John Andrew Harding's First Letter

March 1, 1850
Near Greenfield, Tennessee

Dear Bill:

I am John Andrew Harding. I know you don't know me, but I've been paid a mighty good sum to write to you about the journey my family and I are about to take. We are going to Oregon.

You might ask why. The farm I've owned here in Tennessee is wore out. Three years of bad crops and trying to pay my debts showed me that. You can't keep planting corn and wheat year after year and expect anything to thrive, but they were the only crops that made money enough to satisfy the bank. It's better to just sell up and go where the land is cheap and good.

They say the land in Oregon is the richest there is. I don't believe that, but I know it hasn't been touched by the plow and there is good water there. It's a chance to have a bigger and better farm than what I've inherited.

This week I signed the papers and paid my debts. Today Emily and I told the children it's certain and we'll be leaving within a week. That will give us time to pack our farm wagon with our few treasures and time to say goodbye to the friends and family that won't be going.

Thank God, Jim has decided to go! My younger brother is a fair shot and a mighty good gunsmith. He sold his land five years ago to our oldest brother, Joshua, and has nothing but his tools to worry about. He's a good farmer, too, when he sets his mind to it. He plans to buy up some land next to mine so we'll have room to expand.

That's important. I only have one son right now, but Emily is still young. We plan to have more. Jacob is 14 and has the soul of a farmer. His sisters, Lura and Rachel, are younger. Lura is 10 and Rachel is 6.

I plan to leave Rachel here with her cousins for another year. She's small for a 6-year-old and not as healthy as I'd like. Jim's wife, Elizabeth, will stay, too. She's got another baby coming and the trail might be too hard on her. Jim will come back next year, probably with Jacob, and collect them. There's a good chance others from our county will be making the trip then.

Lots of folks are making the journey. Too many are going to California to look for gold, but there's a lot of sensible folk heading for Oregon. Like me, they want land and a better future.

Tennessee is just too small to hold us. My family has been here since the 1780s. Back then this was rich land and a man could have as much as he could work and protect. Now the farms are small and wore out and people are moving all the way to Oregon looking for more. That's good because Tennessee is too crowded. Nashville is becoming a city and folks have been spilling out into the country looking for places to build. Fortunately, Greenfield is too far for most of them.

I worried for a bit that someone would try to plant a town on my hundred acres, but it won't happen. Mr. Phillips plans to raise horses here-not good work horses, but thoroughbred stock. We talked it over and I expect the land will be better for going to grass. Maybe after a few years of that he'll be able to plant something else.

I know what I did wrong. Planting the same crop year after year isn't good. I actually planted two, but I couldn't let fields lie fallow. Not even good cow manure will help after a while. In Oregon, I'll be sure to rotate four crops and have some cows on the fallow fields. It's a better way of doing things.

Emily wants to take a few heirlooms with us. Tomorrow we'll be packing her harpsichord into the wagon, then I'll take apart her mother's table and chairs so they'll fit. My plow blade and tools will have to fit, too. After that, it's just the things we need.

I plan to sell the horses and buy oxen for the trail. Horses may be fast, but they need too much care and better feed than oxen. Mr. Tilghman over in Martin has offered me seven hundred dollars for Banner, my Morgan stud, and another three for my son's mare. The Belgians will fetch good prices, too. I'll keep the mules. They'd go for about sixty dollars each and that's not enough. Both are from good stock and ride nearly as good as horses. We can use them on the trail.

I'll keep the money from the horses back to buy land. What's left from the sale of the farm will go for supplies. I expect to spend four hundred dollars. I know Emily has some tucked back, but I should have enough without getting into her egg money.

I'll keep writing to you, but this is enough for now. I need to think on supplies and what needs to be done.

John Andrew Harding

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