The First Leg of the Emigrant Trail

“It was one of the great American experiences, this first stage of the trail in the prairie May. It formed the symbols we have inherited. The ladies knitted or sewed patchwork quilts. They extemporized bake ovens for bread, made spiced pickles of the “prairie peas” and experimented with probably edible roots, gathered wild strawberries to serve with fresh cream. They shook down into little cliques, with a chatter of sewing circles, missionary talk, and no charity for any nubile wench who might catch a son’s eye. Tamsen Donner wrote home – there was a pause for letter writing whenever someone moving eastward was encountered – that linsey proved the best wear for children. They put a strain on clothes – this was a fairy tale for children: the absorbing train, the more absorbing country, bluffs to scale, coyote pups to catch and tame, the fabulous prairie dogs, the rich, exciting strangeness of a new life with school dismissed. The sight of the twisting file of white-tops from any hill realized all the dreams of last winter along the Sangamon, and the night camp was a deeper gratification still. The wagons formed their clumsy circle, within reach of wood and water. Children whooped out to the creek or the nearest hill. The squealing oxen were watered in an oath-filled chaos, then herded out to graze. Tents went up outside the wagons and fires blazed beside them – the campfire that has ritual significance to Americans. The children crowded back to stand in the perfume of broiling meat. The most Methody of them were singing hymns – Parkman walked into a search party who were settling the question of regeneration while they hunted their oxen. Glee clubs sang profaner songs, sometimes organized by the most meticulous choirmasters. An incurable Yankeeness extemporized debates, political forums, and lectures on the flora of the new country or the manifest destiny of the American nation. Oratory pulsed against the prairie sky. Be sure that nature was served also and the matrons who distrusted the unmarried girls had cause. This was the village on wheels, and the mind and habit of the village inclosed it, beside those carmine fires which Hollywood need only show us against white canvas to awaken our past. The fires lapsed, the oxen came grumping into the inclosure, and one fell asleep hearing the wolves in endless space. . . . This is what the grandfathers remembered when they told us stories.”