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The Prairie Schooner Got Them There
Fortress, ambulance, amphibious home on wheels—the humble covered wagon stands as the symbol of the winning of the West
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
And, of course, there were the Indian troubles, which gave rise to the greatest myth of the trail. The wagon train of fiction-in Hough’s Covered Wagon, for instance—moves from one desperate Indian attack to another. The record, however, shows little of this sort. The trains actually moved only by favor and friendship of the powerful Plains tribes.
A moment’s reflection should show that this must be true. When the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho really went to war in the sixties, they fought and sometimes defeated whole armies. What would they have done with a few emigrants?
The wagon trains seem to have interested and amused the Indians. (Doubtless, life in the tepee became monotonous at times.) Besides, the emigrants could be cajoled or scared into giving gifts, which the Indians probably considered a kind of tribute. The emigrants had much more trouble with the despised Diggers in the desert country than they ever had with the lordly Sioux. For one reason, the emigrants themselves were on their good behavior among the powerful tribes. No one in his right mind went about insulting or mistreating a Sioux in the land of his own strength. But in ’45 a half-breed emigrant wantonly shot a Paiute. Probably there were also unrecorded atrocities, and from that time on there was trouble along the Humboldt. In ’46 something of a pitched battle occurred, and one white man was killed. Emigrants learned not to camp within bowshot of the willows that fringed any stream. Otherwise they might wake up to find several oxen crippled by arrows, and perhaps the cattle guard himself laid out, agape at the morning sun. The emigrants were likely to retaliate by shooting on sight.
But all this is very different from the epic legend of the beleaguered wagon train. We all know the picture: the wagons are drawn up in a circle; from them the men fire their rifles; around the outside the mounted Indians circle on their horses, shooting with their bows.
How often did it happen? I have been reading covered-wagon records for a long time now. All I can say is that I have never found one such example.
We can see why, if we consider the realities. The Plains Indian was a good fighter, but he had no more liking than any other man for getting himself killed. Once a wagon train was in position, garrisoned by some determined riflemen, all the odds were against the Indian. The bullets far outranged his arrows, and he and his pony would have had little chance of even getting within bowshot of the enemy before being brought down. Why should any professional warrior thus gallop around and let himself be shot at? Why—especially when he could just as well wait until the wagon train was strung out helplessly on the trail? The beleaguered wagon train is one part of the story which I think we shall have to give over to the writers of fiction.
Otherwise, I can see no reason to start debunking the covered-wagon story. It might even be built up a little. Its very audacity—an attempt to cross two thousand miles of wilderness—is breathtaking. Those who love to sing the praises of free enterprise should make more of it. Here was free enterprise at its rawest. Until the later fifties, the travelers got no appreciable government aid, not even for exploration. Except for the Mormons, there is nothing that can be called large scale corporate action. The unit was the family.
In this last connection we come to another source of continuing interest in the story. The frontier, in most of its dramatic history, is a man’s world. Exploration, trapping, Indian fighting—here the women and children had no place except by accident. Even in the mining camp and on the cattle ranch, women were so scarce that the novelist usually had to go to great trouble to import a schoolmarm or someone’s far-strayed daughter. But the families were right there in the covered wagons—the women and children often outnumbering the men. And family life kept right on. If there was a preacher along, like the Reverend Mr. Dunleavy in ’46, he was likely to be called upon not only for funerals but also for marriages. From the number of children born less than nine months after the arrival of the trains in Oregon or California, we should judge that the amenities of family life were not neglected during the journey. On the other hand, pregnancy was no bar against setting out. The Stevens party of ’44 arrived stronger by two than when it left. Even that first migration, of ’41, had a woman along. This was Mrs. Nancy Kelsey, a ripe eighteen years of age, who stated roundly, “Where my husband goes, I can go,” and went—taking a baby with her. So did others—the women following their men, the children with them.
The graves of all three lined the trail. In the early years the herd was milled over a new-made grave or the wagons run across it, so that the Indians could not find it and dig the body up. In later years, when there were more emigrants and few Indians, little headboards or crosses of wood stood along the trail. But certainly we should not accept that slogan, “The weak died by the way.” Since when did Death refuse to take the strong? They may go to him first by their very strength. So, sometimes, we think, reading the words that the keepers of the diaries copied down.
M. De Morst, of Col: Ohio, died Sep. 16th. 1849 Aged 50 years, Of Camp Fever.