The Emigrant Train

“These people were greenhorns: what the West came to call tender feet. Most of them were schooled in the culture that had served American pioneering up to now. The unfitness for the West of that experience shows at the beginning of the journey. The Oregon and California emigrants had a much harder time of it than they would have had if they had understood the conditions. They did not have to face the cholera that made the Gold Rush and certain later passages hazardous; or the Indian troubles that began in the fifties and lasted as long as there were Indians along the trail. But they experienced hardships, disease, great strain, and aimless suffering of which the greater part was quite unnecessary. The mountain men avoided it almost altogether.

We have already seen them breaking up and without trail discipline. A caravan of mountain men passing this way was an efficient organization. The duties of every member were stated – and attended to in an awareness that both safety and comfort depended on their being done right. The fur caravan was a co-operative unit, the emigrant train an uncohesive assemblage of individualists. The mountain men had mastered the craft of living off the country, finding grass and water, managing the stock, making camp, reading buffalo sign and Indian sign. All such matters were hidden from the emigrants, who besides were tired men at the end of any day and prone to let someone else do the needful tasks. So their wagons were not kept up, horses and oxens strayed, and many hours, counting up to many days, were squandered. This added to the delay and we have already seen them moving much too slowly even at the beginning of the trip. The passage must be made with the greatest possible speed consonant with the good condition of the animals – but the movers dallied, strolling afield to fish or see the country, stopping to stage a debate or a fist fight, or just wandering like vacationists. It was necessary to press forward, not only because the hardest going of the whole journey was toward the western end and would be far worse if they did not pass the mountains before snowfall, but also because every day diminished the food in the wagons, wore down the oxen by so much more, and laid a further increment of strain on man and beast. They lingered. And also, expert as they might be at living healthfully in the oak openings, they did not know how to take care of themselves here. The mountain men suffered bountifully from scalping but you seldom hear of one who is sick, and when you do he is suffering from a hangover or a decayed tooth. Whereas from the first days on, the emigrants are preyed upon by colds, auges, and dysenteries that are their own damned fault . . . All this has its part in the stresses put on human personality by emigration.

The train is moving along the Oregon trail. But the movement must not be thought of as the orderly, almost military procession of spaced wagons in spaced platoons that Hollywood shows us, and the trail must not be thought of as a fixed avenue through the wilds. The better discipline of the freight caravans on the Santa Fe trail did impose a military order of march. On the southern trail wagons moved in something like order ; in single file where the route was narrow, in columns of twos or fours when there was room for such a formation and it was needed for quick formation of the corral in case of Indian attack. Every night they were parked iu a square or circle, the stock was driven inside after feeding, guard duty was enforced on everyone in his turn. Wagons which had led a file OtJ. one day ( and so escaped the dust) dropped back to the end on the riext day and worked their way up again. Regular messes were appointed, with specified duties for everyone. Wood, water, herding, hunting, cooking, and all the routine of travel and camp were systematized and the system was enforced. But that was the profit motive; men with an eye on business returns managed it. And they had no problems of family travel and few of cliques.

Every emigrant train that ever left the settlements expected to conduct itself according to this tested system. None except the Mormons ever did. Brigham Young had a disciplined people and the considerable advantage that his orders rested on the authority of Almighty God – and even so, among a submissive and believing people on the march, he had constantly to deal with quarrels, dissension, rebellions, complaints, and ineffectiveness. Among the emigrants there was no such authority as God’s or Brigham’s. A captain who wanted to camp here rather than there had to make his point by parliamentary procedure and the art of oratory. It remained the precious right of a free American who could always quit his job if he didn’t like the boss, to camp somewhere else at his whim or pleasure – and to establish his priority with his fists if some other freeborn American happened to like the cottonwood where he had parked his wagon. Moreover, why should anyone take his appointed dust when he could turn off the trail? Why should he stand guard on the herd of loose cattle, if he had no cattle in it? . . . They combined readily but with little cohesiveness and subdued themselves to the necessities of travel only after disasters had schooled them. They strung out along the trail aimlessly, at senseless intervals and over as wide a space as the country permitted. So they traveled fewer miles in any day than they might have, traveled them with greater difficulty than they needed to, and wore themselves and the stock down more than was wise. They formed the corral badly, with too great labor and loss of time, or not at all. They quarreled over place and precedence that did not matter. They postponed decisions in order to debate and air the minority view, when they should have accepted any decision that could be acted on. Ready enough to help one another through any emergency or difficulty, they were unwilling to discipline themselves to an orderly and sensible routine.”