History Friday: Some Curious Facts You Might Not Have Known . . .

. . . . About the trans-Mississippi West, and the emigrant trails generally.

In the interests of writing what now turns out to be seven books and counting, I spent the last couple of years immersed in a tidal-wave of books about the American West; the California and Oregon emigrant trails, the settlement of Texas, studies of various Indian tribes, the post-Civil War Army, cattle drives and all that.

I have encountered all sorts of amusing things that either I didn’t know, or knew vaguely of, or that are not generally known, except by local historians and enthusiasts. Some of these may come as a great surprise to those who know only of the 19th Century American West through TV shows and movies. Such as:

A flock of sheep was taken along the Oregon Trail in the early 1840ies. And in 1847 a large wagon of nursery stock: approximately 700 live young plants, of various types of fruit and nut trees, and vines. This at a time when it still generally took at least five months to cross two thirds of the North American continent.

Up until the time of the ’49 Gold Rush, emigrants to California and Oregon were – well, generally rather bourgeois. The cost of a wagon, stock animals and six months of food supplies tended to sieve out those who couldn’t afford such, unless they chose to work their passage as a teamster or drover.

They also tended to be teetotalers and fairly law-abiding, although one early party to California (Bidwell-Bartleson, 1841) did include an embezzler, escaping attention of the law in New York. His comrades did wonder a bit about the heavy lump of metal that he was at such pains to carry along with him. One did not need quite that much lead shot.

Other than disease . . . most emigrant deaths were caused by accidents with loaded firearms and drowning.

There was hardly any trouble with the Indians, until well after the Gold Rush. A bit of petty thievery here and there, which was more of an annoyance than anything else. There is only one instance of a wagon train being attacked directly by Indians on the Oregon-California trail before about 1860. There was quite a lot of Indian-emigrant commerce going on during the 1840ies and 50ies and several tribes actually ran river ferries, at either end of the trails.

The emigrant wagons were pulled mostly by teams of oxen. Not horses. Sometimes mules, but mules cost three times as much as an ox; and you could always eat the ox, if you got desperate. (And if really desperate, the mule – there was a reluctance to do this, which there wasn’t when it came to beef.) Three to four pair of oxen per wagon, usually and the wagon usually carried about 3/4th of a ton to one ton of supplies and gear. Think on this the next time you watch a so-called emigrant wagon in a TV western bounce along, hitched to a single pair of horses.

The Mormon emigrants to the Utah settlements pushed handcarts; small, two-wheeled handcarts. And walked from Council Bluffs to the Salt Lake Valley. But they were organized, and had a lot of assistance and supply channels set up by the LDS church – the only group of emigrants who did have extensive support from a government or corporate sponsor – although as noted below, there were assorted emigrant-aid efforts by volunteers.

Emigrant companies formed up and then elected their leaders. Another leader could always be elected, if the first one didn’t work out. Companies often split apart, once on the trail due to personal conflicts, as did the Donner-Reed Party, with spectacularly grim results.

Quite early on, organized rescue parties of volunteers began going out from the established communities in Oregon and California in the late fall and early winter bringing water, food, and assistance to emigrants who had broken down, or run out of food on the worst parts of the trail, notably in the Humboldt Sink or along the Snake River.

In the 19th century popular wisdom had it that the high plains and the Rocky Mountains were extremely healthy locations: clean, dry air, pure water, and there were a fair number of invalids who came West for reasons of their health. Francis Parkman was only the most famous of them. A large portion of what would be the Bidwell-Bartleson Party in the early 1840ies were in fact, invalids hoping to recover their health in this particularly strenuous fashion.

A teenaged boy, stranded in the Sierras at present-day Donner Lake over the winter of 1844-45 diverted himself with the contents of his brother-in-law’s small library of books, finding particular consolation in a volume of Lord Byron’s poetry, and Lord Chesterfield’s Letters

In California as of 1845, there were 850 foreign males registered as residents, an increase from 150 in 1830: emigrants, deserters from sailing ships, merchants and traders. They seem to have all known each other, or known of each other. Republic-era Texas was pretty much the same. Everyone knew each other, or of each other, and an astonisingly large number of them served as volunteer Rangers with Captain Jack Hays.

The Russians had an official presence and a small trading post, north of San Francisco, until they pulled up stakes and sold the lot and a brass cannon too, to John Sutter. They may still be a little sore about this. I remember seeing a Soviet-era English textbook which claimed that they had found gold – and then, the perfidious Yankees had stolen it all from them.

There was gold found in California well before 1849 … in the hills of the southern part of the state. The family of the man who pulled up a wild onion to have with his luncheon tortillas and found a gold nugget in the roots of it did very well out of this discovery, but had the sense to keep it very, very quiet.

Well, are you amused?

15 thoughts on “History Friday: Some Curious Facts You Might Not Have Known . . .”

  1. I can’t imagine pushing a loaded card for over 1000 miles – they were a hardy bunch. I’d imagine even the Mormans would curse up a storm over rocks under those conditions.

    On the Donner Party I had heard that the town ofg Marysville, north of Sacramento, was named for a girl who was a survivor of the Donner party. It was from Sutter’s fort that they sent a rescue party.

  2. One artifact of the settling of the West are the orchards spread here and there in hospitable spots. Mormons were good at this

    At the base of the cliffs in Capitol Reef National Park in Southern Utah is a lovely camp ground set along a rushing river in the old Mormon orchard. The camp store still sells jams and jellies from the trees.

    Supposedly, the park HQ of Great Basin National Park in Eastern Nevada is set in an apricot orchard a 100 years old (I’m going there next week to see.)

  3. Fort Ross on the Northern California coast is the Russian outpost referred to.it is very nicely restored, and is worth the visit.one finds it by traveling north from San Francisco on highway 101, and then exiting to and through the town of Sebastopol, and then on to the coast.take Highway 1, the pacific coast highway north to Fort Ross. In keeping with the Russian motif one will find plenty of socialists along the way.

  4. Ages ago I remember visiting Fort Ross with my parents – and it was a curious place; very remote, very beautiful.

    Whitehall, if the Park HQ is in a 100 year old apricot orchard, tell us for sure!. I drove past the turnoff for Capitol Reef many times, when I was stationed at Hill – but I have pulled off and went to check it out!

  5. I’ve always had the same reaction to the pioneers as you. I’m stunned by them. By what the accomplished, the hardships they faced and endured, the courage they had, the back breaking hard work they did. Everything about them. They laid the foundation for everything that followed.

    I’m told I’m part Cherokee. I wonder about life in North America, pre-Columbian time. How they lived, what their world was like.

    I also have German ancestors, farmers – we guess they were – from the Rhineland. They left in the 1720’s for The New World, settled in Pennsylvania, spread out across the East Coast and eventually the entire USA. Why did they leave? What drove them out or what called to them to make a journey like that, to abandon everything, to take those risks?
    Wachenheim: https://maps.google.com/maps?q=wachenheim&ll=49.440059,8.183205&spn=0.010478,0.027766&safe=off&hnear=Wachenheim,+Rhineland-Palatinate,+Germany&gl=us&t=h&z=16

    I also have Scottish ancestors. Same questions, why? What were their lives like that an open continent across a dangerous and frigid ocean beckoned so irresistibly? Everything abandoned, starting new.

  6. }}} In keeping with the Russian motif one will find plenty of socialists along the way.

    True, but in Cali, one can’t spit upwind in a tornado without hitting a socialist…

  7. Michael, one argument I offer about why it is that blacks have done so poorly in the USA derives from that.

    It can’t be ONLY poverty or slavery — many of the descendants of Chinese, (Asian) Indian, and Japanese stock can be found all over the USA (particularly on the West Coast, but not limited to there) endured quite a bit of racial segregation and diminution based on racist ideas of the same time period following the Civil War. The descendants of these same people typically do as well or better than whites by most measures of “success” — education, income, asset ownership, literacy, family size, in/out of wedlock children, and so forth…

    So how and why are blacks so different?

    I have no doubt at least SOME of the answer was racism, but I’d point out that there is ONE thing that uniquely separates blacks from every other grouping in the USA — Americans (except blacks) are almost uniformly descended from Risk Takers — from people who are willing to take a chance to grab that brass ring. Their ancestors, at some point, almost HAD to take a big chance, and leave family and friends behind, to leave behind much of their close-support network, in order to do better in their lives.

    Blacks, on the other hand, were usually brought here because they were losers — either they got caught by slavers running them down (a vile notion but with some accuracy), or, even worse, losers of inter/intra-tribal wars that had them get sold to the same slave traders.

    So most blacks are selected not from an aggressive, successful risk-taking bunch, but from a different group entirely. And they’re pretty unique in American culture for that.

    I’ve never seen any study to that end, and if someone attempted to do it, they’d probably be called racist for daring… but I suspect that is a lot more relevant to the nature of things than most realize.

  8. Interesting read on Fruita. Thanks. I love Utah. It has some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen.

  9. I was interested in the link about Fruita, too. I never got tired of the scenery in Utah, either, although I did get a bit weary of shoveling snow out of the driveway on dark winter Monday mornings…

  10. So you lived there? I would love to live anywhere in the Colorado Plateau area, such an amazing place. There’s just no work there.

  11. Me, Michael? I lived in South Ogden for almost three years – when I was assigned to Hill AFB. Loved it, wish I could have rotated back there after a tour in Korea, but it didn’t work out.

  12. I’m always amazed at the sheer will to survive of the pioneers. The hardships they faced makes the story of this country all the more impressive. We would do ourselves a favor as a country I think to get back to that spirit of hard work and the will to overcome.

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