Down the Oregon Trail

She said…

We think that what we’ve done over the last two years, selling almost everything we own and loading the rest into an RV and taking off for places unknown, is a big deal. We all complain when the GPS sends us down a short-cut dirt road when we would rather stay on pavement for the extra few miles. And oh, the nightmare of traveling down some poorly maintained county road while the entire contents of your house goes through the equivalent of an earthquake. All of these trials and tribulations pale by comparison when you plop them down next to the bit of history we’ve been exploring for the last week.

Imagine what it must have been like to sell everything you owned and put the rest on a wagon along with your family and leave everything you know behind to travel 2,000 miles, at the rate of about 15-20 miles per day, to an unknown destination. Well, between 1840 and 1860 over 400,000 Americans did exactly that, and over 20,000 of them died in the process.

For the last three days, we have been camped on or near the historic Oregon Trail, and we have been having a wonderful time visiting the historic sites and learning more about it. For example, I always assumed that the early pioneers followed rivers so that they would have water for themselves and their livestock, but they also used rivers for direction. If you have ever been in Nebraska around midday you know that a river would be a handy directional assist. I would have been so lost.

Tuesday we went to Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, where the Oregon Trail left the North Platte River because of impassable topographical features. Scotts Bluff stands out on the horizon as a sign that the early travelers had made it through the monotonous sameness of the prairie. But to get to the western side of this sandstone and siltstone formation, they had to leave the river, sometimes for several days.

A couple of other interesting facts: In the earlier years of the migration, the Plains Indian Tribes were more likely to be allies and trading partners than adversaries on the trail. The images of helpless settlers being slaughtered by bands of savages were perpetrated by the press and the entertainment industry back then as well as today. Also, most settlers were not familiar with firearms and many of the deaths on the trail were due to accidental shootings. Also, the huge Conestoga wagons we are familiar with from movies and TV were too big and unwieldy for the journey. Instead the settlers trusted their lives and possessions to the smaller, lighter and more manageable prairie schooners, and most of the settlers actually walked the 2,000 miles alongside the wagons. Only the very young, elderly or infirm got to ride.

Yesterday we went to the Guernsey Ruts and Register Cliff. Most of the time the wagons fanned out across the prairie so they wouldn’t have to eat each other’s dust, but when the terrain dictated they would travel single file and in many of those places the ruts made by thousands of wagon wheels are still visible. At Register Cliffs, the caravans stopped for a brief time by the river to refresh and recoup, and some took the opportunity to carve their names and dates in the soft rock.

Today we toured Fort Laramie, built in 1834, which sits at the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers. In its first incarnation, it enjoyed a near monopoly on the buffalo trade. The Plains tribes, primarily the Lakota, traded tanned hides for goods from the east. In 1841, with the take of buffalo hides declining, the role of the fort changed as the first westward bound immigrants arrived. Over the next two decades, tens of thousands stopped at the fort on their way to California, Oregon, and the Salt Lake Basin. During the next four decades, as the number of settlers increased and the relations with the indigenous peoples grew more strained, the fort was the base of operations for the Indian Wars and host to several important treaty negotiations.

It has been fun this last week delving into the lives of these people, some of them our ancestors, who made this arduous journey west. I know that when I am inclined to complain because my Instantpot is rattling in its comfy overhead bin as we go down the trail, I will stop and reflect about the courage of these people and the hardships they faced.

Leave a Reply