Pioneers: The Legend of Little Germaine

Germaine Van Bibber was nine years old in 1845 when her family joined the wagon train bound for Oregon at Independence, Missouri. Her father, Isaac, was from a venerable Virginia family of Dutch descent. The family of her mother, Anais Josephe Charlebois, was from French Canada by way of Vermont.

The Van Bibbers, who had become disillusioned of life in the east, simply packed up their three children one day, and joined Josephe’s brother and new wife who were bound for the Oregon Territory. By the time they reached Southern Idaho, Stephen Meek, an adventurer, mountain man, and experienced guide, convinced a few hundred families, including the Van Bibbers, to leave the main wagon train, which was taking the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley, and travel an alternate route through the Cascades, a route he claimed he knew well.

Leaving the main wagon train near what is now Vale, Oregon, Meek thought he could follow the Malheur River and connect with a southern route (perhaps the route later to become known as the Applegate Trail), thus avoiding the wild Columbia River, which was treacherous, and frightening to the immigrants.

But the Eastern Oregon geography proved too harsh, and the Meek expedition was forced to turn back north across the desert toward Harney Lake, where water could be found. Arriving at Harney lake they found it to be nearly dry and alkaline, but an old Paiute Indian told them to continue north toward the Ochocos, and there they would find water.

The old indian’s advice was good, and at Buck Creek they found the needed water. Camped near the Crooked River, the train was ready to travel north and reunite with the main wagon train. But Meek once again claimed to know a better route, directly across the Cascades.

Many of the immigrants now distrusted Meek. Fights broke out, and the wagon train was once more split. About a hundred and fifty wagons headed directly north towards Pendleton, and another forty continued west with Meek toward the Deschutes country.

Ready to follow the northbound wagons, Isaac and Anais Josephe Van Bibber held back. Little Germaine Van Bibber had come down with a fever. Her mother refused to go on, insisting they stay until Germaine was well enough to travel.

Seven families in all stayed back, friends and relatives of the Van Bibbers who refused to leave them stranded.

Little Germaine’s fever continued to get worse for several days, and many of the stragglers began to believe they would now never catch up with the wagon train. It was September, and the weather would soon make the Ochocos impassable. They also knew they couldn’t stay where they were on a sage-covered plain, vulnerable to the icy desert winds.

The old Paiute
One night in a fever induced vision, Little Germaine claimed that the old Paiute they had met at Harney Lake had come to visit her. He told her that the families should go back to the east, towards the mountains, and they would find a creek, and shelter for the winter.

Most of the men laughed and pressed the families to go on, insisting it was just a fever-induced hallucination. But Josephe Van Bibber and her sister-in-law, Marie Guilhelmine Charlebois refused to move until the little group held a council. They were backed up by young Henry Applegate, who was sick of the journey, and willing to take a chance.

They were now eight days behind the wagon train, and already the weather was beginning to change for the worse, young Applegate argued. This argument swayed a few of the men, and a majority eventually sided with the distressed mother. They would go to the east, the men said, not because of Germaine’s vision, but because the hills would provide protection, and contained springs which would provide a steady source of water.

When the small wagon train reached Tamarack Creek, at the present site of the town of Germaine, they were stunned at their luck. The creek was in a small valley, sheltered from the south-westerly winds by hills to the south. Deer ran in the hillside meadows. Here, they could survive through the winter.

The settlers camped that first winter about five miles downstream from present-day Germaine, where a sizeable cave was found at the edge of a small meadow. There was not enough time to build adequate shelter, and the cave would keep the children protected from the worst weather, as well as provide a communal living room for all. The families without children would sleep in their wagons, which were well covered and adequate to get them through the winter.

That first night, the old Indian came to liitle Germaine once more in a vision. He told her that the community would survive only if it learned to live in peace with this place, and with the earth. He claimed to be the “Guardian Spirit” of “all that you see here,” and he told Germaine that she must convince the others to “abide by the wisdom of the ancestors.”

Little Germaine Van Bibber demanded that the group once again hold a Council. Perhaps because she was a dying child, or perhaps because many of the pioneers had a very equalitarian view of community, the adults agreed to gather around the fire in Germaine’s Grotto, and hear what she had to say. These are the words that have been recorded:

“I know that I am going soon to see God, so I want to tell you all that I love you, everyone of you. The old Paiute, the one who told us to come to this place visited me again last night. He said you must all get along, or you will not survive this winter. He said that this land is very precious, and we must treat it like our mother, and if we do, then it will take care of us. He said that we all have wisdom, but none of us have all of the wisdom, and so we must learn to listen to each other, even the children, and even our mother the earth. Then, he said that I must go away soon to live with my grandmother in the land beyond the sky, but that he will visit you again, and he will bring me with him. We will visit the children every generation, for as long as there is hope in your hearts.”

The next morning, little Germaine Van Bibber had passed on. She was buried not far from the grotto, near Tamarack Creek. The families were profoundly affected by the words of the little girl, and Josephe insisted that it must have been an angel, sent from God, who talked to Germaine, and that the community must take the words very seriously.

The next year, the pioneers crafted a charter for the new town of Germaine, incorporating the principles transmitted to them through the words of a little girl on her death bed.

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