When we travel by horse or by modern motor car in that now accessible region and look about us, we should not fail to reflect on the long trail of the upbound boats which Manuel Lisa and other traders sent out almost immediately upon the return of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. We should see them struggling up against that tremendous current before steam was known, driven by their lust for new lands. We may then understand fully what we have read of the enterprises of the old American Fur Company, and bring to mind the forgotten names of Robert Campbell and William Sublette, of General Ashley and of Nathaniel Wyeth — names to be followed by others really of less importance, as those of Benjamin Bonneville and John Fremont. That there could be farms, that there ever might be homes, in this strange wild country, was, to these early adventurers, unthinkable.
Then we should picture the millions of buffalo which once covered these plains and think of the waste and folly of their slaughtering. We should see the long streams of the Mackinaw boats swimming down the Missouri River, bound for St. Louis, Missouri laden with bales of buffalo and beaver peltry, every pound of which would be worth ten dollars at the capital of the fur trade; and we should restore to our minds the old pictures of tribesmen, decked in fur-trimmed war-shirts and plumed bonnets, armed with lance and sinewed bow and bull-neck shield, not forgetting where they got their horses and how they got their food.
The great early mid-continental highway, known as the Oregon Trail or the Overland Trail, was by way of the Missouri River up the Platte Valley, then across the mountains. We know more of this route because it was not discontinued, but came steadily more and more into use, for one reason after another. The fur traders used it, the Forty-Niners used it, the cattlemen used it in part, the railroads used it; and, lastly, the settlers and farmers used it most of all.
In physical features, the Platte River route was similar to that of the Arkansas River Valley. Each at its eastern extremity, for a few days’ travel, passed over the rolling grass-covered and flower-besprinkled prairies before it broke into the high and dry lands of the Plains, with their green or grey or brown covering of practically flowerless short grasses. But, between the two trails of the Arkansas and the Platte Rivers there existed certain wide differences. At the middle of the 19th century, the two trails were quite distinct in personnel, if that word may be used. The Santa Fe Trail showed Spanish influences; that of the Platte Valley remained far more nearly American.
Thus far, the frontier had always been altering the man who came to it; and, indirectly, always altering those who dwelt back of the frontier, nearer to the Appalachian Mountains or the Atlantic Ocean. A new people now was in process of formation — a people born of a new environment. America and the American were conceiving. There was soon to be born, soon swiftly to grow, a new and lasting type of man. Man changes an environment only by bringing into it new or better transportation. Environment changes man. Here, in the mid-continent, at the mid-century, the frontier and the ways of the frontier were writing their imprint on the human product of our land.
The first great caravans of the Platte Valley, when the wagon trains went out hundreds strong, were not the same as the scattering cavalcade of the fur hunters, not the same as the ox-trains and mule-trains of the Santa Fe traffic. The men who wore deepest the wheel marks of the Oregon Trail were neither trading nor trapping men, but homebuilding men — the first real emigrants to go West with the intent of making homes beyond the Rockies.
The Oregon Trail had been laid out by the explorers of the fur trade. Zealous missionaries had made their way over the trail in the thirties. The Argonauts of ’49 passed over it and left it only after crossing the Rockies. But, before gold in California was dreamed of, there had come back to the States reports of lands rich in resources other than gold, lying in the far Northwest, beyond the great mountain ranges and, before the Forty-Niners were heard of, farmers, homebuilders, emigrants, men with their families, men with their household goods, were steadily passing out for the far-off and unknown country of Oregon.
The Oregon Trail was the pathway for John Fremont in 1842, perhaps the most overvalued explorer of all the West; albeit this comment may to some seem harsh. Kit Carson and Bill Williams led Fremont across the Rockies almost by the hand. Carson and Bill Williams themselves had been taken across by the Indian tribes. But Fremont could write, and the story which he set down of his first expedition inflamed the zeal of all. Men began to head out for that far-away country beyond the Rockies. Not a few scattered bands, but very many, passed up the valley of the Platte River. There began a tremendous trek of thousands of men who wanted homes somewhere out beyond the frontier. And that was more than ten years before the Civil War. The cow trade was not dreamed of; the coming cow country was overleaped and ignored.
Our national horizon extended immeasurably along that dusty way. In the use of the Oregon Trail, we first began to be great. The chief figure of the American West, the figure of the ages, is not the long-haired, fringed-legging man riding a raw-boned pony, but the gaunt and sad-faced woman sitting on the front seat of the wagon, following her lord where he might lead, her face hidden in the same ragged sunbonnet which had crossed the Appalachians and the Missouri River long before. That was America, my brethren! There was the seed of America’s wealth. There was the great romance of all America — the woman in the sunbonnet; and not, after all, the hero with the rifle across his saddle horn. Who has written her story? Who has painted her picture?
They were large days, those of the great Oregon Trail, not always pleasingly dramatic, but oftentimes tragic and terrible. We speak of the Oregon Trail, but it means little to us today; nor will any mere generalities ever make it mean much to us. But what did it mean to the men and women of that day? What and who were those men and women? What did it mean to take the Overland Trail in the great adventure of abandoning forever the known and the safe and setting out for Oregon or California at a time when everything in the far West was new and unknown? How did those good folk travel? Why and whither did they travel?