Pioneer Survival Guides in the 1800s
Updated: May 11
The simplest mistake on the frontier could mean horrific death for your family. Guides for westering settlers increased the chance of survival.
Seeking a life dream entails risks. But, none held more risks than seeking a new life in the Western frontier in the 1800s. By some estimates, 10% of pioneers died on the trail West. Many more died, too, after they reached their destination. (See past post, DEATH ON THE TRAIL.) The Oregon Trail was a 2,000-mile-long graveyard that left about 20 graves per running mile between 1840 and 1869. Death came in many forms: the most common causes were disease, wagon accidents, accidental gunshots, and drownings during river crossings. But pioneers also died of snake bite, goring by oxen, trampling by buffalo or runaway teams, poison weed, childbirth, murder, or suicide. Contrary to Hollywood westerns, deaths by Indian attack were very rare. In the period 1840 - 1860, fewer than 350 pioneers were killed by Native Americans.
Three diseases, cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery, killed the most pioneers and were caused by contaminated water. None of these diseases was an easy way to go. Fever, vomiting, extreme diarrhea, dehydration, terrible thirst, then death.
But, perhaps the greatest cause of death was pioneers not knowing the basics of survival. Many were immigrants straight off the boat who didn’t speak the language and brought no skills or knowledge of surviving in a brutal frontier environment. In a land where survival held a knife’s edge over fate and tiny mistakes could mean horrible death, there was no margin of error for westering settlers. Drinking certain water, feeding livestock certain native plants, taking certain shortcuts, crossing rivers at places that looked deceptively safe, standing on the tongue of wagon at the wrong time, pointing a loaded gun in the wrong direction for just a millisecond—all could rain down disaster. Certainly, buying substandard wagons, teams, or not packing adequately for the punishing trek west would yield catastrophic results sooner rather than later on the trail. Many pioneers had to turn back. Others paid a much more tragic price for their lack of knowledge.
Add to this the mania sweeping the nation to go West. Unscrupulous promoters painted the West as Shangri-La with idyllic scenarios of finding gold and land, fortunes and freedom. Conditions of the poor in Europe and eastern U.S. fueled the mania. Crowded, disease-ridden tenement life, killing working conditions in factories and fields, epidemics in cities, labor riots, race riots, and forced conscription in the Civil War drove hoards of the desperate west for better lives.
But it soon became clear that the choice was not so simple. The horrific Donner Party disaster of 1846 –of innocent settlers taking shortcuts, trying to beat winter in the Rockies—painted in stark contrast just how high the stakes were for not planning adequately. Of the original 89 settlers, 41 froze and starved to death. Many of the 48 survivors resorted to cannibalism of the dead to survive.
Publishers soon realized there was an insatiable need to provide valuable information about going West. Newspapers and magazines like the Knickerbocker, Harper’s Weekly, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and numerous other newspapers ran popular serial articles on how to prepare to go West, what to pack, big mistakes and smart ideas, and testimonials from those who had already made the trip successfully. Chief among the “experts” were mountain men, frontier explorers, military scouts, and wagon masters who led excursions west.
Lansford W. Hastings was an East Coast lawyer who, when he was 23, decided to go West to Oregon in 1842. He helped incorporate Oregon City, the first official city west of the Rocky Mountains. Then he left for southern California and in 1844 decided to help take the territory from Mexico with the intent of establishing the Republic of California, of which he would be the president. Always an entrepreneur, he saw a chance to populate the territory while making a profit by writing The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California in 1845. He painted a pastoral and gleaming picture of California and provided practical advice for overland travelers. However, he gave one ill-fated piece of advice that would not serve him or westering pioneers well. In his popular book, he mentioned a cutoff that, in only a couple of years, would lead to disaster for the Donner Party.
He wrote: "The most direct path would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall; thence bearing west-south west, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco." Hastings had not traveled the route himself and may not have been unaware of the difficulties in crossing the Wasatch Range and Salts Flats of Utah, a route that looked logical on paper. The cutoff would come to be named the ignominious “Hastings Cutoff” that would result in 41 deaths and stories of the survivors eating the dead to stave off starvation.
However, in Hastings’ defense, the famed mountain man, tracker and guide, Jim Bridger, had been enthusiastically promoting the cutoff, in part because it would bring emigrants to a new community he had founded called “Fort Bridger.”
Another book, What I Saw in California, was written by Edwin Bryant in 1848, just three years after Hastings’ book and a year and a half after the Donner debacle. Bryant had the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but also an intimate view of the Donner disaster, as well as the best overland routes west. He knew both Lansford Hastings and Jim Bridger, and had traveled with the Donner Party. Unlike Hastings, he had actually trekked the infamous cutoff and did not feel the wagon train could survive the terrain, nor the possibility of winter snows, should they come early. Bryant wrote letters to the leaders of the Donner Party warning them of the perils of taking the cutoff and left the letters with Jim Bridger. However, the Donner Party, curiously, never received Bryant’s warnings and proceeded down the ill-fated cutoff to doom.
Bryant was a gritty Kentucky newspaper man who decided to trek west to California in 1846. In May of that year, his party had joined up with the Donner Party and others going west. Bryant became frustrated with the slow pace of the wagon train and he and a small group rode ahead on pack mules, leaving the Donner Party and others behind. Bryant and his small party took the very rough Hastings Cutoff, but earlier in the year. That was when he became concerned the route could not be navigated by the wagon train.
Bryant would write about the Donner incident and the backstory in his book, What I Saw in California. He also gained even more credibility with other accounts and warnings for the westward-bound and included a large, fold-out color lithographed map of the entire frontier territory west of the Mississippi, including California and Oregon. The map proved an invaluable marketing tool, as well as an invaluable practical guide for settlers. When gold was discovered in California in 1849 the following year, his book became a runaway bestseller.
Another popular guide was The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, published in 1849. The account was written by Francis Parkman and first serialized in 1847-49 in 21 installments in the Knickerbocker's Magazine. Both were first-person accounts of a two-month summer tour in 1846 out west in the territories of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and Wyoming. The heart of the book covered the three weeks Parkman spent hunting buffalo with the Oglala Sioux.
Parkman was 23 years old at the time and his credentials as seasoned frontier expert were suspect, to say the least. But his powers of description and drama concealed any substantive shortcomings. The book was reviewed by Herman Melville, the much lauded author of Moby Dick. Although most of the review was positive, Melville bemoaned that Parkman demeaned American Indians and that the book title was misleading, since his account covered only the first third of the trail.
Nevertheless, the volume launched the young Parkman’s storytelling career without peer in American letters. Melville sung his praises: “It is the picturesqueness, the racy vigor, the poetic elegance, the youthful excitement, that give The Oregon Trail its enduring appeal, recreating for us, as perhaps no other book does in our literature, the wonder and beauty of life in a new world.”
Another prominent guide was The Prairie Traveler, by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy in 1859. Marcy graduated from West Point and fought in the Black Hawk War in Illinois and Wisconsin, then fought in the Mexican War in the southwest and the territory of southern California. He was then assigned to escort emigrants to Texas and Oklahoma. And finally, in 1852 he led an expedition to the headwaters of the Red River Valley in Texas. (On this trip he met George McClellan, the future Civil War General, who would also become Marcy’s son-in-law.) With his vast experience in the western frontier, Marcy authored the The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook for Overland Expeditions, published by the U.S. government in 1859. The volume included maps, illustrations and itineraries of the principal routes between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean.
The book became the most popular guidebook for 1800's westbound pioneers and was a bestseller for the entire remainder of the 19th century. It was a comprehensive survival book that included provisions, healthcare, reconnaissance, fieldcraft, hunting, tracking, and food and water supplies.
Marcy included thorough chapters on preparing for expeditions: how to select horse or oxen teams, how to examine wagons for purchase, tack, tools for the trip, and what provisions and amounts you needed to stock for your covered wagon.
Marcy’s book was especially helpful because he included specific advice about the terrain, Indians, wildlife and dangers on various trails. Included were helpful tips about avoiding quicksand, interpreting smoke signals and native sign language, finding and purifying water, repairing broken wagons, how to treat saddle sores and lameness in horses, mules and oxen, how to treat a snake bite, and other life-saving techniques. The book no doubt saved many lives on the way west and pioneers came to cherish it as a Bible for their earthly salvation, for it protected them and helped them reach their “promised land.”
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-Death on the Trail
-The First Wagon Train West
"Pioneer Survival Guides of the 1800s" was first published on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on December 12, 2019.
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