The Smart Ones Got Through

It was tough going, but the road over the Sierras could be used by men who understood how to travel

The difference between “an historical event” and “a dramatic event” is well illustrated by the stories of the Stevens Party and the Donner Party. The former is historically important, and the pioneers who composed it brought the first wagons to California and discovered the pass across the Sierra Nevada that serves still as the chief route for railroad, highway, telephone, and airlines.

 
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“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

The first caravans lumbered across two thousand miles of dangerous, inhospitable wilderness in 1843, the year of the Great Migration. To a surprising degree it’s still possible to follow something very like their route.

A couple of miles south of Marysville, Kansas, not far from the east bank of the Big Blue River, lies one of the most moving places on the Oregon Trail. Back in a shadowy sanctuary of oak and ash and cottonwood trees, just a few hundred yards from where the emigrant trail used to run, a cold black spring sparkles from the ledge of a little rock alcove and pours into a stony basin ten feet below. It’s a beautiful place, impressively quiet and a little gloomy.Read more »

The Farther Continent Of James Clyman

“Surveyor, mountain man, soldier, businessman, wanderer, captain of emigrants, farmer…he was himself the westward-moving frontier.”

In medias res: Fort Laramie on the Oregon-California Trail, June 27,1846, a day of reckoning. Francis Parkman was there, beginning the tour that he would chronicle in The California and Oregon Trail , the Harvard man come out West for health and curiosity, patronizing, disdaining the common emigrants who halted at the fort to tighten their iron tires and recruit their oxen, effusively admiring the stylish Sioux.Read more »

Winterkill, 1846

The tragic journey of the Donner Party

To the brothers George and Jacob Donner the way to California seemed clear and simple. Both in their sixties, solid and well-to-do thanks to their own hard work, but beginning now to feel their age and the long Illinois winters in their bones, the two men sat in the glow of the hearthfire that winter of 1845-46 and turned again the wellthumbed pages of The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California .Read more »