Monday, August 09, 2010

Crossing the Country by Covered Wagon

Wagon ruts along the Oregon Trail. Photo source here.
I knew that the great "Pony Express" was rendered obsolete by the introduction of the telegraph less than two years after it began,  but I only just discovered that another touchstone of American history, the settlement of the West by pioneers in covered wagons, lasted just over one generation (1840-1869). At that point the completion of railroads chopped the journey west from a treacherous trek of six months to a mere one-week train trip.

One spot through which all those covered wagons were driven - carrying about 500,000 pioneers in that 29-year period - was Casper, Wyoming. You know what they say: location, location, location. Casper is near what may be the best route across the Rockies. It's built beside the once-great Platte River, which travelers coming West had followed for hundreds of miles. Here each "emigrant" - having left the United States behind - would say goodbye to the river and strike off for destinations in places like Oregon, California, and Utah.

On my own way back to Colorado last week I visited the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center as well as several of the nearby places of significance to those who traveled these trails.

The people of Casper seem to have accepted the fact that their home is and apparently always has been a place people come through on their way someplace else. In fact, they've built up a modest tourist industry around that aspect of their history.

It doesn't start with the covered wagons, but goes back farther. The 80,000 settlers who came through on the Oregon trail were following in the footsteps of Arapaho, Lakota Sioux, and Shoshone.

Some 70,000 Latter-day Saints came, too, fleeing persecution and seeking their own promised land. Many of the most helpful tools and strategies for surviving the trip were developed by the Mormons; they like rules; they were disciplined and organized.

When the California gold rush got under way, the once-lonely trail became a highway. One local resident noted that 600 wagons had passed by his house in a single day. I was pleased, though, to read the entry from the journal of one man who reported a guy on horseback heading the other direction. He was returning to his family in the East, explaining that he simply couldn't go on; he "loved his wife more than gold."

Native Americans who may have previously been glad of trading partners and scouting jobs now complained that there wasn't enough food to go around; these people were taking over, moving in as if the land were not already inhabited.

Perhaps the covered-wagon days, brief though they were, play a big part in our national history partly because they left such a mark on the families who took those trails. It was probably the hardest, bravest thing they had ever done. It took so much courage. Many people thought you were crazy. Others envied you. It was a little like going to war. Or traveling to another country. In a way, it was both.

Have you ever been in that kind of situation? The emotions run so high. You don't know if you will survive. If you do, it knits you together together with others who have made that journey, especially the ones who traveled by your side. It may have been a brief experience in the context of a lifetime, but it will stay with you all your life. You save the souvenirs. You pass down the stories to children and grandchildren.You set up museums and hold reunions and commemorative events.

So many lost so much along the way. The more crowded the trails became, the more they were lined with dead animals, broken-down wagons, abandoned treasures, and hundreds and hundreds of graves. Children fell off the wagons and got run over. Others emigrants grew sick and died - cholera was a big killer - drowned in a river crossing, or were caught in storms. Not many were killed by Indians or wild animals, but some were.

Timing was important. Everyone knew that if you started at the right time, you'd find enough spring grass along the way to feed your stock. But wait too long and you'd risk getting caught by an early snow in the mountain passes. You knew you'd probably make it to your destination before snowfall if you reached Independence Rock by the fourth of July. That must have been a jubilant place; everyone stopped to scamper up the rock and carve their names. There were dances, and sporting events, and weddings there. A huge celebration took place every July 4.

By the time you'd reached this point, you'd probably gone through a lot. Some of the things you feared had not come to pass, at least not yet. Others, you'd overcome and survived. You'd followed the Platte River longer than you could remember. I bet the kids had stopped asking, "are we almost there yet?" Living out of a wagon was starting to feel normal.

You still had at least another thousand miles to go.


Dean Smith said...

There are lots of stories along those trails. You know, your Great Grandfather and Great Grandmother (not together) went west from Illinois in abut 1900. They both went on the train. After a few years logging in Oregon, they both decided it was too hard a life and that life was easier on an Illinois farm. So they went back to the midwest together.

Amy Barstad Law said...

Me and the boys just drove through Casper and followed part of the Oregon trail to Nebraska a few weeks ago. Love reading your blog Marti! Thanks for putting words to some important ideas and reflections.

Marti said...

Thanks for reading, Amy!