I’m writing another book about the emigrants to Oregon in 1847 who traveled in the wagon company I created for Lead Me Home. The protagonists in Lead Me Home came from Boston, Massachusetts, and Arrow Rock, Missouri. And the doctor and his wife were from Illinois. The wagon company was formed in Independence, Missouri—a well-known “jumping off ” point for the Oregon Trail.
My current work-in-progress deals with one family from St. Charles, Missouri, and another family that farmed in Tennessee (so far, I haven’t specified where in Tennessee).
How likely was it that this wagon company would have attracted members from across the United States, as it existed at the time? It’s certainly possible. The real 1848 wagon company that took my Hooker ancestors to Oregon had members from several different counties in Missouri and Illinois.
Wagon captains used many methods to form their companies. Some were made up of neighbors wanting opportunities in the West, so the people all knew each other. Others—like my fictional company—were recruited at a jumping off point or elsewhere. Moreover, the wagon trains were frequently reorganized along the way. As the Oregon Pioneers website, compiled by Stephenie Flora and Nancy Prevost, states:
“The wagon trains of 1847 were in constant transition. Wagons left one train and joined another. Trains joined together, split, and then joined a different train. Each time there was a split another Capt. took over the wagons that split off.”
For example, one train in 1847, initially led by Captain John Bewley, had the following changes:
“Left Independence, MO on May 7, 1847. . . . joined later with the Cornlius Smith train that had left from St. Joseph, MO . . . . Capt. Bewley was elected the permanent Captain after a shakedown period of several days. . . . This train appears to have joined up at some point with the rear company of the Oskaloosa split led by Capt. Kees.”
“Capt. Jordan Sawyer . . . left from St. Joseph, MO; party consisted of 27 wagons . . . , making 35 able-bodied men accompanied by their wives and children. . . . At some point this train may have linked with that of Capt. William Vaughn . . . .”
. . .
“Capt. Joel Palmer recruited a large number of people to join his company in 1847. It is believed he had 85 wagons and then was later joined by the Chicago Company led by Thomas Cox that added an additional 14 wagons.”
Thus, the reorganization of two companies after the Kaw River crossing that I depict in Lead Me Home is based on the types of leadership changes that really occurred. And the later splits in the company and change of captains (you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened and why) were also plausible historically.
The sizes of the wagon companies varied quite a bit—from about fifteen wagons to over 100. So my fictional company of about twenty to twenty-five wagons (after it reorganized) was on the smaller side, but definitely within the normal range. Even so, I didn’t name all the people who were traveling to Oregon with the wagon train in Lead Me Home, only the families who were characters in the novel. (And readers still tell me they can’t keep all the names straight! Well, one family had eight children, and I couldn’t leave any of them out.)
Some of the issues that I loved exploring as I wrote Lead Me Home—and that I am enjoying as I write my current work-in-progress—were the management of the wagon train and the impact of personality conflicts among the emigrants. The strength of company leaders and the ability of everyone in the company to get along made huge differences in their cohesion and in how successfully they dealt with the hardships they faced.
Any time a group of people is thrown together, these interpersonal issues become critical—whether it is 1847 or 2017. I was able to use personality types I’ve encountered in our times to create the Lead Me Home plot in the 19th century. And these same fictional characters are now letting me write yet another perspective of the same events in my work-in-progress.
When have you seen strangers work together for mutual benefit or argue to their mutual detriment?