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.)

Schools in Oregon in the 1840s

The first log cabin in Portland, built in 1844. This is how I imagine Jenny’s cabin outside Oregon City.

In my novel Now I’m Found, Jenny, one of the lead characters in the book, opens a school for some of the children on surrounding farms. She holds the school in her cabin. It’s a one-room cabin, and she has benches built for the children to sit on. Her only resources are two primers, three Bibles, a book of Greek mythology, three issues of Godey’s Lady’s Book, and four slates. Most emigrants did not bring many books from home.

I did some research on early schools in Oregon, and I was able to determine the dates some schools opened in Oregon City. One article said the first school opened in 1844 in town in someone’s home. According to the January 20, 1848, edition of the Oregon Spectator, a female seminary opened in Oregon City sometime that month.

But I didn’t find many resources describing how children living on the farms outside of town learned their three Rs. Most of what I wrote in Now I’m Found about how Jenny taught school came from my imagination and from what I’ve read in the past about other frontier communities, such as in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books.

Recently, I came across the following description of school days in the 1840s in Oregon:

I learned my a-b-c’s from Captain Waters the first winter we were here. He took a smooth board and printed the letters on it for me. A little later Mrs. Eugene Skinner came to Oregon and gave me a primer, which I prized most highly and that book was passed around among children until it was completely worn out.

On our claim, which we located on what is now known as Isaac Levens donation land claim, was built a little log cabin, . . . In this little cabin was held the first school in Polk county. It was built during the fall of 1845 or the spring of 1846. I went to school there. It was my first school and the teacher’s name was Mr. Green. [A neighbor’s little boy] walked to this school house . . . . The grass grew so tall on the prairie, that [the boy’s father] took his yoke of oxen and plowed a furrow from their cabin to the school house for his little son to follow so that he might not lose his way and become lost in the tall grass.

So my description of Jenny’s school being held in her cabin was not too far-fetched. I only wish I had read the story about plowing a furrow to the schoolhouse before I wrote Now I’m Found. That anecdote would definitely have made it into the book.

What stories do you know about your ancestors’ school days?

Musings on Time in the Twenty-First Century . . . and Before

As of the end of May, we’ve spent 209 months in the 21st Century (I started my count in January 2000). So at the end of this month, we will be 17.4% into our new century. If time were the plot to a novel, we’d be almost finished with the first act and moving into the middle of the story.

Are we ready to declare we are in Act 2 of the 21st Century? I don’t think I am. When I quit working at the end of 2006, I felt like we were still on the cusp of the new century. I’ve continued to feel that way, despite my calculation that we are a sixth of the way through the 21st Century.

Maybe it’s because I write historical fiction that takes place in the 1840s. Maybe because my family stories seem so rooted in another time. Maybe because I’m a conservative at heart and don’t like change. Whatever the reason, I still feel like a 20th-century inhabitant, though I’m living firmly in the 21st Century. I find myself reflecting on 20th-century events. And sometimes I’m even pulled back into the 19th.

I remember figuring out as a child that I would be almost forty-four when the year 2000 arrived. Forty-four seemed so old. At the time, my parents were still in their thirties. And then it dawned on me that I might spend half of my lifetime in the century yet to come—that shocked me.

I recently calculated that my life expectancy isn’t quite that long. While it is possible I will live to be eight-eight—and I certainly hope to—the odds are that I will die before 2044. Still, it’s possible. And I will most likely spend many more years at least in the 21st Century. When will my perspective shift to seeing myself as a post-2000 being more than one of the 1900s?

Maybe I never will. Maybe I will continue to reflect on the past.

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Because of the recent anniversary of the U.S. entry into World War I, I’ve been thinking a lot about where the nation and my family were one-hundred years ago.

  • The one great-grandparent I knew, Thomas Hooker, was born in 1879, so he was an adult when the 20th Century began. By 1917, he worked in the Polk County Courthouse, where he served as Sheriff for decades.
  • My other great-grandparent alive during my childhood (I never met her), Lillie Smith Claudson, was born in 1885 and married in 1900. By 1917, she had four children. Act 1 of her 20th Century was certainly productive.
  • James Parks, my husband’s grandfather whom I knew, was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army infantry at the tail end of World War I in 1917. His entire childhood passed in the first 17 years of the last century.

So that’s one perspective on what happens in one-sixth of a century. If I look at the last seventeen years of the 1900s, I see the passage of a sixth of a century from another angle.

  • My son, who began walking in May 1983, graduated from high school in May 2000, a time I remember well, but a time that feels long ago.
  • I hadn’t even used a personal computer as of 1983, though I was starting to teach myself how to operate a Wang word processor. When PCs first came to my company a year or so later, I knew as much about them as the IT department did. But by 2000, my knowledge had failed to keep up with the experts.
  • In 1983, Bill Clinton started his second stint as Governor of Arkansas. He was not yet a national figure. By 2000, he’d been President for two terms.

And then there are all the events that have happened since the start of this century, showing that time flows on whether we embrace it or not. Act 1 of this century has changed the world.

  • The job I took in 2000 has been held in a variety of iterations by several individuals in the last seventeen years. It is a changed role in a company that also has experienced great change.
  • As the last century ended, we worried about whether computers would survive the switch in dates to Y2K. People filled their bathtubs with water in case public utilities shut down, but those fears did not come to pass.
  • The tragedy of September 11 hadn’t yet occurred seventeen years ago. Remember the ease of traveling before long security lines? Some fears we had not expected did come to pass.

Time rolls on, whether we are keeping up with it or not. History happens.

Now I ponder what Act 2 in the 21st Century will bring. And I wonder what I will make of it. Whether coming events will strike me as odd as airplanes must have seemed to Great-Granddad Hooker in 1917. Whether I will ever seem as old to my descendants as he seemed to me.

What do you think the greatest surprises of the 21st Century will be?

Relocation of Fort Kearny

In a post several years ago, I mentioned that Fort Kearny was relocated from near what is now Nebraska City, Nebraska, to a location further west along the Platte River. I described the surveying of the new fort site in Lead Me Home, and I’ve been revisiting that scene in my current work-in-progress.

As migration to Oregon increased in the mid-1840s, the Army decided it needed a fort at the eastern edge of the frontier to protect the western settlers and to provide them with a supply station. The first fort was named after an early explorer, Col. Stephen Kearny, who scouted the area along the Missouri River near what is now Nebraska City, Nebraska. He recommended that a fort be built in that place, and the Army constructed the first Fort Kearny in 1846.

Soon after the fort opened, however, the Army realized the location was not suitable. Settlers passed either south of the fort from Westport, Independence, or St. Joseph in Missouri, or north through what is now Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska.

But almost all the emigrants to the West followed the Platte River, which became known as the Great Platte River Road. So the Army began scouting for a new location for the fort in September 1847.

Lt. Daniel Woodbury described the site he selected as follows:

“I have located the post opposite a group of wooded islands in the Platte River . . . three hundred seventeen miles from Independence, Missouri, one hundred seventeen miles from Fort Kearny on the Missouri and three miles from the head of the group of islands called Grand Island.”

The timing of the scenes in my novel is not exact, because I have my wagon company encounter the surveyors of the new site in May 1947, several months before they arrived.

Moreover, the replacement fort itself was not built until June 1848, when soldiers from the first fort arrived at the new location. The wooden buildings of the new Fort Kearny were built that summer.

By the summer of 1849, Fort Kearny was a mecca for the western travelers needing more supplies for the journey. On June 2, 1849, Lieutenant Woodbury wrote:

“Four thousand four hundred wagons have already passed by this post—nearly all destined for California. There are four men and ten draft animals to each wagon—very nearly. Many, not included above, have traveled on the other side of the Platte and many more are still to come on this side. The post is at present very poorly prepared to give to the emigrants the assistance which very many have required even at this point so near the beginning of their journey.”

Thus, the fort grew in importance as a supply station. By 1850 regular mail service had begun, along with a stagecoach route from Independence to Salt Lake City.

In the mid-1850s, hostilities between the Native Americans and the emigrants increased. Soldiers from Fort Kearny provided protection to the wagon companies. But by the mid-1860s most of the conflicts were farther west, and with the advent of the transcontinental railroad, there was less need for an Army presence. The Army abandoned Fort Kearny in 1871.

Ft. Kearny reconstruction, photograph by Chris Light, from Creative Commons

Later, the fort buildings were torn down and the land made available for homesteading. What exists at the site now is only a reconstruction of the fort.

As a side note, one of the interesting aspects of writing historical fiction is how the author should spell geographic names. For example, the name Fort Kearny is spelled as I’ve typed it, without a second e. But the town named after the fort is Kearney, with the second e. The reason? The fort was named after an Army officer named Kearny, but a later postmaster consistently misspelled the name as Kearney.

In my work-in-progress, I have recently been writing a chapter that takes place near Scott’s Bluff, Wyoming. The early settlers were divided on whether to spell it with or without the apostrophe. I chose to use the more accurate Scott’s Bluff because the location is named after a man named Scott (not Scotts). However, the National Park Service adopted the name Scotts Bluff. And the nearby town in Wyoming is Scottsbluff—all one word.

I don’t always choose the most historically accurate name. In my novels, I’ve called a more western fort along the Oregon Trail Fort Laramie, though it was called Fort John in 1847 when my fictional wagon company passed through (and had been called Fort William even earlier). But for the convenience of the modern reader, Fort Laramie makes more sense.

I’m sure some of my readers wonder why I’ve chosen the names and spellings I have. There is usually a reason, though sometimes I am just wrong.

When have you been surprised by some aspect of history?

Elizabeth Markham: One Woman’s Perspective on the Oregon Trail and on Matrimony

I am surprised that in five years of writing this blog I have never written a post focused on women’s perspectives on leaving their homes and journeying west on the Oregon Trail. I’ve written about specific women—Narcissa Whitman, Jessie Benton Fremont, Elizabeth Dixon Smith, Keturah Belknap, and others—and quoted some of their words, but I’ve never focused on how they felt about making the trek in the first place.

I’ve thought about this theme a lot, first as I researched and wrote Lead Me Home, and now as I’m writing another novel about other characters in that same wagon company. For the most part, the women did not want to leave home. They only went because their husbands or fathers insisted.

In my current work-in-progress, one woman is pregnant with her ninth child. She left her family’s farm in Missouri to follow her husband’s wanderlust. This woman’s teenage daughter mourns the loss of the friends she left behind. Another woman in the wagon company is accompanying her bully of a husband, who believes he’ll have a better life—while her life is likely to be harder in Oregon. Another character who lost all her children in Illinois left their graves behind her forever.

On and on the women’s stories go. Each mourns people and places they will never see again.

Abert Beirstadt, Oregon Trail

And on the journey, they cooked over campfires instead of in brick ovens. Their meals were made with limited provisions and what they could glean along the trail. They washed with river water almost as muddy as the clothes, unless it was left to sit and settle. Their family members suffered illnesses such as cholera or yellow fever or pneumonia. Or they were injured in wagon or gun accidents. Or they drowned or were snakebit or suffered some other calamity.

No wonder the women viewed the land so harshly. No wonder some of them went mad.

Elizabeth Markham was one such woman. On September 15, 1847, as they traveled along the Snake River (see the photo of Shoshone Falls on the Snake at the top of this post), Elizabeth told her husband Samuel she would not go on any farther. After some argument, Samuel took their five children and their wagons and left her behind. Later in the day, he sent their son John back to get his mother. Hours later, Elizabeth caught up to the wagon—alone. She said she had beaten John to death with a rock. Her husband went back for the boy. Stories vary as to whether John had been injured or not, but he lived. Samuel brought his son back to the rest of the family, only to find that Elizabeth had burned one of the wagons.

The rest of the story is that the Markhams’ traveling companions put out the fire, and the family did reach Oregon. They later had two more children. Their youngest child, Edwin Markham, became an acclaimed poet. The Markhams ran a store in Oregon City, but Samuel and Elizabeth later divorced, and Samuel set out for California alone. Elizabeth also later moved to California, remarried, and was divorced again.

Like her youngest son, Elizabeth was also a poet—the first published woman poet in Oregon. She had a poem published in the Oregon Spectator on June 15, 1948, less than a year after her episode on the Snake River. It reads:

A Contrast in Matrimony

The man must lead a happy life,
Free from matrimonial chains,
Who is directed by a wife
Is sure to suffer for his pains.

Adam could find no solid peace,
When Eve was given for a mate,
Until he saw a woman’s face
Adam was in a happy state.

In all the female face, appear
Hypocrisy, deceit, and pride;
Truth, darling of a heart sincere,
Ne’er known in woman to reside.

What tongue is able to unfold
The falsehoods that in woman dwell;
The worth in woman we behold,
Is almost imperceptible.

Cursed be the foolish man, I say,
Who changes from his singleness;
Who will not yield to woman’s sway,
Is sure of perfect blessedness.

Her note at the bottom of this poem in the newspaper read: “To advocate the ladies’ cause, you will read the first and third, second and fourth lines together.”

[Try it . . . The first stanza then reads:

The man must lead a happy life,
Who is directed by a wife
Free from matrimonial chains,
Is sure to suffer for his pains.]

This isn’t great poetry, but I have to marvel at the way she crafted two poems in one. And I have to wonder what Elizabeth was thinking as she wrote this multi-faceted poem—to which view of marriage did she subscribe? After her experiences on the Oregon Trail, did she think man better off with a wife or not? Given that both her marriages ended in divorce—still uncommon during her lifetime—I conclude she was fairly sour on the institution of matrimony.

What do you think of Elizabeth Markham’s poem?

Black History: Hidden Figures and The Underground Railroad

In recognition of Black History Month, this last post in February is about two experiences I’ve had this month related to African-American history. At the start of the month, I saw the movie, Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. And during the last half of the month, I read The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead. Both have caused me to reflect about story and history—two themes I write about frequently in this blog.

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hidden Figures. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to it. But the movie told an unknown chapter in African-American history in a dramatic and engaging way. If Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels, then these women “computers” did it backward, in heels, and running half a mile to the bathroom every day.

I didn’t grow up with the Jim Crow segregation laws because I came from a small town in the Northwest. I went to public school with Blacks starting in 1961, there were no separate drinking fountains or restrooms in my town, and there was no public transportation in town so no one worried about who sat in the back of the bus. I didn’t really become aware of racism until the mid-60s when the national news reported marches and riots in large cities.

When the movie was over, I wanted to know more. What was true and what wasn’t? Turns out, the Kevin Costner character is a composite, and no one really tore down the “colored” bathroom sign. Still, there weren’t restrooms for black women in every building at Langley, and Mary Jackson did have to search out a restroom (though Kathryn Johnson just used the unmarked white restrooms). Several other characters in the movie were also composites or fictional, but their attitudes seemed true to the period. As depicted in the film, African-American women at Langley really did work in separate rooms and ate in separate cafeterias.

Most of the salient points in the three protagonists’ histories were true. Kathryn Johnson did ask to attend briefings that no woman had previously attended, and she did verify the calculations for John Glenn’s first American orbit of Earth. And John Glenn did ask NASA to “get the girl to check the numbers.” Dorothy Vaughn was the first African-American supervisor at Langley and was a strong voice for the female computers who worked for her. Mary Jackson was the first African-American female engineer, and she did have to file a petition to get into the school where she could take courses she needed to qualify as an engineer.

So I discovered the story of Hidden Figures was definitely “Hollywoodized.” Nevertheless, I came away believing it was a true depiction both of the racism and sexism of the 1950s and of the intelligence and courage of these African-American women in contributing to the space program.

Shortly after seeing the movie, I began reading The Underground Railroad, which describes a better-known period in African-American history. This era in the 19th Century is filled with dramatic accounts of slave escapes and the elaborate and dangerous routes they took. I’ve read about gun-toting Harriet Tubman’s courageous trips to the South and about slaves hidden for months in barns and attics, much as Jews were hidden from the Nazis a century later. I wanted to read Colson Whitehead’s best-selling version of this epic story.

The book starts with a lengthy section describing life on a Georgia plantation under cruel masters and foremen. I believed his account. His writing is strong. I found Cora, the young female slave protagonist, to be sympathetic and believable. (Some reviews I’ve read have criticized the depth of the characters in the book, but I did not have that problem.) I was rooting for Cora and her companion Caesar to escape the plantation and find the underground railway station.

And then it turned out that the author created an actual underground railway station, complete with locomotive and box car, to spirit Cora and Caesar out of Georgia. The license he took with the truth totally turned me off of the book, though I did finish it. The novel continues with many stops along their journey. I won’t go into those so as to prevent spoilers. I will only say that at each point in the novel where Cora moves from location to location, she does so on an actual railroad located underground.

What a dumb concoction! The “underground railroad” name was a metaphor. It was “underground” because it was a resistance movement, and the people involved only knew a limited amount about the route, so they could not give away information if they were caught. It was a “railroad” because of the labels given to the locations and personnel involved. The stops were called “stations,” they were run by “station masters” with “conductors” and “agents.” But Colson Whitehead turned the metaphor on its head and purported to make it reality.

As a writer of historical fiction, as one who tries to make my fiction truthful, I found this construct a complete distraction from what should have been a compelling story. I liked the writing. I liked the characters, and I was prepared to believe their experiences. Then I was confronted with a “cute” fiction in a serious book. I couldn’t accept it.

I have been cogitating on why I can accept the Hollywoodization in Hidden Figures and not the fictional construct in The Underground Railroad. I’ve certainly read plenty of books that have turned history on its head—many time travel novels (such as Stephen King’s 11-22-63) take obvious creative license and use portals more bizarre than Colson Whitehead’s. But in those books, the reader knows what is coming—the fiction is the purpose of the story, and they are labeled as fantasy or science fiction. In Hidden Figures, the composite characters and the overstatements (such as running half a mile to the bathroom) improve the dramatic arc of the story. They are “truthy” in our current vernacular.

By contrast, Whitehead’s creation of a fictional underground locomotive detracts from the story. I had not read anything about the book containing fantasy before I started it. Moreover, the reality of the slaves’ journeys from place to place was so much more dangerous and dramatic than what he depicted that in my opinion the train chugging into the underground tunnels cheapened the real history he wrote about.

I had other problems with The Underground Railroad, such as its frequent interruptions of Cora’s story to provide a chapter of back story on another character, but I could have lived with those. The major flaw in the book was the underground train. I wanted the book to add to my knowledge of the African-American experience. Instead, his fantastical construct made me question the rest of the history in the book. The history may be at least as “truthy” as the history in the film Hidden Figures, but why did Whitehead give his readers cause to doubt?

In an interview on National Public Radio, Whitehead said:

“once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, . . . it freed me up to play with time a bit more. . . . it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850 – skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it’s all presented sort of matter-of-factly . . . .”

Well, I wish I’d known this before I read the book.

When have you been impressed by or turned off by a historical movie or novel?

Why Did the Emigrants Head West? For Prosperity, Health, or “Manifest Destiny”?

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol, by Emanuel Leutze)

I decided to write about the Oregon Trail in part because the concept of leaving home for an unknown wilderness so far away is such an alien concept to me. I’ve moved across the country on a few occasions, but I don’t like spending time in the wilderness.

Why did the emigrants choose to leave? I wanted to know. What made them pack what they could in a wagon and leave family and friends behind?

As I researched, I discovered that the reasons were as varied as why we move from state to state or leave one job to take another.

Most pioneers left for economic opportunity. They could own more land—free land—in the West than they had in the settled territories.

Some left for health reasons. Plagues of cholera and smallpox and other illnesses struck the East Coast regularly. The open land was considered healthier. Of course, it wasn’t long before diseases followed the people.

Some went for patriotic reasons. Americans wanted to drive the British out of the Pacific Northwest and the Mexicans out of California.

“Manifest destiny” was a phrase coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an article titled “Annexation” in the July-August 1845 edition of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In this article, Mr. O’Sullivan argued that the U.S. should annex Texas, writing:

“other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves . . . in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

And he went on to point the finger specifically at England and France.

Zeal for “manifest destiny” became the prevailing sentiment of most Americans—the United States should extend unbroken from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This attitude led not only to settling the West, but also to ill-treatment of Native Americans, as well as to war with Mexico and conflicts with Great Britain.

Regardless of their rationales, all types of people emigrated to the West. Most were hard-working and sensible—farmers and tradesmen who intended to work for prosperity they hoped to find in the new land. These families were probably less motivated by politics than by prosperity.

But there were also those who left home unprepared for the hardships of the journey. Some families brought their sick and elderly, unwilling to be parted. Others came who had lived in luxury in the East and knew nothing about fending for themselves.

And there were the troublemakers one finds in every crowd. I created one such troublemaker—Samuel Abercrombie—in Lead Me Home, and this character reappears in Now I’m Found and in my current work-in-progress about this same wagon company. I have to admit, writing scenes with Samuel in them are the most fun!

The migration to the West is a reminder that we are a diverse people, with varied motives and abilities. It takes all kinds to settle a nation and to populate a novel. Though conflict, in my opinion, is more enjoyable on the page than in real life.

Do you know why your ancestors came to the United States?