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Hi-Ho, Hi-Ho, It's Off to the West We Go! Following the Oregon Trail

Traveling on the trails
In Bayard, Nebraska, Neda and I met Gordon Howard. He's been taking people out on the Oregon Trail in covered wagons -- and holding chuck wagon cookouts -- for 28 years. I looked nervously at Neda when Gordon asked us if we wanted to see his tattoos, but we said "sure," and he pulled his face right up toward us and flashed a back molar tooth...with a covered wagon tattoo on it!! Gordon also has a flock of geese tattoo on another tooth -- I've never seen anything like it! Gordon also showed us how to hunt rattlesnakes and climb Chimney Rock things that friends or family members of this woman might have done...

February 5, 1854
Philadelphia area, Pennsylvania

My illness does not seem to be lessening. If anything, I am more fatigued and tired than I have ever been within these past few months. I shouldn't complain too much, though having four children and a husband to tend to should exhaust anyone, yet this is what most women are doing at my age. Somehow, I don't think 24-year-old women were meant to bear so many burdens...

Many people around Philadelphia appear to have the same symptoms as I do. Perhaps it's the filthy water. I'm afraid of life in the city. The conditions are so overcrowded and unsanitary, especially since the financial shock of '37 made everybody unemployed. Moving outside the city has done little good. Our creditors are calling every day to take our farm, and with prices for corn being so low these days, life is rather miserable. But I have faith in the Lord that He will provide for us what we need.

Ned is reading the papers which are filled with articles on "Oregon fever" and the thousands of people making their way out West. I can't imagine leaving for a place we know nothing about, not to mention saying goodbye to all our family and friends forever. But the government has promised 640 acres of land to whoever makes it out to Oregon. Now Ned has all these fantasies that this is the answer to our problems. The papers also are full of praise regarding Oregon's glorious weather and open spaces. Ned thinks getting away from the crowded East will do wonders for my health. The Johnsons left with the first batch of emigrants in 1843. I think there were around 1,000 of them. Last I heard, they had made it safely and set up a farm out in the valley. Goodness knows life can't get much worse down here with this Depression. If Ned wants us to go, I know I'll have no choice but to listen to him and pack up. I suppose the only thing I can do now is pray.

April 5, 1854
Independence, Missouri

Loading up supplies for the journey West
We've spent the last week making our final preparations for the journey West out here in Independence, Missouri. Our wagon is smaller than I imagined, and it's been a nightmare trying to pack our entire lives into something only four feet by 12 feet. The children want to bring all their dolls and toys. It hurts so much for me to tell them that we simply don't have room. I've been reading guidebooks on what to pack for a 2,000-mile journey. One hundred fifty pounds of flour, 25 pounds of bacon and pork, 25 pounds of sugar.

I said goodbye to mom and pop and the rest of the family last week and we cried mightily. It is probably the last time I will ever see them. I think most of the women traveling that I've met here are all dreading this move. We worry about our health, our safety, and, most of all, our children. A lot of people are going to Oregon for the same reasons we are: financial problems, health problems, the dream of owning a big plot of land. Then there are others who can't stand any more cold winters and long to live where it's green and lush all year round.

Papers seem to be quoting quite a bit newspaperman John O'Sullivan's words, that America's "manifest destiny is to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of Liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us." What an awesome responsibility when I think about it! Even though I have great fear of what lies ahead, I know for the good of my country, and for God, that I must do all I can to serve with all my heart in the expansion of this country that God has chosen to be the example to the world. Off we go!

June 5, 1854
Fort Kearny, Nebraska

It appears we have made good time and left at just the right period. If we had left later than April, a lot of the grass would have been eaten up by now by the livestock and we could have hit an impossible winter later and been trapped in the snow. Our pace is usually about 15 miles a day. I had thought before the trip that I could easily sit on top of our wagon and let our oxen pull us, but the ride is so horrendously bumpy that it causes severe motion sickness. Now I walk alongside the children as the oxen pull our wagon. It's amazing how many wagons there are on the trail! Everyone has so much hope and optimism that it's hard to find the time to miss our families. When you think about how many people are leaving their lives behind, you realize that this might be the largest voluntary mass migration in human history! I bet before it's over, 300,000 to one million people will have gone over these trails. Who knows? It's hard to keep track.

The papers are carrying warnings about traveling West. I read Horace Greeley's article where he asked, "For what do they brave the desert, the wilderness, the savage, the snowy precipices of the Rocky Mountains, the weary summer march, the storm-drenched bivouac and the gnawing of famine? This migration to Oregon wears an aspect of insanity." I have to agree sometimes. Seems strange that so many would leave behind the comforts of home, but such is the character of Americans I believe.

June 16, 1854
Ash Hollow, Nebraska

My workload is busier than ever. I have to cook, clean, look after the kids, repair the wagon, take care of the animals. This has taken a toll on my health, but I cannot complain to Ned.

Pop was most worried about the Indians attacking us. There are all sorts of stories about the red savages springing out of nowhere and massacring helpless emigrants with their bows and arrows. I've had several awful dreams about it.

June 16, 1854
Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

This is what we waited 600 miles to see -- Chimney Rock!
We have finally arrived at Chimney Rock and a more beautiful sight cannot be found. I have imagined it in my dreams many times, but to have actually touched it now sends shivers up my spine. Out of all the landmarks along the Oregon Trail, Chimney Rock looms as the most popular and intriguing of them all. It's the one mentioned most by my fellow emigrants. Apparently, the Indians had called it "male elk penis" since they have no idea what chimneys are.

We had been going for 600 miles through the flattest, plainest land you can imagine. Miles upon endless miles of prairie grass. The dust was unbearable at times and I keep coughing and wheezing. And then, suddenly, to see off in the distance this tall, remarkable slender column poking up 500 feet above the North Platte River was just so exciting and unusual. The children couldn't contain themselves and had to climb up the rocks to carve their names. I think with rain and time however, their signatures will probably disappear.

Cooking in a prairie has been tough. There are no trees for firewood, so I use buffalo poop. The children enjoy throwing dried buffalo chips over the wagon covers and playing catch. The other hard thing about life in the Great Plains is the lack of modesty you have to get used to. If nature calls, there's really nothing to hide or shade you, other than our long skirts.

July 24, 1854
South Pass, Wyoming

A welcome change of pace from all that flat land
This is a very tragic day. Ned accidentally shot another man with his gun, thinking he was one of the Indians. I think we should be more scared about being shot by our neighbors than by the Indians. We buried John quickly by the side of the road, with his family watching. We couldn't even leave a marker because the buffalo would probably destroy it.

August 10, 1854
Soda Springs, Idaho

My heart is heavy with grief for today I buried my beloved Emily. There has been a cholera epidemic as water has become scarce and more susceptible to germs. Her seven-year-old body could not withstand the sickness. She woke up vomiting and with severe diarrhea, and by sundown she was gone. Death is all around us and we pass a grave every ten feet it seems. I'd guess that 10 percent of the people will not survive this blasted Oregon Trail.

September 15, 1854
Three Island Crossing, Idaho

Surprisingly, the Indians have been very friendly. We have traded our clothing, tools, and utensils for salmon, vegetables, and fruit. I should think many more would have died without the Indians' help. The trail however is littered with dead buffalo carcasses. We've been killing so many for food and clothing and I'm afraid that the Indians' way of life will be no more very soon as more and more of us come. But I believe it is part of God's plan that we settle the country from sea to shining sea. We have much to teach the Indians in helping them adapt to our culture. They will be proud Americans in no time.

October 5, 1854
Oregon City, Oregon

We crossed the river a few days ago. The rapids swirled mercilessly around us and several people drowned. My legs feel like dead weights and I cannot walk another foot. But we are at last in Oregon, where the land is as fertile as promised. We shall probably settle in the Willamette Valley. Others have gone to California or Washington, but we already have our hearts set on the Valley. The six-month journey may have been harder than I ever imagined, but I can have no regrets. I can only move on and make the best of the situation. That's the wonderful thing about America. You can start over as many times as you like. Judging from all the shops and stores, most of the people who have survived the Oregon Trail are prosperous and happy. America has been forever changed by the Trail and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to participate. Now begins the process of building a permanent civilization in the old frontier West.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - A Toyota Tercel named Turkey on the trail of Lewis & Clark
Neda - The Donner Party: How far would you go if you were starving?
Kevin - The battle that begat the anthem heard 'round the world
Neda - Steamboating the Mississippi...in a floating McDonald's?
MAD - We speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues
Irene - Beware of Free Lunches, Especially When It's Offered by the Government
Irene - Extra! Extra! Hunting for Gold Leads to More Misery Than Happiness!