Following The Pioneer Path
20th century travelers retrace 150-year old trail through six states
O'FALLONS BLUFF, NEB. — THOUSANDS of American and foreign tourists are visiting the historic spots and important geographic landmarks along the Oregon Trail this summer. Forts and settlement sites, trail ruts several feet deep in limestone, rocks where pioneers scratched names still legible, new exhibits that give a sense of life on the trail and in Indian villages along the way.
But for some, the only way to truly experience the "Great Migration" of the mid-1800s across 2,000 miles of North America is to do it the way those first pioneers did - by horse, wagon train, or on foot.
In early May, about a dozen wagons left Independence, Mo., heading for Independence, Ore., which train organizers plan to reach on Oct. 20. Traveling about a dozen miles a day, they angled northwest through Kansas into Nebraska, where they followed the Platte River - "a mile wide and an inch deep" - west to Wyoming. Past Fort Laramie and Caspar and Independence Rock (named by fur trappers on July 4, 1824), they crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass, then dropped south to Fort Bridger, where they stayed a couple of days earlier in the week.
In some places the historic Oregon Trail is now a busy interstate highway, which this 20th-century wagon train is having to parallel. But along much of the way, the full-trip group of five wagons and 18 people (plus other wagons and individuals who joined up for part of the way) are on the actual trail.
"We're staying fairly close to the time schedule and staying in many of the same campsites," says trail captain Morris Carter, a rugged Wyoming native who looks like he stepped out of the 19th century.
By the time Mr. Carter's group finishes, they will have camped out in 135 different places, shaded their eyes from the sun, "eaten dust," and smelled the sweat of hard-working animals through six states.
They also will have been able to take showers in small-town high schools now and then, had meals prepared and hay provided for their animals by farmers and ranchers turned out along the way to see them, and been closely followed by a special wagon with two chemical outhouses. Which is to say, their trip may be more arduous than the one recently taken by a Monitor reporter and photographer (10 days in a rented Buick), but it won't be fully authentic.
Still, those making the trip are full of enthusiasm. "This is something you gotta do, just once," says Roy Katskee, a high school math teacher and coach from Omaha, Neb., who traveled the trail on horseback through his home state. "I tell you, it's something else. It's a cleansing of the soul."
"I grew up on the Oregon Trial, I grew up with this in my background. But I can see now how tough it was for them. You admire them a whole lot more after doing this for three or four days," he adds.
For Cookie Katskee, who's a junior high school principal, the trip is a reliving of family history. Mrs. Katskee's great-grandmother traveled by wagon train from Illinois to Nebraska in the 1860s when she was two years old. One of nine children, the girl was inadvertently left behind at a rest stop.
"One of the outriders caught up with the wagon train and said, `Is this anybody's baby?' " says Mrs. Katskee.
The family's first home on the Nebraska homestead was a dugout in the side of a hill - the kind described in Laura Ingalls Wilder's book "Little House on the Prairie."
"I'm having a great time out here," said Ray Tinkey as he unhitched a pair of mules (Ann and Sue) after a hot and dusty day on the trail. Mr. Tinkey is the wrangler for a group out of Aurora, Ore., a town of 614 people that raised money to send a wagon built in 1880 back to Missouri for the trip.
A retired Army man, Tinkey now restores furniture and drives a school bus. He enjoys talking with old-timers who come out along the trail to meet the travelers, especially those who farmed with horses and mules.
"I'm trying to create a historic event, a legacy I can pass on to my children and grandchildren," he says.
Many of those on the trip are educators, like Jan Christensen, who teaches home economics in Gothenburg, Neb., and expects to use her experience in the classroom.
"We're not as tough as we used to be," she says, decked out in bonnet and long dress (and sunglasses and running shoes) as she walks alongside a wagon. "Kids are told they have it rough today, and they do. But it will be good for them to see that every generation had its struggles."
Hans and Eva Messner are teachers from Trossingen, Germany, who spent a few days on the wagon train with their children, Volker and Inga. Mr. Messner spent the past year teaching in Fort Wayne, Ind., on a Fulbright exchange program. Back home, he teaches English based largely on his love of United States Western history. "This kind of life has always fascinated me," he says.
For some, the trip is a way to see how the kind of life they live today had its roots 150 years ago. As managers of a ranch in Maxwell, Neb., Parley and Laura Smith spend much of their time on horseback, looking after 700 cows and 700 calves.
"We ride across pasture all the time," says Parley. "But we wanted to see the tracks and ride with the wagon train."
Farther west, the trail passes by Baker, Ore., where a new historic interpretive center, built and operated by the US Bureau of Land Management, is drawing as many as 2,000 visitors a day.
Inside, replicas, artifacts, and video displays present a moving documentary of life on the trail. Outside on Flagstaff Hill, which overlooks original trail ruts running through the sagebrush, a wagon camp has been set up.
Here, dressed in buckskin and fur, Bud Butts portrays "Festus Coopman," guide of an 1847 wagon train. Although the character is contrived, Mr. Butts's expertise is not. His great-great grandparents came out by wagon train from Iowa. Traveling with seven children, John and Catherine Butts made it about this far before Mrs. Butts fell ill and died.
Friends looked after the children while John Butts worked as a road-building engineer and as a cooper (most professionals also adopted a trade) to make a home for his family in the Willamette Valley. Bud Butts weaves family history into his explanations of life along the Oregon Trail.
"I was always pumping my grandmother for stories," says Butts, a local resident retired from his job as a shipping foreman in Portland. "She was born in a sod house, and she remembered everything."
If they keep to their schedule, Morris Carter's wagon train will pass by the interpretive center in about five weeks. Here, they will get their first glimpse of the imposing Blue Mountains, the last major obstacle along the way.
It's the same sight Jesse Applegate and the first major wagon train over the Oregon Trail saw 150 years ago.