Lure of the Trail for Men

“The male camaraderie of country life, in fact, was exaggerated by the dangers and excitements of the trail. “Men drawn together on the plains as in every day walks of life,” William Thompson remembered, “only the bonds were closer and far more enduring. The very dangers through which passed together rendered the ties more lasting.”

This chance for an exaggerated and extended occasion masculine good times lured men to the trail. Truly one of the great attractions of the trip was the notion of spending entire spring and summer “in the rough” with the boys, away routines of farm work. Trail work was hard, to be sure, but farm drudgery held none of this romantic allure. The idea of an overland emigration struck romantic chords deep within the male breast. One midwestern visitor reported that men “spoke of ‘Old Kentuck’ and ‘Old Virginny’ in a tone that sounded like deep emotion,” and Indiana farmers “related with glowing eyes” tales of how their fathers had emigrated from the valleys of Appalachia. William Oliver told of how the men at an inn along the National Road in Manhattan, Indiana, listened almost reverently as a gnarled old frontiersman recounted his adventures, supposedly at the side of Daniel Boone, hunting ‘Injuns.’ On the trail men could live out collective fantasies that some had experienced in the early days of the midwestern frontier but most had only dreamed of on their staid and settled farms. Here on the trail was an opportunity to bring to life that male self-image. The project of Oregon and California settlement itself included a male vision of life in a time and place where men played a man’s role with long rifle and hunting knife as well as plough and cradle.

Hunting has continually recurred as a theme in these pages of the importance it assumed for emigrant men. It was in this context of male fantasy and the measurement of masculine identity against the standard of earlier, heroic generation of men that hunting took on its meaning. At home the rifle had retained its symbolic if not practical place as the key instrument of male activity. As such, the rifle was the object around which men organized their conception of the trip. By insisting that their rifles would again become the means of securing nourishment for their families, men allowed their own projections to set the form and the content of the journey. Matthew Field captured something of this with a description of the emigrants passing through Westport, men to the front, “rifles on their shoulders, … looking as if they were already watching around the corners of the streets for game.” Hunting, of course, supplied very little of the actual nourishment for the overland travelers, and experienced observers, from the beginning, advised against wasting valuable time on the hunt.But the men nonetheless insisted on approaching the trip as at least a hunting expedition.”