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The ‘Great Emigration’ was in constant danger of Indian attack

Posted in America, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 27 June 2012

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This edited article about the American West originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 742 published on 3 April 1976.

Square Dance, picture, image, illustration After the wagon train had stopped for the night a violin would strike up and people would dance

That first evening on the trail they camped by a grove which consisted of a large and a small elm and a few dogwood bushes, which they used as fuel. The white-canvassed wagons had rolled 15 miles (24 km.) through green prairie country on the first day of the 2,000 mile (approx. 3,200 km.) trip to the Promised Land of Oregon, and now it was time to halt. It was 23 May, 1843, and the “Great Emigration”, the huge wagon train we are studying most closely on our trip up the trail, was under way at last.

That night there was laughter and music in the 1,000 strong camp of wagons, tents, fires, oxen, mules, horses, cattle and people. Peter Burnett, soon to be elected captain of the wagon train, later wrote of that enchanted start. “Our long journey thus began in sunshine and song, in anecdote and laughter; but these all vanished before we reached its termination.”

At the outset, the 1843 expedition had a stroke of luck, for a Doctor Marcus Whitman, medical missionary and rugged pioneer, joined them. Back in 1836 he and a colleague and their wives had crossed the Plains and Rockies to Oregon, and set up a mission station there long before an Oregon Trail existed. Now he was to give invaluable advice and be second only in importance to the pilot, an old trapper named John Gantt, whose job it was to get the train safely to Oregon.

That idyllic first night on the trail did not mean that everything went smoothly in the beginning, for even after the election of a captain and a council of ten, referred to last week, discipline was not yet good, partly because of the sheer size of the wagon train. The emigrants were not used to handling their sturdy, but half-broken, oxen, and overenthusiastic males had fist-fights over water holes to show what big men they were, until they found it was hard to round up cattle or drive a team with black eyes.

Another bad habit was racing ahead to show off, which had a fatal effect on their teams. Yet it was a trail rule that anyone could pass another. And at this time there was too much wasting of food, which was to cause much misery later.

The Council of Ten had its hands full, but duties were assigned to all: defence, guard rosters, stock tending, sanitation, and making the most of those who had special skills, cobblers, blacksmiths etc. Wagons were put in a circle each night, or, rather, each afternoon, for the day’s trek ended in mid-afternoon and pitching camp took time.

The circle was for protection against Indian attacks, yet Indians never attacked a wagon train on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s: that came later when racial hatred had been stirred up by mass land grabs and atrocities on both sides. In the 1840s, only 10,000 went up the Oregon Trail, the 10,000 who gave the U.S.A. its great North-west.

Women and children usually rode in the wagons, while the men and boys walked or went on horseback, but in those early days in the rolling hills of eastern Kansas, covered with wild flowers, the women and older children often walked, too, for sheer pleasure.

The very first river crossing occurred near the start over the Walkalusia River, wagons being let down the steep banks by ropes. It took several days to get across the Kansas by simple rafts, including Indian “bull boats”, which were buffalo hides stretched on wooden frames.

Indians kept appearing in full war paint and John Gantt ordered that a few cattle be given them, otherwise they would steal them. The last traces of civilisation had now vanished and the vegetation was growing thinner. Few birds were to be heard, but plenty of little prairie dogs erupted from their “towns” to delight the children. Antelope and long-eared rabbits were all around, while, occasionally, endless herds of buffalo were spotted.

This gave the travellers a new source of fuel, for wood was growing very scarce. Instead, they used dried buffalo dung, known as “buffalo chips”. One little boy later recalled seeing how his elders started fires without matches. A man would rub a cotton rag in powder and then shoot it out of a musket, or put it in the pan of a flintlock rifle, then explode the powder in the pan.

The boy was Jesse Applegate and tragedy was to strike his family on the trip. But his uncle, another Jesse, was to survive to write a classic account. The elder Jesse was put in charge of the “Cow Column”. Those who did not own any of the 5,000 cattle resented having to help look after them, so the train was split into two, the Cow Column bringing up the rear.

Jesse was to recall dawn on the trail, how at 4 a.m. the sentinels exchanged shots, the sign for everyone to wake up and for some 60 men to round up the cattle and horses. Jesse noted the size of the circle of wagons, 100 yards (91 metres) deep, with all of them chained together overnight. Oxen could not break out, and the Sioux (if they had been foolish enough to try) could not break in.

Breakfast began at about 6, then the tents were struck and the wagons loaded. Anyone not ready by 7 was likely to be placed at the rear of the column and eat dust all day, though, officially, everyone took their turn at the back. At 7, the pilot set off, as a bugle blared and whips cracked. Applegate divided his 60 wagons into 15 platoons of four wagons each, with each platoon entitled to lead in turn. Two miles ahead, the pilot would signal back if he had come upon a stream and found a spot to ford.

A halt was made each noon, council business attended to, then in drowsy heat the march continued. By now the pilot had chosen the night’s camp and by mid-afternoon the wagons were once again forming a great circle. Stragglers could now catch up, but there could be no real delay, for Oregon had to be reached before the snows of winter.

All able to bear arms took their turn as night watchmen, while Dr. Whitman tended the sick and gave advice, and talked to the pilot. A violin would strike up and the young people would dance, the toddlers imitating them. Elsewhere the plaintive notes of a flute might be heard. Soon the whole camp was asleep except for the guards.

On June 18, the Platte River was reached.

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