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Longmire-Biles Wagon Train Crossing Part II

by Carl Vest

One of the most historical happenings on South Hill was the crossing of the Longmire-Biles wagon train on October 8, 1853.  This was an historic event because it brought into the Puget Sound area the first emigrant group to come through the Cascade Mountains, rather than by sea or overland from the Portland area.  While the anniversary date of the crossing is generally recognized, little is written about the size of the train and the people involved.

The train was put together in the vicinity of Umatilla, Oregon.  It was created out of several other wagon groups that had traveled across the plains during the summer of 1853.  The name Longmire-Biles came from the identities of its elected leaders, James Longmire and James Biles.  When the group left Umatilla it was recorded as having 36 wagons.  Of these, at least one is known to have been destroyed coming down the west side of the Cascade Mountains, so the train that crossed South Hill probably totaled 35 wagons (some estimates put the number as high as 53.) 

Determining the number of people traveling in the train is difficult.  A number of rosters exist, but they’re all different.  Over the years these records have been combined and analyzed with the results suggesting that the contingent probably numbered about 170 people.  Records for many family groupings are known and are fairly easy to categorize, but apparently there were also a number of single men on the move --- some of which were recorded while others were not.  Some authors have also added people to the total who later claimed to have made the trip.  So an exact list of those who made the journey cannot be made with certainty.

One of the more interesting families in the train was one whose members individually spelled the kindred name in different ways.  James Biles, one of the train leaders, for instance, was traveling with his brother, Charles, who spelled their name Byles.   Charles Byles was a Presbyterian minister.  James was more business oriented and later founded a tannery in Olympia. The Biles (Byles) family was the largest household in the train when the Woolery clan is taken into account.  The Woolery family were in-laws of the Biles.  Together they numbered 22 people or about 13 percent of the group.  The Biles were from Kentucky.

James Longmire, the other train leader, was from Indiana.  When the group disbanded he settled on a farm in the Yelm area and became active in the exploration of Mt. Rainier, eventually climbing to the summit.  The warm springs near the base of the mountain was one of his discoveries where he created a kind of resort that still bears his name.

One fact about the mountain crossing that has received little notice is that the group was using the services of a guide.  Nelson Sargent, who was from the Puget Sound area, met the train in Oregon.  His family was in the train and he offered to assist in finding the way.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.