Oregon Trail video game
Photo by MECC

“Wagon train.” The phrase evokes a vision of an entire nation crossing rough prairies, battling enemies, finding new homes in the green pastures of the West. Just as the Pony Express lasted only a year and a half, the heyday of the wagon train stretched out only for a couple of decades, until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Pioneers organized themselves into loose alliances, hired guides, and headed out for a bumpy journey across plains and mountain passes that lasted for long months, and nothing romantic about it. They did not know they were making history—they just went and did what they had to do.

During the busiest time of year, in late spring, as many as 6,000 travelers were somewhere on the Oregon Trail on any given day. That represents a lot of activity and a huge commitment: Travel on any of the major trails took as long as six months through all kinds of weather, and it cost a great deal of money—at least $1,000 in 1850 dollars, or $27,500 today. Given that commitment, it’s small wonder that the experiences of those pioneers afford us a few operating principles for expeditions of our own—if not just plain life.

Choose Your Leaders Wisely

Most wagon trains represented a blend of private entrepreneurship by businesspeople and cooperative partnership by clients who bought their services in bulk, so to speak. Let’s say you had it in mind to migrate to California and wanted to take your family along. It was up to you to procure a wagon—typically, a Conestoga modeled on Pennsylvania Dutch farm wagons or a “prairie schooner” built by the Studebaker brothers —and the necessary supplies and get yourself to a rendezvous point.

Sometimes the initial rendezvous took place close to home, and there are accounts of whole farming communities in places like Ohio and Illinois, for instance, that picked up and moved together. Singly or in company, you’d make your way to St. Louis or Independence and there join a larger wagon train organized by a company. Travelers would convene to elect representatives in a kind of loosely knit government, while the wagon company provided a chief guide and armed scouts. Alternately, a company of travelers would undertake their own organization, hiring their own guides.

Leadership Hierarchy

The most successful trains, no matter how organized, had this in common: The leadership hierarchy was established and observed, and the tenderfeet deferred to the experience of those who knew the country. Good leadership was a requisite for a successful wagon train, and if not every wagon master was a moral paragon to equal Ward Bond, the star of the old TV series Wagon Train, all maintained order and discipline with a deep commitment to seeing their charges safely to their destinations.

If a bad leader emerged, on the other hand, or if leadership was scarce, then all kinds of trouble could ensue. Consider the Donner party, which broke off from a larger train of 500 wagons to follow an essentially untested route pitched to them by a con man. Without guides who knew the country, they blundered across deserts and mountains, bickering and arguing, growing progressively weaker, splintering into factions. The train of some 80 men, women, and children ground to a halt in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and in the winter of 1846–47, half died of exposure and starvation. Some, notoriously, then provided food for the survivors.

Donner Party Pioneers

It need not have happened that way. Two years earlier, another party of settlers had been stuck at the very spot above the Truckee River where the Donner party found disaster. The difference with the Stephens-Townsend party was that they had taken the trouble to hire two guides, Caleb Greenwood and Isaac Hitchcock, who knew the territory and the dangers it posed, and they listened to him. The elected leader of the party, Elisha Stephens, had traveled on the Santa Fe Trail as a teamster before trying the northern route to California, and he knew the limitations of how far and fast wagons and their teams of oxen could be driven. They guarded their supplies and rationed food.

Most important, the 50-odd members of the party stayed together, did not fall apart into factions, and followed the instructions of their experienced leaders. When the thaw came, they had even added two members to their number, babies born in that harsh winter of 1844–45. Stephens went on to establish the first American homestead in what is now Bakersfield, California, where he lived to a very old age.

Pull Together

There’s safety in numbers, the saying goes. Most wagon trains were large, numbering in the dozens or even hundreds of wagons, as a deterrent to anyone who might attack, whether Native warriors or outlaws. Many of the deadliest incidents on the trail occurred when a handful of settlers headed into uncharted territory, as when the five-wagon Kelly-Larimer party headed out onto the Wyoming plains on the way to the Montana gold fields in 1864. The tiny party proved irresistible to a Sioux war party that happened by, and most of the travelers were killed.

Crossing the continent was difficult and hazardous work under the best of circumstances, and it’s estimated that at least 15,000 travelers—about 5 percent—died along the way over 20 years of wagon train history. That’s a smaller figure than contemporary journalists usually ventured. One writer of the time, for instance, wrote that along the California Trail there were at least 10 graves for every mile, which would add up to 20,000 or more dead on that trail alone. But apart from the occasional massacre, killings were rare—and those that are documented involved drinking, fighting about money, arguing over the affections of a woman, or accusations of theft or malingering. In short, violent crime on wagon trains took about the same form as violent crime in your average suburb today.

Pioneer Hazards

And what were the other hazards? The biggest cause of injury was not paying attention and getting run over or backed over by a wagon or draft animal. Accidental firearm discharges, in those days before guns were equipped with safety locks, took the lives of numerous people. Lightning and flash floods killed a few travelers. Snakebite killed a few, mostly children. And suicide was common—indeed, probably the leading cause of death, apart from diseases such as cholera, malaria, and tick fever.

The lesson: When venturing into possibly difficult territory yourself, take an honest assessment of the enterprise. If you need bodyguards to pull it off, it might be worth pursuing some other goal. If you choose to proceed, keep your eyes open. Develop what self-defense experts call “situational awareness,” and look ahead for places and occasions where trouble is likeliest.

Pay Attention to the Vittles

Many years ago, I went on a combination overland and hiking adventure into an extremely remote, extremely hard-to-reach corner of southeastern California. My traveling companions and I had bounced over a bunch of rocky mountain ranges, forded streams and dunes, and were almost to our destination when one of them announced, panicked, that we had to turn back: He’d forgotten to pack carrots. The rest of us tried to suggest reasonable alternatives, but they weren’t to be had. The result: We backtracked 50 miles over rough country until we found a grocery store and stocked up on crunchy veggies.

Gear List

Had I been a wagon master—the leader, that is—I might have asked my companion if he had studied the list I provided before setting out. Yes, a list. Food was scarce on the frontier, and wagon companies sent out checklists to would-be clients with required supplies.

According to a migrant named Joel Palmer, overland travelers to California via the Oregon Trail in the early 1850s were instructed to bring along, per person, “two hundred pounds of flour, thirty pounds of pilot bread, seventy-five pounds of bacon, ten pounds of rice, five pounds of coffee, two pounds of tea, twenty-five pounds of sugar, half a bushel of dried beans, one bushel of dried fruit, two pounds of saleratus [baking soda], ten pounds of salt, half a bushel of corn meal; and it is well to have half a bushel of corn, parched and ground; a small keg of vinegar should also be taken.” Given that the recommended load of a Conestoga wagon was only 1,600 pounds, it’s easy to see that provisioning well didn’t leave much room for extras.

Dinner on the Hoof

Travelers typically augmented their diet with bison meat—a source of conflict, of course, with Indians, especially when large numbers of bison began to die. The travelers learned to preserve a portion of the kill as jerky, drying it stretched out on the wagon cover as they bounced along the road, trying their best to overlook the dust, insects, and other substances introduced into the meat during the ride.

Supplies are scarce on our own frontiers. At least, assume they are. Before heading out on a camping trip or some other expedition, be sure that you’ve met with your fellow campers and drawn up checklists. Check them. Double-check them. Heck, the same thing holds even for a simple car trip: Have some food handy, even if only some nuts and protein bars. People get weird when they’re hungry. Just ask the Donner party.

Everybody Has a Job to Do

Travelers on the wagon trails pulled together. They had to. They had to cooperate, and there was no room for shirking. Everyone worked. Lydia Waters, who crossed the Overland Trail as a very young girl, recalled that back home in the East she had been admonished not to be a tomboy, but she took pride in driving an ox team across the prairie alongside grownup men. Women along the trail learned that traveling in long skirts was a challenge, and many took to wearing the same canvas trousers as the men. Writes the noted western historian Lillian Schlissel, “the common conditions of heat, flies, dirt, weariness, lack of water, lost cattle, fear of Indian attack and disease, all these men and women shared.”

Children, too. In the grand adventure, everyone has a job to do. Decide what that job is, and let everyone pitch in.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

What kept the pioneers going on the overland trails they followed for months and months? The thought that a new life awaited them at the end of the trail. They were off to “see the elephant,” as they put it, and by gum, they were going to make the best of it. Challenges are ever-present, whether we’re going to the grocery store or climbing a mountain, and the same demand falls on us: We face them head-on, and we make the best of it, always with an eye on that better world that lies ahead.

This article is from the summer 2018 issue of Survivor’s Edge Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.

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