. . . . 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?