Land of Opportunity: Family’s Trek Begins in Scotland

Merchant grandparents and younger generations all immigrate to United States, dreaming of the land of opportunity.
CAPPER’s Staff
Good Old Days


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Our family’s trek to the land of opportunity started in Scotland with my grandparents. Grandfather Grant was a merchant in Shieldaig, Ross Shire, Scotland. His business occupied the lower floor of a stone building that still stands and is still occupied by a store. His family, which included five girls and two boys, resided in the upper story of this building.

Grandfather also had a partnership in three merchant boats that plied the coast of Scotland, furnishing merchandise to small communities. His favorite ship was called The Agnes, and it was during a voyage on this ship that Grandfather became ill. Mother was a child at the time but remembered going with the family to meet her father as the boat entered the harbor. It was his custom to be on deck to wave a greeting to the family. When he did not appear her mother said, "Children, your father is ill." Grandfather was carried to his home and lived only a short time.

In her youth, Grandmother had been educated in both culture and homemaking, having attended a school where domestics and etiquette predominated. There is in our family a sampler made by Grandmother Grant at the age of 12, while she was in boarding school. The date on this sampler is as follows: "Sewed by Margaret McKinzie, Stornoway, Feb. 1808." Grandmother's education gave her an outstanding position in her community but did not prepare her for making a living. With the help of her sons, it became her duty to carryon the business as best she could.

The older children had been given the advantage of a good education, but the two youngest girls, Jessie and Jeanne, were deprived of this, acquiring what they could from the village school. The people of northern Scotland spoke Gaelic, but the schools taught English.

The McDonald family lived in the same village, and the two families were close friends. The McDonalds were mechanical men and gardeners.

In this village, most men of Father's time became professional men, and I am convinced that his parents wished to prepare him in the same way. But Father was a restless boy who loved the people of the outdoors best. He was a friendly boy who was often asked to accompany the minister on his trips to the fishing villages where he made calls to christen the children.

At the age of 16, Father was sent to Edinburgh for an education. This would seem to be the opportunity of his life, but again that restless spirit demonstrated itself. The close confinement of the Edinburgh school became too restrictive for one who loved the out-of-doors, and he ran away and went to sea. He spent some years on trading vessels, going into ports of England, Welen, and those as far north as the midnight sun.

The Scots have a penchant for nicknames, and Jeanne was known as Little Jane. Jane and John were engaged for a long time, for John had to save enough to establish a home and the Scotch reputation notwithstanding, saving money was not one of his virtues.

About three weeks before their wedding day the couple went to church together. Jane wore a black taffeta dress with a full skirt and tight bodice, with flowing sleeves that had an undersleeve of lace that was held tight at the wrist. With this she wore a taffeta lolman. At the regular morning service their betrothal was announced by the minister.

After the wedding, a dinner was served and presided over by Grandmother Grant. The wedding gown was cream India mull with a Dresden design, a costume that seems to be coming into vogue again. A cream-colored cashmere shawl accompanied the bride's costume. It also carried the Dresden design in the border. This dress is still a family possession.

Among the wedding presents were some heirlooms. These have been carefully treasured, and most of them are in the family still. A spinning wheel, the gift of a cabinet maker, was there, polished and ready for its venture into the new land.

The trip to America was delayed for two years on account of Grandfather McDonald's illness. After Grandfather's death, Grandmother McDonald decided to come to America also, as most of her family was either there or going. A sister of Father's, Mrs. George Frazier, bereft of her husband who was lost at sea off the coast of England, decided to join the company. She felt that she could give her three sons, William, Hector and Colen, a better chance at life in America. Besides the new additions to the party, there was now a 6-month-old baby, William McDonald.

A memorandum kept by Father went as follows: John McDonald and family left Shieldaig, May 26, 1857, sailed from Liverpool, England, June 5, 1857. Arrived at New York July 8, 1857.

From New York the group traveled by train to Chicago, a small western village at that time. At Chicago they were met by Uncle Donald McDonald, and taken to Kewanes, where he and Aunt Ann had established a home some time before.

Father followed farming here, but did not purchase a permanent home. At this time there was a great emigration from the Midwest to Oregon and Washington due to the passage of the congressional land grant bill, granting homesteads to settlers in these parts. Father and Mother had not been happy on the plains of Illinois. They missed the mountains of Scotland.

In May 1863, a company of friends started on the long journey for Oregon. Father placed his household things in one wagon. This wagon was guided by William Frazier, who had made his home with them since the time of his mother's death. He was 14 now. Father and the family occupied the second wagon.

This company was to join a caravan of 100 wagons at Omaha. At this time the Indians were particularly troublesome, so the train was conducted through the greater danger by a government escort of 36 mule teams and 150 men under the command of Captain Creaford.

This great cavalcade of immigrants and soldiers proved too formidable for the wandering bands of Indians to attack, and the settlers were permitted to pursue their course unmolested.

On October 5, the company entered the Grande Ronda Valley. So charmed were they with its beauty and possibilities that some of the company decided to call it home.

Instead of homesteading, Father bought a farm of 360 acres with a house, or cabin. This place, situated at the foot of the Indian trail near Mount Emily, with wooded background, a beautiful stretch of foreground meadow and babbling streams running through it, was home for the McDonald family for many years.

Supplies for the first year must have come from Walla Walla, the older settlement. Then came the Rinehart gristmill and the Oliver sawmill. As soon as possible a new house was built. It was a log house, and Father hewed the logs. The sawmill supplied lumber for floors and additions. A fireplace in the sitting room and one in Mother's bedroom are places around which pleasant memories linger. When company came, we were often shooed off to Mother's room after supper, where we were given special privileges. This was especially true when Uncle and Auntie Smith came, as they often did. They were delightful people, but were spiritualists, and they usually wandered off to spirit land before the evening was over. Mother thought theirs were not good bedtime stories for children.

Before the house was occupied by the family it was the poling place for the first election of that district.

The first homes were entirely on the edges of the valley where springs, streams and meadow grass could be found. The rest of the valley was one waving sea of bunch grass. The grass, so called for the way it grew in bunches, grew 4 feet high or more. Stock could live out all winter, as there was always feed above the snow.

Father had a small flock of sheep, and here is the place for something more about the spinning wheel. Wool had to be washed, spun into yarn, then washed again and knitted into stockings, socks and mittens for this big family. Wool mattresses and wool comforters made good warm beds. Can you envision such a busy mother? The bur-r-r of the spinning wheel could be heard almost daily. Mother often kept a book beside the wheel, and when she became weary from spinning, she would relax by reading. Is it surprising that I associated the spinning wheel with the life of the family?

On winter evenings, the sitting room was where the family gathered; some with books, others with a checker or chess game. Later the whiz of ping pong could be heard from the dining room, and occasionally the sound of sleigh bells announced the arrival of friends who came for an evening. It took only a few people to add to our group to make a real party. For refreshments, popcorn, apples, cookies or doughnuts were always on hand. Mother almost always served callers with tea and cake. If you should go to Scotland now, you would find that this custom still prevails.

You may wonder how this family got any education beyond the country school. Everyone was sent away for a time. The older ones to Blue Mountain University and perhaps business training in Portland. Duncan and Hector had two years at Bishop Scott. I had one year at Ascension and one year at Pacific. It did not take a mint of money to do this or we probably would have been deprived of it. I know that some of the family would have loved to go farther had the purse been bigger.

In the 1880s, a lovely new home was built. Soon after this, the children began to go to homes of their own. The parents, though lonely, were philosophical enough to accept the inevitable and looked forward to frequent homecomings, when the house again rang with happiness and laughter.

Modem machinery for a time pushed the spinning wheel into oblivion. Then it was launched into a new career. As such, it made its first appearance accompanying "The Fast Spinning Song," sung by Ina Wright Herbet at the Stewart Opera House. Since that time it has been much in demand as a symbol of the industry and marvelous genius of pioneer mothers, whose uppermost thoughts were their love for home and family.

Emilie A. Bird
Beatrice, Nebraska


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community. 


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