Traveling back in time
Starla Sprague stood in the Guernsey Ruts in eastern Wyoming, where thousands of pioneers, their livestock and wagons and had passed in the mid-1800s on their way to a better life in Oregon.
"The ruts were 3 and 4 feet deep, and when I stepped in them, a tingle went from my feet up to my knees," she recalls. "I looked back to the east and could not believe how hard the trip must have been. I looked to the west and knew how much farther they had to go on to Oregon."
Her great-great-great-grandparents had walked the same trail.
She stood there, in awe for all the hardships they went through.
"I don't think they knew what they had to go through when they crossed the Continental Divide and then on to Oregon," says Starla, who has lived in Prineville for 12 years.
But her ancestors, the Killin family, had survived the trek to Oregon along the Oregon Trail, settling in Linn County, where eventually Starla was born and raised.
It was about mid-2016 when Starla took a look at her "bucket list" and realized it was empty.
She asked herself what she would like to do before she got too old to do it.
Starla and her husband, Larry, have traveled extensively over the years, mostly due to his line of work in the timber manufacturing industry. She retired from her daycare business and was ready to add a few more states to her list.
She wondered if it would be possible to drive to Independence, Missouri, and follow the Oregon Trail back to Oregon.
"I'm a fifth generation Oregonian — a direct descendant of the Oregon Trail Wagon Train," Starla points out, noting that her daughter is a sixth-generation Oregonian and her grandson a seventh-generation native.
Her great-great-great-grandparents, John and Frances (Ulm) Killin, had traveled to Oregon on a wagon train in the early 1840s. Their son, Andrew Jackson Killin, was born in Linn County in 1846.
Starla proposed the travel idea to Larry, who quickly agreed to the adventure. Their rescue dog, Ginger, also preferred the road trip to being in a kennel for three weeks.
So, the threesome set out, leaving Prineville on Sept. 13, 2017, just over a year ago, traveling in their pickup and tent trailer.
They stayed near Mountain Home, Idaho, the first night, then on to Jackson, Wyoming. They drove through Yellowstone, where they saw wild animals, waterfalls and geysers.
They spent their third night in Cody, Wyoming, and visited the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, learning about Bill Cody and his 1880s traveling Wild West show and Native Americans.
They traveled on to the northeast corner of Wyoming to the Black Hills National Forest, stopping in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, for the night.
The following day, they traveled north into North Dakota — Starla's 46th state to visit — and then back down to South Dakota, into Minnesota and on into Iowa.
"Looking at the road atlas, I noticed a minor detour would take us into Burt, Iowa, in Kossuth County," Starla said.
Her father had left her many pictures from her Kreger grandparents, and her grandmother had written on many of the pictures, "Dad and I in Burt, Iowa."
"One of my friends said when you're doing genealogy, don't just get stuck on one side of your family," Starla said. "We were on a trip to explore the Killin branch, and here was an opportunity to trace the Kreger branch in Iowa."
So, the travelers headed to Burt, where they asked around for the oldest cemetery in town. There, they found several headstones together with the name Bleich, which was her paternal grandfather's mother's maiden name.
Once home, she checked her genealogy records and found that her grandfather, Fredrick Albert Kreger, had been born in Kossuth County, Iowa.
With some more family history recorded, they were back on the road again, staying the night in Dubuque, Iowa.
They took an 800-mile detour to visit her cousin and family in Jefferson, Wisconsin, and adding her 47th state to her list.
The Spragues then headed south to Illinois and crossed the Mississippi River into "Missouria."
"Missouria is how it used to be spelled," Starla pointed out. "The Missouria was a Native American tribe that was wiped out by small pox."
After 13 days of traveling, they arrived at their destination — Independence, Missouri. In the 1840s, it was the most popular place for pioneers to stock their wagons with supplies before heading out to Oregon or California.
"In the heart of Independence is a monument honoring the courageous women and men who made the difficult trek for better farming land and a change of address," Starla said. "The stone is placed at the site of the start of the long trip."
The local museum offered free booklets with maps, featuring points of interest along the Oregon Trail route.
The trail began there and headed west, clipping a portion of Kansas, and all of current-day Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho, ending in Oregon City.
"After two-night's rest, Ginger said she was more than ready to head west and towards home," Starla said of their canine companion. "We couldn't agree more."
From Independence, Missouri, the trail went about 250 miles through northeast Kansas, crossing into Nebraska.
The first death on the trail was a 70-year-old lady, Sarah H. Keys, near Alcove Springs, Nebraska, the Spragues learned. Keys was deaf and blind and was traveling with her daughter and son-in-law. She insisted on going to try to find her son who had gone to Fort Hall, Idaho, three years earlier.
"There were an estimated 34,000 to 45,000 deaths along the trail," Starla said, noting that cholera, wagon accidents, drownings while crossing rivers, and accidental gun shots were leading causes of death. "Following the Oregon Trail today, there are hundreds of roadside markers documenting graves, points of interest, and other hardships the travelers encountered."
In Nebraska, they saw Chimney Rock and then crossed into Wyoming. Fort Laramie, Wyoming, was originally an Indian trading post but became a military post and resupply post for the wagon trains going west in the 1830s and 1840s. The couple visited several original buildings and military barracks.
A bit farther west of Laramie are the Guernsey Ruts, where the wagon wheels cut deep ruts in the soft sandstone rock.
While standing in those ruts, Starla thought of her ancestors who had walked that same trail.
"They never saw their families in the East. Letters, if they made it, were months getting there," she said. "It was months after, they learned of the death of loved ones. Women lost husbands and children. They had to throw out family heirlooms to lighten the load."
What a difference to their road trip in 2017. They traveled on comfortable roads and had heat, lights, indoor plumbing and hot food every day. They could stop for supplies along the way.
The Spragues then spent a couple of nights in Wyoming, crossing the Continental Divide. They spent the last night in Pocatello, Idaho.
"Getting somewhat tired of traveling, we decided to drive from Pocatello, 559 miles, to Prineville," Starla said. "Ginger was ready to be home in her own dog house."
They visited Three Island Crossing along the Snake River near Glenns Ferry, Idaho. At low water, this was the best place for pioneers to cross over to the north side of the river. There were several replica wagons displayed.
"We could not believe how small the wagons were," Starla said.
They arrived home Oct. 24, having traveled 5,559 miles and visiting 12 states in 21 days.
"It is so very hard for me to understand all that my forefathers and the others went through for a hope of a better life," Starla said.