In the years since I first started writing novels, I’ve explored the west’s many legends: the gambler, the gunfight, the soldier, the fallen woman, the rancher, the half-breed. I’ve written about the Utes whom I greatly admire as among the best horsemen in the west.
The one symbol – or legend – I’ve never written about, but have been fascinated with, is the emigrant. I’m in the midst of correcting that neglect.
One of my friends disagreed with my use of emigrant in speaking of those traveling across the country to California or Oregon. Emigrants, she contended, come from other countries. But that was the term given them in my handy “The Prairie Traveler” written in 1859 by an Army officer. I mentioned the book before and you’ll probably hear much more from it because it has become my bible.
While it’s fun writing about the vivid characters that populate western fiction, I don’t think there’s been enough written about the “everyman” who risked everything to make the four to five month perilous journey to an uncertain future. My true heroes have always been those who packed everything they owned in a wagon, risked Indians and drought and mountains to achieve a dream.
We often talk about movies here. I haven’t seen any mention of a movie called “The Oregon Trail,” starring Fred McMurray, another of my off-beat favorites. It’s probably as true to the real facts as any film I’ve seen.
I come by my interest honestly. I grew up on tales my father told of his father’s homesteading in Arizona. My grandfather took his wife and six children to homestead in Arizona in 1912, and the stories are wonderful, including one in which my grandmother went outside to find by dad, then two, playing with a rattlesnake.
But as usual, I digress. More stories about that later.
I thought, instead, I would include some more information about the trail west for these sturdy individuals. The journey from the jumping off point of towns along the Missouri River to California or Oregon usually took six to eight months. Many guidebooks promised no more than three to four months time – a summer vacation. But the guidebooks were wrong. Starting in mid-April, the emigrants would discover that the overland passage took every ounce of ingenuity and tenacity they possessed. They traveled in wagons with no springs, under a canvas that heated up to 110 degrees by midday, through drenching rains and summer storms.
Many used my trusty “Prairie Traveler” handbook that advised using oxen instead of mules. You could also hitch a cow to a wagon if necessary, or ride an oxen as one would ride a horse.
One feature that fascinates me about the “Prairie Traveler” is the mile by mile description of the route. By the mid 1850″s the trail was plain for all to see, worn by earlier wagons, but information was still necessary.
Here are a few excerpts from the Handbook giving directions from Westport, Missouri to Pike’s Peak.
4 ½ miles (west from Westport): Indian Creek – the road runs over a beautiful country. Indian Creek is a small wooded stream, with abundance of grass and water.
8 3/4: Cedar Creek – the road passes over a fine country, and there is a good camping place at Cedar Creek.
8 ½ miles: The road is smooth and level, with less wood than before. Camping good.
9 ½ miles: Willow Springs – at nine miles the road passes “Black Jack Creek,” where there is a good camping place. The road has but little wood upon it at first, but it increases toward the end of the march.
At 20 miles, our traveler reaches the Big Bend of the Arkansas – “The road strikes the sand-hills of the Arkansas River. They are soon passed, however, and the level river bottom is reached. The river has a rapid current flowing over a quicksand bed . . .
Then we reach Black Squirrel Creek. “This is a locality which is very subject to severe storms, and it was here that I encountered the most severe snow-storm that I have ever known on the first day of May, 1858. I would advise travelers to hasten past this spot as rapidly as possible during the winter and spring months . . .”
And on it goes, mile by mile, the handbook stating where the grass and wood flourished, where to cross the river, and remarking on the best sites for camping, hunting and resting.
It makes fascinating reading, particularly as I imagine myself sitting on the wagon seat, my backside longing for the day to end, yet looking forward to the next stage of the journey.
I’ll continue to offer more directions in coming weeks and hope you’ll come along for the journey.