Recently my friend Candace suggested I read The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck. It’s really good, she said.
She remembered a column I wrote a few weeks ago. It was based on an old diary about my great-great Grandfather John Wesley Cooper and his brother William who traveled west during the Gold Rush. In 1850 it took three months to travel from Will County, IL to the jumping-off town of St. Joseph, MO and on to Placerville, CA.
William Cooper’s firsthand account included runaway horses, capsized wagons, lost money and constant worry about water and grass for the horses. But his entries were short and cryptic. The day-to-day grind of cooking, cleaning and searching for water and grass along the trail had to be a tedious regimen of drudgery and filth.
The Oregon Trail filled in many of the gaps. It’s the 2011 account of Rinker Buck and his brother, Nick—middle-aged adventurers who sought to fulfill a dream of journeying by wagon from St. Joseph, MO to Baker City, OR to make history of their own: be the first to cross the Oregon Trail in 100 years. Their adventure would take them on remains of the actual trail as narrow as the wagon itself or as wide as a quarter mile.
The Bucks studied the map and knew something about handling draft animals and making wagon repairs. Their father had been a covered-wagon enthusiast, and they’d taken a few trips by wagon as children in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Their conveyance this time was a Schuttler wagon—a boxy, lighter and more maneuverable than the sweeping Conestogas we see in paintings and movies.
Theirs was a solitary journey, unlike what the Coopers would have experienced when the Oregon Trail was crowded by endless white-topped wagons of religious zealots and gold seekers headed to lands of opportunity.
Over packing was a common problem for the pioneers who, approaching the Platte River in Nebraska or the steep grades of the Rockies. Sections of the trail became a dumping ground of trunks, furniture, dishes, books and casks of supplies. Like pioneers before them, the Bucks lightened their load, tossing out a barbecue grill and other cargo they could live without.
Along the way, the Bucks met ranch families who offered water and corrals for the horses, and hospitality for the men.
Out of cell phone range and confused about which set of ruts to follow, the pair became lost once or twice, a situation that would have been less likely for pioneers traveling in large groups with experienced guides. That’s not to say the westward journey was blissful. American pioneers grumbled. Fights broke out. Offenders were dealt with swiftly by frontier justice. Serious offenders could face frontier justice as his grave was being dug. Within an hour or so, the wagon train would move on.
By 1850 cholera ravaged travelers. It was a disease that had that had found its way into the port of New Orleans and up the Mississippi in time for the west-bound travelers to carry along the Oregon Trail, along with measles, diphtheria, dysentery and typhoid fever. That could not have ended well.
And then there was hypoxia, “altitude sickness.” Lack of oxygen affected Ricker Buck, who wrote of becoming forgetful, a hazard of thin air. He started forgetting things along the trail, like one of their water buckets back at a spring.
The more I read The Oregon Trail, the more I came to appreciate how incredibly lucky my ancestors were to make the 2,000-mile journey without a serious illness or accident. Many a traveler died from falling off wagons and being run over by the wheels. Any cut or scrape could cause a deadly infection, but the trail itself posed its own dangers. Other common accidents involved firearms and stampedes. What did a pioneer do if the team got spooked by a herd of buffalo and ran away? Good question.
One of the Bucks’ most hair-raising episodes was at South Pass in Wyoming. It was your worst nightmare—mine, at least—a steep, narrow passage in which the wheels of their wagon were within a foot of the edge of a deep gorge. No, thank you.
Many sections of the original Oregon Trail are historic sites with visitor centers, parking lots and hiking trails built around former encampments, defunct trading posts and Pony Express stations.
The Oregon Trail is also referred to as the Mormon Trail, a nod to thousands of Latter-Day Saints who fled persecution to settle in Utah Territory. Once Salt Lake City was established, the Saints enabled later followers to make the journey, publishing maps, setting up ferries and other businesses to assist travelers. The ferry that my Cooper brothers used to cross the Bear River in Wyoming was undoubtedly a Mormon-run enterprise—one price for Mormons, a higher price for Gentiles. The wait for the ferry would have taken hours. The white-tops were lined up for as far as the eye could see, according to pioneer accounts.
The road west has left its mark on our national history, quite literally, at Independence Rock in Wyoming. The gargantuan granite bears carvings of the thousands who stopped to inscribe their name and hometown. Maybe someplace on that rock is “William and John Wesley Cooper, New Lenox, Illinois.”
Image source: Wyohistory.org