12 May 2007

On the old Oregon Trail

Two thousand miles across the great American desert, fifteen miles a day (on a good day), I take a bit of offence to that I'm from Kansas, but at the time, that's what it was. This huge expanse of nothing to cross to get to the rich fertile farm lands of Oregon and the gold fields of California. Back in 1992, I worked in a Ghost Town in Montana and sitting on the shelf was a paperback that I picked up to read. Back home I reread it and stopped part way through, it stank. That was the day I said I could do better and picked up a pen and paper, hey it was 1992 how many of you had computers in the house. It was an Oregon Trail book and it started my writing career, and in researching my rebuttal, I found out that the author should have been writing fantasy. Four-six months was turned into two years. The first trip of 1842 was turned into 1839 I believe. They were rushing to stamp out the possibility of Russia establishing a colony. I can forego a little artistic license, but the six months to two years, I find unpardonable.

The real six month trips started in 1842 though a handful of people made it across in the two years previous. This was several years after Narcissa Whitman and her husband made the trip to found a mission, she was the first woman to head west and her letters back home sparked the first real interest. If a woman could do it, anyone could. Taking off from Independence, MO the route followed the rivers west, the Platte, the Snake, the Columbia, dozens other smaller ones. Some they had to cross, they used as a traveling water source and followed their banks. Only a trickle was flowing when gold was discovered jumping the numbers from hundreds or thousands a year to tens of thousands. New short cuts were discovered from miners wanting to get west faster, the Mormons crossed to Utah in the same period many of them pulling handcarts it was in their best interest to cut time off. Slowly the jumping off point moved north, from Independence to St. Joseph, MO to finally Council Bluffs, IA, the former Mormon wintering over site. They were only there for a few seasons as they made their trek to the Great Salt Lake but it set up the resources to supply them leaving and it cut several weeks off the journey. By the end of the era four months was a usual crossing.

Whole books were written to pass on vital information to those following them, a large amount of the space filled with supplies to be taken. In our time of fast food, and convenience stores carrying six months of food is a novelty. Not only that they had to hope they would have enough left to help them get through the first very lean winter as they set up their homes and farms. Or the funds to buy it in a land where there wasn’t much. A handful of stops along the way gave some chance but in a heavy travel year what those trading forts did have could very well be gone by the time you got there.

For each and every person in the party it was suggested that they carry, 200 pounds of flour, 30 pounds of pilot bread (similar to that ubiquitous hardtack), 75 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of rice, 5 pounds of coffee, 2 pounds of tea, 25 pounds of sugar, half a bushel of dried beans, one bushel of dried fruit, 2 pounds of baking soda, 10 pounds of salt, half a bushel of corn meal, half a bushel of corn and a small keg of vinegar. Seeing as it was large families that often traveled together the amount of food alone becomes staggering. Vegetables unless pickled were non-existent. Many would add luxuries to that list, cocoa was available, a product along the lines of soup bouillon, cheese, flavored essences like peppermint and lemon. But the cost of them would of course be more, they were saved for special occasions.

The wagons in addition to carrying the supplies for the six-month journey all with only canvas to keep out the elements, also had to carry everything that would be needed to start a house and farm out of nothing. An ax, a saw and a plow, were mandatory. However, if your child would get schooling you had to bring your own books, furniture if you were lucky to have room. Think of it like having a regular sized cargo van and fitting everything you would need to eat for six months as well as everything you could possibly fit to get you started on the other end and then while one of you drove the rest walked along side it. What would be your most prized possessions that you couldn't leave behind? The cross-country railroad wasn't finished until 1869, it was a once in a lifetime trip for most. There was no chance to go back for more.

The most dangerous part of the trip wasn't Indians despite what the prejudices were, it was sickness and accident. Perhaps Indians killed 300 people in some 20 years. Deaths for all other causes estimates are as large as 30,000 deaths, but a more conservative estimate is 20,000 for the entire 2000 miles of the Oregon Trail--an average of ten graves per mile. Assuming 350,000 people emigrating, which is commonly thought, that averages to one death for every seventeen people who made the trip. Cholera was a big factor caused by drinking infected water. But many occurred from more mundane things poor sanitation practices in cooking and food storage, bad water, and poor living conditions. Diseases that we now have vaccines for but were killers then caused many more deaths; pneumonia, whooping cough, measles, small pox and various other miscellaneous sicknesses and diseases.

Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, Fort Bridger early on, Fort Hall, Fort Boise, were all stops along the way, but they weren't vacations, most they were only there overnight, buying a few supplies if they had the money and if there were even any available. Maybe a drink. The great American desert, the Rocky Mountains, and then just as they are about to collapse from exhaustion they had to cross the Blue Mountains before finally pulling into Oregon City. The end of a journey, but not the end of the ordeal, arriving in fall they had no houses to live in, no crops stored for the winter. They still had a lot of work to do.

1 comment:

Morag McKendrick Pippin said...

I used to live not far from the end of The Oregon Trail. Knew lots of people who were descendants of the original pioneers.