The Logistics of Supplying Emigrants Along the Oregon Trail

In the modern world, we are dependent on logistics and supply chains that most people rarely think about—how goods get from where they are produced to warehouses where online orders are filled or to retail shelves where we purchase them. I imagine logistics were critical in 1847 also, and I wondered often as I was writing my novels about the late 1840s how distant outposts received their supplies.

Most schoolbook and museum accounts of the migration west describe the provisions the settlers needed to take with them in their wagons when they left the United States. But the initial supplies the emigrants took usually did not last them all the way to Oregon. While there are accounts of the pioneers buying more provisions at forts along the way, there aren’t many sources that tell us about how these forts were stocked and restocked with the merchandise the settlers needed.

In 1847, the year of the Oregon Trail journey in my novels, there weren’t many forts along the route yet. It was still early in the western migration. And only a few of these forts were owned by the U.S. Army. In the 1840s, most so-called “forts” in the West were owned and operated by trading companies, such as the American Fur Company or the British Hudson Bay Company.

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Before these forts existed, and in between their rare stops at these outposts, the travelers had to live off the land. When describing her journey in 1836, Narcissa Whitman wrote of the digestive problems caused by eating buffalo meat for every meal for weeks on end.

In 1847, the following were the major stopping points between the Missouri River and Oregon:

  • Fort Leavenworth—a U.S. Army fort established in 1827, but too far north for emigrants trying to avoid crossing the Missouri River, who began their journey in Independence or Westport
  • Fort Kearny—another U.S. Army fort, located in 1847 on the west bank of the Missouri near the Platte River, and later moved up the Platte to near Grand Island
  • Fort Laramie—originally called Fort William, it was a private trading post until the Army bought it in 1849
  • Fort Bridger—privately operated after its establishment in 1842, and too far south for many Oregon emigrants to bother with
  • Fort Hall—originally operated by an American, then sold to Hudson Bay Company
  • Fort Boise—a Hudson Bay Company establishment
  • Whitman Mission—not far east of Fort Walla Walla
  • Fort Walla Walla—known at the time as Fort Nez Perce and operated by the North West Company
  • Fort Vancouver— owned by Hudson Bay Company in 1847

The emigrants of 1847 relied on these outposts to purchase food, ammunition, and other necessities along the route. But I still wondered how these forts got their supplies.

In his book United States Army Logistics: From the American Revolution to 9/11 (2010), Steve R. Waddell (p. 53) wrote about the Army’s role,

“In 1845, the quartermaster supplied fewer than a dozen posts along a relatively limited western frontier that could be supplied by steamboat or off the surrounding economy.”

Fort Leavenworth had large-scale farming on its grounds that produced crops to supply other locations in the West. But most of the locations listed above were not located on navigable rivers and were not the Army’s problem in any event.

The owners of the civilian-owned forts did undertake some farming in their environs, but the amount of food they produced was limited. Much of the land was not suitable for farming, and they didn’t have reliable laborers. The Native American tribes in the region were largely hunter/gatherers and nomads. The Whitman Mission developed extensive farms, though Marcus Whitman also had difficulty hiring Indian labor. So farms at most of the trading outposts produced little more than large gardens and were not sufficient to handle all the wagon travelers.

Freight wagons

Based on my research, it appears most supplies had to be hauled in from either Missouri and Iowa in the East or from Oregon or Santa Fe in the West. Private outfitters contracted to supply the forts and hired teamsters to drive wagons on the same trails the emigrants traveled. Needless to say, these supply treks were lengthy and expensive.

No wonder the settlers thought goods available at the forts were overpriced, compared to the States. Almost every emigrant diary contains entries complaining about the high prices they found at their few opportunities to reprovision.

And no wonder so many emigrants to Oregon arrived at their destination near starvation and in poor health. Their diet for six months had been mostly meat shot along the route or dried and salted provisions they’d started with, supplemented by whatever they could find and afford to buy at the forts.

Are there issues you’ve wondered about when thinking about how our ancestors traveled west?

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?

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?

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?

Why Were the Pioneers’ Wagon Wheels So Large?

I have researched how and where the emigrants traveled along the Oregon Trail for ten years, and I’m still learning. Recently, I learned from an article in The Wall Street Journal about why the wheel is round. The article contained the sentence:

“The difficulty of moving a wheeled object increases to the point of impossibility when the bumps that a wheel encounters approach one-quarter its diameter.”

That, the author said, is why wheels on Conestoga wagons were so big and those on steam locomotives so small.

20150426_131311-for-cover

Emigrant wagon exhibit in Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, OR

Now, keep in mind that the travelers to Oregon did not use Conestogas, which were too heavy to pull over mountains (Conestogas were used primarily in the flatter eastern United States and Canada). But the principle applies to the prairie schooners that were used in travel to the West.

Also, the front wheels on covered wagons were often smaller than the rear wheels. I’m not an engineer, but I suppose the front wheels were the limiting factor on how rocky a road the wagon could traverse.

I didn’t know this information as I wrote Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. I wrote about the jostling wagons, but never thought about the physics behind why—other than that the trails were unimproved ruts and bumpy. Now when I write about travel to the West, I’ll think about the necessity of moving large rocks out of the way so the wheels could physically maneuver. (I did have a scene in Lead Me Home about having to cut down trees to get the wagons through the mountains.)

The article made me ponder once again the difficulty faced by the emigrants to Oregon. The more rocks a wagon was likely to encounter, the larger the wheels needed to be. If a wagon wheel had a diameter of four feet, then it conceivably could get over rocks that are one foot in diameter. But I imagine that ride would have been extremely uncomfortable.

Most likely the emigrants would have worked to go around large rocks, or move them, or otherwise avoid the rattling about that the uneven terrain would have caused. The wheels weren’t the only problem with wagon travel. The axles could break and the boards could loosen and crack. The emigrant diaries talk of frequent wagon repairs, often with only rudimentary tools and replacement parts.

Still, finding references like this one to wheel size is one of the things I love about writing historical fiction. I never know what I’ll learn—some of it necessary in the moment, some of it perhaps will be important in the future, and some of it I’ll never use. But I think again about the difficulties our ancestors encountered in their quest for a better life.

What have you read recently that taught you something?

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck

I have immersed myself in the nineteenth century over the last few weeks, editing my Oregon Trail novel for what I hope has been the final big push. It still needs some tweaking, but the book is essentially done.

Rinker Buck coverWhile I was spending hours each day deep in my novel, I read each evening from The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, by Rinker Buck. Mr. Buck and his brother Nick drove a covered wagon powered by three mules from Kansas to Oregon in 2011. Their family background gave them unique skills to tackle this endeavor—their father had taken them on many covered wagon rides in the East when they were growing up. As an adult, Nick was a master mechanic and muleskinner.

Rinker Buck’s book is part memoir, part history, part travelogue, and part social commentary. All parts are enjoyable.

It was a good counterpoint for me as I worked my way through my novel, giving me a foil against which either to confirm what I wrote about my emigrants or to understand why my account differed from what the Bucks experienced.

I had to remind myself as I read that Mr. Buck could recount the entire history of the Oregon Trail, from Lewis and Clark through the 1890s. He includes accounts of the Mormon migration and influence, the Gold Rush years, and the Pony Express. I, on the other hand, have been limited to writing about the trail as it existed in 1847—the year my fictional wagon train heads to Oregon.

So each time I said “Yeah, but . . .” as I read, I re-grounded myself in his purpose and in my purpose, and then went back to Mr. Buck’s story, which was engrossing in every way. And I fixed one error in my manuscript that I caught while reading his book.

Mr. Buck tells his readers up front that his journey was not a reenactment of the Oregon Trail emigrants. They used a nineteenth century wagon designed along the same specifications as the emigrant wagons. They rigged their mule harnesses the same way. But they made many adaptations, such as pulling an extra cart behind their wagon (the ill-fated Trail Pup which hauled extra water and mule feed).

And they didn’t shun modern conveniences and facilities along the way. They traveled part of the route on asphalt roads. When their equipment broke down, they found ranchers to help them with repairs or sent broken gear back East to be fixed. They camped frequently in public parks and corrals or on ranches through which they traveled. At one point, a minivan’s headlights guided them into camp. They bought clothes at Wal-Mart and food in grocery stores. (I had to laugh when Mr. Buck described stopping at a diner for fried chicken. No diners available in 1847.)

But the Bucks faced many of the same problems the nineteenth century emigrants did. They planned their route from water source to water source. They had to chuck belongings along the way to reduce weight. Rinker Buck escaped the discomfort and monotony of the wagon by walking for at least part of the day while his brother drove. And weather turned from pleasant to treacherous in the space of minutes.

I discovered that the emigrants of the nineteenth century had some advantages that the Buck brothers did not. For one, the wagon trains didn’t have to worry about cattle guards.

But more importantly, as Mr. Buck points out, the emigrants could pool their resources—food and water, tools, and the labor that dozens of men and teams could provide. I had intuited the sense of community that wagon trains developed along the trail, but in my novel, their forced togetherness also provides a lot of the conflict in the story.

Despite its lack of authenticity in some respects, Mr. Buck’s book is still an excellent resource for anyone interested in the Oregon Trail. He provides more detail on wagon construction and mule driving than any of the books I previously encountered in my research. (He made an excellent case for mules over oxen, though other wagoneers made equally strong cases for oxen.)

He also provides pictures and drawings that show the particulars of their wagon construction, the harnessing of their mules, and the beauty of the land they traversed. His descriptions of locales in the West jibed with first-hand accounts from the nineteenth century. Moreover, he and his brother encountered many of the same dangers (thunderstorms, steep ascents and descents, lack of water, and runaway mules) that pioneers in the nineteenth century faced.

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

I have always been fascinated by the story of Narcissa Whitman, and it seems Rinker Buck was as well. Narcissa was the first white woman to cross the Rockies and settle in Oregon. Her spunk and vitality encouraged me from the time I first visited the Whiman Mission outside Walla Walla, Washington, when I was about eight. Like Mr. Buck, as I learned more about her attitude of white superiority toward the Native Americans she sought to convert, I discovered she was an imperfect heroine. Nevertheless, her story spurred many emigrant women to settle in the West, and it started me on the path to writing about the Oregon Trail.

Mr. Buck expertly weaves personal memoir and public history into his chronology of the journey. As with any meaningful journey experience, he and his brother come out with changed perspectives on life. Mr. Buck generously shares those perspectives with his readers. We end up wondering: Could I survive such a trek? What would it change in me?

I highly recommend The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey as a good read, as well as an informed view on an important period in American history.

What books have immersed you in another time?

P.S. I’m also in the middle of Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder, as edited and annotated by Pamela Smith Hill. This book provides another glimpse into the nineteenth century. It’s also worth a read, if you don’t mind learning the truth behind some of the tales in the beloved Little House books.