This edited article about the American West originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 741 published on 27 March 1976.
Night and day, the uproar never ceased. Shouts and raucous laughter split the air, waggons creaked and whips cracked, but above all the din was the never-ending sound of hammers beating down on anvils in a score of blacksmiths’ shops, where the covered waggons were being repaired and got ready for their 2,000 mile (approx. 3,200 km.) journey to Oregon.
The streets were crowded with horses, mules and oxen, and with every kind of men: fashionably dressed, hard-eyed gamblers, prosperous-looking storekeepers, Spanish traders, Indians and rugged-looking fur trappers in buckskins who were known all over the West as Mountain Men. But the largest group were the emigrants, men, women and children who were getting ready to head north-west for the promised land of Oregon, for this was Independence, Missouri in the 1840s and America – or part of it – was on the move.
Independence, with 30 stores, two hotels, numerous boarding houses, and around 1,600 inhabitants, was the most important of several starting points. It marked the start of three great trails, the Santa Fe, the California and the Oregon.
The first had been going strong, despite raiding Comanches and Kiowas, since the 1820s, but it was a trading, not an emigrant route. The California Trail, which followed the Oregon Trail as far as Fort Hall in what is now Idaho, and then branched west, did not come into its own until the Gold Rush of 1849 after gold was found in California in 1848. As for Oregon, it was the trail.
Those who travelled it were not the first white men in the Far West. The Spaniards had been in California for many years, while French Canadians had penetrated the Great Plains and the Rockies, as had the employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Americans had first come into the Far West as explorers at the turn of the century, then as trappers, the beaver being their quarry at a time when beaver fur hats and coats were fashionable.
What made these ordinary folk venture across the endless plains, then cross the Rockies, and risk death by hunger, thirst, disease, drowning and Indian arrows? No one has ever finally solved the mystery, but some of the reasons are clear enough. Early visitors to Oregon, including the Reverend Jason Lee, who had founded a small mission in the Willamette Valley, discovered a fertile land ripe for settlement. Back in the East, Lee lectured to enthralled thousands until the Willamette Valley seemed like the promised land and paradise rolled into one.
Meanwhile politicians and newspapers took up the call, for Britain and the U.S.A. were disputing the ownership of the north-west. If only enough American settlers could reach the area the dispute would be over and the Oregon country would be American.
So the trumpet call to Oregon became part crusade and part the wander-lust which drove the frontier people of America ever westwards.
Many of the emigrants were the grandchildren of those who had won their freedom from the British and crossed the Appalachian mountains. Their children had reached the Mississippi-Missouri frontier. Now the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains beckoned. Earlier crossings back east had been a few hundred miles, but now in one giant step 2,000 miles were to be spanned. The frontier people of America, the truest white heroes of the Western epic, were preparing for their greatest, toughest feat.
Though the first emigrant group crossed in 1841, an advance guard of the flood which followed a trail blazed by Mountain Men, we shall mainly be concerned with the “Great Emigration” of 1843, the most famous of all the crossings, which not only set the pattern for what was to come, but also solved the “Oregon question” by populating the area with Americans. An 1846 treaty confirmed the matter and the Canadian-American boundary became the 49th parallel. Only some 10,000 reached Oregon in the 1840s, a mere handful compared to the flood that headed West later, but those 10,000 were the pioneers who made and changed history, who survived the greatest mass trek of all, one which tested human endurance to the limit.
In May 1843, some 200 families and others, about 1,000 people in all, gathered on the Missouri frontier. “Oregon Fever” was sweeping the nation and, as a bonus, Congress had offered 640 acres to every male reaching Oregon, 160 for his wife, and 160 for each child, this at a time when elsewhere land had to be bought or grabbed. The rendezvous date was May 18, some miles from Independence, and a start was to be made a few days later, for Oregon had to be reached by the winter.
Families travelled in canvas-covered waggons, some of them elaborate, but most of them farm waggons, box-like carts some ten feet (3 m.) long by four feet (1.2 m.) wide. Under the cart were often hung buckets, a churn, lanterns, water kegs and farming tools, etc., while around the inside of the waggon were hung items like pots and pans, baskets, clothing and rifles. Bedding had to be laid on the already crowded floor, though many used tents.
The waggons were usually dragged by oxen once it was realised how much stronger and more reliable they were than mules or horses.
The waggons wound their way through the settlements en route to the rendezvous, with the women and children walking beside them, fathers – and youngsters, rifles on their shoulders – marching in advance.
Only one official had so far been elected, the pilot who was to guide the party to Oregon. He was John Grant, a veteran Mountain Man.
Other officials were elected in an unusual way. Each candidate stood up in line – in 1843 at least – and presented himself to the electors; then one by one they stepped down and walked away. The men who attracted the longest line of followers were elected, and there was soon a captain and a council of ten to administer law and order. In a party so big, it was sheer necessity.
The start in 1843 had been delayed because a late spring had kept the grass too short for the stock. At last, on the 22nd of May, they were off. We shall rejoin them next week.
The traditional way of setting out on the Oregon Trail was a stirring one. The pilot would stand in his stirrups at sun-up, wave his hat in a confident gesture, and point westwards. The promised land was beckoning, but there would be storms ahead before it was reached.
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