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.)

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.

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?

Thoughts on Random Photos of the Absaroka Range

In the summer of 2015, when my sister and I went through family memorabilia from our parents’ house, we did a rough sort of our dad’s photographs. We threw the envelopes of negatives and prints into three piles—one for me, one for her, and one for our brother—based on whose family was most featured on that roll of film at first glance. I ended up with two large boxes of stuff, including my share of the photos, which wended their way to my house.

Sometime last year, I sorted those photos into two shoeboxes—one containing pictures of my childhood years and the other of when my kids were young. But I didn’t organize them any further. I should have, I know, but I didn’t. I knew it would make me emotional.

This past weekend I decided it was time to go through all the stuff I have from my parents’ estates. I didn’t get very far.

As I was trying to separate photos from files, then start to discard the paperwork I collected while managing their estates, I opened the shoebox loosely categorized as photos of my children. These were mostly taken when my parents came to visit us in Kansas City or when my kids went to visit them in Washington State.

At random, I pulled an envelope of snapshots out of the box. “Absorka Ranch Trip ’89” my father had labeled it. (He was never a good speller. Moreover, the trip was really in 1990. But I knew what the envelope contained.)

I’ve written before about our vacations at the Absaroka Ranch in Wyoming. (See here and here.) Of horseback riding and campfires and such. This random envelope I grabbed contained pictures of the family trip my husband, children, and I took in 1990 with my parents, my in-laws, my husband’s sister and her family. We had a total of twelve in our party, ranging from my five-year-old daughter to my 72-year-old father-in-law. We took up about half the cabins in the ranch, and two other families filled up the rest.

My daughter, the youngest wrangler

I found a nice snapshot of my daughter. And many panoramic views of the mountains and fields where we rode. Many mornings, my parents and I walked out from the ranch house before breakfast while waiting for the meal to be ready, and my dad took several of the pictures in the envelope on those walks. As I went through the deck of pictures, I remembered our trip.

My mother and me on a morning walk in Wyoming

But the snapshots also resonated with me in the summer of 2017—twenty-seven years after they were taken—because I am currently writing about the emigrant travel through Wyoming. The settings I describe in my work-in-progress look much like the views my father captured, though at the point I am in the story, the wagon train is not yet to the Absarokas. In fact, my novel will end before the wagon company reaches the Absarokas—it ends at Independence Rock. But I write about things I experienced in the Absaroka Range. About the sagebrush and the sand, the mountains and the meadowlarks, the hawks wafting on the wind, and the cool morning air before the heat of the day.

My memories of those trips to the Wyoming ranch have colored not only my life but also my fiction, in ways I never imagined in 1990. My memories give depth to the research I’ve done.

Writers, how have your personal experiences influenced what you write?

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?

Working Across Time and Across Generations

My husband and I recently were fortunate to have visits from our two adult children. Our son came for a few days at the end of April, and our daughter was here over Mother’s Day.

My parents and me on one of my solo visits

I remember my mother telling me one time how nice it was to have her children visit by themselves, without their siblings and without their spouses and children. She said she enjoyed being able to talk with each child by himself or herself. And now that my children are grown, I have the same feeling. It is nice to have a crowd around sometimes—over the holidays, in particular—but the one-on-one time is also special.

On these recent visits, it occurred to me how different my life is now than my children’s. And how different their lives are than my life was when I was their age (in my thirties). Each of them spent most of the weekdays they were here on their laptops working. My daughter has billable hour requirements she has to meet, and my son wanted to minimize the vacation days he had to take. Even when they are in their home cities, my children spend some days working from their homes (my son regularly, and my daughter occasionally), so their time in my house probably didn’t seem unusual to them.

In my thirties, I, too, was focused on my career, even though I had kids at that age and they do not. But it was easier in the 1980s and ’90s to separate work and family time. When I was at work, I worked. I didn’t have social media accounts to check, and I had almost no personal email in those days. When I was at home, I dealt with family and household issues. My thoughts might have sometimes been on what I needed to do at the office, but I didn’t have Internet connections and 24/7 smartphone access tethering me to the job. On vacations, I only checked voice mail occasionally.

I could get away from work, at least for a few days. My children do not have that luxury. They have separate work and home laptops, but they have access to everything everywhere.

And my time now? I no longer work solidly from 8:00am to 6:00pm on weekdays, plus several hours on the weekends. My time is flexible, and that flexibility is the primary reason I retired. But I still consider myself to be working. I work as a writer and blogger. I serve on committees for charitable organizations. I take on occasional paid mediation cases. But for the most part, my time is my own to schedule. When I am too busy, I have only myself to blame.

Moreover, I set annual objectives for myself—how much I will write, what marketing I will do, and what volunteer commitments I will make. I also set objectives for family activities. I mark my progress toward all my objectives twice a month, with a formal review about quarterly.

For example, I try to work on writing about 30 hours a week. But that time seems to dissipate in meetings and webinars and blog posts, instead of getting applied toward my novel. In the past two months, I added about 35,000 words to the novel. Not bad, but I wanted to be finished with this first draft by now, and I still have about 10,000 words to go. I will not meet my objective on my novel this quarter.

The result of all this monitoring is that I’m getting far more performance management than I ever got while employed. Even if now I’m managing myself.

I wrote in a recent journal entry, “Retirement life is harder than I thought.” I have to work to retain the flexibility I want while still feeling that I am productive and growing. “How do I find a sense of balance?” I wrote to myself. “Is it elusive in every life and at every stage of life?”

I suppose the answer to each part of this question is yes.

Still, I am glad I do not have a full-time job anymore. Flexibility in work—as in all things—is a benefit. Whether balance comes with it or not.

How has your life changed over the years?

 

Lessons from the 2017 OWFI Conference

I attended the 2017 Oklahoma Writers Federation Inc. conference in Oklahoma City from May 4-6 this year. I’ve attended this conference in the past (though the last time was in 2014), and I always learn something. This year, I probably spent about two-thirds of my time in marketing sessions, with the rest devoted to aspects of the writing craft.

Here’s what I learned this year, with the presenter’s name following each major bullet point:

On Craft:

  • There is no one way to write a book. Every writer’s process is unique, and that process may change from book to book. (Sonia Gensler)
    • One possibility for plotting a novel is to use a 4-act structure, with 17 plot steps.  (Ally Robertson of Wild Rose Press)
    • Write scenes under each plot step—17 points x 3 scenes for each at about 1000 words/scene will give you a 48,000-word novella (because the opening hook and the final image will only have one scene)
    • For longer novels, weave in subplots to add to scene count and complexity.
  • Every book contains a problem, a cause, an effect, and a solution — both fiction & nonfiction books have these elements. Make sure your book does. (Judith Briles, The Book Shepherd)
  • Agents and editors read page 1, then page 2, etc., and they’ll stop after each page. So each page needs to hook them through about the first ten pages, or you will lose them and they won’t take your book. (Kelly Armstrong)
    • The opening scene establishes what the book will be like—genre, voice, and narrative style. It makes a promise to readers that they’ll get more of this.
  • To tell a writer “I couldn’t put your book down” is the greatest compliment a reader can give (Kelly Armstrong)
  • For writers interested in learning about Scrivener, try watching Jason Hough’s YouTube video on Scrivener Boot Camp.

On Marketing:

  • Writing is a business. Even if you want to pursue traditional publishing (through an agent), you should have a Plan B in mind—self-publishing or small presses (Judith Briles, The Book Shepherd)
    • Writers must know how to market
  • Know your ideal reader before deciding how to market your book (Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound)
  • You need to move people from simple awareness of your books to considering a purchase to actually buying your book to becoming an advocate for your books. (David Christopher)
    • Superfans who help you sell your work are your biggest asset.
  • Email marketing is the best book marketing tool because it puts everyone you know into one receptacle (Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound)
    • Email newsletters are the most profitable marketing tool for writers. They are inexpensive, fast, efficient, and build a relationship with your readers.
    • Segment your email lists to send different content to different people on your list.
    • Newsletters should be targeted toward your ideal reader, and should contain interesting content that turns followers into fans and fans into superfans,
    • Be consistent, ethical, and NOT boring in your newsletters—like a letter from an old friend
  • Your Amazon ranking depends on searchability. (Amy Collins, New Shelves Books)
    • To make your book rise in the Amazon rankings, you need consistent sales over 30 days, so plan your launch to have some sales each of your 30 days after publication.
    • Then strive for some surges after that, with price promotions and other tools.
    • The more you touch your bio, description, keywords, the more you rise to the top—keep tweaking your Amazon listing to improve your search results.
  • Strive for lots of reviews—85 reviews is the current magic number on Amazon to move your book higher on its algorithm (Amy Collins, New Shelves Books)
    • Amazon changes something every month
  • Video is big — Google owns YouTube, so Google puts YouTube hits near the top of search results (Joan Stewart, The Publicity Hound)
  • Writers want to get into bookstores, but you need to ask yourself whether you belong there. Can you make money by getting your books into retail outlets? (Amy Collins, New Shelves Books)
    • Bookstores require returnable books. Other retail outlets require a lot of legwork.
    • Determine where your readers shop and sell your books there
    • You will need to spend 20 minutes/day, 5 days/week selling—or pay someone else to do it for you
    • Respect the store buyers’ time
    • Know how far you can go in offering discounts and promotions and still make a profit
    • Your job is to show how your book fits the need of the store, not vice versa
  • Writers can develop multiple income streams—speaking fees, serving as a spokesperson, royalties, direct book sales, consulting, publishing company income (Judith Briles, The Book Shepherd)
  • Querying a publisher is like applying for a job—be professional, query letter like your résumé (Rhonda Penders, Wild Rose Press)
  • There are tax and estate planning advantages for writers to forming a Limited Liability Corporation. But it’s a myth that having an LCC means you can never be sued. (Marty Ludlum, University of Central Oklahoma)

Theresa Hupp at OWFI Banquet, May 2017

Oh, and I also received a little recognition for my writing at the OWFI conference.

Writers, what have you learned recently about the craft or about marketing?