“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

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Then, as now, springtime on the prairie could be magnificent: changeable, glorious, violent, sometimes terrifying. “A terrific thunder-storm roared and raged, and poured out its floods of water throughout a great portion of the night,” Edwin Bryant noted one night. “The whole arch of the heavens for a time was wrapped in a sheet of flame, and the almost deafening crashes of thunder … seemed as if they would rend the solid earth, or topple it from its axis. A more sublime and awful meteoric display, I never witnessed or could conceive.”

“The clouds in this region,” Francis Parkman observed more economically, “are inflicted with an incontinence of water.”

Fifty miles out of Independence the Oregon Trail angles northwest and begins climbing up the prairie waters of eastern Kansas, heading for the Nebraska border and the Platte. Here most concrete traces of the emigrant road vanished long ago beneath the farms and highways and county roads. But its meandering course across the shortgrass prairie can still be tracked easily enough with a map in hand, following the undulating green line of cottonwood and willow trees that crowd along the river the road once paralleled.

By 1846 graves were already a routine sight along the trail. “One morning,” Francis Parkman wrote, “a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it, apparently by a red-hot piece of iron:

MARY ELLIS Died May 7th, 1845 AGED TWO MONTHS

Such tokens were of common occurrence.” The mortality rate on the overland trails was appalling: Of the half-million emigrants who went West between 1842 and 1866, perhaps as many as thirty thousand—6 percent—died, disease being far and away the chief killer. By 1866 travelers along the Platte River reported seeing a grave every eighty yards for most of the way.

Three hundred and ten miles out of Independence, in the heart of present-day Nebraska, the Oregon Trail leaves the banks of the Little Blue, jumps up onto the Platte, and continues west along that river’s south bank.

Emigrants tended to greet the Platte with mixed emotions. The broad, shallow, lazy river—“a mile wide and an inch deep”—was not a river at all, one emigrant complained, but “simply moving sand.” Its warm, muddy water was unpleasant to drink and often dangerously contaminated, partaking, one traveler recalled, “of the same laxative properties of the Missouri and Mississippi.”

And yet the Platte was, in the words of its pre-eminent historian, Merrill Mattes, “the great natural migration corridor” for transcontinental traffic east and west. Indians, fur trappers, missionaries, explorers, pioneers, forty-niners, the U.S. Army, the pony express, the stagecoach, the telegraph, the Union Pacific Railroad, and, in our own time, AT&T and Interstate 80 all have exploited the hard, level apron of ground that runs beside the river.

Sometime in June, somewhere along the Platte, home would begin to seem like a dream to the travelers. Somewhere along the endless gleaming river road, the sheer magnitude of the journey, the geographical immensity of the enterprise they had undertaken, began to sink into their souls and, inexorably, to transform them.

They had been traveling for more than two months now, and the anticipated dangers of the journey—Indians, Mormons, disease—had begun to give way to a subtler affliction. Nothing changed. The empty, treeless plains, the endless horizon, the shimmering haze, and the sudden, drenching thunderstorms mesmerized the travelers. Mile after mile, day after day the sun beat down, the wagons rolled up the long slope of the continent, the Platte flowed back behind them, and nothing changed.

“How I wish the Indians would attack,” one emigrant wrote in her diary.

They were in the haunt of the Pawnees and the Sioux. They passed lodges and hunting parties and burial mounds, but no one molested them. “We suffered vastly more from fear of the Indians be fore starting,” James Reed’s stepdaughter Virginia recalled, “than we [have] on the plains.”

They had arrived in buffalo country. “The plains appeared to be one living, moving mass,” James Reed wrote on June 16. He made his debut as a buffalo hunter that day, killing four and riding into camp, where he was acclaimed, by his own report, “the acknowledged hero of the day” and “the most successful buffalo hunter on the route.”

That was a century and a half ago. There are trees now along the Platte, which was once almost completely barren of timber. The big herds of buffalo that once blackened the plain to the horizon, and that sometimes took two days or more to thunder by, are gone. Interstate 80 runs along the flat, mercury-colored river under the blazing prairie sun for what seems like an eternity.