It was a grand spectacle when we came, for the first time, in view of the vast migration, slowly winding its way westward over the broad plain. The country was so level we could see the long trains of white-topped wagons for many miles. It appeared to me that none of the population had been left behind. It seemed to me that I had never seen so many human beings before in all my life. That was the moment when I first felt the rush of a dream about the Oregon Trail, but the thought quickly passed as I moved on to the other exhibits.
The site administrator from the Kansas Historical Society, an elderly man named Duane Durst, stood behind the counter as I walked through the museum entrance. Duane was talkative and obviously lonely, glad to have some company for the afternoon. He was exactly the kind of walking database I enjoyed meeting on such a day, and I was quickly drawn in by the details he shared.
The feeder trails that moved northwest through Kansas and then disappeared beyond the Flint Hills all emptied into the original Platte River Road, as it was initially called, the main fur-trapping route to the Rockies that passed through the Arapaho and Sioux tribal lands in western Nebraska in the s and s. Renamed the Oregon Trail in the s, the route spanned some 2, miles from jumping-off towns such as St.
Unlike the image projected in Hollywood westerns, where covered wagons are pulled by attractive teams of matched Percheron and Belgian horses, oxen and mules were the preferred draft animals, Duane told me. Many more immigrants were dispatched by shooting accidents and wagon crashes than were killed by Indians, and the river crossings were often treacherous in the spring, costing many pioneers their lives.
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But by the fall, families regrouped. At major stopovers like Soda Springs in Idaho, or Farewell Bend in eastern Oregon, the long wagon trains paused while partners widowed by the rivers remarried, and the festivities often lasted for three or four days. My curiosity was aroused by another detail that Duane shared. Pulling from his wallet a laminated ID card, he told me that he was a twenty-five-year member of the Oregon-California Trails Association, the main preservationist group for the trail.
Over the past twenty years he had rescued several Oregon Trail markers and monuments that had been overrun by farming and other development, relocating them closer to traveled roads where they could be seen.
Feelings of inadequacy overwhelmed me as I listened to Duane. I am an obsessive-compulsive reader and a history junkie. I brake by rote at every historical marker, I buy out museum bookstores, and for years my interest in colonial forts and Shaker villages so exhausted my two children that they are now permanently allergic to the past. I can tell you, right down to the hour, everything that happened at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during the first week of July , and each setback that Franklin Roosevelt endured during World War II feels like it happened to me.
Frequent summer junkets to Montana and Wyoming had convinced me that I knew a lot about the American West. How could I have missed so much about so iconic an American experience? And what Duane told me next seemed even more astonishing. Today, almost the entire 2,mile expanse of the Oregon Trail—even where it has been covered over by modern highways or railroad tracks—has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail. Except for two bad stretches of suburban sprawl around Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Boise, Idaho, most of the rest of the trail is still accessible along remote farm and ranch roads in the West.
In western Nebraska and central Wyoming, where the trail runs through relatively undisturbed federal lands or immense private ranches, there are still more than six hundred miles of original wagon ruts, just like the path I had hiked that day. When Duane began describing the trail, he handed me a foldout map published by the National Park Service, and I followed along as he spoke. End to end, the map stretched almost four feet across the counter, depicting an immensity of terrain, almost completely devoid of urban development, from the banks of the Missouri River at Kansas City to the end of the Columbia River gorge near the Pacific coast.
The colored terrain shadings on the map looked like platters holding a giant smorgasbord of geology—plains, bluffs, high desert, and dramatic river gorges—along the route west. To me, the Oregon Trail had always been just another historic nameplate, like Manassas or Pikes Peak, but now the map in front of me was opening it up like a tableau of the enormous energy of the American experience.
The visual prompt of the map was irresistible, and I formed a strong mental image as I looked out through the paned windows to the endless plains beyond the groves of cottonwood trees that curled along the floodplain of the Little Blue River. The map, the hypnotic Flint Hills rising and falling all around me, the peaceful surroundings of the ranch, seemed an invitation to ramble. Wanderlust has always acted like amphetamine for me and I could not prevent my head from making the next leap. Joe to Farewell Bend in Oregon in a covered wagon.
More than two thousand miles of open country to cross. What a dream.
The whole trail. The modern trail, he explained, mostly existed as a tourist attraction. Families driving west in their RVs—headed for Yellowstone or Glacier National Park—stopped out of curiosity when they saw signs identifying Oregon Trail sites. Most of them just wanted to quickly read a brochure and then find the next campsite with a cable TV hookup.
Oregon Trail in Special Collections
The words of Margaret Frink had stayed with me, and I stopped at the top to look back. It was tempting to look across the hills to Nebraska and imagine long trains of white-topped wagons for many miles, with men hollering at teams, whips cracking, and hundreds of wheels raising dust, while outriders galloped through the grasses to flush up game.
At this time of day the river bottoms all the way to Nebraska would be obscured by gray clouds of smoke, as the pioneers stopped their trains for the night and cooked deer steaks and prairie chickens for their evening meal.