(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.