August 18, 2019
Imagine. You were a young family right after the Panic of 1837. Jobs were scarce. Unemployment was high and it seemed like someone else always beating you to the punch for some work. You were a hard worker and not afraid of a challenge so you found ways to scrape along. Some time passes and you do not seem to be getting ahead in life. Your cousin, among other townspeople, already took his family west because he heard of free fertile land ready for the taking, but you have not heard from him in ten years. Did they ever make it?
On top of it all, your older children came home from school early last week because several of the classmates fell ill to an epidemic of cholera. Where is it coming from? Your child’s friend was fine in the morning, nasty sick in the afternoon, and then she died by nightfall – all too common. Your children are still healthy. Do you really want to stay around until you lose one of them?
Rumors started going around in 1849 about gold and easy living in California. Most of the good land was already taken in Oregon back in the day when your cousin left, but perhaps you could become a miner and strike it rich. Should you try to become a storekeeper or inn keeper for others who will come that way?
Would this be enough to encourage you to pursue at better life in the unknown land? This was the decision so many had to make in the 1840’s through the 1860’s. But the journey alone was a daunting task. One out of ten people died on the Oregon Trail. The largest “elephant” (as they called life and death struggles) was dealing with Cholera. But many drowned at river crossings, from injuries, animal stampedes and in countless other ways. For the 2000 mile, five month journey, they had to decide how much food versus tools and personal items would they bring with. So many iron stoves, chests full of heirlooms and other items were ditched along the trail because it became too taxing for the oxen even if it did fit.
Though the settlers set off in many different styled rigs, the small prairie schooner, or covered wagon, was the most rugged to make the trip. The front wheels were smaller for better turning ability and the rear larger wheels were bigger for better handling over rocks and ruts. Most of these wagons did not have any brakes as those that had brakes were not effective anyway. Sometimes they attached and dragged a giant log behind the wagon to slow the descent down a steep mountainside instead. In order to ford rivers, these wagons were caulked with pitch or tar to make a watertight raft.
The successful settlers found wagon masters to lead them along the trail. These veteran leaders had the final say when and how things were to be run. Someone had to be in charge – their lives depended upon it. Along the way, they stopped at fort outposts to trade at exorbitant prices for supplies. In between, the settlers traded with the native population at much more reasonable prices for fresh food and learned about their herbal medicines and edible plants.
The typical day started around 4am to eat and tend to the animals before they set out for up to 20 miles a day, with only a Sabbath rest day, if voted to have one. They stopped for a brief midday break for a lunch and then continued walking until supper time. What amazed me was these people still had enough energy at night to go hunting or to relax by playing music and dancing. The children had to act like little adults with the responsibilities, but they still had some time for play. Some would pick flowers in a nearby field while others had a summer snowball fight—using buffalo chips.
You made the difficult decision, so off you and your family went. Along the trail, makeshift memorials dotted the trail of those who did not make it. Every so often you paused to read the name on the marker. You hoped you would not recognize the name of someone you knew – let alone if it was your cousin’s name. Your oxen and wagon rolled over the dirt, further packing someone’s body down into the ground. After all, you would not want scavengers to unearth the body and run off leaving bones scattered all over the prairie.
The further west you went, the dustier it became. You were not even near the end of the wagon train. Oh for a good bath and fresh air. Later on, decisions had to be made if you wanted to break from the group to follow one of the many short cuts. You would not have to ford a treacherous river, however, the trail was even more rough and steep in some areas. Or did they say it was a desert to pass through? You sure hope you had purchased an accurate pamphlet map at the last outpost.
Tempers often flared as the stress of the journey weighed on everyone. People tired of seeing endless plains and hills with no large stand of trees to show any sign of getting close to the end destination. Then all of a sudden over a mountain pass one day, they saw vast forest of green. Still to this day, the transformation in landscape is dramatically sudden. I could not help but ask, “Where did this come from?” I could only imagine the sense of relief as they knew they were almost there.
Towards the end, settlers were encouraged as they came across some new homesteads. Settlers from even the year before had plenty of food to share with the weary migrants. After only one year of farming, they had such healthy looking produce, livestock, and ranch set up. The amazement of what the previous settlers could accomplish in only one year spurred the newcomers on to finish their journey. This was what they traveled so far for.
Joel commented to me that he could never see himself deciding to make that trek back then because he does not see himself as that adventurous. I told him that I was not so sure. Things are different today especially in the physically demanding part, where everyone back then had to be more used to the walking, but set that aside. What was their mindset? I see Joel having the same drive to better the lives of himself and his family. He did not stay in a standard job that demanded most of his life. He has not given up the dreams he has which included more time with his family, traveling, and being his own boss. He took the chance to venture into the unknown by selling our home and most of what we owned. He felt the pain of leaving loved ones behind (though only for a few months at a time in our case) and parting with our sentimental items. He also is carving out his own path to be a small business owner in rural, northern Minnesota. He is frugal, handy, resourceful, and is making the most of every opportunity as he is establishing new business and friendship networks. He works long and hard, but he is putting this dream into action. While the life we are living is not at the intensity level as what those settlers went through, I saw some parallels. I told Joel that another time and another place, he very easily could have been among the mix. What about you?
My grandfather told us kids so many times, “Life it short. If you are not happy, change it. Don’t be stuck doing something you do not like.” I tell you, do not be intimidated by the changes or losses you have to go through as that refines your character. But most of all, don’t complain about the situation you are in if you are not willing to do anything about it. After all, the settlers on the Oregon Trail probably went through so much more.
Until we meet again,