A Day on the Oregon Trail

The earliest emigrants on the Oregon Trail set a basic pattern that would be followed, with some refinements, by wagon trains making the same journey in the decades to come.

On May 20 of 1843, that first group gathered near Independence, Missouri, to hold an organizational meeting and elect a captain. The next day about 875 emigrants assembled, with 120 wagons and the oxen that were required to pull them (oxen had proven better suited for this purpose than either horses or mules). The group hired a retired mountain man as a guide, and the next day they all set off.

A typical day would begin at 4 a.m., when the emigrants would be awakened by a volley of shots fired by the wagon train’s sentinels. Quickly they would strike their tents, hitch up their teams, and take their places in the column of wagons. The wagons were divided into platoons of four, often groups of friends or extended family. Because the wagons in the rear of the train would be exposed to all the dust kicked up by those in front, each platoon moved forward one place in the order each day. But if one wagon were late getting started, its whole platoon would lose its place in line. This tended to encourage speedy preparation!

During the day, the guide would lead a party of riders ahead of the group to choose the best route, and to make any improvements the route might need, such as filling in deep ruts. Other riders would range out to hunt game, while women and children would ride in the wagons or, more often, walk alongside. When the guide party found a suitable location, the whole train would halt for lunch; during this hour everyone ate, rested, and watered the animals. A bugle would summon them to resume the day’s march.

Near sunset, the guide would lead the party to a suitable camping place, and the teamsters would circle the wagons. The front of each wagon was chained to the back of the one ahead of it, to make a corral; the animals were secured in the center of the circle, which formed a defensive barrier against any Indians or other dangers that might be about. Then the men would tend to their stock or dig wells for fresh water, while the children collected buffalo chips for fuel and the women cooked the evening meal. A little fiddle or banjo music might round out the day, but bedtime was generally early for everyone but those who had sentinel duty.

The ox-drawn caravan could cover about fifteen or twenty miles in a day. That first group reached its destination, in the valley of the Grand Ronde, on October 1. During the four-and-a-half months of the migration, although four men of the group had died from illness or drowning, the party’s total numbers had increased: more than that many babies had been born along the trail.

(Woodworth 72-76)

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