Order on the Trail: The Governance of Wagon Trains

By mid-May, the emigrants to Oregon in the 1840s had settled into a routine. They were past the frontier towns and out on the open prairie. Greenhorns without experience driving oxen and mules had learned to manage their teams. Wives who had never cooked on an open fire had figured out how to use a Dutch oven. The wagons had crossed the first rivers, and the early companies were approaching the Great Platte River Road, which took them from present-day Grand Island, NE (or even further east), all the way to Wyoming.

And by mid-May, the emigrants had settled on their company governance – at least for the time being. Many wagon companies changed leadership several times as they continued their journey, due to different families traveling at different speeds, conflicts between factions in the group, or the deaths of one or more leaders.

The wagon captain was responsible for all movement of the company, for setting watches, and usually for enforcing codes of conduct as well.  Strong leadership of the wagon train was crucial for a successful journey.

Some companies drafted formal charters and by-laws. Others developed their rules as they traveled. A few set no governing structure at all, but those seem to have been the minority.

In my research into travel on the Oregon Trail for my novel, I learned how many companies chose their leaders:

Elections for captain occurred after the companies had been traveling a few weeks, and the men had a sense of each other. (Of course, the women had no say in the matter.) The men nominated candidates for captain, or candidates put themselves forward. Each candidate walked out of camp in a different direction, and the men from the company fell in line behind the candidate of their choice. The candidate with the most supporters following him won the election.

No such thing as a secret ballot in this system, and rivalries among the candidates sometimes festered as a result of the elections.

For more descriptions of wagon train life, including company governance, see Oregon Trail, by Ingvard Henry Eide, or Traveling the Oregon Trail, by Julie Franselow.  Both are wonderful books about the emigrant experience.

And for an interesting description of emigrant life from a woman’s perspective, see the guest post “Outfitted for Going West: A Woman’s Journey,” by Velda Brotherton on the blog Romancing the West with Jacquie Rogers.

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