“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 »

Wisky For The Men

A novelist joins his ancestor on a trip West and discovers in her daily travails an intimate view of a tremendous national migration

For the past several days I have been traveling from Dover, New Jersey, toward Fort Washington, Ohio, with my great-great-great-grandmother. Read more »

The Youngest Pioneers

For many children who accompanied their parents west across the continent in the 1840s and '50s, the journey was a supreme adventure

The historian Francis Parkman, strolling around Independence, Missouri, in 1846, remarked upon the “multitude of healthy children’s faces … peeping out from under the covers of the wagons.” Two decades later a traveler there wrote of husbands packing up “sunburned women and wild-looking children” along with shovels and flour barrels in preparation for the long journey west. In the goldfields of California in the 1850s, a chronicler met four sisters and sisters-in-law who had just crossed the Plains with thirty-six of their children.Read more »

Canines To Canaan

The Story of Some Forgotten Four-Footed Pioneers

Until recently the history of the American West has been dominated by the elite, the spectacular, and the gaudy, not by the ordinary folk—the “little people with dirty faces,” who are only now beginning to get their due. The same generally has been true of canine history.Read more »

Pie Town

The last homesteading community, a Depression-era experiment—and a selection of the rare color photographs that recorded it

For a long time the Pueblo Plateau of west-central New Mexico has promised more than it has given. That was true as early as 1540 when conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado marched his eager army through this pinon-and-juniper country looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola—a vanity recalled on today’s map with Cibola National Forest, whose timbered slopes drop down from the 7,796-foot-high crest of the Continental Divide to the two paved lanes of U.S. 60. Read more »

Good Reading

The Plains Acrossi The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60

by John D. Unruh, Jr. University of Illinois Press Illustrations, tables, maps 565 pages, $20.00 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 »

Route 66: Ghost Road Of Okies

People who have been turned out of their homes make keen historians. Forced from the land of their ancestors and onto the open road without a destination, they have a way of remembering—often to the minute of the day—the trauma of departure.Read more »

The Mormons

From Poverty and Persecution to Prosperity and Power

In the month of February, 1846, when conditions for travel were as unpropitious as possible, the Mormons began moving out of their newly built city of Nauvoo, Illinois, in order to cross the ice-strewn Mississippi, on the first leg of a long and uncertain journey. A forced abandoning of barely completed homes, this time with the loss of much property and the necessity for travel in the dead of winter, was no new experience for the adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.Read more »

The Big Thicket

A Last Link with the Living Frontier

 

The Big Thicket is an ecological wonder. This dense forest, sprawling between the Sabine and Trinity rivers in east Texas, constitutes a natural crossroads for plant and animal species from almost every part of the country. No less remarkable is the pioneer way of life that still flourishes where the dwindling generation of settlers’ descendants live in the Thicket’s leafy shadow, just fifty miles from downtown Houston. Read more »