Voices From the `Great Migration'
Journals, letters, and diaries of the early pioneers record the dangers and grinding daily work of wagon-train life, but also the joys of this journey `to the other side of the world.'
INDEPENDENCE, MO. — THE great 19th-century migration to Oregon and much of the rest of the West began officially near the Missouri-Kansas border in 1843 - the place and date set by historians and tourism officials boosting this year's sesquicentennial. But it was preceded by many forays and some settlement by adventurers of European descent.
Thomas Jefferson had dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to check out the territory acquired under the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Within a few years, the Hudson's Bay Company and John Jacob Astor had established outposts at the mouth of the Columbia River. Mountain men such as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, and Kit Carson forayed the Rocky Mountains and beyond for beaver pelts to peddle in St. Louis.
In 1836, Presbyterian missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, together with Henry and Eliza Spaulding, headed out to present-day Washington State to convert Indians to Christianity. Their wagon broke down and they had to convert it to a two-wheel cart, but at least they had made it all the way as a family unit.
Mrs. Whitman's enthusiastic letters (she was still in her 20s, and the trip had been her honeymoon) and other reports from beyond the frontier, many of which were published in newspapers, began whetting appetites for fertile land and great opportunities to the West.
Financial panic back East in 1837 and then economic depression settled the question for many farmers and business owners, many of whom already were feeling "crowded" by newcomers to the Midwest. Small wagon trains headed out in 1841 and 1842, then a group of nearly 1,000 people and 120 wagons in 1843. Discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California five years later pushed the number of overlanders to 65,000 in 1850.
Timing was critical for travelers. Leave too soon and the spring grass wouldn't have grown enough to feed your oxen; leave too late and mountain passes could be snowed in.
The right equipment and provisions also were crucial. Pioneers to the Oregon Territory and California did not use the large Conestoga wagons seen along the less-treacherous Sante Fe Trail. Instead, smaller farm wagons (10 feet by 4 feet) were converted for travel and pulled by slow but reliable oxen.
RANDOLPH MARCY'S 1859 "Handbook for Overland Expeditions" tells what to take for "each grown person" for a 110-day trip: "150 lbs. of flour, or its equivalent in hard bread; 25 lbs. of bacon or pork, and enough fresh beef to be driven on the hoof to make up the meat component of the ration; 15 lbs. of coffee, and 25 lbs. of sugar; also, a quantity of saleratus [baking soda] or yeast powder for making bread, and salt and pepper."
These, Marcy added, "should be used with economy, reserving a good portion for the western half of the journey."
The "Great Migration," as it has been called, was largely a middle-class movement. Lloyd Coffman, who teaches a course about the Oregon Trail at Eastern Oregon State College, figures it took $800-$1,200 to outfit a family of four.
"That was good money when you consider the typical wage then was a dollar a day," he observes.
Many travelers tried to pack in furniture, heirlooms, and other items of family importance. But as they left the relative flatness along the Platte River for the rugged mountains and more arid territory, many of those items were left alongside the trail. "The abandonment and destruction of property here is extraordinary," J. Goldsborough Bruff wrote in 1849.
As they shed many of the trappings of more civilized life, travelers also sensed that they were farther away from home then they could ever have imagined. As her party crossed the Continental Divide in 1852, Lucy Rutledge Cooke wrote: "So now we are on the other side of the world."
A myth of Western literature and especially film is that Indians were the prime threat to pioneers, but this is not so. Native Americans were uneasy about the settlers, but they often helped them out.
Between 1840 and 1860, more Indians were killed by settlers (426) against 362 emigrant deaths by Indians. (In November 1847, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were among 15 people killed at their mission by rebellious Cayuse Indians, who blamed whites for the new diseases they introduced.) There is only one recorded account of a wagon trail circling against Indian attack.
The journey was very dangerous, however. There were many accidents - firearms discharging in jolting wagons, children falling beneath wagon wheels, river drownings. And thousands were lost to disease, especially cholera. On average, there was a grave every hundred yards or so. Journals and letters are filled with poignant accounts of family members and friends left buried in the trail ruts to prevent exhumation by animals or Indians.
MOST of the trail was a hot, dry, and dirty walk. And while the scenery could be spectacular, the work was incessant. Charlotte Stearns Pengra recorded a typical evening: "I hung out what things were wet in the wagon, made griddle cakes, stewed berries, and made tea for supper. After that was over, made two loaves of bread, stewed a pan of apples, prepared potatoes and meat for breakfast, and mended a pair of pants for Wm. Pretty tired."
Yet the travelers also recorded good times: courtships, weddings, "shivarees," and childbirths.
Jesse Applegate, who in 1843 led the first major wagon train, described one evening camped along the Platte River: "Before a tent near the river, a violin makes lively music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green; in another quarter, a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still night air."
Journals, letters, and diaries - which have gained credence among historians in recent years - paint a particularly interesting picture of women pioneers. Amelia Stewart Knight is a good example. Mrs. Knight left Iowa with her husband and seven children to travel the Oregon Trail in 1853. Her diary records lost and sick children, the travails of weather and encounters with Indians, the grinding daily work of wagon-train life. A few days before the end of their journey (and not long after carrying her you ngest child through brush and timber and down "three steep, muddy hills"), Mrs. Knight briefly records the birth of her eighth child. Nowhere in her Bprevious writing is the fact of her pregnancy noted.
"After this, we picked up and ferried across the Columbia River," she continued, "utilizing skiff, canoes, and flatboat to get across, taking three days to complete. Here husband traded two yoke of oxen for a half section of land with one-half acre planted to potatoes and a small log cabin and lean-to with no windows. This is the journey's end."
In many ways, of course, the work of Mrs. Knight and thousands of others who made it across the Oregon Trail was just beginning.