Today's Reading

While most of these early settlers headed for Oregon country, some chose to go to California, though the route was more challenging and even less well known. In 1849, however, after gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, an estimated thirty thousand people made the journey west. "Gold Fever" replaced "Oregon Fever" in the American imagination (after the Mexican- American War, California was now conveniently part of the US). While the very earliest overlanders had no maps, no guides, and so little information about the route that they were forced, as one put it, to "smell their way west," by the 1850s wagon trains were traveling as many as twelve abreast and were many hundreds of miles long.

For three decades, from 1840 to the late 1860s, it is estimated that around half a million settlers like Keturah Belknap and her family poured across the Missouri River and headed west on foot, making it one of the largest peacetime mass migrations in history. In the twenty years or so that followed the completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869, many millions more would follow these original settlers, filling up the lands in between. Within a period of just forty years, the "frontier" was no more.

I have beside me as I write a classic photograph taken on what had become known as the "Oregon Trail." It shows a woman in a sunbonnet standing next to her covered wagon. Bending slightly forward, her face almost obscured by shadow, she is engrossed in laying out lunch for her husband in the shade of the wagon: a loaf of bread and a tin mug full of coffee, some beans and a slice of bacon, all carefully arranged on a neat white cloth. Toward the front of the wagon, the white canvas covering—perhaps stitched, and possibly even woven, by her own hands—has been hitched up, revealing the contents inside: stores of food and clothing, perhaps (we might guess) a treasured heirloom like china plates or a family Bible, her sewing basket, her husband's work tools. Whatever was inside, it was likely to be everything she had in the world. Their horses, grazing to one side on the open prairie, still look sleek and well fed, and the cloth on the makeshift table is pristine, so the photograph is likely to have been taken early on in their journey.

I first came across this image quite by chance. On a visit to the famous Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co., I picked up a well-thumbed secondhand copy of Cathy Luchetti's Women of the West, a collection of sublimely beautiful black-and-white photographs of women during the westward migrations. It has been on my shelves for more than ten years now, and I often take it down to ponder these all but forgotten lives.

Had the woman in my photograph, like so many of her fellow women travelers, just recently bid farewell to parents, siblings, and every friend she ever had, with the almost-certain knowledge that she would never see them again? Who knows how many more months' traveling were still ahead of her. Who knows how many of her few remaining poor possessions had to be jettisoned along the way to lighten the load for their, by now, half-starved and exhausted animals. Who knows if their supplies even held out. Did she, like so many of the early settlers, all but starve to death along the road? Or did some other catastrophe lie in store: cholera or "camp fever," or a pregnancy gone wrong, or perhaps attack or even capture by those she had been raised to know as "savages."

Or did she, quite simply, just get lost?

This photograph is a classic, some might say a cliché, of western emigration. The woman in it appears like a figure sprung directly from the pages of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Wilder was, of course, herself the child of restless pioneers, and the extraordinary power of her stories lies in her ability to extract exactly the same kind of details from her own lived experience—the warp and weft of everyday life—as can also be found in so many of the diaries and journals included in this book. Despite being altogether quieter tales and despite their relative scarcity, Wilder's stories, so passionately beloved by millions not only in America but throughout the world, have proven at least as influential as any "cowboy" movie in shaping our vision of the West, sealing (in the words of Wilder's biographer Caroline Fraser) complex and ambiguous reactions to western emigration inside the "unassailably innocent vessel" of a children's story.

While some of the women in this book are white women with myriad similarities to the figure in my photograph, there are large numbers who do not fit that picture at all. They instead encompass an extraordinarily diverse range of humanity, of every class, every background, and of numerous different ethnicities, many of them rarely represented in histories of the West. From the very earliest days of the emigration, many free-born African Americans found themselves in the grip of "Oregon Fever." Although their experience would prove profoundly different from that of whites, they too made their way west, urgently motivated by their state of "unfreedom" in the hostile East. In the later years of the emigration, these white and Black Americans were joined along the rapidly proliferating trails by hundreds of thousands of Europeans, immigrants from as far away as Scandinavia, Germany, Russia, Ireland, and Great Britain, all eager to claim land and start new lives. Others, such as Ah Toy, one of many thousands of Chinese sex slaves trafficked against their will and sold openly on the docks of San Francisco, or the Mississippi slave Biddy Mason, had no choice in the matter.
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