22. May 2005 · Comments Off on My Movie Dream Epic: On the Emigrant Trail · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not

(Part 3 of the movie epic I wish could be made)

Fifteen miles a day, more or less; the inexorable calculus of the overland trails. The wagon trains can only move out in late May, when the prairie grass is grown tall enough to feed the draft animals. And they must be over the last palisade of the high Sierra Nevada before the way is blocked by the winter snow. And they must do so before their food supplies run out. Any one of a hundred miscalculations, missteps or misfortunes can upset that careful arithmetic and bring disaster upon all. Is the water in that creek running fast and high? Can it be forded, or should the wagons carefully and laboriously be ferried over. An accident to a wagon, the loss of any of the supplies, an ox-team felled by disease or accident may be compounded later on. Balance taking a day to cross a high-water creek, against a day six months in the future and an early snow fall in the Sierras. Balance sparing a day camping by a pleasant spring of clear water, and the men going to hunt for meat, that when dried over the fire and stored away, might mean the difference between a nourishing meal by an ice-water lake half a continent away, and starvation in that place instead.

All accounts of the emigrant trail agree, some of them very lyrically, that the first weeks out on the trail are the most pleasant. Dr. Townsend’s journal, as he was nominated the secretary from the Stephens Party, is long gone, but many others remain. The prairie grass is lush and green, the land gently rolling. The oxen are healthy and rested, the burden of travel not onerous. Elderly men and women in San Jose, or Portland, penning their memoirs early in the 20th century will look back on it as the most marvelous adventure of their childhood; running barefoot in the green grass, the white canvas wagon-top silhouetted at the top of a gentle rise against a blue, blue sky, meals around a campfire, and sleeping under the stars. They will remember seeing herds of buffalo, a sea of brown woolly backs as far as the horizon goes, the trick of scrambling up from the ground over a slow-moving wagon-wheel, and how the wagon jolted over every little rock and rut. They will remember the look of the Platte River, wide and shallow— and inch thick and a mile wide, so it was said, and how they also said it was too thick to drink and too thin to plough. For small children, alive in the immediate day to day present, and innocently trusting their parents as all-wise, all-capable beings, those first weeks on the trail could only be a grand adventure, an endless picnic excursion, with something new and wonderful always around the next bend.

For their mothers, it was a picnic well stocked with ants, and dust and the endless chore of cooking over an open fire, of setting up camp every night, and unrolling the bedding, or carrying buckets of fresh water… and that after an exhausting day of either walking alongside the wagon or riding in it. Women’s work on a farm in those days was grueling enough by our standards, but in the settled lands they had left there was a community, family, friends, an orderly routine. These eight women, and the older girls would have formed their own little community; discovering again that a bucket of milk hung from the wagon-box in the morning would have churned itself into a small lump of butter at the end of the days’ journey, and dried beans left to soak overnight in the dying heat of the evening campfire would be ready to cook the next morning. How to contrive meals out of cornmeal and flour, dried beans, dried fruit, salt-pork, how to do at least a minimal laundry along the trail, how to glean edible greens and wild plums from the thickets in the creek bottoms. The presence of Dr. Townsend, with his medical expertise, and small range of surgical kit must have also been very reassuring, most especially as the party reached the landmark of Independence Rock, shortly before July 4th. There, Mrs. James Miller gave birth to a baby daughter, named Ellen Independence Miller. When the party moved on towards the distant Rocky Mountains and Fort Hall (in what is now Idaho) , it was on a shortcut of Isaac Greenwood’s suggesting. It would later be called “Sublette’s Cutoff” and it saved them five days of travel.

The westbound trail split at Fort Hall. From then on, the Murphys, the Townsends, the Millers and their infant daughter, Old Hitchcock and his daughter, and all the others would be on their own, and finding their own trail in the faintest of traces left from wagons who attempted the California route the year before.

(To be continued)

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