20. May 2005 · Comments Off on At the Movies: The Great Adventure · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not

(Part 2, of the story I would like to see as the epic movie I wish they would make, but probably won’t)

In the year 1844, these United States, for all intents and purposes, extended from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi/Missouri River. And west of the rivers, two-thirds of the continental territories theoretically American were an unknown quantity. Desert, high plains, mountains, rivers… only a bare handful of explorers, missionaries and fur trappers had ever seen for sure what lay beyond the jumping-off point at Council Bluffs, Independence, St. Joseph. There was a slender and perilous established overland trail to Santa Fe, and beyond that to the thinly-populated enclave of Spanish and then Mexican territories in California. That trail wound through the scrub and deserts of the Southwest, traveled mostly by professional traders and merchants, heavily armed and escorting great lumbering Conestoga wagons packed with profitable trade goods: fabrics and glass, gunpowder and tools, for the markets in Santa Fe, and the outlaying pueblos. They were businessmen, with little interest in lingering, since most of the route lay though desert.

There was another trail, also— a northern track which followed along the Platte River, through deserts and mountains, and eventually terminated in Oregon. Lewis and Clarke, the fur-trapping brigades… all had gone that way, by boat, on horseback and on foot. Hearing of the rich lands in the Pacific Northwest, farmers and small tradesmen had begun to follow the siren call, also. An agricultural depression, epidemics of malaria and yellow-fever, a bit of manifest destiny, ambition and just plain restlessness no doubt played a part.

Families across what is now the middle-west sold off land and assets; this was not a journey for the impoverished, or the reckless. Aside from a wagon, and stock to pull it, these adventurers would have to bring along supplies for six months, tools, clothes, bedding and cooking gear, spare parts for the wagon, perhaps seeds and roots to plant a new garden in the Willamette Valley, or by Sutter’s Fort in far California. There might be some little space in the wagon for some books, and china and other small treasures, for the wagons were small, and food took up most of the space. The larger wagons, purpose-built for the trail were about four feet wide, ten to twelve feet long, covered with waterproofed canvas, spread over four or five arched hickory bows, although many families made do with ordinary farm wagons, fitted out with a cover. The draft animal of choice was not the horse, as many would think. Horses were expensive, and the road was rough, too rough in the early days for even the toughest horse in dray harness. Mules made a good showing on the southern trail, but they were expensive. Most emigrants could better afford ox teams; four to six pair to a wagon, patient and plodding, guided by a driver who walked by the lead team and shouted verbal commands.

The wagons rolled on metal-tired wheels; there was no suspension system, no springs. Most emigrants walked, by choice, rather than endure jolting along in a wagon. It would take six months, easily… and in the early days there was no known road, and only two or three outposts all along that way to buy additional supplies, or to mail a letter. The pioneers looked out from the noisy clamor of St. Joseph, and Independence, and Council Bluffs, at last years tracks and ruts, overgrown with the new grass that would feed their ox teams on the first part of the journey, as soon as it was grown tall enough… at wilderness. They would step off the safe perch, on the riverbank at the edge of civilization, and swing out like a trapeze artist across the vast, emptiness, guided by their own good sense, and hard work, faith and hope and no little amount of luck… but they would not go alone. Late in of May, 1844 such a party of emigrants stepped off from Council Bluffs, in company with a larger party bound for Oregon. Ten families, with as many (or a few more) wagons, with all their stock and worldly goods had elected an ex-trapper and blacksmith named Elisha Stephens as their own leader, and intended to strike off the established trail at Fort Hall, and head for California.

All the other archetypal western stories are almost exclusively male domains. The writer of a romantic yard about cowboys and the open range, the Gold Rush, the mountain men, or the fighting cavalry, must go to great length to import an adventurous school-marm or a tart. But the emigrant wagon trains, the great Mormon migration, and the post-Civil War homesteaders, they were all family matters. Stephen’s party of fifty souls included eight women and fifteen children. A little under half of them were an extended clan: Martin Murphy, and his three sons, with their wives and children. Martin Murphy himself had emigrated from Ireland, to Canada, and then to Missouri. His wife and three grandchildren had died in a malaria epidemic; the clan sought a healthier climate, and Martin Murphy thought all the better of California— still held by Mexico— for it being nominally a Catholic country. Dr. John Townsend, very possibly the most educated person in the party, also looked to a healthier climate; his wife, Elizabeth was supposed to be in frail health. Elizabeth Townsend’s orphaned younger brother, Moses Schallenberger, counted as a man for this journey, at the age of 17. The teenaged half-Indian sons of Caleb Greenwood probably also counted as men. Caleb Greenwood had roamed all over the Rockies as a fur-trapper, twenty years before. Greenwood was thought to be in his eighties, but still hale and vigorous. Another old mountain-man, Isaac Hitchcock also felt the lure of the west, traveling with his oldest daughter and her children.

None of these men; Stephens, Greenwood or Hitchock had been all along the trail to California, although it is thought that Stephens may have had been on the Santa Fe Trail. He seems also to have been enormously respected by the other men; there were none of the bitter divisions that fractured other parties, under the stress of moving the heavy-laden wagons an inexorable fifteen miles a day, and chivvying the stock herd, finding water and safe pasturage, of being dusty and exhausted and hungry, day after grinding day, and knowing that the hardest part of the journey was at the end of it.

(Next: On the Trail)

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