The Youngest Pioneers


By and large, they seem to have preferred highly competitive games that stressed strategy. And they invented some of their own. Near Fort Hall, young boys found that when they dived onto a dead ox, its sun-bloated stomach would fling them back. This became a contest, with each competitor jumping harder and bouncing farther. Finally a lanky boy sprinted, leaped head-first —and plunged deep into the rotting carcass. Only with difficulty did his friends pull him out.

The same group of boys was expected to find fuel for the company’s evening fires, and this, too, turned into a competition. At the end of the day they organized teams and divided the area around the night’s camp into districts. Each group scoured its section and tried to amass the largest pile of buffalo chips, driving away all chip rustlers and claim jumpers with barrages of dried dung.

Circumstances often left a boy or girl with grave responsibilities. At fourteen, Octavius Pringle was sent on a lifesaving ride of 125 miles to fetch food for his group.

Most of the work was not so light. Children herded, cooked, hunted, gathered water, cared for babies, and did other important tasks. And circumstances often left a boy or girl with graver responsibilities. When his fatherless family was abandoned by a hired hand, the eleven-year-old Elisha Brooks drove the animals, stood guard at night, and in general took charge. At fourteen, Octavius Pringle was sent on a lifesaving ride of 125 miles to fetch food for his group. Children of ten and under sometimes drove ox teams, cared for herds, and took part in difficult family decisions, and ones only a little older served on picket duty and chose camping sites. When the challenge of the road left her parents floundering, a daughter barely in her teens virtually took over the family of twelve. “They all depend on her,” wrote a fellow traveler. “The children go to her in their troubles and perplexities, her father and mother rely on her, and she is always ready to do what she can.”

Young girls in particular had chances to fill new roles—and to taste the complications that came with them. Mary Ellen Todd, eleven, learned to drive the oxen pulling her family to Oregon. Later she recalled: “How my heart bounded … when I chanced to hear father say to mother, ‘Do you know that Mary Ellen is beginning to crack the whip?’ Then how it fell again, when mother replied, ‘I am afraid it isn’t a very lady-like thing for a girl to do.’ After this, while I felt a secret joy in being able to have power that sets things going, there was also some sense of shame.…”

Bobbing in a frail vessel across a vast landscape, youngsters learned quickly of dangers from which their parents could not protect them. Nothing taught this more vividly than the famous Plains thunderstorms. Jesse Applegate wrote seventy years afterward of the first one he encountered as a seven-year-old: “Sometime during the night, I suddenly awoke. The rain was pouring down in my face, my eyes were blinded with the glare of lightning, the wind was roaring like a furnace, and the crash of thunder was terrible and almost continuous. I could see nothing but what looked like sheets of fire, and hear nothing but the wind, the pouring rain, and the bellowing thunder.”

Being lost or stolen could suddenly seem a real possibility on the trail. One seven-year-old sent to fetch a horse became disoriented and wandered for hours until he was found that night, miles from his party. Another, age three, was found whimpering under some sagebrush a day after he walked away from camp.

“A dreadful fear of Indians was born and grown into me,” remembered a girl who had crossed the Plains at five and had nightmares for years. Fed on stories of babies kidnapped by savages, children typically went into a panic at their first sight of a Pawnee or Osage. An older boy recalled that the sight of scalps strung around a warrior’s waist had “made me homesick”; many younger children, especially, never mastered their dread. Emma Shepherd wrote that every night on the trail was “full of terror” as she imagined that each breeze-blown bush was a skulking native.

But Indians were usually far more a help than a hindrance. Along the Sweetwater in 1852, a party of Crows took pity on a fatherless family and traveled with them for more than a week. It was quite a sight: braves in panther robes rode before their favorite wives, tattooed and draped in mantles of bird skins, while behind them came the older women, dogs, and finally an ox team with an exhausted white mother and her tattered brood of six. One of the boys remembered: “We were a Wild West Show.”

Inevitably there were those who suffered terribly. An emigrant approaching the Sierra in 1850 would have passed children sitting by the wagon ruts sucking on pork rinds and eating rawhide. A widow of the trail recalled that near the end of her trip, her nine famished children “all would go out in the Woods and smoke the Woud mice out of the Logs and Rost and eat them.”