Chapter 6: The Wagon Train
Chapter 6: The Wagon Train:
Once across the Missouri River, we were on the real Oregon Trail. The trail was crowded, wagon trains, people with hand carts, small herds of cattle. And it wasn’t a single trail either, sometimes another wagon train might be beside us, sometimes the wagon trains might be three of four across on a flat stretch. Sometimes another wagon train might pass us, sometimes we might pass a slow one, especially a train of Mormons pulling hand carts. Along the sides of the trail, people had abandoned furniture, stoves, broken wagons, and even the bodies or bones of dead oxen and horses littered the sides of the path as well. Among the waste of the wagon trains, men and boys would be searching, filling carts with things they could take back to St. Joseph to sell to the travelers still coming into town. It became apparent to us that some of the goods we saw in the stores had been sold three or four times at those outrageous prices, and some of the shops had made a fortune. The smell of the dead animals, abandoned food, and rotting trash was overpowering, and the sight was overpowering as well.
Ma said over and over as we passed through this wasteland of wagons and equipment “We’re going to regret this, we should have stayed in Iowa.” We all just let her fuss, none of us wanted to go back.
The trail loosely was a single road, but the reality was in those first days, our wagon train was often parallel with others, passing people with hand carts, faster trains passing us, and the trail was many parallel trails. We even added or lost people as some wagons decided they preferred the leadership of a faster or more organized wagon train. We had a good guide, though and gained more than we lost. There were people coming back toward the East as well. Some of them were fur traders, bringing their furs back from the mountains to trade. Others were people who had lost a family member or oxen or horses on the trail, and decided to return back to civilization. Every time one of the latter groups passed, Ma would sigh and mutter. There were regular post rider from forts to the west every so often and on occasion, we would see Indians trading with one or another wagon. These Indians were called Kansa Indians and they had very little to offer except for supplies from abandoned wagon loads or scrawny furs, but they were pretty insistent and some people traded with them out of fear.
The heat of the prairie seemed so much worse when there were no trees in sight, and no relief from the sameness of the territory. It was a beautiful green land of rolling hills and the lazy river winding through it flanked by sand bars and brackish pools. But the wide gash of the trail and its detritus marred the beauty, and sometimes the dust obscured it.
The first few weeks were exciting and monotonous, frightening and boring, and novel and repetitive all at the same time. We made good time among the rolling hills, and eventually, our wagon train was single file on the prairie, not quite alone among so much traffic, but a little separated from the others that had all crowded together after the crossing of the Missouri River. There was plenty of grass for the oxen and horses, and plenty of good camp sites. The Indians we saw at a distance after the first few days were occupied with their own activities, and did not have much to do with us.
Riding as part of a wagon train was different than when our family had travelled alone from Iowa to St. Joseph. For one thing, Mr. Jones knew where he wanted us to stop each night, and so we didn’t have to scout for good sites like we did when our wagon was alone. For another, there were so often broken wheels, and repairs to make, that we rarely saw Pa, he was riding back and forth along the wagon train, helping make repairs when needed. More than one family expressed to Ma how grateful they were that we were along. Another difference was the dust.
Travelling in a train of about fifty or sixty wagons, and with others ahead of us, we were coated with dust every day, except when it rained. On those rainy days, we struggled through mud and muck and one of us boys had to help Pa with his repairs. There were always more breakdowns on muddy days than dusty days. One other difference was the campfires. We couldn’t find wood on many of our stops and so we would send the kids out to gather buffalo chips, dried dung that produced an awful smell as it burned and even flavored the food we cooked. It might take the boys a couple of hours to gather enough dung, and sometimes if they had to travel too far, one of us older boys had to go with them if we weren’t helping Pa fix wagons.
As we rode along the trail, we got to know the other families in our wagon train. Mr. Jones was the Captain of the train, on his second trip across the trail, he was the only one who had travelled the Oregon Trail before. He was a gruff, blustering man, but also quick to strike up conversation and he genuinely cared about the people in the wagon train. We didn’t see him much except at stops because he always led the train and Pa’s wagon, holding the blacksmith, always brought up the rear. Mr. Jones was the one who would call stops for the night and decide where we camped. He always tried to camp near a stream with clean water. Near the stream would usually be fresh grass for the oxen and horses and sometimes wood.
The river was shallow and silty, and brackishly warm, and we only got our water from it if we did not find an incoming stream of fresher water.
Some days, we would stop several hours before dark because no good campsite was available within a distance we could travel before darkness. It was always dangerous to travel at night, with gopher holes, ruts, mud holes and quicksand all dangers for horsemen and oxen alike, so we would always stop early rather than risk a poor camp or moving after dark. On these early stop days we had the time to visit the others in our wagon train, time for dancing, music, stories, and playing, time sometimes for a hunting trip, extra washing or repairs, in a way, time to be neighborly.
There were a number of families who had relatives already in Oregon, a few families who were still unsure if they meant to continue on to Oregon or go to the gold diggings in California. There was a doctor, a small gray haired man named Dr. Nelson who was from New York. His wife had died a few years back and he wanted to start a new life where he wasn’t haunted by memories of her. He had a daughter who was in her thirties and unmarried who was travelling with him and sat unsmiling next to him on the wagon seat. He was called upon to practice his craft on the fourth day out from St Joseph when a little boy named Benjamin fell off of his mother’s lap when their wagon hit a bumpy part of the trail. Their wagon was near the front of the wagon train and we were at the back, so we didn’t hear her scream when he fell. The boy landed head first then the wagon rolled over his legs before his ashen faced father managed to stop it. The doctor was fortunately in the wagon just before them and was able to get there quickly. The whole wagon train stopped for a couple of hours while the doctor worked. He set the boys left leg, but the right was so damaged from the wagon that he had to amputate it. The fall left the boy dazed and in great pain, but though he had to sit in the back of the wagon, and he cried a bit whenever the bumps jostled his legs, he got better, which no one but the doctor seemed to expect.
There were quite a few single men, some in groups others alone, who were going to see the place before bringing their families out. A loud Swedish man from Minnesota rode his wagon alone, a stocky short man from Vermont with three brothers rode together, all looking to find their way and stake a claim before bringing out their wives and young kids. There was a group of about ten men, sharing four wagons, who were going to the gold fields. But most of the people in our wagon train were pioneering families like us and had many children. We came from mostly Midwestern stated, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, with a few from the south and a few from the northeast. Few southerners wanted to go to Oregon because it did not allow slavery. Even those southerners without slaves were used to the peculiar institution and few of them went to Oregon, which was so different from their home. We didn’t have any Mormons in our group, they traveled on their own, and we had a few settlers in our wagon train who wanted to set up a shop or business rather than a farm.
Sometimes, when the going was slow, the children and women would walk along the wagon train, often groups of talking women preceded by clusters of playing children. I was usually driving or riding scout, so I didn’t get to know the rest of our wagon train like our youngest brothers did. Even Pa, with all his repairing, knew most of the group better than us older boys.
After about two weeks, the first death occurred, Benjamin’s mother, still distraught over her mangled son, died of cholera and was buried by a creek just before the Platte. When we reached the Platte, we were suddenly more crowded again because our trail merged with the one from Independence. Three days later, we merged with another trail from Council Bluffs and there were a few more wagon trains and many more Mormons. About a week after Benjamin’s mother died, her husband disappeared one night, leaving the crippled boy sleeping alone in his wagon full of supplies. The man had taken a gun, food, and some clothing during the night, and most of us thought he had decided to go back and leave his son to die, crippled as he was. We asked a few of the many camps to either side of us if they had seen him, but none had and we had to start our day and gave up the search. The doctor’s daughter took the boy into the wagon with her, and as other families divided up the contents of the wagon, it was pushed to the side and the oxen that had pulled it were split up among wagons with weaker oxen that may have needed help. I could not help but think of Lucinda and her son John Anderson and wonder if he was an orphan now too.
Within a week, three more people on the wagon train had died of Cholera, followed in the next week by the doctor and his daughter and the poor little boy Benjamin. Cholera was a horrible way to die, the cramps and diarrhea, the wasting away and death that seemed inevitable once the symptoms started. Most people got it really suddenly, fine at breakfast, sick at lunch, dead before supper. Once someone had it, it was rare for them to get better, and in some trains, it seemed to pass like fire throughout the group. If Mr. Jones knew a camp where people had died of cholera, he avoided that camp. No one knew where cholera came from but avoiding the places it had been made a lot of sense. Wagon trains all around us suffered from the disease too, we passed several that were stopped and burying people. We always waited until night to bury our dead, wrapping the victim in canvas, and in the evening, buried them away from our camp.
After the first cholera death, the wagons became like islands and the women and children stayed on their safe shores. We would often hear whining from the children now cooped up, but because we had no idea where cholera came from, or how it spread, isolation seemed safer. Even in camp for the night, when we’d make our circle of wagons, each wagon had its own fire and meal now. We also had moved away from good sources of wood, so we had to always collect buffalo chips for our fires. Because there was so much traffic we had to travel further away for our buffalo chips and so us older boys would seek them out and bundle them on the back of our horses during the days travels. Before, Ma, Nancy and the little boys would go seeking this material just after we stopped while Pa and one of us boys would work on wagon repairs in the train, but now we were on “firewood” duty and the young boys would set up the camp with Ma and Nancy.
Ma cried a lot and begged Pa to let us go back, but he pushed on as did the whole train. Another woman died, but then after a tense two weeks of cholera among us, the disease seemed to stop. A few days after the last cholera death, one of the youngest babies died of measles, but that didn’t scare us as much, most of us had measles as children, and few except the very young, very old, and already sick died.
Each death not only meant loss, but slowed us down as wrapped the body in tarp, then at our nightly stop, we cut off cottonwood bark and lashed it together into crude coffins and buried the bodies. No one wanted to leave the dead to litter the trail like so many oxen and horses had, but each delay seemed to put everyone in a worse mood and make them more fearful. With every day spent on the trail, the dust got worse, the water got smellier and worse tasting, and the people got more nervous and angry. We found that Cholera made us more isolated from the other wagon trains too, as we all feared disease. We could see the campfires and circled wagons all up and down the prairie, but we never spoke to them during the weeks of sickness.
Our own family had so far escaped disease and injury, but the deaths in the wagon train kept us close to our own wagon. Allen and Warren had been playful at every stop, but when Benjamin died, they seemed fearful of leaving our own camp, and Ma and Nancy were even more fearful. The walking together and evenings of visiting the campfires of the neighbors was a memory, though Pa and us older boys did some visiting to fix wagons and tools during the evening stops, and we never seemed to get sick from it. Cholera seemed to strike at random, and the tension filled us all. As we crawled through the Platte River Valley, the younger boys never strayed far from Ma or Nancy.
Us older boys with Pa still had to scout away from the wagon train at times, hunting or looking for danger, in addition to the blacksmithing visits to other wagons. John, James, and I loved these moments, watching the wagon trains from a nearby rise, it seemed awfully peaceful as the line of wagons snaked along the river, stretching from one horizon to the other with small gaps between wagon trains. We always had to be careful to check the water before we or our horses drank. If there was a dead animal upstream, it was likely that it would infect the water. We also had to watch for sand bars and snakes as we criss-crossed the river on our scouting. Water moccasins were nasty creatures we had back home in Iowa, but out here in this river, they seemed even more common and more aggressive.
Pa was called out on a regular basis during the days travel to use his smithing skills to repair a wheel, reinforce a weakened axle or tongue until the evening stop. Most of the men could do much of the work themselves, but the skill of a blacksmith allowed them to make stronger, longer lasting repairs.
We desperately needed real rest, not just delays to bury people. Pa, Mr. Jones, and a few stout hearts like them kept their spirits up but many were muttering darkly about going back. The deaths from Cholera had finally stopped, but eight were gone, including the doctor, and nine in our wagon train had died with the measles death added. Our train of 60 wagons was down to 56. We passed a couple of wagon trains that had so much death from Cholera that their travel had stopped, but Mr. Jones told us that we were better off travelling faster to get away from the sickness rather than stay near where people were dying. In addition to the disease, we had to eat poor mud filled biscuits and use dirty cookware. The Platte was shallow, just a few inches deep most places, and very sandy. We had sand and dirt on all our dishes, we couldn’t clean them properly, and we tasted sand in our food and water. Whenever we could, we found a deeper pool or a creek feeding into the river for our stop, but now, these were few and far between and often occupied by other trains.
Mr. Jones pushed the pace here in the flat land, stating that the faster we went, the less likely we were to get sick. This made sense to Pa, but Ma was beginning to get hysterical, looking for signs of the sickness in the boys. We passed several wagon trains as we started early and kept moving late, and the pace took a toll on us all. Then about four days after the last human death, some of the oxen apparently drank some bad water. Many got weakened and ten died and suddenly, many of the wagons in our train had to make do with two or three oxen instead of four or six, often with the oxen remaining weaker than they had been before. Our family still had all four of our oxen, but two more wagons were abandoned in the wagon train because there were not enough oxen to pull them.
The Platte River, with the fear of disease and the poor, muddy food, was less of an adventure than a recurring nightmare. We all felt the journey might never end, though it had just started.