A thick fog settles over the prairie. The sun begins to peak over the horizon as people stir, preparing for a day of travel. A baby cries and donkeys bray. The year is 1865, and the American frontier has just been born.
Every person has at some point heard about the westward move in the 1800's. This era was instrumental in crafting America's early image, composed of cowboys, the gold rush, and the pony express. But what caused the massive movement towards the west? What better prospects lay ahead for young, hopeful families, leaving all they held dear?
The dawn of the industrial era was a promising time for people everywhere, young and old alike. As railroads became prominent modes of transportation, the horizon of the west expanded, offering everyone a fresh start. Vast, rolling planes afforded superior farming options, as well as peace and seclusion from busy, downtrodden towns. Farmers had massively better prospects where the land was fresh and untouched, in virtually unlimited supplies. However, the cost versus benefit was a tricky balance. Was it really worth packing up an entire family to move across the country, just for some land? What calamities might befall a mother and her children left alone while the father was hunting? How would they travel?
A commonly glossed over aspect of this era is the people. The very people who made these years the dawn of a new era are the same ones who are most ignored. Thousands of families migrated to the western half of the United States using the Oregon Trail. Over two thousand miles long, the Oregon Trail was a widely used and well traveled route. It began in Independence Mississippi, and led through six states to Oregon City, Oregon. The trail was formed by fur traders and trappers during the years 1811-1840, spanning over both the Rocky mountains and the Sierra Nevada mountains.
For the two thousand mile journey, a minimum of one thousand pounds of food was required for just a family of four. Fresh game could be supplied on the way, but some things had to be brought along. Coffee, rice, flour, and hardtack were staples of the pioneer's diet. The pioneers who came long this road traveled using a covered wagon. It is a common misconception that these were large and accommodating, as the average covered wagon size was around ten to twenty feet long and four feet wide. Because of the supplies needed and the size of their transportation, minimal items were able to be taken on the journey. Most possessions had to be left at home, leaving only what was absolutely necessary. A person might be allowed two sets of clothing and a few personal belongings. A rifle was a necessity, at least one per family.
The family wakes at dawn, preparing to say goodbye to the life they have known, forever. Two young children cling to their weeping mother, too young to understand what this journey could mean. The father packs only their most precious belongings into the large covered wagon, leaving just enough room in the back for his wife and children. As the sun rises, flooding their town with golden light, a hope is sparked in the young couple's eyes. They know the journey will be hard. They know the loss they could encounter. But there is the promise of something better ahead—the promise of tomorrow, that keeps them going.
For anybody, this was a long and grueling journey. Contrary to popular belief, the pioneer's biggest threat was not Native Americans, but Cholera. The Native Americans actually proved very helpful to travelers, guiding them along their way when they were lost. Cholera, however, was anything but a blessing. Anyone could contract this disease from drinking contaminated water, and the consequence was often fatal. Thousands of immigrants were buried along the trail, forcing their companions to continue on without them.
A makeshift grave is erected by the family's camp. The mother wails as they drive onward, leaving their precious baby behind. Her other son looks at her with wide eyes, searching for a reason for his mother's tears. He doesn't understand that he won't see his brother again, or that his mother is holding him so tight for the fear of losing him too. The mother dries her tears and looks forward, knowing the only thing she can count on is the rising and setting of the sun.
The trail took months to complete, even at a steady pace. In the early days of the trail, the average trip took one hundred sixty days. Ten years later, the average trip was one hundred forty days. By 1869, around half a million people had traversed the Oregon Trail. With the completion of the first transcontinental railroad, use of the trail declined rapidly. A one-week train journey was much more appealing to travelers than a six month wagon trail.
After months of trial, hardship, loss, and suffering, the family has finally reached their new home. They breathe in relief at last, not knowing that the work has only just begun. They mourn for the loss of a child, a brother, a son, but they must continue on. Through tired eyes they watch together as the golden sun sinks from the sky. They are changed by the things they have endured and seen. By the things they have lost. As the world flames in color around them, a spark of hope reignites. They will always have the one thing that inspired them—the promise of tomorrow.
The loss was great to most families, but the gain was comparable. Anyone taking the trail surely knew how much they could lose, but also how much they could gain. But the end of the trail hardly marked the end of their trials. Families had to establish themselves. A house was to be built, animals raised, land cleared, and crops planted. If the first crop failed, they had no way to ensure enough food for the winter. It was a treacherous path to take, choosing to remake a life. However, many were successful. Only then could the question be answered—was it worth it? If these early pioneers had never dared to stretch beyond the comfort of their established lives to prove that hard work pays off, America wouldn't be half of what it is in this era.
We owe our thanks to these brave people, who, through their struggle, made living the American dream possible today.
Author: S.J. Mett
Covered wagon; photo, source; unsplash.com