Considering all those cinematic or literary occasions in which an emigrant wagon train on the California/Oregon trail was pictured being attacked by a war-party of Indians, it actually happened as represented on very few occasions. That is, a defensive circle of wagons, with the pioneers being well-dug in while the Indians ride around on horseback, whooping and shouting to beat the band, and firing volleys of arrows at them. A little disconcerting for the fan of traditional Wild Westerns to find this out; kind of like discovering that most cowboys didn’t have much actual use for a six-shooter, and that most western towns were actually rather refreshingly law-abiding places. It ruins a whole lot of plots, knowing of these inconvenient verities, but those historians who become passionately interested in the stories of the trail, the frontier, the cattle baronies; they are not terribly surprised. As with everything, the more one looks… the more nuance appears. Of such are books made, non and fiction alike.
Why does this image reoccur, in the face of considerable scholarship to the contrary? Besides the inherent drama in the stories of the westering pioneers and gold-rushers and the desire of those later telling the stories to heighten the drama, probably the biggest reason may be that those who took part in the great transcontinental migrations actually anticipated something of the sort. They had two centuries of bitter history to draw upon, of grudges, warfare, and atrocities on both sides. Of two cultures colliding, of ancient grudges breaking into fresh enmity; why would it be any different west of the Mississippi than it had been east of it?
Amazingly enough, for at least two decades, until well after the Civil War, wagon-train pioneers actually encountered little open hostility from those various tribes whose territories they passed through. Not of the open sort described above, anyway. There was a certain amount of petty thievery, of oxen, horses, and mules stolen or strayed at night, sniping from the badlands along the Humboldt River, and sometimes single wagons and small parties of travelers beset, robbed, or murdered at any point along the way. There are any number of reasons for this, some of them overlapping. In the early years, there were actually relatively few wagon parties venturing over the trail during the course of the trail season. They were transitory, well-armed and usually well led, and had no desire to pick a fight with warrior-tribes like the Sioux, the horse-lords of the upper plains. Other tribes along the route took the opportunity to do business with the wagon-train parties, either trading commodities or labor in helping them to cross rivers, and as historian George Steward pointed out, it must have gotten pretty darned boring in the winter camps in the Rockies and the upper plains. A new set of travelers passing through their lands offered an interruption to the same old routine.