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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 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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The Miserable Voyage of the “Mayflower”

By 1620 the Pilgrims, those religious separatists who had fled persecution in England for the relative freedom of Holland, had become disgusted with the too-tolerant atmosphere they found there. So they decided instead to try their luck in the New World.

Around the same time, a group of Dutch fur traders called the New Netherland Company was looking for colonizers to populate New Netherland and challenge the English hegemony in the area of Jamestown and points north. The company petitioned the States General to allow the Pilgrims to colonize New Netherland under the Dutch flag.

But the scheme failed. The States General were in the process of going to war against Spain, and had no desire to antagonize England just when they might need her as an ally.

So the Pilgrims instead accepted a land patent from a group of English investors, who called themselves the Merchant Adventurers.

Their agreement with the Merchant Adventurers seemed fair. It obligated the Pilgrims to work for the company four days out of every week, for seven years . Two days each week they could work for themselves, with one day set aside for worship. Each colonist over the age of sixteen would be given one free share in the company, and all costs and supplies of the venture would be provided out of the company’s joint stock. At the end of the seven years, the shareholders would split the profits, and the colonists would own their houses and the land on which they stood.

On the eve of the Pilgrims’ departure from Holland, they discovered that the Merchant Adventurers had neglected to secure them a ship for the voyage. They were forced to purchase the Speedwell to make  the trip from Holland to England, where they were to pick up supplies for their longer voyage to the New World.

Then at the very last minute, the Merchant Adventurers unilaterally changed the terms of the agreement. Instead of working for the company four days out of every week, the Pilgrims were to devote all their time to turning a profit for the company. Furthermore, the land and houses would become common property rather than the private property of individual families.

Although the Pilgrims’ representative hastily signed the revised agreement, the majority of the group would not go along with the new terms. The company’s representative was so offended that he stormed off, refusing to even make the final payment owed for the Speedwell and the Mayflower. The Pilgrims were forced to sell off some of their already inadequate supplies to make the payment.

Due to uncertainty regarding the terms of the contract, many Pilgrims backed out of the project. So the company decided to make up the difference by adding fifty-two non-separatists to the passenger list; having these strangers in their midst contributed even more to the discomfort of the remaining Pilgrims in the group.

The first attempt to leave England had to be aborted; the Speedwell leaked so badly that she could not even be repaired. The entire group would have to crowd onto the already overcrowded Mayflower. By September, the would-be colonists had already eaten almost half their provisions, and they hadn’t yet left Southampton.

When they finally did sail, they immediately ran into miserable weather. They discovered that the Mayflower was hardly any more sound than the Speedwell had been. Performing makeshift repairs to their leaky vessel, they continued their voyage and finally sighted Cape Cod after two months at sea.

Their troubles were still not over, for they spent another two days sailing up and down the coast, looking for a safe place to land. It took them another month to find a suitable place to settle, but they finally arrived, tired and sickly, at Plymouth, just as winter was beginning.

The area had recently been all but depopulated of Indians by a plague, and the skulls and bones of plague victims lay scattered all over the ground.

(Dolin 31-40)

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