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James H. Swango


Memories of James H. Swango

James H. Swango of Terre Haute, Indiana, great great grandson of Michael O'Hair and Morton Swango, his nephew and Miss Josephine Lints, his Secretary, this the 24th day of September, 1933, called on the Hon. Harvey Z. O'Hair, a great grandson of Michael O'Hair and who lives one mile north of Bushton, Illinois. Mr. O'Hair is now serving his third term in the Illinois General Assembly at Springfield, Illinois.

The object of this visit is to preserve the traditions of the O'Hair family that lived in this section and especially the family of Ellsberry O'Hair, father of Harvey Z. O'Hair, and more especially to record the incidents of Uncle Ellsberry's travels across the plains as a forty-niner and as a member of the most romantic adventure ever made since Jason sought the golden fleece. Mr. O'Hair heard this story as a child at his father's knees and often afterward and is as follows.

My father, Michael Ellsberry O'Hair born in 1829 and the grandson of Michael O'Hair, who now sleeps at Hazel Green, Kentucky, came to Illinois with his father and mother, John and Eliza O'Hair in 1837. They built a log house south of Paris in which they lived in until 1842 when they built a large home. My father lived with his parents here until the great California gold rush of 1849, and on the 22nd day of February, 1850, that being his twenty-first birthday, my father accompanied by Berry Hanks and Tom Titchnor, his brother-in-law, also with two other parties whose name I cannot recall, started on their long trip to California. They followed the old Springfield Trace from Terre Haute to Springfield, which Trace was then marked by two furrows one hundred feet apart but is now a modern highway called Route No. 133. They crossed the Mississippi at Hanibal, Missouri, going on west through Iowa and then followed the Plat River. The first settlement found was at Fort Kearney, Nebraska, where soldiers were guarding the frontier. Passing through western Nebraska, they passed Court House Rock, Jail Rock, and Chimney Rock, and in the year 1927 this writer passed by this way and saw the same rocks and same marks that my father told me about which he had seen seventy years before. They left Paris in a covered wagon with two horses and one lead horse for emergency use. The company had $200.00 apiece. They bought their feed as they went along, but after they passed the Missouri river, they found out they had fed up what feed they had in their wagons and had to depend on bunch grass which grew on the plains. Omaha at this time was the farthest outpost of


American civilization and a converging point for all the forty-niners hitting for the Rocky Mountains, and here my father joined a large covered wagon train with a personnel sufficient to defend themselves against Indian attack. In the spring of the year there was a continuous string of buffalo passing from the South to the North, and the party had plenty of meat because they were well armed with muzzle loading rifles. The Indians were friendly and never gave them any trouble although there was one man in the crowd who said he would kill the first Indian he saw. Later he shot an Indian squaw. The Indians demanded that this fellow be delivered up for execution or they would make war. When the Indians took their captive they skinned him alive and delivered him back alive to the caravan, and of course he died and was buried along the wayside. The train passed on west to the head of Platt River and over through the South Pass going on Greene River in Wyoming. He said that it was full of mountain trout - a very beautiful country through there, high and rolling; then they passed down the Greene river and down to Salt Lake City where the Mormons had recently arrived from Navoo, Illinois. They were there some two or three days and they passed around Salt Lake to the North crossing Bear River and on by a wild torrential stream. There they had to ferry and he told about old Sade who was one of the company who had given them a lot of trouble along the way. He refused to pay fifty cents for ferrying the team over and drove his mules into this raging stream. Immediately they sank and he said the team of mules reared and fought and Sade was holding to the hames. The wagon bed floated off down stream and they threw ropes and pulled Sade and team out and got the wagon out on a beach below.

Another story occurs in which Sade had purchased a small pony. The Buffaloes were passing the trail to the North and a big Buffalo had been shot and wounded. There were possibly forty or fifty people shotting at the big bull and he became angry and fought fiercely. They used small calibre bullets but it did not have any effect on the bull. Old Sade came on his pony hollowing, "get out of my way; get out of the way." The bull came right at him and the bull's horns hooked the pony's tail and tossed him along for a hundred yards. Then finally the bull stopped. Sade said, "Boys I believe that bull will hook." Now, after they had passed Bear river, they passed on and went down Humbolt river for three hundred miles to the west, passing at one place where the river ran through a mountain pass. The mountain had cracked open to the top and the river passed through, and he said he fired


his gun off, it went through the pass but they had to go around, went three hundred miles where they came to Humbolt Sink. Here there was no outlet for the river and there they entered the great American desert. Now they were to cross the desert and started an hour before sundown. They traveled all night and came out the next morning and the horse of Ellsberry O'Hair gave out about nine o'clock and laid down in the shade; they pulled his saddle off and left him right there. They got out next day about eleven o'clock, got out of this desert and then arrived at Carson, Nevada Lake where they left their wagons. There they traded the team for a little steer. They killed the steer, jerked and dried the meat, hung it to their belts and proceeded westward to Sierra, Nevada mountains and took the Georgetown cutoff. There was a way to go around which was much farther. They took the cutoff and soon appeared at the very spot where Marshall discovered the gold fields while digging a millrace at Sutter's Mill. This was in the month of August, six months after they had left. All the party of five staked their claims, bought some tools and dug gold laden dirt and carried it down to the river and there washed and panned it out. The last day father dug gold he got $9.25 before noon. Everything sold SO high. He had gone into partnership with a man in a store and sold goods for a little over a year. This man afterwards became the first governor of California. When my father went to leave there for home he had paid back $200 that he had borrowed and had his gold run into little bars and sewed it into a belt and put it around his body. He carried home $2000.00. The man (his partner) insisted on him staying. After the next year California became a state. The gold fields had attracted adventurers of every kind from all over the world, both women and men and crime was rampant and frequent murders took place. The miners made their own laws and enforced them the best they could. California at that time was a territory. It had just been taken from the Mexican Republic and no permanent government had been established by Americans. After disposing of his interest in the mercantile business, he went to San Francisco, purchased a ticket to Nicaragua and went aboard ship for home by the Isthmus. He crossed Central America to Nicaragua Lake, a wonderful lake, one or two hundred miles across, he said it was a beautiful country from there to the Gulf. There was a large boat on this lake and they sailed across and then took a smaller boat down the river until they came to the rapids and there the boat stopped. They walked over mountains to the other side and in passing over mountains he reported that he saw trees six feet in diameter growing inside of huge stone walls.


They took a boat on the lower side below rapids, went down San Juan River. There was no landing and no docks when they got off the boat, and the native Indians carried them out on their backs. He reported one devilish fellow that rode on the back of an Indian squaw. She was overloaded and came near drowning. They were now in the Gulf of Mexico and took a boat for Havana, Cuba, stayed two or three days and later took a boat for New Orleans, then came up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and landed at Evansville, Indiana, and thence by stage to Terre Haute and from there to Paris where he had left three years before. A good many people in returning from California, went to Panama where the Panama Canal is now located. That country was infested with yellow fever and hence the change to Nicaragua. My father reported that the day would come when there would be an ocean to ocean canal here as this was the most practical place and the U.S. will soon build a water level canal here. I at one time asked my father why he returned to Illinois when he was in the land of plenty and where he could make money so fast. He could make from $9.00 to $40.00 a day, and in Illinois he could not make fifty cents a day for labor. He said, "I can tell you. It was your mother, Rebekah Zink, that I came back to get; that good woman became your mother."

During the three years he was absent he had no communication whatever from home as that was long before Buffalo Bill's Pony Express was thought of, twenty years before. He was considered at this time a rich man upon his return as he had $2000.00 in gold bars. He went into southern part of Illinois and bought up about $1000 worth of hogs, brood sows, old thin sows, shoats, any and all kinds and turned them on to the mast in the West Woods near his father's old home, which is near Westfield and Marshall. These hogs became a menace to the community because there was cholera in there and the neighbors demanded that they be removed at once. A lot of this country was then government land and, my father met the citizens at a fixed date with his friends to protect him and made a proposition that he would fight any man in a pitched battle (fist and skull) and if he whipped him he would let his hogs run, and if my father did not whip them he would take them out. No man offered to take up the challenge. Then they threatened my father by saying we will kill your hogs. We will kill all of them. Then he returned with this retort to them, "if you kill my hogs, I will burn your barns, your hay stacks, houses; I will lay devastation to this country." After the hogs were fattened on the mast, he drove them to Terre Haute and had them packed and stored and the next summer


they were sold out at a good margin of profit. This money that came from these hogs he invested in land in 1853 that he purchased from Jim O'Hair at $10.00 an acre. Part of this land, the section I am living on, is I. C. railroad land. There are eight hundred acres in the farm and at that time they had built a large one-room house and farmed this land, that part of it was above water, as we had no drainage. In 1857 he built the largest house at that time that was erected in Coles County which is now in good condition, but is empty. The lumber for this house was sawed on Big Creek at a water mill; the framing was all done there and hauled here with oxen, a distance of thirty miles. A tree was near this house. The closest one to the southwest was ten miles, known as the Lone Elm. Also the seven large hickory trees which stood to the southwest and which gave its name to this township "Seven Hickories Township." Those seven trees were the only trees in miles and miles around. After building this large house, a mansion it was at that time, this land was farmed through men placed upon the farm while my father lived in Edgar County. He was elected Sheriff of Edgar County in 1862. At the same time during his time as Sheriff, his brother, John H. O'Hair was Sheriff of Coles County and during his incumbency of office at Charleston the riot occurred. At the close of my father's term as Sheriff of Edgar County he was a candidate for election to the office of Circuit Clerk, being defeated by one vote in the primary. He then moved at once to his farm north of Charleston where he lived until his death which occurred in August 1914. My father had not shaved from the time he started on his trip to California to the day of his death. He wore a long flowing beard that was patriarchal in appearance. My cousin, W. S. O'Hair, who now has full charge of twenty-three state farms of Illinois was born in the jail at Charleston, Illinois, during his father's term of office as Sheriff. It is a coincidence that I was born in the Edgar County jail during my father's term of office as sheriff.