Historical Diversion Weekend – The Way West

(OK, so everyone ready for a little historical diversion? Tired of chewing over current events? (and working over the usual concern trolls? Let’s go consider history!)

The average so-called “western” movie or television series only very rarely gives a true idea of what it must have been like to take to the emigrant trail in the 1840ies and 50ies. Most westerns are set in a time-period from the end of the Civil War to about 1885, an overwhelming proportion have a cattle-ranch setting, sometimes a setting in the wild and woolly mining camps. The popular culture vision of the “old west” tends to warp our imagining of the 19th century in general, in that it puts in place people and technologies that were just not there until well after the Civil War. The latter part of that century was already looking forward to what would become the twentieth, and to extend what we commonly accept as a given about the late 19th century backwards to previous decades is give a short shift to the vision and sheer stubborn courage of the 1840ies wagon train emigrants, and to underestimate considerably the challenges they would have faced.

In 1840, there is no telegraph system in the West, and would not be for a decade or so, for the system itself was still under development. Ocean-going vessels are powered by the force of wind in their sails. News and the mail travels at the speed of a horse, a canal boat, or maybe a steam boat on the navigable rivers, although there have been some limited rail beds built, and serviced by steam locomotives for about ten years. But all those are back east. There are factories, of course- most of them powered by watermills. Other than that, power is supplied by animals, or the backs of humans. The first half of the century for most Americans is more like the century before, than the century afterwards.

There are no vast cattle ranches in that West, other than in far California and a few in Texas – and those ranches which do exist are run to produce hides, rather than beef for the slaughterhouses of Chicago. Gold will not be discovered until the end of the decade. What wealth came out of the West in the early decades of that century came in the form of beaver pelts- but the fashions have changed, and by 1840 there is no demand for them. There is no mail service; messages travel erratically. There is hardly anything representing the Federal government west of the Mississippi, only the occasional Army-authorized exploring party, and an American consul in such outposts as Yerba Buena. It is a six-month long sea-voyage around the Horn to reach the western coast of the continent. There are a scattering of trading posts and Mexican pueblos between the Mississippi-Missouri and the Sierra Nevada, served by enterprising merchants and fur-trading combines. Great caravans leave every year, but they are commercial enterprises, and their trail lies across mostly open and mostly level country. Little that they know and practice can be made use of by an emigrant outfitting a wagon to follow the trail towards the Oregon settlements or to fabled California.

Before the deluge of the Gold Rush, most of the emigrants bound for California tended to be farmers and small-town folk, who may have already possessed the basic equipment required; that is, a suitable wagon, and at least some of the stock necessary to pull it. They were accustomed to and familiar with the ordinary light wagons which were commonly used on the emigrant trail, much in the way that most Americans today are used to using automobiles. The rough country, frequent streams and rivers, and steep slopes along that way brutally eliminated any possibility of utilizing the larger wagons used on the Santa Fe trail, and to haul freight on the established roads – and in any case, the large numbers of team animals necessary were usually not able to pull effectively under such conditions.

So, picture a small wagon; on the farm it would have been pulled by a pair of horses, but once on the trail, by three to four pair of oxen. The box or freight-bed part of it would be about eight or ten feet long, and four feet wide, with sides roughly two feet high, and a clearance off the ground of about two and a half feet. There are no springs, or brakes, and the moving parts – mainly the wheels and kingbolt, are lubricated from a tar-bucket hung underneath the rear axel, containing a mixture or tar, resin, tallow, rendered fat or whatever can be scrounged to add to it along the way. Essential points are reinforced by iron, but not too many, as that would make the wagon heavier and a greater burden to the oxen who pull it. Five or six thin bows of bent hickory-wood slotted into brackets along the sides of the box supported a tent-like canvas cover, waterproofed with paint or linseed oil. The canvas cover was closed with drawstrings, and flaps, the whole forming a tiny room. Many emigrants built a false-floor, for storage of goods and supplies underneath. There might be room enough for two adults, or a couple of small children to sleep inside the wagon, but emigrants usually brought along tents and lengths of canvas for additional sleeping space. Only an occasional special-built wagon like James Reed (of the Donner-Reed party, of 1846) might contain such luxuries as a built-in small stove, and a little side door and stairway, but a behemoth such as that needed six yoke of oxen to pull, and came to grief in the desert between the Humboldt Sink and the Truckee River anyway.

Such a wagon sat high enough off the ground as to be able to ford small streams, as long as there is not more than a couple of feet of water and mud combined. The wagon box can be raised on blocks for slightly deeper streams, or even disassembled, waterproofed and floated over those which are deeper yet, but at a great cost in labor. With a high center of gravity, such a wagon could tip over all too easily. Traversing a steep slope is treacherous; going straight up or straight down is usually favored, since teams can be doubled or tripled going up, and wheels can be locked with chains or a tree branch thrust through the wheels going down. Wagons can even be lowered on ropes down a steep slope – or emptied of contents and hauled upwards.

And that sense of practical daring, of taking your wagon, and your family, and all that you posessed, to one of the jumping-off places, at Council Bluffs, or Rockport or Independence, and looking out at the waving grass covering an endless and trackless prairie – that is more typically American than any generic ‘western’ ever put to pulp pages or B-western film. I wish there were a bit more of this in popular culture – this appreciation for the courage and enterprise of our metaphorical or actual ancestors.

Ah, well, I’m doing my bit, anyway.

19 thoughts on “Historical Diversion Weekend – The Way West”

  1. When I think of the old west Sgt I think of woolen garments, days without a bath or shave, generally not the clean-shaven cowboys of Hollywood.

    Incidentally as someone who has discovered classic Hollywood the director who is generally credited with inventing the “Hollywood Western” – Tomas Ince – builtt the first real studio complex between Santa Monica and Malibu , all before 1920 I believe.

    But back to your point – I doubt if 1 in 10,000 Americans today would have the stamina to do what those pioneers did. Think of selling/leaving everything you had, loading your whole life in one of these wagons, and frequently have to decide along the way in the prairie what you could keep and what you had to throw off the wagon.

    It was this kind of hardship that made Samuel Clemons aka Mark Twain to become a writer.

    In his book Roughing It towards the beginning he describes his reasons for coming out west (by then a fairly civilized venture between train and stagecoach) – but once in Nevada, trying his hand at backbreaking mining and deciding that wasn’t for him ;-)

  2. Not to be too critical but the piece does rest, to some extent, on the “short shrift” so spelling it right does matter. Perhaps you did mean shift but that would assume ignorance so I think it may just be a typo. Well I hope so anyway.

  3. I’m not sure that I understand the criticism that movies about post-Civil War Texas don’t shed much light on what it might have been like in other places and times. “Gone With The Wind” doesn’t tell us anything about the Roaring 20’s and “The Wire” hardly deals with the tribulations of Chinese coolies who built the Transcontinental Railroad; I’ve never noticed anyone complaining about that.

  4. Probably one reason for the focus on the Civil-War-thought-1885 timeframe is that when the movie industry went through its initial development and growth, there were still plenty of people who had living memory of that era, so it was part of the national consciousness.

    Someone who rode on cattle drives in 1880, at the age of 16, would have been 66 in 1930.

  5. Oh, yeah, Bill – heavy woolen clothing, several layers of it, a bath and a shave once a week. Although to be fair, bathhouses did do a grand business in most towns …

    James, I think my problem is that the post-Civil War generic wild west just becomes a shorthand for the entire 19th century frontier, especially when it comes to making movies and TV. It’s all one big muddy blurr, whereas in reality, it encompassed several wildly differing locations over the space of three-quarters of a century. (more of that here.)

    David, you are probably correct – that people with that particular experince of the fronter as a child or teenager lived well into the 20th century; Bat Masterson finished his days as a New York City newspaper sportswriter … and Mary Elizabeth Haley (better known as the dance-hall girl and prostitute Squirrel-Tooth Alice) lived until the year that I was born. I’m playing off a little of that, with a teenaged character in the next book, who is a working cowboy in the late 1870s, then a Wild West show performer … and finishes out as a silent movie serial star. Another factor I think would be that the pulp Western genre became really, really big, post-Civil War … just as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows became popular.

  6. Jonathan Raban’s Bad Lands made the point that many of the homesteaders who tried to farm and ranch in the drylands of Montana in the 1880s and 1890s were urban Easterners who had no experience with farming or rural life at all and whose ideas of homesteading life had been acquired from those dime novels and wildly optimistic books by booster types. The invention of cheap tarpaper allowed them to afford and construct tarpaper shacks that required almost no skill but with a stove and adequate fuel supplies could allow them to survive a winter. Of course many if not most failed, and sold out to the better-suited settlers from the Dakotas and Minnesota who actually knew how to farm. So the last generation of settlement in the West was to some degree self-referential; people who went west to star in a Wild West show of their own imagining.

    The last two decades of the Nineteenth Century and the first two of the Twentieth were interesting for the wide spread of circumstances. Urban Easterners had electricity, telephones, indoor plumbing, mechanical transit, and corporate employment that was not much different from the way of life of the bulk of the Twentieth Century. At the same time rural Westerners were living in a world of cowboys and Indians, horse riding and horse-drawn vehicles, and farming and ranching as a way of life. The first film-makers didn’t have to recreate all that much of the Wild West, large parts of it were still around.

  7. I’d also heard/read somewhere that many of the great cattle ranches were financed with British capital. And that Montan was initially settled by Texas ranches?

    Incidentally Sgt I am enjoying the Adelsverein –

  8. }}} I doubt if 1 in 10,000 Americans today would have the stamina to do what those pioneers did.

    True, but to be honest, the mileau they lived in was very different from that of today. This is sort of the inverse of commenting how Babe Ruth wouldn’t be that impressive if you ported his 25yo self to modern times, vs. modern pitching. No doubt true, but if you took Babe as a babe, brought him forth to modern times, and raised him with modern diet and training, his natural talent would mark him as a… natural, just the same.

    One always should consider context when evaluating talents, skills, attitudes of one time or another. This is why it’s unreasonable to whine about some of the Founding Fathers being slave owners. It wasn’t practical to OWN a farm back then without them.

    If you want an interesting historical diversion, by the way, go check out the back issues of American Heritage online. Not only are you able to read about history, you can find interesting differences in perspectives.

    In particular, it’s interesting to go back and look at articles written in the 70s and 80s, prior to the fall of the USSR, and the rise of the Reaganite Conservatives, in terms of how they looked at history from a distinctly, notably different perspective and expectations. There are some interesting PhD theses in psychology, sociology, and history potentially able to be derived from that kind of analysis. “History of History”, and “Changing views of the same events” and so forth…

  9. Sgt – getting back to your specific topic – John Sutter must have had an interesting little empire in 1840. He was an interesting character – depending on whose version of history you want – a hardy pioneer or scoundrel who abandoned his family in Switzerland – he was awarded a Spanish land grant that covered a good part of No California. 400,000 acres seems to come to mind, but can’t remember for sure.

    Of course all that changed for the worse from his perspective in 1848 when gold was discovered at his sawmill in Coloma – and his foreman, James Marshall, couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

    They had a good little thing going ;-) But of course news like that could not be hidden.

    49ers came to his land, staked claims, CA became a state, and Sutter died bitter and penniless back on the east coast (NYC?)

    The west was a very different place in the 1840s – prior to 1849.

  10. Bill – yes, there were many Eastern and British investors in western cattle-ranching, once the railways make it very much more profitable than it had been. Some of the investors themselves were an interesting assortment in themselves. They also wanted to star in a Wild West show of their own imagining and had more money … so some of the crackups were spectacular.
    The discovery of gold at the site of his sawmill spelled doom for John Sutter – he did have a darned good thing going, and was all set to become more or less a leader of the Anglo-American element in California. He had all sorts of little industrial enterprises going – a sawmill for lumber was just one of them. But just about all his workmen quit to look for gold, squatters set up on his property.

    Nicholas, my mother had a subscription from nearly the start of American Heritage and I grew up reading it devotedly. I have their archive bookmarked – and I was thrilled to bits to find and buy a number of issues from 1966 and 1967 at a huge book sale last year. The earlier articles I thought were much more … scholarly, I guess – but interesting, and the variety of subjects was much, much broader than the later editions.

  11. I believe the British royal family were heavily invested in Montana ranching and still are. Some books should be part of reading about that period. One, of course, is “Two Years Before the Mast,” which describes California before the gold rush. There is a little read sequel titled “Twenty four Years After,” also by Dana, in which he describes the post civil war California. Interestingly, he describes Harry Vroman’s dry goods store in Los Angeles, still barely a town at the time. Vroman’s bookstore in still a fixture in Pasadena.

    Other books that set the tone for much of western literature include “The Virginian” by Owen Wister. Adolf Hitler was a voracious reader of German dime novels set in the imaginary west and written by Karl May who had never visited the locations in his books.

    Anyway, I am going to read your book. Does it have many maps and illustrations ? They don’t go well in Kindle.

  12. Mike, my whole family adored Vroman’s! My grandparents lived in Pasadena, and when we visited, my mother would take us to Vromans, and to the Wil Wright’s ice cream parlor which used to be across the street. I spent large chunks of my allowance at Vromans when I was a kid, upstairs buying paperback books when they cost 35, 50 or 75 cents! (and I still have some of them, too!)

    Me, I’m hoping to clean up from all those German Karl May fans, with the German-language version of the first book of the Trilogy.

    I have six books out there actually, so you are spoiled for choice – and all are available on Kindle, and there are no maps or illustrations. Truckee’s Trail is about an early wagon-train party to California, The Adelsverein Trilogy is about the Germans in Texas, and Daughter of Texas/Deep in the Heart is about the Texas War for Independence and the Texas Republic. Enjoy!

  13. Sgt – as I mentioned I am just into the 1st of the Trilogy and am enjoying it! As to meeting the Karl May fans I wonder if you could get a German book reviewer to read it? Publicity, Publicity…I’ll bet there are a lot of young Germans who aren’t even aware of this history –

    Know someone with a B & B in Utah – by Bryce Canyon – it was sluggish until reviewed by a European and on their site – now lots of tourists.

  14. Lukas Reck – a Chicagoboyz fan who answered my appeal for a translator – just sent me a link to a German Wild-West website, and I sent an email to the proprietor, asking if he would like to review. We’ll see what happens!

    Bill, wait until you get to the second and third books! My ambition is to be known as the Margaret Mitchell of the Hill Country.

    Wierd thing happened this last week – well, not that wierd, since it has happened a couple of times before. A casual acquaintance turns out to be a descendent of someone that I wrote about in the Trilogy. In this case, a neighbor who walks her dog with us sometimes. She is the great-granddaughter of a man who was one of those murdered by JP Waldrip’s ‘hanging band’ on Grape Creek, during the Civil War. I’ve joked for years that San Antonio is a small village, cunningly disquised as a large city; it’s more like only two or three degrees of separation, here.

  15. Sgt – I hope that you do become the Margaret Mitchell of the Hill Country! The older I have become the more I have realized that is indeed a small world!

    BTW I am getting the idea from the first part of your book that those Rangers were a very tough lot.

  16. They were a pretty tough lot, Bill – especially if you think of them as sort of a cross between a heavily-armed Neighborhood Watch and a free-ranging motorcycle gang.
    More on the early Rangers here – I don’t know that I ever posted that essay on Chicagoboyz.

  17. Quite a write up! One story about the Rangers that always stayed with me – besides of course the “one riot one Ranger” story – was during the building of the Panama Canal.

    A friend from Waco loaned me a book on the Rangers and apparently besides disease – which Walter Reade finally vanquished (one key component in the solution was going through the jungle and breaking every rain-water filled bottle they could find) – but bandits were another big problem.

    So a retired Texas Ranger was hired to solve the problem and over the following months this Ranger – and his local hired Army, just lived in the towns – leaning who was who.

    Then one night all hell broke loose – most of the bandits in the various towns and villiages were hung or shot.

    In one night.

    Problem solved ;-)

  18. “Then one night all hell broke loose – most of the bandits in the various towns and villiages were hung or shot.

    In one night.

    Problem solved ;-)”

    Something like that happened in San Francisco. The Committee of Vigilance would nail a notice on someone’s door. All it said was “3 x 7 x 77.” Those are the dimensions of a grave. If the individual did not leave town promptly, he was visited again and hung or, in some cases, turned over to the authorities although they were often corrupt.

    More here.

  19. Mike – I think our own Sgt here wrote about them too! How SF has changed in the subsequent years ;-)

    I wish I could remember the name of that book – the Rangers have quite a colorful history

    Sgt Mom’s linked write up – and how they picked the Colt pistol – reminded me of a headline – and subsequent comments – of Gov Perry shooting a coyote while jogging – apparently with a little .380.

    That story can’t be true , one Texan wrote, “ No self-respecting Texan would have a pistol with a caliber that doesn’t start with at least “4”

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