searching for joseph’s grave


   The year 1852 was a particularly bad one for cholera on the Oregon Trail. Hundreds died of the disease, and few wagon trains made the trip without some cholera deaths. The McCully wagon train was an exception, probably because they were one of the earliest trains to start on their way that year, and they ran ahead of the main infection. They did have two deaths, one by drowning in the Bear River in Idaho, and one following an accident with livestock. It was the second one that we had a special interest in.

   We knew from various latter-day accounts that Joseph Henry McCully, son of David McCully and Mary Ann Scott, died on the Oregon Trail just two weeks short of his eleventh birthday.[1] However, the details of the incident varied considerably from narrative to narrative, and the place where he died and was buried could have been just about anywhere in a 150-mile stretch across Nebraska. Curiously, Fort Kearney was sometimes described as being behind the group when the accident happened, and sometimes ahead. The only definite information we had was that Asa McCully, during an 1853 crossing of the plains with another wagon train, was said to have placed an iron marker at the grave. According to one later report, that marker was still in place around 1930. We thought it would be fun to try and find the site on one of our cross-country drives. The opportunity came in 1995, although not planned ahead of time.

 Thursday 5 October 1995 – From Perrysburg, Ohio, we planned to go to the Fort Wayne, Indiana, genealogical library and then to Cincinnati to visit Sally’s cousins, but Hurricane Opal changed our minds. Instead, we drove 600 miles on Interstate 80 to Des Moines, Iowa. As it turned out, Cincinnati got over 3" of rain as the storm passed through. We just got gray skies, light fog, and occasional light rain all the way from Ohio to Iowa. Wind gusty, but not bad.

  The previous year, we had discovered and read a journal of the 1852 trip, written by John S. McKiernan, one of the young men hired by the McCullys to help along the way.[2] Some of the confusion about locations was immediately cleared up. We had assumed that the McCullys had followed the usual wagon train route to St. Joseph, Missouri; crossed the Missouri River there; then proceeded northwest through Nebraska to Fort Kearny. Indeed, they did go first to St. Joseph, but - perhaps because the Missouri River was still too high to cross safely - they spent another week going north up the Missouri-Iowa side of the river to the vicinity of current day Nebraska City, Nebraska. It was there, still in Iowa on 21 April, near the original site of Fort Kearny (established 1846, abandoned 1848), that the accident occurred. As McKiernan described it:

 “This morning the company commenced to cross (the Missouri River). About 10 o’clock, a boy, son of D. McCully, went to water two mules. He was leading one and riding the other. The one he was leading took fright and jerked him off the one he was riding and dragged the poor fellow about 100 yards, breaking his leg and injuring much other ways. We all crossed the river except those that stayed to take care of the boy that got hurt.”

   Joseph didn’t die in Iowa, and the rest of the train eventually crossed the Missouri, and followed the route known as the Ox Bow Cutoff (sometimes, Old Nebraska City Road) northwest toward present day Interstate 80. The party split, with some of the group going ahead with the injured boy. McKiernan was not optimistic:

   “Yesterday [22 April] the carriages went on to go to [‘new’] Fort Kearny. They have the boy with them that got hurt. It is the intention to take him to the fort to see if there cannot be something done for him, but I fear he will not live to get there.”

Friday 6 October 1995 – We continued west on Interstate 80 from Des Moines. Cloudy and windy, but no rain today. At Ashland, Nebraska, we intersected the route of the McCully wagon train coming from the Nebraska City area. The McCullys who were with Joseph passed this point about 23 April 1852, and continued northwest toward present-day Yahoo, Nebraska. We followed, reading the McKiernan journal as we traveled:

 “This morning (25 April) we met Dr. Bergan (one of the persons that went on with the boy that got hurt). He has come back for the purpose of getting some more of the company to go on ahead about 40 miles where they have stopped with the boy. He says that it is impossible for the boy to get well & that he will be dead by the time we get there.”

 “Noon today (26 April) we got to the carriages. The boy is dead. He died this morning 4 o’clock, age 11 years. We buried him 2 o’clock p.m. The country we have been passing through is very beautiful broken prairie…”

    At Wahoo, Nebraska, Sally and I visited the historical society museum, and told the curator of our quest. He hadn’t heard about any iron stake marker (not surprising), but said he would make some inquiries, and also put a story about us in the local newspapers. He had a good map of the Oxbow Trail, and, comparing it to the McKiernan narrative, we concluded that the most likely burial spot was just south of Wahoo in a 10-mile stretch between the communities of Swedeburg and Touhy. We drove through the area (it is much nicer than the stretch along Interstate 80), but no sign of any marker. We went on to rejoin Interstate 80 at York, Nebraska, for the night.

   Nothing further came of our inquiries into Joseph’s grave, but it was fun following along with John McKiernan’s journal, and feeling confident that we were in the vicinity of where he died. Maybe the iron marker is still there, and someone will see it and inquire about it, some day.

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[1] David McCully was the brother of Asa Alfred McCully, Sally’s great-great -grandfather; he and Asa were wagon masters, and both of their families were on the wagon train, as were other relatives and neighbors from eastern Iowa,

[2] Wilbur, S. R., and S. H. Wilbur. 2000. The McCully train: Iowa to Oregon 1852. Gresham, Oregon: Symbios.

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