Pioneers West


When encounters with Indians did occur, it was often far less of a bloodbath than settlers would have thought. One night, a band of Indians wandered into the Fergus camp. Pamelia's daughter reported that the Indians "were very curious." When an Indian woman stood staring at Pamelia, the settler dropped down her false teeth, which caused the Indians to scream and yell, and "leave the camp in a big hurry." Later, the apprehensive natives returned to gawk at Pamelia, thinking, according to her daughter, "that she was a great prophet or witch." The Indians left without incident.

Disease proved to be the biggest killer of emigrants in the West. Smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, diptheria, typhoid, "mountain fever," and a host of other sicknesses frequently struck down settlers, who had little or no medical expertise. Scurvy, caused by a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables for months at a time, was also commonplace. Salt was so scarce and expensive,it was considered a luxury.Even wheat flour was considered to be a sign of prosperity,the average family subsisting on wild animals and plants they could forage. In the rudimentary conditions that existed on the trail, these sicknesses often resulted in death. Those who died on the road were buried in hastily scratched-out holes. Some graves were marked, but more frequently settlers went out of their way to disguise the grave, to discourage animals (and sometimes Indians) from digging up the body.

"To enjoy such a trip ... a man must be able to endure heat like a Salamander, mud and water like a muskrat, dust like a toad, and labor like a jackass. He must learn to eat with his unwashed fingers, drink out of the same vessel as his mules, sleep on the ground when it rains, and share his blanket with vermin, and have patience with musketoes ... he must cease to think, except of where he may find grass and water and a good camping place. It is hardship without glory."

There was limited firewood along much of the trail, so the only alternative was dried buffalo dung. Even though the pioneers were hardy, they didn't much enjoy gathering up bushels of chips every night. The chips burned surprisingly well, and produced an odor-free flame. Usually, each family had its own campfire, but sometimes everyone contributed their chips for one big bonfire.

By late April or early May the grass was long enough--and the journey began. More than 350,000 people made the trek westward between 1841 and 1867. Their numbers swelled from a trickle in 1841 to almost 50,000 in 1852. They endured rugged country, searing heat, violent prairie storms, accidents, and the ravages of cholera. Their reward was the fertile farming country, the rich forests, and the mild climate of the fabled Oregon country.

Whatever animal was chosen, the success of the journey depended on the care that the animals received. The greatest error of the inexperienced traveler was to overwork the animals at the beginning of the journey. To avoid problems it was best to start out with short and easy drives until the teams were broken in and became used to the routine of the day.

Grass and water were normally abundant in the eastern portions of the route. To the west were long stretches where grass and water were scarce, and it required animals in good condition to endure the fatigues and hard labor associated with the passage of these deserts. Drivers were encouraged to not abuse their animals or force them out of a walk. The teamster who made the least use of the whip usually kept their animals in the best condition.

In traveling with ox teams in the summer, the best mileage could be made by starting at dawn and making a "nooning" near grass and water during the heat of the day, as oxen suffer greatly from the heat of the sun in midsummer. When it cooled they could be hitched to the wagons again and the journey continued in the afternoon. Sixteen or eighteen miles a day could be made this way without injury to the animals. Oxen became the choice of a majority of the emigrants. Almost without exception, the guide books recommended oxen. They were a little slower, traveling only 15 miles per day on average. However, oxen were dependable, less likely to run off, less likely to be stolen by the Indians, better able to withstand the fatigue of the journey and were more likely to survive on available vegetation. If they strayed they could be pursued and overtaken by horsemen. Not only were they the least expensive to purchase but they were more valuable on arrival, especially to farmers. In 1846 a yoke of oxen cost around $25. During the gold rush years prices peaked at around $40-$60 in the late spring.

Mules tended to have more stamina than the horses. Mules could travel about 20 miles a day. They also were more surefooted in treacherous climbs due to the fact that, unlike a horse, they are able to see where they are placing their hind feet.

Once prepared for their trip westward, these pioneers soon met face to face with the challenges of such a journey. One problem that would arise often was the weather, everything from torrential downpours of rain to deadly lightening to extreme and damaging winds. Traveling in wagons found these pioneers vulnerable to the elements, and often times the winds were such that even the stoutest of coverings could not withstand them. If the wind did not destroy the tarp that covered these wagons and the precious items inside, the heavy rains often would.

Another problem: finding drinkable water along the trail, especially in the years that followed the original drive westward. Thousands and thousands of teams of oxen and mules had depleted the stores of water from viable streams, lakes, and springs. Those traveling throughout the late eighteen sixties would happen upon bodies of water known as 'Poison Spring' and 'Bad Water.'

All of the mentioned dangers almost pale in comparison to the deadly threat posed to the pioneers by cholera, a highly contagious disease that ran rampant among the wagontrains. An extremely fast spreading disease, it was made even worse with the terrible health practices of those traveling. It has been reported that perhaps thousands died from this horrible disease. From 1849 to 1854, cholera was reported from all over the country; some tried to escape its clutches by joining other wagontrains only to be followed by it.

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