When the Lewis and Clark Expedition first explored the far western reaches of the North American continent from 1804-1806, their arrival brought the first tremors of western white expansion. But it took almost another 30 years for explorers, fur traders, and mountain men, nearly always with the help of Native Americans, to map out safe routes for larger expeditions and open the floodgates of western expansion.
The first big wagon train—a military expedition of about 110 men with heavily-laden covered wagons, left Missouri in May 1832 and followed the Missouri and Platte Rivers to present-day Wyoming. Led by Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, a French-born American officer in the U.S. Army, a graduate of West Point turned explorer, he first blazed much of the western path of the Oregon Trail.
He was funded by the magnate John Jacob Astor, a rival of the Hudson Bay Company, who wanted to find the most expeditious routes for fur trading on a mass scale. Bonneville left Missouri with 110 men in May 1832 and followed the Missouri and Platte Rivers to present-day Wyoming. Then he traveled down the Snake River in present-day Idaho, through Hells Canyon, into the Wallowa Mountains. There, he got a hospitable welcome from the Nez Perce Indians, who 30 years before had saved Lewis and Clark from starvation and freezing to death.
Bonneville returned to the East Coast where the famous writer, Washington Irving, author of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, wrote The Adventures of Captain Bonneville. It would become a bestseller and first ignite America with widespread dreams of going West.
Meanwhile, Marcus Whitman, a medical doctor and zealous missionary, had traveled an epic four-thousand-mile trip by horseback from New York to Wyoming and there he heard about Bonneville’s expedition on the route that would become known as The Oregon Trail.
Marcus Whitman returned East with feverish plans to mount a wagon train West. Shortly before he left, he met the perfect woman to join him on his adventure. Fellow religious zealot, beautiful Narcissa Prentiss was a strong-willed young woman with wild, strawberry-blonde hair, a voluptuous figure, and bright blue eyes. When she was sixteen, she’d had a vision that her life’s work was to convert American Indians to Christianity. She was desperate to go West and agreed to marry Marcus Whitman—her ticket to Oregon—without even knowing him.
The newlyweds traveled to Liberty, Missouri, where they left with two wagons in April 1836 to travel across the Kansas plains and catch up with a caravan of fur traders going up the Platte. Narcissa, however, insisted on having a horse and rode for much of the day side-saddle, riding ahead and exploring. Like her new husband, she was an adventurer at heart and drank up the land and each new adventure. She wrote colorful journals of their travels describing the land, the Indians, the wildlife, and sent the letters back East to her family, where they were published in many newspapers. As they traveled West, Easterners hungrily followed the Whitmans’ adventures.
Narcissa’s accounts were rose-colored, to be sure. Of the flat Nebraska plains, she wrote: “It is astonishing how well we get along with our wagons where there are no roads. I think I may say that it is easier traveling here than on any turnpike in the States.”
She painted pictures of blue skies and open paradise to those in the East who lived in crowded soot-covered cities with filth-filled streets and teaming with the poor. Americans wanderlust and dreams of a better life were set aflame when they read: “I wish I could describe to you how we live so that you can realize it. Our manner of living is far preferable to any in the States. I never was so contented and happy before. Neither have I enjoyed such health for years. In the morn as the day breaks, the first that we hear is the word—Arise! Arise! Then the mules set up such noise as you never heard which puts the whole camp in motion.”
She wrote, too, of the friendly and magnificent Native Indians they met on the trail. In Nebraska and Wyoming, the Shoshone and Pawnee were awestruck by the first white woman they had ever seen with the wild blond hair. They lined up outside her tent to lift the flap and look at her. Narcissa was admired by Native women, too, who embraced her and she happily kissed them on the cheeks. Her accounts helped assuage Americans’ pathological fear of American Indians.
Narcissa’s letters created a sensation in the East and were even published in London. She laced her writing with romance and her growing affection for her new husband. She wrote that, at night on the open prairie, Marcus sat with his legs crossed and she used them as a table as they ate their elk steaks.
Even crossing rivers—the most dangerous part of the trail—were exciting adventures for her. Because she had become such a novelty and celebrity among Native tribes, they clamored to take her across rivers in their dugouts, rafts, and bull boats (stick baskets wrapped in buffalo hides). Since Native Americans had been crossing rivers for thousands of years and knew how to navigate rivers safely and were not handicapped by cumbersome covered wagons, Narcissa perhaps did not perceive the danger. She wrote flippantly: “I once thought that crossing rivers would be the most dreadful part of the journey. I can now cross the most difficult stream without the least fear.”
On July 4, 1836, Narcissa summitted the South Pass in the Rocky Mountains that marks the Continental Divide. She was the first white woman to cross the Rockies.
A few more small wagon trains and military expeditions began crossing to Oregon and California after the Whitmans. But it was not until Marcus Whitman led a very large procession of 120 wagons called the “Gantt-Whitman Train” in 1843, that the floodgates of pioneers started to flow West and the Great Migration began. Many historians date the beginning of western expansion in that year.
Between 1840 and 1869, the year the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, more than 420,000 pioneers went West on the Oregon Trail. The ground veritably shook like tectonic plates shifting as a civilization marched west. But, the glowing reports Narcissa Whitman, as well as many unscrupulous land promoters, shared with Americans clamoring to go West gave a dangerously false sense of the risks.
In fact, about 10% of pioneers died along the way. Disease, wagon accidents, gun accidents, and drownings during river crossings were the most common causes of death. But pioneers also died of snake bite, childbirth, goring by oxen, trampling, murder, and 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. Cholera was most common along the Platte River in Nebraska and Wyoming, a common camp stop for wagon trains. Thousands of westering pioneers used the river to bathe, wash laundry, including dirty diapers, empty chamber pots, even defecate. The unknowing pioneers also used the water to refurbish their water barrels and its contamination spread agonizing death.
Gun accidents were the second major cause of death. Although the threat of Indian attacks was statistically rare, pioneers were terrified of the possibility and carried irrational amounts of arms. In 1846, the diary of one pioneer recorded that 72 wagons carried 260 rifles and pistols, a ton of lead, and a half ton of powder.
But most immigrants and Easterners had little experience with guns. Gun accidents killed many times more pioneers than Indian attacks. One of the first gun fatalities on the Oregon Trail was—ironically—John Shotwell, who reached for his rifle by the muzzle and shot himself dead.
Wagon accidents were also common. A covered wagon weighed more than a ton (about 1,300 pounds for a prairie schooner—Conestogas were even heavier—and more than 700 pounds of cargo). They were hard to manage over rocky terrain and downhill, impossible to stop. One diary recorded the death of eight-year-old Richard, the son of Harvey Young: "Mr. Harvey's little boy went to git in the wagon and fel from the tung. The wheals run over him and mashed his head and Kil him Ston dead he never moved."
The Trail was deadly for animals, too. Carcasses of oxen, horses and mules littered the route. The 1849 diary of J. G. Bruff recorded: "Counted 150 dead oxen. It is difficult to find a camping ground destitute of carcasses."
When families lost a loved one, they didn't have the luxury of building coffins, digging deep graves, or taking time to mourn. Victims were buried in shallow graves and, unless stones or tree trunks were near, left little or no markers. Wolves, coyotes and other predators had learned that wagon trains were moveable feasts and would dig up the graves with indelicate efficiency once the wagons were gone. In fact, many settlers started buried their loved ones under the trail itself, in hopes the wheels of thousands of wagons would compress the ground to stone and encase their loved ones eternally from predators. The Oregon Trail would come to be called a 2,000-mile-long graveyard, with some 40,000 unmarked graves, an average of 20 burials per mile.
Even those pioneers who reached their happy destinations faced continuing hardships beyond the trail. Narcissa and Marcus Whitman’s dream did not last. They settled in a magnificent land on the border of what would become the states of Oregon and Washington. They built a charming New England saltbox and a mission to begin converting the area Native American tribes to Christianity. Their proselytizing went well for a while, but all the whites they attracted to the area brought with them virulent diseases and measles decimated many Cayuse villages. Some young braves began spreading the belief that the white religion had brought the plague upon them, and the Whitmans and nine other white settlers were massacred in revenge. Their promised land had become their doom.
You may also enjoy these related posts:
-Death on the Trail
-Death Photography on the Trail
"The First Wagon Trains West" first posted on Facebook December 19, 2019 144,223 views / 1,654 likes / 1,063 shares
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