Missouri.
That winter was not a happy one however, as sickness swept the camp, and John and Rebecca's oldest son Lewis, was stricken with the "fever" and died at age seventeen. There was sickness in the camp all winter but in February Rebecca was successfully delivered of a daughter, Hannah, who was hearty and thrived on the trip to Oregon.
In early May the group proceeded to the ferry crossing near St. Joseph, where more than 100 wagons assembled at the single ferry, the final preparations were made, and on 10 May 1847 the group proceeded to the Western shore and headed into the great unknown. Within days it became apparent that the large train would need to be broken up, as the different groups, usually based on family ties, were moving at different paces. It became necessary that each group move separately to find sufficient pasturage and it was found the smaller groups would not muddy the water sources as badly. John continued as captain of a group of 28 wagons, which were to continue with little trouble. The caravan's superior wagons and fine oxen meant they were able to travel in the vanguard a little faster than many others, and they did not have to detour as often to find good pasture.
It is interesting to note that the Henderson Luelling family had joined the Bonsers in Missouri and were part of the Bonser train. Luelling's wagons were packed with fine nursery stock which was carefully tended and watered throughout the trip. Henderson Luelling started the first nursery in the Oregon territory and he is often considered the founder of the great fruit orchards of the Pacific Northwest. The Bonsers and Luellings were to be lifelong friends.
All the journals of this trip show great concern about the Indians, and they were a constant presence through most of the trip. The party lost some animals to the Indians to include a few of the horses, and John almost lost his favorite racehorse, Patriot. Seventeen year old Stephen Bonser chased the Indians raiding party on another fast horse, caught them, and as they had no guns and he did, was able to recover Patriot by trading a folding knife. The racer Patriot was later to be well known in the Oregon country. The Indians were often to approach the camp and demand gifts, which were usually given, but in 1847 the Indian thefts that were to plague later migrations were rare.
The weather favored the pioneers that summer, although the passage across the mountains with the heavy wagons was always a great strain. A miller traveling in the train had a light wagon and a weak team and was attempting to haul two weighty millstones by himself. He would manage to insinuate his wagon in front of the Bonsers at each difficult ascent and it would be necessary to assist him and his overladen rig up and over .At first the help was freely given but as it happened over and over, and there was always concern about arriving before the winter set in, the young men finally rolled one of the millstones down a hill and moved on. This was probably the miller Davis who later established his mill in Washington Co. Near Hillsboro.
John C Fremont camped with the Bonser party on his way back to Washington for his courts martial, and it is noted in all the journals, but had no particular wisdom to share. By the time they had reached the vicinity of the Whitman mission it was not found necessary to ask for help, as the group was in relatively good condition, although the Rev. Whitman did visit the camp and give advice of how to proceed. The shocking massacre of the Whitmans some months later, was to be remembered by nearly all the members of the 1847 migration, as many received help from the mission, or had contact with the missionaries.
John and Rebecca reached the Dalles on the Columbia October 23, 1847, and immediately began to build a flat boat. Prior to 1847, most of the immigrants had built crude rafts, been transported by Bateau that John McLoughlin had been able to send upriver from Ft. Vancouver, or had attempted to follow the river bank on the Indian trails, and this portion of the trip was counted as particularly trying to the immigrants. The passage was only feasible at that time by water or by passing down the banks of the Columbia River gorge. There was much rough water and the large falls at Celilo could only be portaged. By fall, the weather was beginning to deteriorate and the stock and people were badly worn. Some had lost everything and there was much sickness.
John was particularly well equipped for the task as he had brought several large two man whip saws, which were to prove invaluable. The whole group of immigrants was piling up at the riverbank and John was to share his saws with all, as did others who had them, and when he debarked left one for the use of those to come. His guidance in raft and boat building was mentioned by many. For example, the noted Peter W. Crawford said in his journal "John Bonser also an old flat boat builder, commences work building a flat boat and helps several others get boats underway."
In later life John was proud of a technique he introduced at the time, which was to be of use in carrying the rafts and flatboats over the dangerous Cascade falls and rapids.
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Copyright © 1998 by Jan Phillips
Last updated 21 August 2014.