My reading seems exceedingly slow but sometimes good things are worth waiting for. I recently finished, “The Oregon Trail: a new American journey,” by Rinker Buck. A great read on several levels. The basic story, two brothers embark on a covered wagon trip from Missouri, following the Oregon Trail to West. Journeys are one of my favorite themes; especially journeys that recreate or follow incidents or chapters in American history. The possibilities are endless. Sail in the wake of Columbus to the New World, walk the Applachian Trail from Maine to Georgia, drive Route 1 to Key West, follow a slave escape from The Carolinas to Philadelphia.
Rinker’s style, telling his personal story, is totally engaging. His father, in the late 1950s, decided to take the family on a summer vacation from their home in NJ. The trip was “a combined camping and coaching expedition, with stops along the way at historic sites like Valley Forge and Gettysburg that my father wanted his children to see.” Decades later, Rinker, discovers the Oregon Trail and decides to follow emigrants on the the 2,000 mile trail in an wagon. His brother, Rick, a good mechanic and mule team driver signs on. Despite differences, the brothers argue, bond, work together, and complete what might sound like an impossible dream.
On the trip, Rink reflects on his life, particularly his relationship with his father. His writing style is exciting, fluid, easy going. What I call “a good read.” He meshes his personal experience with the experience of the pioneers from the 1830s on. Weather, trail conditions, steep inclines, broken wheels — all conspire to end the trip. But Rinker and Nick spring back. Almost always, ranchers, farmers, regular people support their trip. America at its greatest.
Their wagon, based on the classic Peter Schuyler model of the prairie schooner used by my most pioneers, was built by Pennsylvania Amish. The Amish also built the “Trail Pup” designed by Rink to carry supplies and would be pulled behind the main wagon. The mule team — Beck, Jake, and Bute — are major characters in the story, including their individualism. personality, cooperation, and rebellion. For them alone, read the book.
As well as an engaging personal journey, “The Oregon Trail” is a great lesson in American history. Frederick Jackson Turner, in his Frontier Thesis (1893), described the settlement of the west as a “safety valve” taking pressure off the east coast and it’s cities, as immigrants flood into the country. The Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon, opened up the land of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. The land Louis and Clark explored in 1804.
It is not an easy trip. Just over 2,000 miles, established by fur trappers in the 1830s, beginning in Missouri, maybe Independence or Saint Louis, through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho into Oregon. The trail wasn’t a paved road, and could stretch to a mile or more wide, as thousands of wagons spread out across the prairie. At some point there were forks for alternate routes. It’s estimated that 200,000 emigrants used the trail west; maybe 20,ooo died in the attempt. In addition to accidents, drownings, and run away wagons, there was disease — typhoid, mountain fever and cholera to name a few.
Independence was the most common jump off point, where the emigrants stocked the wagon, pulled together into wagon trains, lead by a scout. Shopping for wagon and supplies they had to navigate huckster salesmen and con artists. It may cost $1,00o an emigrant. Some lost their shirts.
Group travel provided the man (and women) power to help each other in an emergency. Only fools (like the Buck brothers) would attempt the trip alone. The trail passed through varied American landscape, rivers, open prairie, desert, and mountains. Each presented challenges. For the most part Native Americans were friendly, a few hundred were killed on either side in confrontations. Clean, sufficient water was a major issue. The trip usually took five or more months.
Today the route is marked in many places by deep ruts made by wagon wheels, (amazing they are still visible). There were some mandatory stops at scenic or dangerous points or at forts. At some of these, entrepreneurs offered goods for sale. Frequently, it was supplies dumped by emigrants to lighter the load. The trail was/is littered with the debris, including broken wagons and the skeletons of mules and oxen.
Rink and Rick Buck endure many of the hardships encountered by the nineteenth century emigrants. Cold, hunger, run away mules, broken axels and wheels, steep rocky inclines and deep rivers. They persisted as did so many before them. And like the emigrants they spent a lot of time walking. This wasn’t a wagon ride.
This is an exciting period in American history. The myth of rugged American individualism emerged at this time but we also have the image of the wagon train circling together for mutual support and survival. Complimentary? Contradictory? The Trail is part of the romance of the west, recorded in so many novels, movies and television shows. Who remembers Ward Bond and the “Wagon Train” series from the 1950s?
Following the Oregon Trail and other historic journeys fire my imagination. Why didn’t I think of this ? Could I do it? I also enjoy new perspectives on American history. There is so much detail we don’t get in our survey courses.
After the 2016 Presidential election, I think we are at another turning point in our national history. Can we learn lessons from the emigrants that followed the Oregon Trail? One reviewer wrote, “The experience on The Oregon Trail stands squarely opposite much of what is modern — it’s slow travel with poor communications, it places struggle before comfort, and it represents a connection with history rather than a search for the newest of the new.”
For me “The Oregon Trail” was an escape into another world. Something I need. But I can’t help asking, “Is this when America was Great.