The Hickory Bank – 16

Marooned in Crater Lake by Alfred Powers

 The Hickory Bank

     “THE long list of American explorers, traders, and missionaries, whose deeds and sacrifices glorify the early history of the Pacific Northwest, were largely forgotten by a nation entranced with the story of the ‘ Forty-niners.’ The far-reaching influence of Oregon as the oldest American territory on the Pacific Coast faded quickly from the memories of men. The Oregon Trail was already deep worn through the sand hills along the Platte and Sweetwater, Bear River and the Portneuf, by the wagons of the Oregon pioneers; it was lined with the crumbling bones of their cattle, and marked by the graves of their dead; yet instantly, after the passage of the thronging multitudes of ’49, it became known as the ‘California Trail,’ and to this day most men know it by no other name.”–JOSEPH SCHAFER.


ONE day in March, 1858, Jim Applegate, aged twelve, accompanied his father to the bank of a little Indiana town, where Mr. Applegate drew out the five thousand dollars for which he had sold his farm, in two hundred and fifty twenty-dollar gold pieces.

“It will pay you to keep an eye on that pile of gold,” cautioned the banker.

“Tomorrow I’ll put it in a hickory bank,” said Mr. Applegate.

The banker smiled as if he caught the point, but Jim was puzzled.

“What is a hickory bank, pa?” he asked.

“It’s a pretty safe sort of bank, son, when you’re traveling,” was all his father would say.

At the hardware store Mr. Applegate bought an inch -and -three -quarters auger with an extra long shaft, and then they went home. After that night Jim saw the money no more. Mr. Applegate kept his business affairs to himself, and neither Jim nor his mother knew where it was.

The Applegate family was one of ten families that traveled in prairie wagons that year from Indiana to Oregon over the famous Oregon trail. The two-thousand-mile journey was less dangerous than it had been fifteen years before, but there were still perils, the most serious of which was that from attacks by hostile Indians.

For that reason there was something: of a military arrangement to the march even of these ten wagons. At night the vehicles were drawn up in a circle, the yoke and chains of each being used to connect it with that in front. Within this circular fortification the camp fires were built.

On the eightieth day out they were attacked by a party of young Indians, who saw their advantage in the fewness of the whites. The skirmish was brief, but bloody and tragic enough for that small band of emigrants. They drove off the redskins, but lost two of their own number. One of the men killed was Mr. Applegate.

As they moved on from that dismal camp, Mrs. Applegate left her husband and Jim his father under the fresh-heaped mound upon the plain, and there also they left the secret of the “hickory bank.” They ransacked the wagon from top to bottom; they looked through all of Mr. Applegate’s private papers and notebooks; but they could not find the money, nor did the papers contain any note or memorandum of its hiding place. No one could suggest any other place to look.

All that was left to Jim and his mother was a little over a hundred dollars in money, five cows, the ox team they were driving, the wagon, and the household effects that it contained.

Westward from Fort Hall, on westward into Oregon, the road was rough and mountainous. One day, as they were descending the rockiest and roughest portion, the Applegate wagon was in the rear. It was three o’clock in the afternoon. Jim’s mother was driving, and he was walking behind, occasionally throwing a stone at one of the loose cows or calves that persisted in loitering. The road was like the bed of a cataract. There were abrupt breaks in the surface two and three feet high. The rear wheels would slide over these miniature precipices and hit the lower level with a suddenness and violence that shook the whole wagon and rattled the pans and kettles oil their hooks.

After one of these “jump-offs,” somewhat higher than usual, Jim saw that the hind wheels of the wagon were turning drunkenly. They were leaning in at the top and out at the bottom. His mother drove on, unaware that anything was wrong, and he ran to catch up with her. A shining gold piece in the middle of the road caught his eye. Atalanta-like, he stopped to pick it up. Fifteen feet farther on he found another. They began to appear thickly, and he gathered them up as he went. Before he reached the wagon his mother had driven over another of the “jump-off s,” and the tops of the wheels leaned in so far that they began to rub against the sides of the wagon bed. Mrs. Applegate stopped the oxen and leaned out to see what was the matter.

Jim came up and stooped down beside the rear axle. A yellow pile of twenty-dollar gold pieces lay there, and other pieces were rolling out of an auger hole that ran like the bore of a rifle through the centre of the splintered hickory column of the broken axle. That was the hickory bank.

<< previousnext >>