The Wake of the Prairie Schooner

Irene D. Paden, The Wake of the Prairie Schooner (1944)

The Wake of the Prairie SchoonerFor nine summers during the 1930s and early ’40s, Paden and her husband (who was superintendent of schools in Alameda County, California) spent a month or more exploring the Overland Trail by car, often aided by local residents and other trail devotees, especially in their attempts to determine exact routes followed by the mid-nineteenth century emigrants. This book contains many trail-related stories from published and unpublished diaries (told in geographical rather than chronological order) as well as comments about her family’s own adventures in extracting information from old timers and county courthouses.

I loved this book. It took a very long time to read because I constantly went back and forth from the book, to Google Maps, to the Pony Express Bikepacking Route on, as well as other online sources, to track and verify the points and stretches along the Route described by Paten. And then took even more time to type in the relevant entries into the Testimonials section on this website.

Paden is a great writer. She deftly interweaves emigrants’ diary entries and general trail history as she and her family (husband and son, and the occasional extended family member, friend, or helpful local) bounce their car over all the ruts and hike along portions of the road from Independence, MO to both Oregon and California. Her voice is at turns playful, acerbic, respectful; unfortunately, it is also sometimes tinged in mid-century derogatory terms toward Native Americans (especially the Native Americans of Nevada, derided by the emigrants as Digger Indians).

This is probably the best book I’ve read to date in terms of giving a feel for the route. I got a real sense of the characteristics of each section of trail, how one differed from another. It also gave me a fuller appreciation of the dangers the emigrants faced, the fact that death was a part of the journey all along the trail.

In some sense, the twenty years of emigration prior to the Pony Express made that venture possible. By the time the Pony Express came along, the route, the dangers, were all old news. I suppose that if someone just wanted to ride the Pony Express route as a long excursion, there is not much in this book to help (though I guess you could say that about nearly everything I’m reading for the trip). On the other hand, I can easily see referring to my notes from this book the evening before every day’s ride so I know what landmarks to look out for, or which ones might be worth my time to detour off the route to see. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to do more than race from Independence to Sacramento.

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