In late June 1847, the Fulkerson family of Missouri arrived with a wagon train at the Oregon Trail crossing of the North Platte River near present Casper, Wyo. Mormons had established a ferry at the crossing earlier that year. The Fulkersons may or may not have crossed their wagons on the ferry, but they swam their stock over the river—perhaps to save money. The choice was to prove fatal to one family member.
The Fulkersons—James, his wife Mary and their seven children—had begun the journey to Oregon with a large party of around 300 people in 120 wagons, most of them members of the Old Florence Baptist Church near Jefferson City, Mo. On the way, the party broke up into four smaller groups. The Fulkersons traveled with people who had formed the Plains Baptist Church. They were captained by the Rev. Richard Miller, Mary Fulkerson’s brother.
Frederick, not quite 18 years old, was the Fulkersons’ fourth child and oldest son. “When crossing the Platte River,” a Fulkerson granddaughter wrote many years later, Frederick “swam the river below the crossing to ford the stock over, as the river was so swift it tended to wash them downstream. He became . . . chilled and exhausted . . .”
Other evidence indicates they continued on, probably with the ailing youth in a wagon. Near Devil’s Gate, 60 miles to the west, they stopped at Rattlesnake Pass. There, the trail narrows and passes through a pair of low hills. The location is a historic one as there are no trail branches there; all the trails traffic passed through this one spot. Family members camped there for a week as the boy continued to weaken.
Two years later, J. Goldsborough Bruff, bound for the gold fields of California, sketched the spot in his diary. The sketch shows a large boulder with the inscription:
JAMES M. &
DIED JULY 1. 1847.
AGED 18 Years.
The grave is among the oldest known emigrant graves on the Oregon Trail.
Tragedy continued to travel with the Fulkersons. Mary Fulkerson, Frederick’s mother, died two weeks later of a fever in what’s now western Wyoming near where the Sublette Cutoff crossed the Green River. Frederick Fulkerson’s brother-in-law, William Hines, died some weeks after that of a fever near the Three Island Crossing of the Snake River in what’s now Idaho.
The site of Mary Fulkerson’s grave became a burial ground for others. All those graves were destroyed by a pipeline in the 1930s.
The inscription on Frederick Fulkerson’s gravestone at Rattlesnake Pass was probably put on with tar or paint, and wore off after a few years. Another traveler, T.P. Baker, left his name on the stone in 1864 and for a century and a quarter, trail scholars assumed an otherwise unknown Baker was buried there.
In recent years, Douglas, Wyo., trails historian and schoolteacher Randy Brown recognized that the shape and setting of the existing stone matched the one Bruff sketched in his journal in 1849. Brown and the Oregon-California Trails Association then erected a fence and a new historical marker with the correct information. The fence and marker remain today. Both are located on Wyoming state land.
- Brown, Randy. “Frederick Richard Fulkerson.” Unpublished manuscript provided by author.
- ___________. Historic Inscriptions on Western Emigrant Trails. Independence, Mo.: Oregon-California Trails Association, 2004, pp. 204-205.
- “On the Oregon Trail in 1847.” Fulkerson family website. Accessed Dec. 21, 2015 at http://www.fulkerson.org/1oregon.html.
- The image of Bruff’s sketch of the Fulkerson grave is from the Fulkerson family website at http://www.fulkerson.org/1oregon.html. Used with thanks.
- The photo of the grave is by Randy Brown. Used with permission and thanks.