Family walks famed path of American history Trip celebrates Oregon Trail

September 13, 1993|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

The Oregon Trail, that 2,000-mile-long graveyard and lifeline that led to settlement of the Far Northwest, held an irresistible attraction for a Catonsville family this summer.

Mother, three daughters and a cousin walked parts of the trail to help commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first large wagon train to head west from Independence, Mo. During the major migration, from 1843 to 1860, more than 300,000 emigrants looking for a better life took to the trail. After that, thousands more followed the rocky, rutted path until shortly before the turn of the century.

Twenty thousand to 30,000 pioneers died on the trail, a few from Indian arrows, most from accidents and the diarrhea brought on by that master killer, cholera. Without their ingenuity, courage and sacrifice, Oregon easily could have become part of Canada. The U.S. Congress then had little interest in that faraway territory.

"I taught my children to love history," said the mother, Kit Knoll, a nursing supervisor at Bon Secours hospital. "And I love adventure and the outdoors. That's why I did it."

Mrs. Knoll, who has four daughters and a son, walked 78 of the 2,000 miles in five days at the end of June with her cousin Charlotte Lendrim of Sykesville.

Patricia Knoll, an archaeologist, was the workhorse of the family, alternately walking and riding in a prairie schooner for more than a month. She covered 537 miles at about 3 1/2 miles an hour.

"I wanted to experience history and honor the pioneers," she said.

Lisa Knoll, a computer specialist, covered 65 miles during five hot days in August, and Margaret Knoll, a veterinarian, joined Patricia Knoll for the final 100 miles.

The Oregon Trail begins at Independence in western Missouri and ends at Oregon City, a few miles south of Portland, Oregon.

In between are the mighty Rockies, the forbidding Cascades, the heat, dust, wind and rattlers of the Great Plains.

About 5,000 adventurers took part in the commemorative migration, organized by the states of Idaho and Oregon.

Ten canvas-covered prairie schooners, small cousins of the big Conestoga wagons that hauled freight back east, were drawn by horses and mules across parts of six states during the commemorative journey.

"The schooners were only about 10 feet long by 3 feet wide," PatriciaKnoll said. "The terrain was too rough for the big Conestogas, so the pioneers designed the smaller wagons for the West."

On any given day, about 60 people rode in wagons. There were the same number on horseback and 100 walking, plus the staff to drive the wagons and outriders -- real cowboys -- to watch over everything. It cost $39 a day to walk and $59 to ride a horse, plus feed. You had to bring your own horse.

There was a wagon master, a white-haired gentleman in a red-checked shirt. The new pioneers called him Ward Bond after an actor who specialized in movie westerns.

And there was even someone to call out "Wagons Ho!" promptly at 7 each morning.

"You had to be ready," Patricia Knoll said, "or they would leave without you."

Most of the original Oregon Trail is gone, buried under roads and parking lots or washed away, but wagon ruts are still visible on about 15 percent of the trail.

"About three-quarters of the time, we were walking on hot asphalt, so blisters were a big problem," Patricia Knoll said. "The rest of the time we were in open country."

Dress was circa 1840s. The men wore trousers with suspenders, and broad-brimmed hats. The women wore long-sleeved sack dresses, aprons and sun bonnets.

Shoes were strictly contemporary, Nikes and Reeboks being the most popular.

There were other concessions.

Food came from an 18-wheeler that followed the march.

Trucks carried water, hay and port-a-potties. Air-conditioned vans were on hand for walkers who got tired.

"The whole idea was for fun and safety, not endurance," Patricia Knoll said. "And we went through 105-degree temperatures, real heat stroke country.

"However, I got a real sense of what those people went through just to survive," she said.

"We also wanted to dispel some myths about the Indians," she said. "They were a great help to the settlers during the early days and saved many of them from starving."

The Indians became less friendly in the 1860s and 1870s. General Custer parted with his curly-haired scalp in 1876 at Little Big Horn in Montana, a couple hundred miles north of the Trail.

Chief Jesse Jones of the Cayuse tribe and his followers met the wagon train on the Umatilla Indian Reservation at Pendleton, Oregon, "captured" its members, then treated them to a sumptuous salmon dinner, the entree being fished from the nearby Columbia River.

"More than 20 communities in Oregon had dinner waiting for us," Patricia Knoll said. "The whole thing was a big community event throughout the trip."

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