“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

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If these people are a mystery to us, they were in many ways a mystery to themselves too. On July 15, 1846, a fifty-four-year-old mountain man named James Clyman, on his way home to Illinois from California, crossed the Big Blue River traveling west to east and came upon Sarah Keyes’s makeshift grave. A few weeks before and five hundred miles to the west, Clyman had met up with a party of emigrants pausing to recruit and freshen up at Fort Laramie. Among them he had found an old friend from Illinois, James Reed. Clyman, who had just come over the shortcut Reed was eager to take, thought it would be suicide for any large train of covered wagons to attempt the route. He tried to talk Reed out of taking the fatal trail—to no avail.

Now, near the place Edwin Bryant called Alcove Spring, Clyman stood over the grave of his old friend’s mother-in-law, wondering what drove his countrymen and women West. Then he made an extraordinary entry in his diary: “Here I observed the grave of Mrs. Sarah Keyes, aged 70 years, who had departed this life in May last. At her feet stands the stone that gives us this information. This stone shows us that all ages and all sects are found to undertake this long tedious and even dangerous Journey for some unknown object never to be realized even by those the most fortunate. And why? Because the human mind can never be satisfied, never at rest, always on the stretch for something new, some strange novelty.”

Westward Ho!

On March 18, 1846, a wealthy farmer from Springfield, Illinois, placed an advertisement in the Sangamo Journal : “ WESTWARD HO ! For Oregon and California. Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men, of good character, who can drive an ox team, will be accommodated by gentlemen who will leave this vicinity about the middle of April. Come on Boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything. The first suitable persons who apply will be engaged.”

The notice was signed “G. Donner and others.” Three weeks later the nine wagons and thirty-two men, women, and children that formed the core of what came to be called the Donner Party said good-bye to their family and friends and headed West.

To a surprising degree, given all the intervening years, it is still possible to follow something very like the route that George Donner, James Reed, Edwin Bryant, and the other “Californians” took in the summer of 1846. Manifest destiny in its subsequent waves—farms and factories, railroads and highways, telephone lines and high-power wires, and towns and malls and subdivisions—has overtaken and obliterated many physical traces of the old trails. But historians and trail buffs have been able to locate with remarkable precision where all but a few short segments of the main routes ran, and fully 15 percent of the Oregon and California trails remain intact and pristine today.

Perhaps inevitably the inaugural year of the Oregon Trail is harder to pin down. Some have chosen 1836, the year Narcissa Whitman and Eliza H. Spalding became the first white women to walk over the Oregon Trail. Some have selected 1841, the year the first real wagon train made it through. On May 22, 1843, the first of a thousand pioneers left Elm Grove, Missouri, for Oregon—making 1843 the year of the Great Migration, and the year most often chosen as the beginning of the Oregon Trail. This May the official sesquicentennial year of the Oregon Trail is being jointly celebrated by the six key states whose territories the path blazed: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

 
The shallow, lazy Platte was not a river at all, one emigrant complained, but “simply moving sand.’

But by many yardsticks the really crucial year of the pioneer movement—DeVoto’s year of decision—was 1846, the year the theory of Manifest Destiny was put into practice with a vengeance. That was the year of the Mexican War and the cession of Oregon, of the Mormon exodus and the Bear Flag Revolt. It was the year Stephen Foster wrote “Oh! Susannah,” the great anthem of the migration West, and it was the year the Donner Party tried to get to California. No other episode from the pioneer period has so haunted the American imagination, and to this day the unfolding of their terrible fate remains the most frequently retold story of the Oregon and California trails.

Now, 147 years later, it seems worthwhile to trace the route taken by the California-bound emigrants James Clyman couldn’t persuade to follow the safer path: to see what history there is for the finding along the way, what the road can tell us about who they were and what they wanted, and what the journey was like and why they went. Beyond question, the only way to even begin to grasp the magnitude and mystery of the overland migrations is to get into a car, head for Independence, Missouri, the main jumping-off point for the Far Western trails, and go.

Going to the Moon