The Prairie Schooner Got Them There

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Thus, in the end, the covered wagon is to be considered a kind of double symbol—the wagon itself and the oxen that pulled it. With this equipment the epic movement was accomplished.

In 1841 came the first attempts—unsuccessful, in that the emigrants were forced to leave their wagons and proceed on horseback or muleback or afoot. In ’42, the wagons got through to Oregon. In ’43 came the great migration to Oregon, and Joe Walker made a gallant try for California, though in the end he had to leave the three wagons. At last in ’44 Elisha Stevens broke the Sierra barrier and took wagons across what would one day be called Donner Pass.

Thus, the emigration first pointed toward Oregon, and the term Oregon Trail has stuck. But from ’46 onward, California tended to steal the show. In ’49 came the cataclysm of the Gold Rush, and for a few years anyone going to Oregon was a curiosity. Indeed, ’50 was probably bigger than ’49, and, according to some, ’52 was the biggest of all. The migration died down somewhat in the later fifties, and Oregon began to get a better share again.

The “trail” it was called—seldom the “road.” The distinction is significant. “Trail,” an Americanism in this sense, meant a route of travel that had been established merely by use. “Road” was reserved for something that had been definitely laid out and constructed, as was Lander’s Road from the Sweetwater River to Fort Hall.

In many places you can still see the trail, sometimes even follow it for miles. Across the prairies and through the sagebrush there was easy going. Even there, however, the trail never runs straight, but always slightly sinuously—where the oxen of the lead team adjusted their course to inequalities of ground or growth, and where the following thousands, over two decades and more, kept to the same trace.

The trail never follows the contours of a hill, because the wagons had a high center of gravity and tipped easily, and because the making of a “dugway” was too much work for the emigrants. But almost no steepness of ascent deflects the trail, because the teams could be doubled. Nor does a sharp downgrade: one, two, or all four wheels could be locked, or the wagons could even be let down by ropes snubbed around trees. Lakes and swampy places could be skirted. Smaller streams were forded as a matter of course, the difficulty of getting down the bank into the stream often being greater than crossing it. Larger streams, up to about four feet in depth, could also be forded. Across the deeper ones the wagon beds were raised upon blocks set upon the axle and bolster, an uplift of about a foot being considered safe. The few streams that were still deeper had to be ferried, either by improvising rafts of logs or by calking and floating the wagon beds.

To generalize about the conditions of the long trek is difficult. The teams plodded monotonously westward. Heat, dust, and mosquitoes! Quarrels, resulting from too-long association in the same company! But the emigrants (they were always “emigrants” and never “immigrants”) remembered good times also—dancing on the prairie, singing around the campfire, exciting chases after buffalo, breathtaking first sights of the wonders of this new land: snow-covered peaks in July, boiling springs, mirages, ancient volcanic craters.

Some of the wagon people were both strong in body and exuberant in personality, and these traits shine through in their diaries like lamps burning steadily. Such a one was Thomas Turnbull of ’52. Nothing downed his optimism and enthusiasm. It was always: “the best feed I mostly ever saw … plenty of wood here … the handsomest roads I ever saw … the best grass of every kind I ever saw in the United States … the best road I ever saw, as level as a plank.” (But, to be sure, he could also go to superlatives in the opposite direction: “Mosquitoes the worst I ever saw.”)

Another one was Lydia Waters of ’55. Everything had equal zest for her—driving oxen, or herding the loose cattle, or presiding at a childbirth. She seems quite in character when comparing a wattled hut to a champagne basket. Again, when she crossed the Forty-Mile Desert, she did not write of hell. But on arriving at the Truckee River, she could put it thus: “If I ever saw Heaven, I saw it there.” Naturally she was the one who could write in retrospect: “There were many things to laugh about.”

Danger and death, like battles in a war, were always a nerve-gnawing possibility, but they occurred on very few days. From year to year, according to the conditions, the face of peril changed. The first trains had the hardest time because of sheer geographical ignorance and the necessity of breaking trail. Partly by skill and stamina, partly by good luck, they got through with remarkably few casualties. The greatest disaster, that of the Donner party, did not come until ’46, and then as the result of human duplicity and fallibility, and an early winter. The Forty-niners followed a crowded trail; their cattle died from lack of pasturage.

In ’49 and several subsequent years, cholera rode the wagons out onto the plains, and there came to be a string of graves along the trail. In the later fifties there were difficulties with white desperadoes; one group captured an entire train, and sent the people off westward on foot.