Friday, October 10, 2008

O Pioneers!

Historians say that the journey west on the Oregon Trail (from the years 1843-1869) was an exceptionally difficult travel experience, especially by today's standards. Historians would concur if they have traveled by microbus.

The similarities, but mostly the differences, are as humbling as they are remarkable. One-in-ten emigrants died along the way due to enemies like cholera, fatigue, accident, exposure, starvation, and each other--not to mention the ever-present threat of savage Indians*. What's more, most walked the entire two-thousand miles**; and many were barefoot. By contrast, in our little bus, we make do without air conditioning.

The pioneers of the 19th century began their journey at any one of several small towns along the Missouri river, which they called "jumping off" places. One of the most popular was Independence, MO (today a suburb of Kansas City). It was here where many emigrants left their old lives behind. And so it is from here where we began our journey back west to Oregon.

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We arose long after sunrise in the parking lot of a giant Wal-Mart on the edges of Independence, MO. Even after a full night's sleep we feel a bit wrung out--a semi truck belched and snored beside us throughout the night. Nonetheless, we are in good spirits. After a breakfast of hot grits and even hotter coffee, we will "jump off" into Kansas to see what scraps remain of the famed Oregon Trail. The sun is bright and full. With luck we should make the Nebraska border by late afternoon.

-Van Man, 9:30 AM, September 24, 2008

Here we are … in a beautiful encampment on the Wakarusa River, all in the enjoyment of excellent health and a fine flow of spirits…. Life on the plains surpasses my expectations; there is a freedom and nobleness about it that tend to bring forth the full manhood… Today we have fresh strawberries upon the prairies—we eat them with cream too, at that.

-George Curry, May, 1846

It's a slow-going 120 miles from our jumping off place to Manhattan, KS. Scraggly farm towns impede our progress: Williamstown, Newman, Rossville. These are towns taken in with one large eyefull and just as quickly forgotten. Just west of Belevue, we stop at a historical marker along the banks of the Red Vermillion river. What took us a few hours to reach, our pioneer forerunners reached in about a week of labor. In May 1849, cholera struck hard at this crossing. More than 50 individuals died within a week at this very spot. People that were healthy in the morning were dead by mid-afternoon.

-Van Man, 12:20 PM, September 24, 2008

The last wagon did not get over the river till nine o’clock. It stuck in the mud, and when two drivers with eleven yoke of oxen failed to move it, some more hands went down from camp, and they “whipped out,” a teamster’s term meaning they fell to work with their whip handles and beat the poor oxen, whooping and yelling all the time, till one is almost induced to believe their throats will split.

-Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846

North of Manhattan, the flat land gives way to rolling hills as far as the eye can see. After zooming past a number of roadside fruit stands, we stop at the next one we come across. A gnarl-handed woman in a faded blue dress wheels out in an electric wheelchair to greet us. She's nice enough but her prices are steep. What's more, her okras are a bit old and mushy. Back on the road, I find a channel on our satellite radio I quite like--it plays nothing but alternative hits from the '80s. Maybe I never did leave high school. We pass by Alcove Spring, a popular campsite on the emigrant's trail.

-Van Man, 2:20 PM, September 24, 2008

About 80 miles north of Manhattan, KS we cross into Nebraska. Kansas, Nebraska... what's the difference? 20 miles later, we find our campground: the "Rock Creek Station State Historical Park." It's plopped down in the middle of a cornfield. It's brimming with other campers. Strange. As Diane cooks up dinner and I scuttle about setting up camp, I think about the pioneers of the 1840s. To get to this point, still about 100 miles south of the Platte, they would have been on the trail for a good three weeks already. This, for them, was also Indian Country.

-Van Man, 6:25 PM, September 24, 2008

A Potawatomi Indian, accompanied by a half-breed who spoke English correctly, came to our camp early this morning. The Potawatomi was a tall, athletic young man of symmetrical feature, and rode a fat and handsome Indian pony, which several of our party made overtures to purchase, but they were not successful. He was dressed in a calico shirt, with buckskin pantaloons, gaiters, and moccasins. He brought with him several pairs of moccasins, some of them second-hand, which he wished to trade for meat. He soon sold out his small stock of wares and left us.

-Edwin Bryant, May, 1846


We've been on the trail all morning. If the farm towns in east-central Kansas were forgettable, then the farm towns that dot the southern border of Nebraska are already forgotten. We aim to be in Hastings, NE by this afternoon. According to our AAA guidebook Hastings has a museum that we should not miss.

-Van Man, 11:30 AM, September 25, 2008

Without a doubt, the Hastings Museum of Natural & Cultural History is among the strangest we've ever visited. Giant stuffed polar bears and wolves roar beside installations dedicated to television, antique cars, machine guns, glassware, sod houses, fossils, saddles, geology, Kool-Aid, American money--and a thousand other subjects. We spent hours poking about. While we were in the cool of the museum, the midday heat outside turned into a latent swelter. Since we burned up so much of the day at the museum, we decide to drive up to Grand Island, NE to find an air-conditioned motel room and a refreshing shower. We will continue our Oregon Trail adventures tomorrow.

-Van Man, 4:30 PM, September 25, 2008

Opposite Grand Island one night, our cattle being corralled close, took a stampede, and the horses staked close by; all broke loose and of all the running and bellowing and rattling of bells I never before heard the like. We supposed the Pawnees were upon us, and one man was so certain of it he fired a rifle into the midst of the fuss. Men were running in every direction to catch their horses.

-John Brow, June, 1846


From Grand Island, NE the Oregon Trail turns west along the Platte River--a wide, shallow, languid stretch of water that runs from here all the way to Wyoming. The day is dry and hot and dusty and so are the lost little towns we pass through. We've been on the trail for two days and already we're a bit weary of it. While this is a dull stretch for us, for our pioneers the games have only just begun.

-Van Man, 10:00 AM, September 26, 2008

As we wended our way up the valley of the Platte one could look back for miles on a line of wagons … with varied colored wagon covers, resembling a great serpent crawling and wriggling up the valley.

-William Thompson, 1851

We saw them [the buffalo] in frightful droves as far as the eye could reach; appearing at a distance as if the ground itself was moving like a sea.

-John Wyeth, 1851

Welcome to the drowsy metropolis of North Platte, NE. The fork in the road. The confluence of South Platte and the North Platte rivers. We stop for a fine cheeseburger lunch at a custom meat shop and chat Nebraska football and microbuses with the owner. We have a long way to go and the day is already more than half gone. The heat is relentless. The crosswinds are a handful on the steering wheel.

-Van Man, 2:30 AM, September 26, 2008

Passed a great many newly made graves today, and find a great deal of sickness among the emigrants, almost in every company we pass. Diarrhea running into cholera are the prevailing complaints. One poor woman is badly situated, having lost her husband and two children, she is forced to drive herself, and one little girl drives the cows.

-James Williams, June 15, 1849

Up along the North Platte, the countryside opens up in a most unexpected way. It's a place of big skies and rolling hills that run to an unreachable horizon. The towns are few and far between here, not that they offer any compelling cause to stop. According to our map, the famed sights of Courthouse Rock and Castle Rock are an hour or so away.

-Van Man, 4:00 PM, September 26, 2008

This evening the axletree of another wagon broke, and after a consultation it was abandoned on the prairie, the load taken out and divided. This is the fifth or sixth wagon that has been left on the road by companies in advance of us. Camped tonight in the vicinity of Courthouse Rock. This is an immense rock in the shape of a building standing alone on the prairie, about four miles to the left of the road… Chimney Rock now in sight.

-James Wilkins, June, 1849

From our vantage point, Jailhouse and Courthouse rock are distinct blurs in the distance. The nearby grain elevator classes up the spectacle considerably. We can already see Chimney Rock from here, all of ten miles down the road. It's a sight for sore eyes and I'm pleased to behold it.

-Van Man, 5:20 PM, September 26, 2008


After a pleasant night's snooze in Scottsbluff, NE (and the hands-down best Mexican food breakfast we've had since we were in New Mexico), we drove south a few miles to the Scotts Bluff National Monument. Scotts Bluff was, as it is today, a dramatic series of clay and sandstone highlands that served chiefly as a landmark on the Oregon Trail. Emigrants encountered Scotts Bluff after a six to eight week trek across the monotonous grasslands of Kansas and Nebraska. Between the years 1841 and 1869, more than 250,000 men, women, and children passed within sight of these bluffs. While the emigrants still had two-thirds of their journey yet ahead of them this will be our last stop on the Oregon Trail, at least for now.

-Van Man, 10:40 AM, September 27, 2008

Scotts Bluff—this singular formation is one of the great landmarks, about 700 miles west of the Mississippi. At a distance as we approached it, the appearance was that of an immense fortification with bastions, towers, battlements, and embrasures…

-Alfred Jacob Miller, 1837

The clomping, scraping, and grinding of thousands of hooves and wagon wheels over this ground wore deep ruts into the soft sandstone. Today, little more than 150 years later, traces of these ruts are all that remain of this bygone era. But they remain, nonetheless.

-Van Man, 12:10 AM, September 27, 2008

*The first section of the Oregon Trail bisected the territories of two major Indian tribes--the Cheyenne to the north and the Pawnee to the south. The emigrants obsessed about being attacked by both, though the expected attacks rarely occurred. In fact, there were many instances of Indian kindness--helping pull out stuck wagons; rescuing drowning emigrants; even rounding up lost cattle. But then came the gold rush. Starting in 1849, a migratory stampede of get-rich-quick emigrants overgrazed the prairie grasses, burned all the available firewood, and depleted the buffalo herds. Thus impoverished, the aforementioned tribes (among others) took exception to this invasion. And so began the Indian Wars of the Great Plains.

**Emigrants typically carried a large supply of provisions--enough to safely see them through the journey and to survive their first winter in a foreign land. A family of four was thought to need over a thousand pounds of food to sustain them on the two thousand mile journey to Oregon. Because most emigrants grossly overloaded their wagons, its owners could not ride inside. So most people walked. Nearly all the emigrants realized they had more than they could actually haul. The trail was soon littered with thrown out debris: flour, bacon, furniture--even cast iron stoves.

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