The Oregon Trail

Though Baker City was a key half-way point on the Oregon Trail, its origins pre-date the 1862 Homestead Act that propelled an army of 300,000 settlers with their covered wagons in the two decades afterwards to traverse the arduous 2,000-mile journey from the starting point in Independence, Missouri, to trek to the Far West. Massive westward settlement was a direct product of the Civil War, for when the legislators from the slave states walked out of Congress and initiated the Civil War, the legislators from the northern free states were finally able to pass the Homestead Act that promised settlers who went west 160 acres of free, lush and arable land simply for homesteading for five years. The Northerners wanted to create new free states founded by independent farmers rather than plantation owners.

Congress was determined to increase the number of free states. The settlers headed onwards – “Oregon or bust” – as they passed Flagstaff Hill about five miles north-east of where Baker City would be founded and grow through the boom and bust of gold prospecting, logging, mining and the extension of the railway westward two decades later. The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center is located atop Flagstaff Hill above the long-ago defunct Flagstaff Hill Gold Mine.

When we climbed, actually drove in our car, the long and windy road twisting through the barren hills of eastern Oregon to the top of Flagstaff Hill and paid, I believe, $10 to enter the government-controlled “park,” when we first got to the top, on an overhang outside, we visited the wagons that were replicas of the one used on the trail on a site overlooking the vast wide plain below. The wagons themselves were so simple – plank floors and sides with the covered wagon we have all seen in the movies. But the bottom carriage had to be a work of marvel to cross that rough terrain with the larger wheels in front to get over the trenches on the trail as the smaller wheels on the front provided the maneuverability.

The introductory film documentary of about 50 minutes that we saw just after we entered The Interpretive Center was invaluable in providing an overview, not only of this important historic event, but of the message the Center conveys of American individualism, high risk, ingenuity, industriousness, determination, egalitarianism and, interesting enough, cooperation, that served as the core values in populating the West by non-natives. The Interpretive Centre is quite clear that a major risk did not come from encounters with the “savages.” In fact, according to the tale told, the Plains Indians originally greeted the pioneers traversing the land with gifts to the settlers on the Oregon Trail. They gave them food and, more importantly, lessons on how to survive from the land, lessons without which the death toll from the journey would have been very much higher. Very few “overlanders” on the Oregon Trail were killed by the native population.

The native Indians attacking wagon trains is largely a myth and emerged in the later years of the story of the Oregon Trail as it became apparent how dangerous the white settlers were, bringing with them both diseases and a condescending treatment of the cultures of the plains Indians. However, their mode of attack was almost always misrepresented in cowboy films. I remember watching all those Westerns when I was a kid and the inevitable scenes of the overlanders circling their wagons as the Indians rode around them firing their arrows as the settlers picked them off with their rifles. This never happened.

The pioneers circled their wagons for protection from the elements and to secure their livestock that accompanied them. Years ago, I read that this fake story was a product of a Jewish filmmaker in the 1920s who transplanted his experiences of the White Russians, the Cossacks, attacking the shtetls in the Ukraine, surrounding the small towns and setting fire to the houses and belongings of the Jews. There were a long series of such attacks, the Kiev pogroms, starting in 1919, but little effort, other than to make a few rhetorical condemnations of the attacks the Bolsheviks on one side or the White Russian generals on the other side, by either slaughter to stop the slaughter.

There were over 1,300 attacks and an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 Jews were killed. It is no surprise that such an event was seared into the filmmaker’s imagination; substituting native Indians for Cossacks was easy. Jewish women in Eastern Europe were kidnapped and raped. This had not generally been the behaviour of the Plains Indians. An estimated half a million Jews were made homeless by the pogroms over two years. 60% of that number found homes in the West. It is very unlikely the trek across the West of the settlers would have been successful without the help of the Plains Indians.

The Interpretive Center is very conscientious about correcting these historical myths of looting, rape and murder. The Plains Indians seemed to lack the beliefs of superiority and viewing the Other as both inferior and a danger – at least until the later years when the Americans proved to be both. But by then it was too late. The denigration of the Native Americans could not have taken place without the backing of the American government, just as in Eastern Europe the persecution of the Jews could not have taken place without a historical record of cultural persecution, backed by some policies of the states in spite of the state’s insistence that it was the protector of the Jews.

In 1776, the War of Independence was significantly propelled by the desire of the colonists to expand westward while the British Crown insisted on respecting the treaties it had made with the self-governing Native population. U.S. government policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century carried forth that same tension. The mistreatment was a direct product of the desire to expand westward into territories occupied by the Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet, who dominated the Northern Plains. The emigration of European immigrants from northeastern American cities in quest of land and freedom and independence was at the expense of these diverse groups of Indians who then occupied the West.

The Gadsden Purchase resulting in U.S. authority over Oregon country, provided the territory for those European immigrants who wanted to escape the slums of the east and have their own land – or businesses serving those who settled the land. The discovery of gold in 1849 was just one stimulus. The Interpretive Center describes the series of forts largely built and manned by the U.S. military to provide provisions and protection for the migrants. They facilitated the homesteading of the West. Depending on the government of the time, U.S. policy inherited the split between those who recognized the Indians as self-governing nations with various cultural traditions versus those determined to force the native population not only to surrender their lands but their cultural identities as well. In the end, the desire to expand westward trumped all other considerations.

The National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center tries to present a living history through its exhibits, multi-media presentations and interpretive programs as well as concrete evidence of the movement west in part by means of the ruts on the miles of trails preserved by the American Parks Authority. The preoccupation with preserving ruts intrigued me. Why ruts?

I believe that the legendary trail is not just about remembering an important event in American history, but about carving that event into the landscape itself. There are four miles of interpretive trails on the site, but we did not take the opportunity to walk on any of them. The thousands of wagons that traversed the territory wore ruts in the ground to provide a dirt road to follow, in fact a number of roads as wagon wheels traced shortcuts made by pioneers, some easier but many even more difficult than the paths previously trodden.

A number of empirical facts become clear through the tale told by the Center:

  • The settlers, women and children, mostly walked the over 2,000 miles of the trail as the men endured the hard seats and bouncing of wagons that lacked any shock absorbers; in films, families were often pictured sitting in the wagons.
  • Many of the pioneers lost their lives on the route – an estimated 10%  – from disease, injury and other causes; there is a moving display and talking exhibit of a pioneer whose account is read of the loss of his ten year-old son and eight-year old nephew as the families crossed the Snake River at the Three Steps Crossing.
  • In addition to the ruts, grave markers, as well as skeletons of dead oxen and mules and, in addition, discarded belongings, dotted the trail; pioneers were often forced to abandon goods to ease the load; many burned those goods rather than allow them to be taken by others while others put up signs, “Help yourselves” – another sign of the deep division in America between the self-interested and the other-directed.
  • Only about an estimated 80,000 reached western Oregon, many of the others returning or turning south.
  • The members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons – more on them in the next blog) traveled a separate route, either because they were persecuted by the other settlers – according to a guide at the Mormon Temple Square – or because they feared contamination from the worldly ways of the other pioneers; further, they were often much poorer and pulled their own wagons.
  • The emphasis of the Interpretive Center is on the danger of the journey through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and   Idaho.

The Oregon Trail is characterized as the largest and longest voluntary migration, and perhaps the largest in history of westward expansion; it is a tale of a trail of sacrifice and search for a new beginning.

It then should be no surprise that Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 formulated what has been called “The Frontier Thesis,” (“The History of the Frontier in American History”). He argued that American democracy was not primarily the product of intellectuals and thinkers, of John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau and their American successors such as Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Hamilton, as much as it was of concrete experience of ordinary Americans and their pioneering sensibility with its stress on egalitarianism, folk rather than high culture – the pioneers played instruments and sang at the end of the day as they gathered together in the midst of their circled covered wagons. America was a product of endurance and determination, of private personal will and interpersonal cooperation. And violence!

The Oregon Trail was just the most mythological characterization of the American experience that began at Plymouth Rock and the spirit that was carried forward to Independence Rock, the large 130 ft. high and 1,900 feet long granite rock in Wyoming. It is a story built upon the tales of the people who travel on the ground by foot and wagon who established the real sense of liberty and independence in opposition to European hidebound ideas, established churches and class structures. The physical and economic conditions were responsible for the American “spirit.” As every generation moved further west, America became more democratic and more intolerant of elites and vested interests as well as of the authority of institutions and even products of scientists and intellectuals. The distrust of eggheads in America goes very deep.

This was a very different but sometimes complementary thesis to that of Theodore Roosevelt (The Winning of the West), who had a military version of the clash between the trans-Appalachian pioneers and the Indians as the West was “won.” Teddy Roosevelt celebrated the military courage and valour that forged the daring-do of American expansion.

What seems increasingly clear under Donald Trump and the inward turn, in trade wars and protectionism, in the desire to build walls and keep immigrants out, to forego war and overseas conquests, is that the frontier thesis is being murdered not just set aside as democracy is discarded in favour of mass populist rallies. Instead of a future of conquest, now of scientific frontiers, the appeal is to the past and preservation of “what has been lost.” 

Ironically, it was leftist thinkers like William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin who first argued for the abandonment of the frontier thesis, for in his analysis it led to overseas adventurism, though this had more to do with Teddy Roosevelt’s version. The frontier thesis was transformed after WWII into foreign aid and trade, a transnationalist rather than nationalist mission, a spreading of the democratic rather than the Christian message. And in domestic terms, recall John F. Kennedy in his acceptance speech when he became the Democratic candidate for President. “I am asking each of you to be new pioneers on that New Frontier. My call is to the young in heart, regardless of age—to the stout in spirit, regardless of party.” The new frontier would be space exploration.

In the next blog, I will take up the tale of the foremost “frontier” religious invention, The Church of the Latter Day Saints, which has been the most successful of the frontier religions in comparison to the Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and the Cumberland Presbyterians with their revivalist mass meetings and itinerant rather than educated preaching.

But what about the tension between communalism and rugged individualism. The Mormon Church will provide one example of how this polarization could be overcome. But that is for the next blog and the discussion of how the values of pragmatism, empiricism, egalitarianism, simplicity, naturalism, independence, sacrifice and courage could be preserved.

With the help of Alex Zisman



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