The Oregon Trail's Three Mile Island Crossing Relived
Generations of explorers and pioneers contributed to shaping the West we know today. Trappers and traders followed in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark. The next wave to head west were the emigrants, thousands of them traveled the Oregon Trail, searching for opportunities in a new land. Each spring from 1842 until the 1860s scores of immigrants left Independence, Missouri, in covered wagons. For months they traveled over dusty, God forsaken desert trails.
At Fort Hall in what is now Idaho the trail joined the Snake River. The emigrants would stay on the south side of the river for hundreds of miles until finally in August they arrived at the Three Island Crossing. Here the pioneers had a difficult decision to make…to continue along the dusty trail or to cross the river where the journey was shorter and food and water more abundant. For some the Oregon Trail's most difficult river crossing was a matter of life or death.
About half of the emigrants chose to attempt the crossing by using the gravel bars and islands that are in the river. But not all made it safely. Pioneer diaries record many casualties among those who tried to cross the waters of the Snake.
Fast forward a century and a half, covered wagons are again gathered near the Snake River preparing for the treacherous crossing. For nearly 20 years on the second Saturday of each August local residents of Glenns Ferry and surrounding communities, volunteers and Native Americans from the Shoshone-Paiute tribe have staged an annual reenactment of the Three-Island Crossing to honor their ancestors.
The areas designation as a state park and the new visitor's center also helps keep the history alive, but it's the actual reenactment that leaves a vivid impression in the minds of the hundreds of onlookers who turn out each August. Eighty-year old Roy Allen has participated in all but two of the re-enactments. But even to old timers like Roy, the Three Island crossing is tricky business.
"My grandpa was drowned in a river up in eastern Idaho in a wagon," says Roy. "He was crossing the river and drowned. My family has been in this kind of thing all of our lives. I've trained several horses to do it. Some horses can swim and some can't; and you want to know if they can swim before you get them out in the water. It's a little bit exhilarating when you know you're coming into the swimming water, pretty quick you feel your old horse start swimming instead of walking, you hope he can swim good."
So far, no one has died in these re-enactments. You can't say the same about the horses. The river has an underground current, called "the chute." It's fast moving water. If you hit the chute, the horses will likely drown.
In the summer of 2004, Dale Jeffrey served as the wagon master:
"This year, well, I can really relate to the pioneers because of the loss of a wonderful team of horses in the river. They were my friends and that's what happened here a lot of the time in the past years — people lost their friends and their stock and their belongings. The river's a strong and powerful thing and it's not always as friendly as it should be. It wasn't friendly to the pioneers and sometimes it's not friendly to us."
For the spectators who line the banks of the river, the scene of horses and wagons floating across a deep, wide river is more real than any history book could ever be. Both sets of Julie Blackwell's great grandparents made the crossing and her participation is a way to honor them:
"The adrenaline is pumping really hard, and when we're actually crossing it's just concentrating on getting across. When we make it across it's such jubilation. You know, when you think about your heritage and your ancestors, how they must've felt; and you thank God that you've made it and everybody's safe."
Wagon Master Dale Jeffrey sums up the feelings of many of those who participate:
"Nowadays, everybody wants to buy insurance for everything and live a perfect life that is safe from risk and harm. We value the honor to do this and the choice to do this, and the choice of our ancestors to come here. We believe in that kind of spirit."