History Friday: Rescue at the End of the Trail

It was just one of those vagaries of the American frontier that the most challenging and perilous stretches of the overland trails to Oregon and California lay at the very end. The first weeks on the road west, beginning at various jumping-off towns on the Mississippi-Missouri River, led through a vast ocean of grass, and then along the veritable highway of the Platte River Valley. Game was plentiful, grass for the draft animals to eat was plentiful, as was water – and the terrain was mostly level to rolling. In a way, this was good, as it allowed the emigrants a kind of shake-down period, in which everyone involved could accustom themselves to the challenge of the wilderness, of moving their wagon or mule train the required fifteen or twenty miles daily, and for able leaders to emerge.
But such was the peculiar geography of the Oregon-California trail that those who embarked on that journey would face the most grinding challenge just at that very point when they and their draft animals were exhausted and worn-down from constant travel and their supplies of food for humans and animals alike dwindling. Implacable winter threatened to strand the late- season travelers either in the mountains or on the near side of them, starving, sick and weak. A number of early parties on the emigrant trail diced with disaster in this respect, arriving in California on foot with barely more than the clothes on their back, having subsisted on the dried meat from the last of their draft oxen. And everyone knew of the sufferings of the Donner-Reed party of 1846-47, stranded high in the Sierra Nevada range, in ten feet and more of snow. This tragedy would live long in the memories of emigrants and would-be emigrants, most of whom had been careful and prosperous bourgeoisie, intent on improving their lives by removing to a healthier climate and richer land. They did gamble, in venturing the 2,000 mile journey, but they usually had calculated carefully in doing so.

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