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The Emigrant Diet

In 1859, U.S. Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy was asked by the War Department to write a guidebook for westward-bound pioneers. The resulting publication, The Prairie Traveler, became the emigrants’ principal manual for safe passage West. In The Prairie Traveler, Marcy spent a chapter advising pioneers on which routes to take and what to bring along. His section on “Stores and Provisions” is a glimpse into how the emigrants may have subsisted along the trail.

Marcy advised first that bacon or well-cured pork be brought along in hundred-pound sacks or packed in boxes, surrounded by “bran” to keep the fat from melting away. Flour was to be sewn up in stout, double-thick canvas bags, one hundred pounds to each. Butter was to be first boiled and skimmed until it was as clear as oil, and then sealed up in tin canisters. Sugar was to be secured into India-rubber sacks and kept well away from any source of dampness.

In the mid-nineteenth century, many people felt that fruits and vegetables were unhealthy. Marcy spent a long paragraph defending the usefulness of vegetables and emphasizing their antiscorbutic properties. Although canned vegetables were widely available, they were heavy, so emigrants were advised to purchase dried vegetables from a particular supplier in New York. Imported from Paris, the vegetables (they are only mentioned generically, no particular variety is named) were sliced and pressed into solid cakes which were as hard as rocks. A piece half the size of a man’s hand, he claimed, could be soaked in water and reconstituted to fill “a vegetable dish,” and would feed four men. A cubic yard of the stuff contained 16,000 rations.

If one were unable, or unwilling, to procure dessicated vegetables, Marcy advised them instead to take along citric acid. This could, if mixed with sugar and water and a little “essence of lemon,” pass as a substitute for lemonade. Other possible antidotes for scurvy were wild onions, wild grapes, greens, or tea made from hemlock leaves.

Another useful item was pemmican, which Marcy claimed constituted almost the entire diet of those working in the Northwest fur trade. To prepare pemmican, you were to take buffalo meat, cut it into thin strips, and dry it well in the sun. The dried meat was then to be pounded into a fine powder, mixed with melted grease, and sewn into bags of animal hide (with the fur, he is careful to mention, on the outside). Pemmican was to be eaten raw, but as a change one could also mix it with a little flour and boil it.

Then Marcy described the simplest and most portable source of calories, used extensively, he claimed, by Mexicans and Indians. It was something called “cold flour,” and it was made by mixing cornmeal with a little cinnamon and sugar. This was to be mixed into water and used as a beverage, and he claimed that on half a bushel of the stuff, and with no other provisions, a man could easily subsist for thirty days.

In extreme situations, a little creativity was to be exerted. Mules and horses could be consumed, but Marcy warned that if the animals were half-starved and stringy, a man would have to eat a lot of this excessively lean meat, perhaps five or six pounds a day, to stay alive. In the absence of salt, a mule or horse steak could be charred in the fire and then sprinkled with a little gunpowder to make it more palatable. Men desperate for tobacco could resort to smoking the roasted bark of the red willow, or sumac leaf. A good coffee substitute could be found in dried “horse mint.”

To make the journey from the Missouri River to California, each grown person would require 150 pounds of flour or hardtack, 25 pounds of bacon, cured pork, or meat driven on the hoof, 15 pounds of coffee, and 25 pounds of sugar. These were the essential articles needed, and Marcy warned travelers to be careful and not use up all their provisions during the first half of the trip. It is hard to imagine how that could have been a temptation.

(Marcy 30-36)

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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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Transportation in the Early U.S.

Today, most of us spend our lives moving around on paved streets and roads, and we tend to view our world as a series of locations connected by lines on a map. But the earliest European settlers in North America encountered a vast, amorphous wilderness. In this wilderness there existed no roads, nor any convenient means of transporting objects and people from place to place.

The very first roads in the US were bison paths. These were useful for human purposes, because they tended to link water sources and followed the most level routes. Similar to these were the network of Indian trails, which also followed paths of least resistance. With the help of Indians, early American colonists were able to improve these trails, widening them to accommodate wagons.

During the colonial period, mail was an extremely important means of communication. The first highway in America, the Boston Post Road, dates to 1673. It took a post rider two weeks on this unpaved road to deliver the mail from New York City to Boston. Deputy postmaster Benjamin Franklin personally toured the 500 miles of the Boston Post Road to mark the route with milestones. Eventually, all the major cities in the thirteen colonies were connected by a system of post roads.

In the late 1700s, the introduction of stagecoach passenger and mail service made road improvements necessary. By the time of the Revolutionary War, larger colonies were actively building roads, especially the type known as “corduroy” roads, constructed of wooden planks.

But after the war, federal and state governments quit building roads, and private companies took over. Land companies bought right-of-ways and cleared land to build wagon trails. The first hard-surface road in America was constructed by a private company, the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turn Pike Company. It was a 62-mile toll road from Philadelphia to Lancaster, Pennsylvania that was made of broken stones and gravel, built in 1794.

During the next forty years, private companies built many more “turn pikes,” so called because of the toll gates, known as “pikes,” at which travelers were required to stop and pay a fee. These fees went to cover the cost of road maintenance. About 3,000 miles of these roads were built in the early 1800s.

But as the 19th century progressed, interest in road construction began to wane. Toll fees could no longer cover the costs of road maintenance. The cheapest and most common means of transporting men and materials was by water. To facilitate east-west traffic, a system of canals was built. The 1840s saw the brief appearance of both the steamboat and the fast clipper ship. These technological advances caused road building to fall out of favor for a time.

America’s westward expansion was conducted mostly by horse-drawn wagon train along a few main routes. These famous pioneer trails included the Oregon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the California Trail and others. By the mid-1800s stagecoach passenger travel had also become commonplace; each stagecoach company developed its own preferred route to the west coast. All these “roads” were actually just crude pathways of dust and mud.

Disputes over routing helped to delay the development of overland mail service until 1857, when Congress passed an act offering mail contracts to private companies. The first contract went to Butterfield’s Southern Overland Mail; they chose the 2,795-mile Oxbow Route from St. Louis to San Francisco, with stages at ten-mile intervals. Mail service took nearly a month. The famous Pony Express offered an expensive, yet high-speed alternative – mail service in less than a week! – until the transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete in 1861.

The years following the Civil War saw the development of transcontinental railroad service, and for the remainder of the century domestic land travel in America was dominated by trains.

Most cities at that time had only crude, dirt streets filled with garbage and animal waste. While urban residents  struggled with congested, dirty, smelly city streets, rural America had to make the best of rutted, muddy or dusty earthen paths. Travel time to transport livestock or ripened crops to the nearest railhead was critical for farmers, but in favorable weather, a horse and buggy could travel only about five miles per hour along such roads.

Then in the 1890s a new invention helped to shift the nation’s focus back to the need for paved roads. That invention was the bicycle. Thousands of people got caught up in the bicycle craze of the 1890s. But because of the bad condition of most city streets, bicycle enthusiasts were forced to crowd onto the few paved surfaces that existed. Cyclists organized what was called the “Good Roads” movement, petitioning state and local governments for all-weather hard-surfaced roads and streets.

At the same time, the federal government also began to recognize the need for road improvements; after the institution of free rural postal delivery, the US Post Office was in dire need of better roads along its postal routes.

Finally, at the very end of the century, the invention of the automobile would usher in a new era of unprecedented road construction and change the landscape forever.

(Kaszynski 11-23)

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The First Oregon Settlers

In the first four decades following the Revolutionary War, the American frontier crept steadily westward across the continent, to the Mississippi River and beyond, reaching the western part of Missouri and eastern Iowa by the 1830s.

There, Manifest Destiny paused for a time. After all, further west lay the Great Plains, a sere and desolate wasteland, and beyond that were the Rockies. Although Lewis and Clark had followed an overland route to the Oregon coast in 1805, their experience was an epic adventure beyond the resources of the typical frontier settler. For thirty years after Lewis and Clark, no settlers braved the dangers of the Far West.

Religion provided the initial catalyst for settlement in Oregon. In 1831 a small group of northwestern Indians, curious about the white man’s country, traveled to St. Louis for a visit with William Clark, then serving as U.S. Superintendent of Indian Affairs. A story began to circulate that the Indians, while in St. Louis, had requested that the white man’s “Book of Heaven,” as well as some suitable instructors, be sent back to their homeland in the Northwest. Soon, many devout Christians began planning missionary journeys to Oregon.

One of the first was 30-year-old Methodist pastor and schoolteacher Jason Lee, who traveled overland with some fur traders to establish a mission in the Willamette Valley. Another early missionary was physician Marcus Whitman, who became famous for successfully removing an arrowhead from mountain man Jim Bridger’s back. Whitman and his wife Narcissa, along with a group of fellow Presbyterians including missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding, traveled west to plant a mission near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Narcissa and Elizabeth became the first white women to cross the Rockies; their letters home helped to popularize the overland journey to Oregon as a practical, accessible family project.

At that time, under an agreement reached in 1818, the vast, amorphous Oregon Country was being held in “joint occupancy” by both Britain and the United States. This arrangement worked well only as long as the region was largely unoccupied. But as soon as settlers began pouring in, Oregon’s ownership became an issue. In the fall of 1838, Jason Lee made a speaking tour of the East, bringing tales of a Columbia River teeming with salmon. Inspired by his powerful lectures, a group of seventeen men from Peoria, Illinois decided to head west for the specific purpose of wresting Oregon away from the British.

Calling themselves the Oregon Dragoons, the group elected as their leader lawyer Thomas J. Farnham. Bearing a banner with the legend, “Oregon or the Grave,” the group set out in May, 1839. They planned to follow the famous northern fur-trading route, later known as the Oregon Trail, which combined directness with relative ease of travel.

However, the journey did not prove an easy one. The group, which became known as the Peoria Party, spent three stressful weeks of travel just to reach Independence, Missouri. While there, Farnham changed his mind and decided to follow the more southerly Santa Fe trail instead. Unprepared for the prairie’s terrifying weather phenomena, the group struggled miserably. Food supplies ran short; three members of the group quit and returned home.

Squabbling within the group became increasingly intense; during a heated quarrel, one man was accidentally shot in the side and badly injured. This forced the group to make even slower progress. Then the group voted to depose Farnham as leader and elected another man. Sioux raiders stole two of their horses. Three more members quit the group.

In Bent’s Fort, Colorado, the strife among the Peorians reached a crisis. The wounded man, another man, and former leader Farnham were all voted out of the group. Two other men decided to join Farnham’s faction, and the two separate groups set out separately for Oregon. Finally, both groups splintered further into ones and twos.

Nine of the original seventeen eventually reached Oregon. Far from being conquerors, the men, worn thin and ragged by their trials, arrived merely as settlers. Their experiences hardly seemed to bode well for American migration to Oregon. Yet by the time Farnham and the others finally arrived in Oregon, at least ten different towns back east had already formed “Oregon Societies” for the purpose of settling the region.

(Woodworth 57-62)

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The Whiskey Rebellion

In the years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the greatest threat to national unity was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Although slavery had long been, and would continue to be, the most divisive political issue in the country, the Whiskey Rebellion had nothing to do with slavery. Surprisingly, it was about taxation without representation.

In order to extend the reach of the federal government and give the young nation a little more money in the bank, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton decided to place an excise tax on whiskey.

This wasn’t some sort of “sin tax” designed to cut down on whiskey consumption. Whiskey was the main product of the trans-Appalachian region. The tax was not on the whiskey that was purchased, but on that which was produced and sold by those on living on the country’s western frontier.

The frontiersmen felt betrayed. In their eyes, the government demanding the tax had failed to provide them either roads and canals or protection from a recent wave of Indian attacks. The government was also allowing the British to continue occupying posts along the northwestern frontier. And although those on the frontier had little ready cash, Hamilton insisted on a tax paid in currency. The government seemed to be favoring wealthy eastern landowners, like George Washington himself, over the hardworking frontiersmen who were just trying to get by.

This was exactly the same objection the Founding Fathers had raised against British tyranny before the revolution: taxation without representation. The whiskey tax was specific to the western regions, which were not properly represented in the government that was imposing the tax.

What the frontiersmen did not know was that the government had recently taken steps to meet two of their objections. Major General Anthony Wayne had just won a decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a clear sign that Washington was indeed willing and able to provide protection from the Indians. And at the time of the revolt, Chief Justice John Jay was negotiating for the withdrawal of British troops from posts in the Northwest.

But word of these actions had not yet reached the frontiersmen.

So they revolted. They refused to pay the tax. They tarred and feathered or shot revenue officers, or burned down their houses. Their rhetoric was identical to that of the Founding Fathers; the idea of secession was implicit. Rumors circulated that the rebels were negotiating with European powers. They intended, in effect, a Second American Revolution.

President Washington had no intention of allowing the nation to be broken up, nor of losing the ownership of tens of thousands of acres of his own property in the West. So in August of 1794 he called out thirteen thousand militiamen and sent them into western Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion.

It was quickly accomplished. As the troops converged on Pittsburgh, the leaders of the rebellion fled. Two of the leaders were captured and shipped back east, where they were tried, convicted of treason, and subsequently pardoned by President Washington.

The whiskey tax was never collected. Jay’s Treaty and the victory at Fallen Timbers appeased the frontiersmen, and the threat of secession was eliminated for the time being.

(Ambrose 38-41)

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Black Cowboys

In the years following the Civil War, Americans in the northern cities were willing to pay the highest prices for any kind of beef, and Texas cattlemen were eager to the oblige them. West Texas and northern Mexico were, at that time, teeming with hundreds of thousands of feral longhorn cattle, descended from early Spanish stock. They were there for the taking, for anyone who could round them up and drive them north.

They couldn’t go straight north, however, because that meant crossing Indian Territory, and the tribes required payment to drive the cattle through. Neither could they go east, because there were too many fences, farms and forests in the way. The only way was to head through the open range of the Great Plains, to railroad towns in the west.

The main cattle trails became legendary. Three of the most important were the Chisholm Trail, which ran from the southern tip of Texas through central Oklahoma and ended in Abilene, Kansas; the Western Trail which ended in Dodge City, Kansas; and the Goodnight-Loving Trail which went west to New Mexico, along the Rocky Mountains, and then through Ogallala, Nebraska and on to Wyoming and Montana.

To round up the cattle and drive them north was hardly a one-man job; any cattleman who wished to make the drive needed a good crew of cowboys in order to pull it off.

Horses were a way of life in the Old South, and many former slaves were expert horsemen. These were much in demand as cowboys, especially those former slaves who had worked cattle before the war. While cowboys were usually southern-born white men, most crews included some black cowboys as well.

For black men and white men to work together was an unusual situation in the U.S. of the 1860s, and a rare opportunity for some black men to gain the respect of their white coworkers. On the open range, race seems to have mattered less than skill.

Perhaps the most well-known today of the black cowboys is Nate Love; his action-packed autobiography of 1907 makes no mention that he experienced any white racism as a cowboy. That he was a tough, reckless, freedom-loving American seems to have mattered much more to him than did his race.

Another famous black cowboy was William “Bill” Pickett. After his days riding the open range were over, he gained national fame as a show rider in the early days of Wild West shows and rodeos.

We must be careful not to overemphasize the impact of black cowboys on the general narrative of the West. It is estimated that no more than 25 percent of the cowboys who worked the open range were black. In any case, the era of the open-range cattle drives was short-lived; by the turn of the century barbed wire fences, railroad tracks, the expansion of farming, and the development of the meat-processing industry had put an end to the days of the cowboy. Still, the cowboy crews provide an early example of relative racial egalitarianism in the West.

(Flamming 61-70)

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Pony Bob and the Pyramid Lake War

Williams Station was located in the middle of the desolate wasteland that was 1860s Nevada. It may or may not have been a Pony Express stop; little is known about it except for the role it played in triggering an incident known as the Pyramid Lake Indian War.

James O.Williams lived at Williams Station with his two brothers. On the early morning of May 8, 1860, he arrived home to find the station burned to the ground, the livestock gone, and both his brothers and another man lying on the ground dead.

In terror, he rode hysterically through the desert toward Buckland’s Station, ten miles to the west. He paused there only to sound the alarm before galloping further west to Virginia City, stopping en route to warn the occupants of Dayton and Silver Spring that the Paiutes, friendly up to now, had gone on the warpath. By the next morning, greatly-exaggerated reports had reached Carson City, whose citizens were told that a thousand savages were headed their way, bent on destruction.

A mob of vigilantes was quickly recruited from among the local miners and ranchers and the patrons of the local saloons. No investigation of the events at Williams Station was attempted.

According to one early journalist, the attack on Williams Station was provoked when someone at the station abducted several young Indian women, keeping them hostage in a cellar. The husband of one of the women attempted unsuccessfully to rescue her, then went for help. Eight of his comrades followed him to the ranch, killed its occupants, and burned the place. They then headed north to a Paiute encampment at Pyramid Lake, passing by at least one ranch without incident. In other words, they were not on the warpath, but instead were merely exacting specific revenge for a specific outrage.

In any case, the mob at Carson City did not stop to ask questions. The 105 vigilantes, many of them drunk, left town in a festive mood, eager to head up to the lake and shoot some Indians. After stopping at Williams Station to bury the three bodies, they continued on the two-day ride north to Pyramid Lake. With no leadership and no military discipline, the mob quickly fell into a Paiute ambush; at least seventy-six of them were killed, and many of the rest wounded. The survivors scattered. With 83 percent losses, the battle ranks near Custer’s Last Stand in terms of casualties.

Three Paiute were also wounded in the battle.

When news of the disaster reached Virginia City, pandemonium broke out. Settlers and miners fled; others barricaded themselves inside buildings. One miner, hoping to escape attack, lowered himself fifty feet down a mine shaft; his partner panicked and fled, and the man spent three days down there before someone rescued him.

Against the background of these events emerged a figure known to history as Pony Bob. Robert Haslam was a twenty-year-old Pony Express rider, assigned to the stretch that lay between Buckland’s Station and Friday’s Station (present-day Lake Tahoe). On May 9, unaware of the events that had transpired, he left Friday’s Station, riding east with the mail. By the time he reached Carson City, the ill-fated expeditionary force had already left, taking with them all the fresh horses in town.

He fed and watered his horse and continued east to Buckland’s Station. There he found the station keeper in a state of panic, and the relief rider refusing to take his route. So Pony Bob continued east to Sand Springs Station, where he changed horses, and then continued on to Cold Springs and then to Smith’s Creek. He had ridden 190 miles without a rest, between two and three times the normal route of a Pony Express rider.

At Smith’s Creek Station, he slept for eight hours, and then picked up the westbound mochila and headed back to Cold Springs. There he found the station keeper murdered, the station burned, and the stock run off. There were no fresh horses, but there was fresh water, so he watered his horse and kept riding.

At Sand Springs Station, the lone stock tender was unaware of the war that was circling around him. Pony Bob told him what he had seen and heard, and persuaded the man to accompany him west, probably saving his life.

When the two reached Carson Sink Station on May 13, they found fifteen terrified survivors of the Pyramid Lake disaster barricaded inside the station house. Leaving the stock tender there, Pony Bob took a fresh horse and rode on to Buckland’s Station, where the first relief rider had refused to ride. Legend tells us he arrived only three and a half hours off schedule.

After resting for an hour and a half, he continued riding west toward Carson City and back to his starting point at Friday’s Station. He had ridden 380 miles in thirty-six hours.

No account mentioned that he saw a single Indian.

(Corbett 63-79)

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