Did the Oregon Trail Emigrants Really Circle Their Wagons?

Although pioneer journals often mention “circling the wagons,” it is not at all certain that all wagon trains pulled their wagons into a circle for the night, nor which of their possessions they protected inside those circles if they used them.

One commentator has pointed out the logistical difficulties with placing everything within a wagon circle at night:

“A wagon train of say one hundred wagons would have at least four-to-six hundred oxen or more, milk cows, draft horses, and saddle horses. A hundred wagons could not make a circle big enough to hold this many animals. Another question is what did the animals eat? The grass inside any circle would be tramped down and covered with several inches of manure in a matter of hours.”

Another commentator wrote that the pioneers circled their wagons at night but would never have circled them to defend against an Indian attack.

Yet the History Channel says:

“To be on the safe side, the pioneers drew their wagons into a circle at night to create a makeshift stockade. If they feared Indians might raid their livestock—the Plains tribes valued the horses, though generally ignored the oxen—they would drive the animals into the enclosure.”

And Oregon.com says:

“Why did the wagon trains form a circle overnight or during rest periods? Was it for protection from Indian attacks? NO! It was simply to make a corral for their animals, making them less likely to stray away.”

Circled wagons near Independence Rock

Moreover, there are believable first-hand stories of life on the Oregon Trail that do describe wagon circles, so the emigrants must have used them often enough to provoke these accounts. In his article “A Day with the Cow Column in 1843,” published in the Quarterly of Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 1-2, p. 371, available online, Jesse Applegate described in detail what happened at the end of a day on the trail:

“. . . for the sun is now getting low in the west and at length the painstaking pilot is standing ready to conduct the train in the circle which he has previously measured and marked out, which is to form the invariable fortification for the night. The leading wagons follow him so nearly around the circle that but a wagon length separates them. Each wagon follows in its track, the rear closing on the front, until its tongue and ox-chains will perfectly reach from one to the other, and so accurate the measure and perfect the practice, that the hindmost wagon of the train always precisely closes the gateway, as each wagon is brought into position. It is dropped from its team (the teams being inside the circle), the team unyoked and the yokes and chains are used to connect the wagon strongly with that in its front. Within ten minutes from the time the leading wagon halted, the barricade is formed the teams unyoked, and driven out to pasture.”

Narcissa Whitman also described how their missionary party camped in the middle of a circle during their journey west in 1836, though they had only a few small wagons. And note that they slept outside the circle and only their horses (not the cows) were inside:

“We encamp in a large ring, baggage and men, tents and wagons on the outside, and all the animals except the cows, which are fastened to pickets, within the circle. This arrangement is to accommodate the guard, who stand regularly every night and day, also when we are in motion, to protect our animals from the approach of Indians, who would steal them.”

The wagon company I wrote about in Lead Me Home (and am writing about again in my current work-in-progress) consisted of 22 wagons. They had oxen and mules pulling these wagons—from four to eight oxen or four to six mules, depending on the family’s resources. Let’s say on average six animals per wagon, or 226 draft animals, plus saddle horses. I don’t identify everyone who had a horse, so I’ll assume here that each wagon came with one saddle horse, though several families had two or three—let’s say another 22 animals.

Many of the families slept in a tent or two, though some slept in or under their wagons. Let’s assume 22 canvas tents, each roughly 6 to 8 feet square.

A prairie schooner (the type of wagon most emigrants used), was about 23 feet long from the front tongue of the yoke to the rear of the wagon. That gives a wagon circle circumference of about 500 feet. If I remember my geometry correctly, the circle’s diameter would be about 160 feet, and the area of the circle would be approximately 20,000 square feet.

If the circle contained only the 226 draft animals and 22 horses, then each grazing beast would get 80 square feet to graze through the night—a plot 8 by 10 feet, which isn’t very big.

But add in the 20 tents, each taking about 50 square feet, and the space for grazing diminishes by at least 1000 square feet (and who pitches a tent so it abuts their neighbor’s?). The emigrants would also have needed ground for several campfires (though some families might have cooked together), as well as space to prepare a meal and to wash up afterward, and places to sit to eat.

Suddenly, the animals probably can barely turn around in the portion of the wagon circle allotted to them, if all those beasts are occupying the circle as well.

Oregon Trail, oil painting by Albert Bierstadt. No evidence of circled wagons here.

Moreover, once the emigrants reached the mountains, the terrain didn’t always permit a wide enough space to circle the wagons. Sometimes they camped strung out along a creek or a relatively flat ridge of land. The protection of a wagon circle often became a luxury.

For all these reasons, it seems unlikely that all the emigrants’ animals and belongings were corralled in the wagon circle each night. They might have put their tents and horses in the circle—as the History Channel and Narcissa Whitman recognized, horses were a temptation to the Native Americans, though they didn’t pursue oxen very often. Alternatively, the emigrants might have let their horses graze outside the circle on hobbles or pickets under heavy guard.

I do have a scene in Lead Me Home in which Indians steal some of the emigrants’ horses. The emigrants are also sleeping inside their wagon circle. The scene is realistic if the oxen and mules aren’t also in the circle. And some type of confrontation like this is expected in Western novels and movies, so I included it.

But remember the logistics when you read or watch Westerns.

When have you read a book or seen a movie and wondered whether a scene is factual, or even logistically possible? (Leave out sci-fi and fantasy, where the author determines the physical parameters.)

Retirement and Spontaneous Travel

I have been to all but three states in the U.S. I still need to get to the two Dakotas and to Alaska. Alaska, obviously, will need to be a specially planned trip. However, my husband and I recently considered taking a quick trip to the Dakotas. But at the pace we drive, it is a two-day journey from Kansas City to Rapid City (we’re not so rapid). We only had a week of free time, which meant if we drove we couldn’t see everything we wanted to see.

I looked into flying to Rapid City—over $1000/person for round trip tickets!

“We could go lots of places for a thousand dollars,” I said.

I typed “cheap flights” in the Google search engine, and up popped many possibilities, including several places in the Caribbean with beaches. I love beaches. We’d been to the Caribbean twice before—to St. Thomas and to Aruba—and enjoyed both trips.

Why not travel there again? I thought. We’re retired. We can go wherever we want.

We settled on the Bahamas—technically in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean, but close enough. We could fly round-trip to Nassau and get a great hotel room for six nights for not much more than flying to Rapid City. We might spend more on food and activities in the Bahamas than in Rapid City, but not that much more. And we’d experience another culture while staying in a hotel right on the beach. Did I mention I love beaches?

“All right, “ I said after I booked our reservation and clicked “submit” to charge our credit card. “Let’s go find our passports.”

My husband gave me a wild-eyed stare. “Mine might have expired.”

Now, mind you, he is an immigration attorney. He’s retired, but he still knows it is imperative to have a current passport to travel outside the U.S. Nevertheless, when he got out his passport, it had expired on May 6, just days before we booked our travel.

We turned to Google again. “Fast passport renewal,” he typed in. Google gave us several options, including “RushMyPassport.com.” Suffice it to say, the folks at RushMyPassport.com came through, for “only” $300. We had his new passport in hand by June 6 for a trip that began on June 15.

Whew! Disaster and embarrassment avoided. For a price.

After a two-hour weather delay in Atlanta, we arrived in Nassau late on the evening of June 15. We stayed at the British Colonial Hilton, which offered us a beautiful lobby, a small but lovely private beach, a room that looked out over the harbor (showcasing both beach and cruise ships), wonderful food, and a friendly staff.

Lobby at the British Colonial Hilton

View from our room. Note the beach straight ahead and the cruise ships docked to the right.

British Colonial Hilton beach at sunset

Fort Montagu from the harbor

As is our typical practice on vacation, we toured local military fortifications—in this case, Fort Charlotte and Fort Fincastle, and we viewed Fort Montagu on a harbor tour. The harbor tour also took us to the Sea Gardens (a protected underwater site). We went to the Bahamian Historical Society Museum, the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas, and the Pirates of Nassau Museum. At all these places, we learned about Bahamian history, from the Lucayan peoples to Christopher Columbus, to the Eleutherians (English Puritans), to the era of pirates such as Blackbeard, to the slave trade, to the abolition of slavery in 1834, through the independence movement that began after World War II.

Fort Charlotte, Nassau, Bahamas

A soldier's 1840 graffiti at Fort Charlotte. Much like the carvings on Independence Rock along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.

Some of the guns at Fort Charlotte

Gun at Fort Fincastle. The red roof above the gun is the roof of the Hilton. See fantail of a cruise ship to the right.

And we took a day excursion with Island World Adventures. They boated us over choppy seas to an uninhabited island in the Exuma chain to snorkel, fed us a fantastic lunch, then took us on to another uninhabited island to feed iguanas before our return.

 

Island World Adventures excursion boat

Beach on uninhabited island near where we snorkeled and ate lunch

Husband feeding iguanas

As retirees, we had the flexibility to make a spontaneous trip to a beautiful locale that also taught us about a different culture. I hope we take more such trips in the future. But next time I’ll check my husband’s passport before we buy our tickets.

Have you ever taken a spontaneous trip to a distant destination?

My New Email Newsletter

Earlier this month I sent the first of what I hope will be regular newsletters to my email subscribers. I know many readers of this blog received it. But in case you didn’t and would like to see what I said, please click here.

I do not plan to post about or link to my newsletters on this blog every time I send out a new email. I want to have different content in my blog posts and in my newsletter. The newsletter will feature shorter pieces—a factoid about history and brief updates on my writing—while my blog will continue to feature longer posts, mostly about family and philosophy, along with a monthly post about the history of the Oregon Trail and Gold Rush years.

But of course I will tell you about major developments, such as new book launches, everywhere I can find to publicize them!

If you like my newsletter, please subscribe.  MailChimp makes it a double opt-in process, so keep with it.

And if you have any comments on how I can improve either my blog or my newsletter, I am very open to feedback.

Thank you for your interest in my writing! Your support means a lot to me.

The Father-To-Be: Not Expecting the Expected

Perhaps I should have saved this topic for mid-July—thirty-six years after it happened. But since it relates to fatherhood, and yesterday was Father’s Day, I’ll post it today.

I’ve mentioned the “treasures” I found when cleaning some cupboards over the last several months. One treasure was an “all-porpoise” card from my husband to his great-aunt. His aunt saved the card and gave it back to us many years later.

In the card—a Hallmark card, of course—my husband wrote:

“The ‘porpoise’ of this card is to let you know that Theresa is expecting a baby!—or so she thinks. . . . We haven’t told any of our friends yet, but we want our families to know.”

He followed with some family news, and ended with “I hope you find our good news agreeable.”

When he wrote the card on July 14, 1981, my husband was able to refer to it as “good news.” But by that time he had had two or three weeks to internalize his new status as father-to-be.

The story behind the story is that he was quite stunned when I first gave the news to him. He wasn’t unhappy, just incredulous. I think he had understood the possibility of pregnancy on an intellectual level, but the reality was still unexpected. “I can’t believe it” were his first words. His impending fatherhood didn’t really sink in until he saw me too queasy for breakfast several mornings in a row.

He turned out to be a wonderful father. Somewhat strict and a little old-fashioned, but nicer than I was and more patient with childish foibles.

Except on Sunday mornings when the kids didn’t want to get up. Then we were all treated to a rousing rendition of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards playing “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipes. That got them out of bed in a hurry.

How did you react to impending parenthood?

Summer Freedom from Generation to Generation

Now that we are well into June, most schools across the nation are out, and kids everywhere are enjoying their summer vacations. Or are they? It seems to me that children don’t have as much summer freedom as past generations had. They may have the world at their fingertips through the internet, but they don’t know their neighborhoods as well as their parents and grandparents knew theirs.

My dad in the years when he roamed Los Angeles

My dad talked about taking the bus all over the Los Angeles area when he was a kid. His family lived in Pasadena from the time he was six or so until he was thirteen or fourteen. He told me he and a buddy would each bring a dime for their excursions—a nickel to travel outbound as far they could travel using bus transfers, and the other nickel to get them back home. From Pasadena in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, they rode to downtown Los Angeles and beyond. I wish I could remember his stories about all the places they went.

It didn’t seem to bother his parents that he was roaming the streets of a large metropolis in the years after World War II. (L.A. was the fifth largest city in the U.S. in 1940 and the fourth largest in 1950.) He made it sound perfectly normal for a preteen boy to be out on his own anywhere he could travel on public transportation.

A Kansas City-born friend of the same generation as my parents talks about similar bus trips in her hometown. “My mother never knew where I was,” she told me. Kansas City was much smaller than L.A., but in the 1940s the municipality was annexing land for expansion, and it had its own share of crime. I’m not sure I would have let my preteen kids take the bus by themselves, though they did once they reached high school.

By contrast, I grew up in a small town without any public transportation. I could only go where I could walk or ride my bike (and there weren’t many places in town worth pedaling to in the summer heat). In my grade school years, I mostly roamed the fields around our house with my brother or stayed inside and read a book.

Columbia River from near the ferry road access point

When I was in high school, some friends and I did go tubing in the Columbia River on hot summer afternoons. We took our inner tubes to an access point on the old ferry road and floated to a boat ramp maybe a mile or so downstream. The river was cold but the sun was hot, and the water felt great in the dry desert air. Then we’d walk with our tubes back to the ferry access and do it again.

I look back on those times now and realize floating the river was probably less safe than riding the bus in L.A. in 1947. The current was fast, and I was not a strong swimmer. But there was only one time we didn’t maneuver ourselves to shore at the boat ramp. We floated on past as we paddled furiously and reached the riverbank a few hundred feet further on. Then we had to scramble through the rock and brush back to the boat ramp. A little scary, but we all survived, unscathed except for a few bug bites.

Friends my age talk of being shooed out of the house on summer days until dinner time, whether they lived in the country, in towns, or in cities. So freedom was still a part of summer for my generation.

My kids having a summer picnic on our deck. Not much opportunity for exploration. 

But my kids’ generation had a different experience, at least those who were in day care. I can remember making sure my children were enrolled in summer programs during their grade-school years. Their school had a summer program with weekly activities that seemed quite adequate in the primary grade years. But as they got older, they wanted more variety. They went to Scout camps and YMCA camps. They visited grandparents. But I made sure they had scheduled group activities every week. I didn’t want them home alone.

When my son reached middle school, I let him stay home by himself a day or two a week. But I thought a whole week at home by himself was just asking for trouble. When my daughter reached middle school, she refused to go to the school’s summer program any longer. I let her stay home with her older brother—who was in high school by then. They had strict instructions on what they could and could not do, where they could and could not go. They were allowed to walk to the YMCA swimming pool a mile from our house, but they were also cautioned about crossing the four-lane roads and the freeway entrance and exit ramps that lay between our neighborhood and the pool.

So my children had less freedom in the summers than I had, and far less than my father who had all of Los Angeles as his playground. I think it’s one of the disadvantages of having two parents who work jobs with little flexibility.

What do you remember of your summers? Were you free or scheduled?

Sleepless in Kansas City

One of the disadvantages I’ve found in getting older is not sleeping as well as I did in my youth. Ever since childhood, I’ve had trouble sleeping during times of stress, but now I hardly ever sleep for eight hours straight. Most nights I wake up once, but some nights I can’t fall asleep, and other nights I wake up around 1:00 or 2:00am and lie awake for an hour or two.

Rarely do my dreams wake me up. In fact, I don’t remember many of my dreams. I used to, but this seems to be another age-related change. Or else most of my dreams now are boring.

I do still dream in color. In the 1940s, most people reported dreaming only in black and white, but now 80% of people say they dream in color. There is some speculation that the shift is related to the development of color television.

My husband read somewhere that monophasic sleep (solid sleep for a single period each night) is actually a modern phenomenon. People used to have biphasic sleep, in which they slept for two periods in a 24-hour day. That, apparently, is where the practice of naps and siestas came from.

Some experiments have found that when people have no regular sleep schedule imposed on them, they gravitate to two four-hour periods of sleep separated by a couple of hours. Many of my nights follow this pattern. Since I learned this factoid, I’ve tried not to worry when I lie awake in bed. After all, I also read somewhere that just lying quietly gives one 80% of the benefit of sleeping (though I doubt that.)

Older generations in my family also had wakeful periods at night. My father went to bed around 8:00pm whenever his schedule permitted. He would often get up again around 10:00 or 11:00, drink some Pepsi and go back to bed. Then he was ready for his next day to start at 5:00am.

My mother, by contrast, liked to stay up reading until 11:00 or so. But she often fell asleep on the couch, until my dad woke her up. In the morning, she would stay in bed well after he was up—or at least that’s what she did once she didn’t have kids to get off to school.

When I visited my paternal grandparents as a small child, my bed was usually the living room couch with a chair placed next to it so I wouldn’t roll off. Sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and saw my grandmother sitting in a chair nearby, smoking a cigarette. She sat with one leg tucked up under her, the way I still sit whenever I can do so without opprobrium. I don’t smoke, but I think of her whenever I move around my house in the dark and whenever I curl my feet up in a chair.

My husband’s grandmother also used to walk the halls when she couldn’t sleep. She would move from bed to bed trying to find a restful spot—some nights she spent time in all three bedrooms in their house.

Ereader in night mode

Using an ereader doesn’t help my sleeplessness. I know it’s a bad idea to have that light shining in my face when I’m trying to sleep, but what else is there to do at 2:00am? I use a blue filter to minimize the brightness and I turn on the night mode in my reading apps. With these adjustments to the screen, reading often lulls me back to sleep.

Before I began writing, I used to try to distract myself in the middle of the night by making up stories in my head. Some of the ideas for my novels developed during these nocturnal musings. But now that I’m a writer, that’s work! I still do it sometimes, but since I now want to remember any good plot points I imagine, it’s not as restful as it used to be.

So I read newspaper headlines instead. The Wall Street Journal is delivered to my email inbox shortly after midnight, and The New York Times headlines come in the wee hours of the morning. Trying to focus on economic and international news is usually enough to put me to sleep. If it doesn’t make me mad.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night?

On Pillboxes and Parents

One of the things I found as I went through my parents’ memorabilia recently was a little white pillbox made of stone. I had a matching blue pillbox already on my dresser.

It wasn’t until I saw the white one that I remembered—my mother gave me the blue version many years ago. It has sat on my dresser ever since, ready to fill with pins or buttons or whatever other tiny items I needed to stash out of sight. At one point, my little pillbox contained one of my children’s baby teeth, but I don’t remember which kid or which tooth. Presumably, I got the tooth after the Tooth Fairy did.

Mother’s white pillbox, after I dissolved the pill

When I opened my mother’s white pillbox a few days ago I was surprised to see that it contained . . . a pill! I don’t know what kind of pill, but it was a white pill and it was stuck to the bottom.

During her last couple of years at home, after Mother was diagnosed with dementia, she resisted taking her pills. She took a lot of medications for a variety of physical and cognitive problems. Every morning my father put her morning doses at her place at the table beside her breakfast. And then she started a little dialogue.

“What are these?” she asked.

“Your pills,” my dad said, or if I was visiting, I’d pick up the routine.

“Do I have to take them?”

“Yes.”

“Which should I take first?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Why do I have to take them?”

“Because the doctor said.” We found that was a much easier answer than explaining what each pill was for.

“Should I take the big one first?”

“That sounds fine.”

“Now why do I have to take these pills?”

The conversation would go on for several rounds, but ultimately, after much coaxing, she took her pills. Usually, she began with the two big fish oil pills, which she swallowed together.

At least, most days she ultimately took her pills. Occasionally, we would discover a pill she had secreted in a drawer somewhere. Or perhaps in a little white pillbox.

By the time she moved to the assisted living unit, Mother was more compliant about taking her pills. She took whatever the nurse gave her. And she was taking fewer pills by that time. It didn’t seem worth having her take the huge fish oil pills to help her high cholesterol, nor several other medications for minor ailments.

Later yet, during the last few months she was alive, she had trouble swallowing. She could only take her pills if they were mashed up in applesauce. By then, she was down to taking a blood thinner and a couple of other medications deemed essential.

Then Mother died, and my father died six months later. After his death, I went through my parents’ bathroom to clean out the cabinets and cupboards. Between the two of them, they had amassed quite a collection of prescription and over-the-counter medications. I consulted my physician brother, and we decided which OTC pills he or I could use and which should be discarded. I spent an evening flushing pills down the sink.

I inherited Mother’s tendency toward high cholesterol and triglycerides, so I brought home from that trip in early 2015 four big bottles of fish oil pills. Their expiration dates ranged between 2015 and May 2017. I had just bought two large bottles myself, so once I was home, I had enough to open my own drug store. I lined them up in order of expiration date and took them daily, as prescribed.

Two and a half years later, I am just now finishing the last bottle of my mother’s fish oil pills, the ones with the May 2017 expiration date (I’m sure taking them a month or two past that date won’t kill me). Every time I open the bottle, I think of my parents.

Two pillboxes, side by side

And when I found my mother’s little white pillbox, all these thoughts of parents and pills roamed through my head yet again.

I dissolved the pill that was in her pillbox and placed the little container on my dresser next to the blue one she gave me. They look sweet together.

What little objects do you have that bring odd memories to mind?