Emigrants on the Overland Trail: The Wagon Trains of 1848

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EMIGRANTS ON THE OVERLAND TRAIL: THE WAGON TRAINS OF 1848 By Michael E. LaSalle (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2011, 536 pp., $40 paper, $29.99 eBook)


THE NINETEENTH CENTURY WAS the heyday of travel literature in the United States, a time when hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors to various sections of the nation recorded their impressions and memories in letters, diaries, and journals. And of these trips, the most momentous--seared into the nation's psyche--was the voyage west over the plains and mountains from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast in mid-century. Beginning with Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail (serialized in 1847-49) and lasting until today, readers have been swept up in the story of headstrong pioneers who trudged with livestock and wagons ten to twenty miles a day for five months in a dusty, dangerous, stressful, tedious trip, often with strangers whom they did not know and grew to detest. Could anything more be written about this journey?

Michael LaSalle believed that it could, and fruit of his research justifies his optimism. This volume differs from previous accounts by its focus on the year 1848 and eighteen specific wagon-train companies that left Missouri environs before word of the discovery of gold reached those settlements. The year 1848, the author asserts, marked the end of an era. Travelers of that year were seeking land; the gold rush would usher in a totally different endeavor. In 1848, neither trekkers nor their guides knew for certain how tough the trip would be; in 1849, the world would know.

The book depends largely on the daily accounts recorded by six men and one woman from different companies, supplemented by letters, articles, and biographies, mostly primary in nature that appeared before, during, and after 1848. The author supplements the accounts with vivid descriptions of the landscapes, flora and fauna encountered by the visitors, including such particulars as the type of grass on the prairies, fish in the rivers, and chemical content of dust on the trails. He also provides data on the personal background of the main travelers and brief histories of related movements, such as the fur trade and the Mormon exodus that contributed to development of the Overland Trail.

The author wants his readers to travel along with his sources, to experience the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other, "slipping into a languid sleepwalking trance" while dry winds crack one's lips, or the physical demands of hauling wagons by ropes up cliffs or on barges across rivers while in a state of virtual exhaustion, or the persistent fear of being surrounded by a tribe of Indians who may or may not be at war with federal troops or other tribes.

And in a sense, this is also a guidebook to the trails, for the author provides a series of 20 maps that introduce each chapter, arranged chronologically, overlaying modern topographic/ highway maps of each section, along with descriptions of how to reach each designated campsite or landmark today. …