I was inspired to travel the Oregon Trail after reading “Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey” by Lillian Schlissel. The book is a compilation of what women’s records of their experiences during the massive exodus between 1840 and 1870. The women bluntly describe the hardships, danger, congestion, duplicity, disease and starvation that were rampant. A quarter of a million Americans gambled that they’d survive the trip. Ten percent lost the gamble. A not infrequent cause of death for women was childbirth.
Those phenomenal three decades of expansion created a nation, as the politicians planned. It was also an invasion of holocaust proportions, all but extinguishing native cultures that had thrived for thousands of years.
There are four trails, really: California, Oregon, Mormon and Pony Express. Today’s roads sometimes cross, sometimes parallel, but only rarely duplicate the early trails. It took the emigrants up to six months to make the journey. These days, it would take at least six months to visit all the historic signposts, sites, museums, cemeteries and roadside attractions. I’m trying to do it in six days. Experiencing the landscape, even though it’s greatly changed from 150 years ago, sharpens my sense of incredulity. However did they do it?
The immensity of the migration is mirrored in the vastness of the territory. I drive at 60 to 70 mph, trying to imagine walking this distance, step by step. The story is too big for telling. So many books have been written about the trail, their assembled pages would probably more than paper the thousands of miles. Still, much is left to imagination.
I pick and choose my stops, absorbing maybe one or two stories a day. At the grave of 18-year-old Rachel Pattison, I learned that she and her 23-year-old husband Nathan were newlyweds, on the trail with Nathan’s parents, five brothers and other relatives. They’d gone no further than current Nebraska when Rachel came down with cholera one morning and died that evening. Nathan buried her there, finding a rock on which to carve her headstone. After great privation, the Pattisons ultimately reached Fort Vancouver. Nathan never remarried. He died in Olympia at the age of 67.
I was amazed and delighted to find some of the most sensitive writing about the trail in a series of small, free trail guides published by the National Park Service. The text articulates the complexity of the era and its events.* The fatality rate on the trail, the guide concludes, “was no worse than that of eastern cities, where disease and poverty ran rampant. Hope wrestled with fear as Americans started out across the Kansas prairies — and hope generally won out.”
*Small print in the back indicates the writing and editing were by Lee Kreutzer and Chuck Milliken of the National Trails System.