Saturday, May 28, 2011

Crossing The Country by Covered Wagon

This post was originally published August 9, 2010. I'm reposting it as part of the Christian Writers Blog Chain. This month we're writing on the theme, "journeys."

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 recently realized that another touchstone of American history, the settlement of the West by pioneers who traveled across the continent by covered wagon, 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 by wagon 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.
Image: National Park Service

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. Driving from Washington back to Colorado last summer I visited the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center as well as several of the nearby places of significance to those who traveled these trails.

It goes back pretty far.
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 were disciplined and organized. (Legalistic religions come with a silver lining...)

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

Native Americans were once glad of trading partners and scouting jobs. Now they 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 those covered-wagon days play a big part in our national history because they left such a mark on the families who rode 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 you went with. In the context of a lifetime, it may have been a brief experience, but it was one that will stay with you all your life. You save the souvenirs. You pass down the stories to children and grandchildren.

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.

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 Wyoming's 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. 

Can you imagine leaving your country and everything you knew to journey to Oregon Territory? Would you have gone? If so, what do you think would have been the most frightening or difficult part of the journey for you?


Traci B said...

Good post, Marti. It gave me a bit of perspective on my own family history. Some of my ancestors made that trek, and their descendents are in Oregon to this day. My paternal grandfather was originally from there.

For me, a trip to another country was my Oregon Trail. I went not knowing how long I'd be there (turned out to be almost three years); not knowing anyone other than my boss, his wife and their six-year-old granddaughter, who were traveling with me; and barely knowing the language (I'd studied it for a year in high school and 5 semesters in college, but that was a decade prior to the move). I matured a great deal in the time I spent there and learned I was capable of much more than I'd previously thought.

I also:
* took some wild cab rides with drivers who couldn't understand me (and one who tried to overcharge me);
* learned to navigate a major city on my own (getting lost and finding my way home from Saturday shopping trips became my new hobby);
* discovered I did actually know how to tell a restaurant manager there was a bug in my salad;
* and picked up all sorts of other useful lifeskills.

Every journey, when placed into God's hands, can be to our good and His glory - even if it feels like it might kill us at the time.

Tracy Krauss said...

When we really stop to consider the hardships that early pioneers and explorers faced, it is truly amazing that they did what they did. I gives new meaning to the word tenacity and serves as a lesson to us to keep going - follow your dreams!

Nona King said...

Great post! Reminded me of my 'Oregon History' class in college and our studies of the wagon trains and all their challenges. I grew up in Oregon City, the end of the Oregon Trail, so it gave me a little smile to see that as the end-point on your map. :)
Thanks for sharing!

Adam Collings said...

A fascinating read Marti. I was kind of astounded when you said they "left the United States behind" to "strike off for destinations in places like Oregon, California, and Utah." I had no idea those places were not part of the United States. Obviously they must have joined later in their history. It makes me wonder what country they were classified as?

I also loved the story of the man who decided he loved his wife more than gold.

It must have been an amazing time and place to live in.

Thanks for sharing. I love history.

Sheila said...

Great history lesson! Thanks for sharing!

Marti said...

Hey all, sorry for not checking in on comments sooner. I'm in... of all places, Oregon. Though my journey required on a 737, not a covered wagon or steam engine.

Traci, I can really related to what you share! My international trips have had some of those dynamics, too. Three months in Turkmenistan in the early 90s left a mark on me forever... Right after 9/11 I went back to that part of the world with a one-way ticket. Although I was planning on staying about a year, I didn't know whether it would be shorter or longer, and had to be prepared for the whole place to shut down what with the sudden change in the world's political dynamics. When I realized everything was going to be fine and I wasn't going to be evacuated, the months stretched out before me sooooo long. Culture shock, the start of winter, language learning, having my computer taken away and told to stay away from English speakers - and then there was Ramadan... fasting and culture shock make a killer combination! I started fantasizing about getting hit by a car or falling in the river, just to get out. It was weird! But I discovered, as you did, that I was capable of much more than I thought.

Marti said...

Adam: I had always thought of the setting-the-west story as being a very "American" part of American history. And I suppose there was a lot of manifest destiny in there. But the way the story is told at this place in Caspar, many of these folks were leaving America if not their American identity. I suppose relatives in Philadelphia or Boston were horrified that they'd leave civilization, but I wonder if there was some other sense of loss or betrayal associated with the fact that they actually left the country? It's something I'd never considered. Makes me want to track down some more books...

Megan Noel said...

Think about how amazing the train was in the beginning? People were so excited about it! You could get places quickly, easily visit family you might seldom see otherwise. The decision over where to put the RR terminal had a big part in shaping politics in the mid to late 1800s in the Northwest.

And here we are, a little over a hundred years later. Most Americans have chosen "independence" over trains and other public transportation. (It might seem like personal independence to be able to hop in your car any time you like, but we are depending on oil to do so -- at least most people w/o electric cars. even those WITH electric cars in places where fossil fuels supply the electricity.)

And now we are realizing we need the trains back! We need more efficient transportation options - 1 person per vehicle is not very efficient! It's taken years for people to get together, get organized, and go through the process of building light rails, monorails, and other public transportation options! If only we'd keep going the direction we were headed over 100 years ago. Nope, still waiting for the interurban.

Cindee Snider Re said...

Marti, great post! Enjoyed the history and the "journey." I've thought so often of what it must have been like for those early pioneers, what it is like today for missionary friends of mine. I honestly don't know that I'd have what it takes to do what those who are called to "go" did/do, but then I remember that when/if God ever calls me to "go" beyond the mission field right here outside my own front door, that He'll equip me every step of the way as I lean on Him, and isn't that really the lesson of history? To lean hard on God, to walk every step in His light, to follow His still, small voice wherever He leads -- even just beyond my own front door?

Thanks for a GREAT, thought-provoking post, Marti!