In the community

Vale student crafts headstone for child’s gravesite along the Oregon Trail

Vale High School senior Troy Taylor (left) poses with his finished memorial headstone project for a six-year-old girl who died on the Oregon Trail. Taylor welded the wagon wheel as part of his senior project for Vale High. (The Enterprise/Kristine de Leon)

WILLOWCREEK – Out by Willowcreek, a wooden fence surrounds a small mound of rocks.

The site marks the lonely resting place of 6-year-old Gertude Wentworth, who died in 1874 along a barren, dusty area of the Oregon Trail known as Alkali Springs.

There, her bones rest in anonymity beneath the wind-burnished grasses in the shadow of Tub Mountain.

Between 1843, when the first migrant wagons left Independence, Missouri and 1869, when the first east-to-west rail offered transcontinental transportation, more than 200,000 people packed their belongings and families to travel west on the 2,000-mile long Oregon Trail.

Most traveled the rugged track by foot. 

They were settlers looking to start a new life, escape the economic depression, seek gold or escape persecution.

The four- to six-month journey spanned half the continent as the wagon trail stretched across territories that later became six states: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

Nearly one in 10 settlers were beset by accidents, cholera, microbes or death. 

Like Wentworth, most of those who perished were left behind and forgotten. Their graves were frequently left unmarked and sometimes placed in the path of the trail, where the passing wagons could pack down the soil and hide any evidence of a burial.

That was how Wentworth was left to rest. She was buried in the segment of the trail that was infamous for the surrounding sulphur water, which is poisonous to humans and animals.

“To this day, not much is known about her,” said Troy Taylor, a Vale High School senior who recently made a memorial headstone for Wentworth.

Taylor was fascinated by the story of the little girl and her unmarked grave in Willowcreek, which was not too far from his home in Jamieson.

A student in Vale High’s welding program, Taylor spent three months crafting a wagon wheel to honor of the girl. He used a plasma table to cut out a sign about Wentworth’s grave.

“I think it turned out to look really nice,” Taylor said. “It’s my senior project for my high school. We have to do something for the community. I wanted do something that involved welding because that’s what I want to do professionally.”

After completing the headstone, he invited the public to view his project. He arranged for a horse wagon to transport viewers from a parking lot to Wentworth’s gravesite.

A small crowd including his family, a few friends, neighbors and teachers came out to view his project and learn about the 6-year-old.

“If he wants to honor her, I think it’s a wonderful thing to do,” said Dorothy Danielson, the artist who painted a mural depicting Wentworth’s death on the building of the Les Schwab Tire Center in Vale. The mural is gone now.

“It was one that mural society wanted me to have done, and it was a story that spoke to me and I thought it needed to be done with dignity and respect,” said Danielson. “I wanted to do my best to honor Gertrude Wentworth and all the people who died like her.”

She said she struggled at first to paint Wentworth’s story, as she knew little about her.

“I did a lot of research up at Baker, at the Oregon Trail museum and I remember finding not much information,” she said. She turned to familiar faces to create the scene.

“I painted my father-in-law as the man digging her grave. The grandmother beside him is my mother-in-law and the father was painted to look like my son,” she said. 

To illustrate Wentworth, Danielson used her friend’s young son for inspiration.