PULLMAN, Wash.— Levi Scott and his friend James Layton Collins completed the original manuscript for Wagons to the Willamette: Captain Levi Scott and the Southern Route to Oregon, 1844 –1847 in 1889. It is the only first-hand account written by someone who not only searched for the alternate route but also accompanied its first wagon train. Traced to Alaska and rescued from a Sitka shed in the 1990s, the memoir finally reached its editor, Stafford J. Hazelett, in 2008.
Existing Applegate Trail narrative has been dominated by a single family’s perspective, even though they didn’t travel to Oregon in 1846 or take that route. Hazelett quickly saw that Scott’s reminiscence challenged some of those prevailing viewpoints—for example, blaming the emigrants for the difficulties they suffered. Seeking evidence to corroborate or contradict the controversial aspects of trail lore, he searched hundreds of primary sources and has incorporated what he found into extensive annotations.
Hazelett, a lifelong Oregon resident who holds a B.A. in English literature from Willamette University and a J.D. from Lewis & Clark Law School, retired from active law practice and now devotes his time to studying the people and locations of the old Oregon Trail, and particularly the Southern Route, a section also known as the Applegate Trail. His own ancestors took it to Oregon in 1846, and one of their letters home reported “an excellent man” who brought them safely through “the depredations of Indians, wild beasts, and starvation.” In an exhilarating twist, their guide turned out to be Levi Scott.
Scott describes an arduous overland journey before he and his youngest surviving son arrived in Oregon City in November 1844. At that time, emigrants who reached The Dalles and wished to continue to the Willamette Valley were forced to embark on a perilous raft trip and portage down the Columbia River. Answering the plea of settlers and the provisional government, Scott participated in two expeditions seeking a better, safer way through the Cascades. The first was unsuccessful but the second, organized by Jesse Applegate in June 1846, yielded the Southern Route. It crossed more rivers and mountains and was three hundred miles longer than the Oregon Trail route, with no work on a road even started. Still, Applegate recruited one hundred families to follow him to Oregon, and then left them with Scott, who trusted others to forge ahead and clear the way. Scott details a harrowing trip with stories of mirages and a heroic mother, as well as locating and creating a wagon trail through deserts, timbered mountains, and steep canyons.
In 1847, Scott led a much smaller wagon train over the Southern Route, then retraced it eastbound in 1849 as a guide for resupply of the Mounted Rifle Regiment. He faced narrow escapes and witnessed several deadly encounters with Native Americans. Later he ran cattle, founded Scottsburg, and was elected to Oregon’s territorial legislature and constitutional convention.