The Oregon Trail: Mobility in America

RICHARD REEVES

April 13, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Independence, Mo. -- One hundred and fifty years ago this week, a couple of hundred families gathered here, building or buying wagons and supplies for a 2,000-mile journey across the plains, the mountains, the deserts and more mountains to a place called Oregon.

They were the first of more than 300,000 on the Oregon Trail over a period of 25 years, the Americans who made the United States a continental country.

April 15 was a good date to leave. The trick was to leave late enough in the spring to get good grass in Nebraska, but arrive early enough in the winter to beat the snows crossing the Cascades or the Sierra Nevada.

Grass was the gasoline of the mid-19th Century; without it the oxen and the mules pulling the wagons died and, usually, so did the families carrying their own food.

Despite the imaginings of a thousand painters and movie-makers, the people did not ride on the wagons and they were not massacred by the Indians along the way. People walked.

The Indians were usually friendly, or mercenary or contemptuous of the white men and their women and children. Over the years, perhaps 300 Overlanders, as they were called, were killed by Indians, and three times that many Indians were killed by Overlanders and the U.S. Army.

Those numbers are amazingly small considering that after 1849 and the Gold Rush along the trail, it was obvious that the Overlanders were destroying the Indian way of life, beginning with the destruction of the great buffalo herds.

The trail was dangerous, all right. Some years the death rate was about the same as that of combat soldiers in the Civil War. But the killers were not other men of whatever color, but mysterious diseases, especially cholera and malaria. They were mysterious in the sense that medicine, such as it was, did not know the cause of those scourges and treatment could be more dangerous than illness.

The other great cause of death on the trail was accidents. Drowning was common crossing the rivers and streams, especially in the later years when trail merchants set up whiskey stands for Overlanders waiting their turn at ferries or fording places.

In the beginning the travelers were called ''emigrants,'' because they were leaving what was then the United States. Oregon was still claimed by the British, and the other principal destination, California, was part of Mexico. There was a third destination, Utah, the end of the parallel Mormon Trail.

The Overlanders had as many reasons for leaving as there were wagons: free land; the hope of re-paying family debts from a series of depressions in the early 1800s; gold after 1849; patriotism in the case of those who believed ''Manifest Destiny'' meant conquest of the continent; religious persecution in the case of the Mormons.

''A second chance,'' many of them would say. They were mostly people we would call middle class today. It took money to buy the animals and the food, which usually meant selling a farm or a business in Missouri or Illinois or someplace in the East. The Mormons were usually poorer, but they pooled their resources in a distinctly un-American way, which was a reason they were not trusted by many other Overlanders.

They were ordinary people, or so it seemed. But they knew this was the adventure of their lives, perhaps the story of their lives, and many kept diaries of their trip.

Several thousand of those journals are in libraries and historical societies in the states between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean. Reading only a couple of pages tells a great deal about Americans and America.

A poet named T.K. Whipple wrote this in the 1930s: ''All America lies at the end of the wilderness road. Our forefathers had civilization inside themselves, the wild outside. We live in the civilization they created, but within us, the wilderness still lives. What they dreamed, we live. What they lived, we dream.''

And the trail itself is visible across the West. Wagon ruts lead to the horizon.

One of the men from Missouri on the 1843 train wrote later, probably with some hyperbole, that he came home one day and and told his wife: ''Out in Oregon, I can get me a square mile of land. I am done with this country. Winters it's frost and snow to freeze a body; summers the overflow from the Old Muddy drowns half my acres. Taxes take the yield of them that's left. What say, Maw . . . it's God's country.''

His name was Peter Burnett, and he moved on from Oregon to California in 1849 and became the first governor of that state when it joined the union after a territorial war with Mexico.

In a way, Burnett was typical of the Overlanders and of most of us: He did not want to change America; he wanted to change his place in it.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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