- Historic Sites
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
One of life’s ironies is that no generation knows what history will make of its doings, or upon what symbols the future will seize to sum up the past’s greatest strivings. The bold, pioneering emigrants who led the way across the Great Plains would never have suspected that their symbol would be the humble and utilitarian vehicle in which they made their journey. As the long ride and the log cabin stand for the settling of the first frontier across the Alleghenies, the sturdy covered wagon will forever call to mind the winning of the West.
To be sure, subsequent generations have somewhat distorted the reality. Most modern illustrations of covered wagons, for example, depict the huge and lumbering Conestoga, with its boat shaped bed and sloping sides, its cover overhanging front and rear to give the whole a “swayback” appearance. Originating about 1750 in Pennsylvania, it flourished for a century. But it was almost never used beyond the Missouri except by freighters along the Santa Fe Trail. The Conestoga was uselessly heavy for the long pull to Oregon or California, and most of the few that were ill-advisedly taken on that journey had to be abandoned somewhere along the road. Physically, the emigrants’ vehicles were about the same as the so-called “movers’ wagons” that had taken earlier travelers on shorter, less heroic journeys. To go from one point to another farther west—from Connecticut to Ohio, say, or from Georgia to Alabama—the mover merely packed his wagon, hitched up, and went off over an already established road. He passed through a familiar type of country. He bought needed supplies at village stores. If a wagon broke down, or an ox died, or a child took sick, he could find whatever assistance was needed. The journey was seldom of more than a few hundred miles, and was not likely to require more than a month or six weeks.
Then, about 1840, the situation changed. Partly the change was geographical; partly political; partly, perhaps, psychological. Geographically, the central frontier now lay in Iowa and Missouri. Beyond it, in what is now eastern Nebraska and Kansas, there was some land that by the standards of the time was potentially good for farming. But this was a rather narrow belt, and in the eyes of a farmer of 1840 there was nothing much to be expected of it. Moreover, there was the political barrier, since Congress had established this nearer region as Indian territory. There was also room for settlers in Minnesota, but this was a cold and inhospitable region from the point of view of a southerner—and the cutting edge of the frontier was largely southern. Finally, by 1840 there had been a good deal of favorable publicity about both Oregon and California. The latter, to be sure, was still a part of Mexico. “But,” anyone could say, “look at what happened in Texas!”
Thus the problem in 1840 was vastly different from that faced by earlier movers. The distance to be traversed totaled about two thousand miles, and it must be made in one jump, between winter and winter. The intervening country was unsettled, so that any emergency must be met with the materials at hand. There was nothing that could be called an established road for wagons. The country was not the well-watered and generally benign eastern terrain, but was largely mountainous and arid. The Indians had not already retreated before the advancing white man, but were wholly untamed; many were powerful and warlike.
Thus presented, the odds seem impossible. A saying later current in California begins, “The cowards never started.” One would be inclined to go a little further and say, “Only the madmen started!” Yet start they did, and after some failures they were successful. Thus, rightly, an epic achievement placed the covered wagon in its present niche of glory.
Behind that achievement lay a psychic drive, a desire, almost a passion, to keep moving—and there was only one direction: westward! Many of the emigrants have left records of their motives. Negatively, they specify the wish to escape the agricultural depression that followed the panic of 1837, or the desire to get away from the malaria that raged throughout the Mississippi Valley. Positively, they mention the attractions of Oregon and California—the climate, the rich farmland, the chance to get ahead. Many went out of the sheer love of adventure—and an occasional one, like the absconding banker in the emigration of 1841, because he was fleeing the police.
The other motives seem to have been obscure to the emigrants themselves, but hindsight enables us to see them clearly. With many of these people, moving had become a habit, even an ancestral habit. Their journey to the Pacific Coast was not their first one. Joseph Chiles was only thirty-one years old when he headed west in ’41, but he had already moved from Kentucky to Missouri. George Donner, captain of the ill-fated party in ’46, had been born in North Carolina, but had lived in Kentucky, Indiana, Texas, and Illinois. Many, indeed, were Englishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen, or Germans, to whom the Mississippi Valley was only a way stop. To all of these people, “going west” was as natural as swimming upstream is to a salmon.
Mere monotony and ennui must have been a second unconscious but important reason. After a man, or a woman, had vegetated on a frontier farm for ten years, sheer boredom would be likely to make the risks of the journey seem rather attractive. One man put it simply. He had always liked to fish, he said, and he had heard that there was good fishing in Oregon.
These, then, were the forces that drove men west. How would they get there?
First among those factors that made desire practical were the trappers and missionaries who had already gained some knowledge of the country. This knowledge, indeed, was far from complete. The idea that the mountain men “knew every foot of the West” is sheer nonsense, as the history of the migration makes startlingly clear. Still, what they did know was invaluable. They had even taken wheeled vehicles—carts, generally—a long way along the road.
The ignorance of the first emigrants and the comparative knowledge of these others is strikingly demonstrated by the situation in ’41. The emigrants had assembled their wagons on the Missouri frontier, ready to start, when they discovered that not one of them had the slightest idea of what the route was. Luckily, they were able to attach themselves to a company of missionaries led by the famous Belgian Jesuit Pierre Jean De Smet and guided by “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick, one of the famous mountain men. This guidance served the emigrants excellently for about half the distance, and then they were forced to press on into a country about which even the mountain men could tell them little—and with disastrous results. Still, however limited, the information and leadership supplied by the mountain men—Fitzpatrick, Joseph Walker, Caleb Greenwood, Isaac Hitchcock—were essential aids to the migration.
Granted the desire and some information, the frontier people next had to make the choice among three traditional modes of transportation: the cart, the pack train, or the wagon.
The two-wheeled cart seems scarcely to have been considered. At first glance, this seems curious. Carts were in use on many farms. They were strong and highly maneuverable. To the south, in Mexico, the carreta had served excellently during the magnificent push of the frontier northward. To the north, the so-called Red River cart, pulled by two or three mules in tandem, had become the standard means of transport on the Canadian prairies; American fur traders had adopted them, too, and had taken long trains of them as far as the Rocky Mountains.
But the cart was primarily adapted to the transportation of goods, not of families. And the emigration was primarily a family matter. A house on wheels was what was needed, and this the cart simply did not provide. Occasionally, when his team was reduced by death or exhaustion, some emigrant cut his wagon down to cartsize and thus was able to continue, but this is about all we hear of carts in the migration proper.
On the other hand, the pack train had its definite place. The mule, and less commonly the horse, already served as a pack animal for the mountain men, and during the migration, notably in 1849, was often employed. The advantages were obvious. The greater speed of movement meant carrying a smaller weight of supplies; the over-all time could be cut by at least a month, and the dangerous stretches of desert could be traversed more quickly. Pack trains could ford streams and cross mountains and rough country much more easily than could wagons.
But for migrating families the disadvantages of the pack train were extreme. Most farm women could ride, but few could withstand the day-after-day jouncing that would add up to two thousand miles. If the wife was pregnant (and many set out in that condition), it was obviously foolish to attempt such a ride. Small children were equally unsuited to the pack train. And there were other handicaps. As an ox driver noted: “The pack-mule companies are a pitiful set of slaves. They have to sit on their mules roasting in the sun all day. If they get down to walk or rest themselves, they must be bothered leading the animals. When they stop at night, they must unpack everything. In the mornings they have to repack everything.”
Finally, in the event of accident or severe illness to one of its members, the pack train faced disaster. In a wagon train a man with a broken leg or a case of dysentery could be trundled along. If such a situation arose in a pack train (and difficulties were only to be expected), there was no humane solution. The barbarous abandonment of comrades on the road, such as was recorded in ’49 especially, must have resulted from this dilemma.
Pack-train companies, therefore, generally consisted of young men, willing to risk their chances of getting through quickly against their chances of not getting through at all.
There remained, then, the wagon. Its disadvantages were obvious—it was slow, heavy, cumbersome, subject to breakage, difficult to take across rivers, ravines, and mountains or through rocky country. But it served as a moving home, invoked less daily unpacking and repacking, allowed more pounds to be transported per animal, supplied an ambulance for the sick, and—when properly placed in formation—offered a fortress against attack. Thus it became a standard vehicle of the westward migration.
The wagon consisted of three parts—body, top, and running gear. The body, or bed, was a wooden box—often, indeed, so-called—nine or ten feet long and about four feet wide. Generally the sides and ends, about two feet high, went up perpendicularly, but on wagons of the so-called Murphy type they flared outward, as if imitating the Conestoga in miniature. Many emigrants built a false floor twelve or fifteen inches from the bottom of the bed. The lower space was divided into compartments and used for storing reserve supplies. With this clutter out of the way, the false floor was used for ordinary living.
The wagon boxes served their purpose, were subjected to no particular strain, and gave no trouble. They are seldom mentioned at all in the diaries. The top or cover was the most conspicuous part of the whole outfit, and has supplied the distinguishing adjective in the phrase “covered wagon.”
This top was of canvas (then usually called twill) or else of some cloth which had been waterproofed with paint or linseed oil. It was supported by bows of bent hickory, usually five or six in number. On the ordinary straight-sided bed these went straight up. There was thus no overhang at front or rear and no swayback. Flaps at the front and a “puckering string” at the back allowed ventilation or complete closing. Inside, the wagon was thus a tiny room, about ten by four, with sides partly of wood and partly of canvas rising almost perpendicularly to a height of four or five feet and then arching over. A man could stand upright along the center line. On wagons with flaring sides the bows followed the lines of the sides before arching over, producing a more cylindrical effect, with perhaps a front and rear overhang.
The top effectively protected goods and people against the weather. In an upset, it might be torn and some of the bows broken, and in thick forest country overhanging branches sometimes ripped the cloth, but there was not much country of that kind. When going head-on into the strong westerly winds of the plains, some companies put the tops down to reduce wind resistance. But on the whole the tops, like the boxes, produced few problems.
Not so the running gear. In the numerous booklets of advice surviving from the period, there is always the admonition that the wagons should be light and strong. Obviously the two qualities are somewhat incompatible, and even the best materials and workmanship could not always produce a vehicle that would get through without breakage.
By the mid-nineteenth century the construction of running gear had reached a high degree of sophistication. Readers of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poem about the one-hoss shay will remember the care and the many different woods that went into construction of the deacon’s masterpiece. Though the emigrant’s wagon might not have been that carefully constructed, it could well have had hubs of elm or Osage orange, spokes of oak, felloes of ash, and tongue and hounds of hickory. Moreover, the tires were of iron, and iron was used for reinforcement at critical points.
Yet lightness was essential too, or the teams would be worn out by the mere dead weight of the wagon. The result, as in the airplane decades later, was a compromise. In the end, breakages were frequent, precipitating many a crisis and many a tragedy.
Tongues snapped on sharp turns. Front axles gave way on sudden down-drops. These were the commonest accidents, and were taken almost as routine. “Occasionally we break a tongue or an axletree,” wrote an emigrant of ’49, as if thinking it all in the day’s work. Some emigrants carried extra parts, but this added to the total weight, and so was doubtful practice. Usually the nearest suitable tree supplied timber, though “nearest” was sometimes not very near. In ’46, when one of J. F. Reed’s wagons suffered a broken axle near Great Salt Lake, his teamsters had to go fifteen miles to find a tree large enough to furnish a replacement. Not many were as unlucky as Ira Butterfield, who in 1861 snapped both axles at once while crossing Skull Creek. Fortunately he was with a large, well-equipped company, so that the accident meant only a twenty-four hour delay, and not disaster.
Wheels, however, were irreplaceable; if one broke, the wagon might have to be abandoned. But usually, wheels were extremely tough and rarely gave way except in the roughest mountain passages. True, many a wheel gave trouble because of shrinkage in the dry air of the desert, but then wedges could be driven under the tire. Eventually the tire might have to be taken off, heated red-hot, and reset on the wheel.
Although we are not well informed as to the exact dimensions of most parts of the wagon, for one wheel at least there is a meticulous measurement, made by William Clayton, a Mormon of the 1847 migration. Having decided to make an odometer, he carefully measured a hind wheel, and found it to be fourteen feet, eight inches in circumference, or four feet, eight inches in height. This was undoubtedly a large wheel; the average one probably stood almost a foot lower.
Front wheels were always smaller than hind wheels, to make the vehicle more maneuverable. On many wagons they were not more than six inches lower, preventing turns exceeding about thirty degrees. An occasional one had wheels so low that they would pass under the bed, and thus permit turns of ninety degrees or more, but small wheels made for harder pulling.
The ordinary wagon had neither springs nor brakes, but an essential part of the equipment was the “tar bucket.” Traditionally it hung from the rear axle but was carried elsewhere when fording streams or traversing rocky passages. The term “tar” must be taken as highly flexible. Often the bucket contained tar or resin mixed half-and-half with tallow. Since these contents were used steadily to grease the wheels and kingbolt, the supply decreased, and before the end of the journey the emigrants might be using anything that came handy and would serve. A Mormon in ’47 shot a wolf, apparently for mere rifle practice. He found the animal to be exceptionally fat, so he tried the fat out and added wolf grease to the mixture in the bucket. Later these same Mormons found an oil seep, and filled their buckets at it-thus being among the first Americans to use a petroleum lubricant.∗
Such was the wagon in which the average pioneer rode to Oregon or California. And since his comfort—and sometimes his very life—depended on it, a man had an appreciation for a good one. The youthful Isaac Jones Wistar, later a Union general, started for California early in ’49. On the street in Cincinnati a wagon caught his eye, and he sized it up as he might a horse or a woman—“light, strong, short-coupled.” Then and there, though the wagon was in use, he made an offer. Later, he was able to write proudly:
I made no mistake, for that wagon proved to be one of the only two of our entire outfit which survived the searching trials of the rocks and mountains, of alkali plains and desiccating deserts, and actually reached the Pacific Coast.
Granted, then, that the four-wheeled wagon was to be the vehicle of empire, how was it to be hauled? There were three possibilities—horses, mules, oxen.
Many modern representations to the contrary, the horse was really ruled out from the beginning. Though that noble animal could move faster than the ox and could pull more than the mule, he could not match the ability of either to endure the long haul, the constant work, and the insufficient food. To do his best work, a horse needed grain, and grain could not be transported. Every train, indeed, had its riding horses, and these often got through. They were not, however, worked as hard as the team animals, and being more valuable, were given special care.
Only in the later years of the trail, from 1850 onward, did horse teams begin to be fairly common. By this time the road was better established, and swifter-moving transport had its advantages: grain was sometimes carried along so that the animals could have proper feed, at least during the first few weeks. To give them their due, the horses seem to have stood up well enough then, when the journey was not so arduous.
As between the mule and the ox, however, there doubtless were endless arguments around the campfires, punctuated by tobacco juice spat into the embers.
“Mules move faster.”
“Yes, but oxen can pull more.”
“Oxen don’t stampede so easy.”
“Yes, but when they do, they run worse.”
It could go on forever. Mules bogged down in mud, but could live on cottonwood bark. The Plains Indians would steal mules, but not oxen. Oxen, however, were more likely to get sore feet.
As a “mule man” we may cite William Johnston, who crossed in ’49 under the pilotage of James Stewart, an old Santa Fe trader who loved mules and handled them expertly. As Johnston wrote, “Stewart’s concern is always for the mules—he wastes no thought on the men.” Thus coddled, the animals responded vigorously: “It was a noble sight to see those small, tough, earnest, honest Spanish mules, every nerve strained to the utmost, examples of obedience, and of duty performed under trying circumstances.” As the result of Stewart’s efficiency, the men could claim that theirs was the first wagon train to get to California that year—and the mules were still in good condition.
As an “ox man” we have Peter H. Burnett, of ’43, later to be the first governor of the state of California. In his train were both oxen and mules, and he found the oxen “greatly superior.” He narrated their virtues thus: “The ox is a most noble animal, patient, thrifty, durable, gentle, and easily driven, and does not run off. Those who come to this country will be in love with their oxen by the time they reach here.”
The expression “dumb ox” is not found in diaries of the migration. Oxen seem to have been at least as intelligent as mules and much more so than most horses. They were individually named, and had personality. J. Q. Thornton, of ’46, may be called to testify. He has left us the names and characters of the eight in his four yoke. There was Brady, who died at South Pass. Thornton called Star and Golden “unreliable,” though perhaps they were just intelligent and strong-willed: they used to hide in the thickets at yoking-up time, and then look innocent when found. Thornton mentioned four others as being good enough and “tolerably honest”—Sam, John, Tom, and Nig. But his love was Dick, who was all that an ox ought to be and was labeled in one word: “faultless.”
The long-continued case of Mule v. Ox, as J. S. Holliday points out in his doctoral dissertation, could never really be decided.
Numerically, however, the verdict was in favor of the ox. In 1850 a count at Fort Laramie showed 36,116 oxen passing through and only 7,548 mules—and the latter figure apparently included pack-train animals. Quite possibly the deciding factor was the expense. One price list of the period gives the cost of a mule as $75 and of an ox as $25. Though the prices varied from year to year, the ratio probably remained about the same. In the long run the use of oxen became so prevalent that “ox-team emigrant” became a generic term.
The number of oxen to the wagon varied considerably. Four—that is, two yoke—was the minimum. Three yoke was perhaps the average, but four was not uncommon; six yoke was probably the maximum that could be handled on the twisting mountain roads. The bigger teams could haul heavier loads, and the strain on the individual animal was less. On the other hand, the more animals, the more work to guard and care for them, and pasturage had to be found.
Generally some of the cattle—especially in trains that included children—were milch cows. These were usually just driven along, but sometimes were put under the yoke. Extra cattle were usually taken along as spares and for a supply of fresh meat, though some people thought that such a herd was more nuisance than it was worth. The total number of cattle was thus regularly about twice that of the men and women.
The fate of most of these faithful beasts was a sad one. Rare was the ox or cow that lived to a quiet and respected old age on the deep-grassed pastures of Oregon or California. Many of them were slaughtered on the trail for beef, and we can scarcely even imagine that the best-loved ones were spared the longest. There was little place for sentiment on the desert, and the ox that began to fail was undoubtedly the one to be butchered. Remembering, however, that the ancient Greeks sacrificed an ox only after ritual weeping for the death of “man’s companion,” we can believe that on Goose Creek or along the Humboldt there were sad thoughts in him who did the deed, and tears in women’s eyes, and the wailing of children—and perhaps the beef did not sit well, even on a very empty stomach. Yet this was another virtue of the ox, that he could thus yield food. Of course, the mule also could be, and was, eaten—but always with prejudice.
To every ox slaughtered, however, a dozen or a score died of disease, of drinking alkali water, of Digger arrows, of thirst, or of slow starvation and overwork. Notations on dead oxen are a monotonous feature of the diaries. J. Goldsborough Bruff of ’49, a great counter, kept busy during five days on the Rabbit Hole and Black Rock stretch in northwestern Nevada, where someone had left a posted notice on a bit of broken axle: "This is the place of destruction to team." Bruff’s total was 603 dead oxen.
Such mass catastrophe may not move us as much as the death of one known individual animal. We may quote James Mason’s elegy of August 2, 1850, on Cassia Creek: “Here we lost old Sock. He died rather sudden. He was much lamented by the boys as he was our main Sanby [stand-by] at the start.”
We should remember a little the faithful beasts that died. Sometimes they dropped under the yokes and were left lying. Often they were merely abandoned, standing, too weak to follow, left a prey to the wolves. Sometimes a kindly bullet finished the matter. Except for a little meat cut off for food, no one bothered with the carcasses; on some stretches they lay so thick that a blind man could have followed the trail by the stench. Then for a few years the skeletons lay dazzling white in the desert sun, pale white under the moon.
In reckoning the price of the land we might well be no less thoughtful of the animals than that kindhearted Lord, the God of heaven, when he spoke to Jonah of saving the men—and beasts—of Nineveh. Yes, in that reckoning of the price we might remember his final words: “…and also much cattle.”
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.
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.
Jno A. Dawson, St. Louis, Mo. Died Oct. 1st, 1849 from eating a poisonous root at the spring.
Mr. Eastman;— The deceased was killed by an Indian arrow; Octr. 4th, 1849
Saml. A. Fitzzimmons, died from effects of a wound received from a bowie-knife in the hands of Geo. Symington Aug. 25th 1849
Died: “Of cholera … Of cholera … Of cholera.” (That most often!) Died: “Of accidental discharge of his gun.” Died: (there was a doctor in this company) “Disease, Gastro Enterites Typhoid.” Died: “Of drowning.” Often, simply: “Died.”
Died: “From Southport, Wisconsin … Late of Galena, Ill. … Of Selma, Alabama … From Yorkshire, England … Of Buffalo, N.Y.” Died: sometimes with only the name for identification.
Died: “Mrs. Mildred Moss, wife of D. H. T. Moss.” Died (as if registering in some last hotel): “Robert Gilmore and wife.” Died: “Frederic William, son of James M. and Mary Fulkerson.” Died (two weeks farther westward): “Mary, consort of J. M. Fulkerson.”
Died: “Mrs. Emmaline Barnes, Amanda and Mahela Robbins, three sisters in one grave, Indiana.”
There were graves without names: “The remains of a dead man dug up by wolves, and reburied.”
Some were laid in their graves succinctly, perhaps as time pressed; some were granted a few more words:
Samuel McFarlin, of Wright Co Mo. died 27th Sep. 1849, of fever, Aged, 44 years.— May he rest peaceably in this savage unknown country
Jno. Hoover, died, June 1849 Aged 12 yrs. Rest in peace, sweet boy, for thy travels are over.
As Virgil wrote: Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem. Yes, it was a great labor to establish the Roman people. So also it was to pass the barrier of mountains and deserts and thus round out the shape of a republic. The covered wagon stands as the symbol, and we should not forget its dead. “All this too was part of the price of the taking-over of the land.”
∗The Mexican carreta, by contrast, was never greased—a lack which Americans considered shiftless—and its screeching was notorious. An interesting etymological question is thus raised. Why, except by the ancient principle of lucus a non lucendo, should not the Americans, who were so fond of lubricant, (instead of the Mexicans, who never touched the stuff) be called greasers?