The first caravans lumbered across two thousand miles of dangerous, inhospitable wilderness in 1843, the year of the Great Migration. To a surprising degree it's still possible to follow something very like their route.
A couple of miles south of Marysville, Kansas not far from the east bank of the Big Blue River, lies one of the most moving places on the Oregon Trail. Back in a shadowy sanctuary of oak and ash and cottonwood trees, just a few hundred yards from the ledge of a little rock alcove and pours into a stony basin ten feet below. It's a beautiful place, impressively quiet and a little gloomy. Edwin Bryant, a literate traveler from Massachusetts chusetts and Kentucky on his way to California in 1846, thought so when he chanced upon this wild green tabernacle of tangled shrubs and trees
in late May. "Altogether it is one of the most romantic spots I ever saw," he wrote. "So charmed were we with its beauties that several hours unconsciously glided away in the enjoyment of its refreshing waters and seductive attractions. We named this the |Alcove Spring;'and future travellers will find the name graven on the rocks, and on the trunks of the trees surrounding it."
Future travelers will indeed find the name where one of Edwin Bryant's companions, George McKinstry, carved it
on a rock at the top of the falls, 147 years ago this spring. Nearby, on a large sloping stone in the middle of the pool, a second rough engraving, covered with moss and eaten away by water and the years, can still be made out: "J. F. Reed / 26 May/ 1846."
The haunting graffiti at Alcove Spring call forth, as many grander monuments do not, the essential human mystery of the great overland migration. Here in 1846, three years before the gold rush, a large party of emigrants bound for Oregon and California came to a halt in the last week of May on the east side of the Big Blue River, too swollen by rain to be forded. As the emigrants made camp and waited for the waters to subside, a wealthy Illinois businessman named James Frazier Reed whiled away an afternoon on the lush Kansas prairie, leaving his mark for posterity by a wilderness stream. When Reed's mother-in-law, Mrs. Sarah Keyes, died of consumption three days later, her family buried her here under the spreading boughs of a huge oak tree.
The modest stone carved for her grave vanished long ago, but a later monument put up by the Daughters of the American Revolution-Sarah Keyes was born in 1776-still stands, a hundred yards from the spring. It reads: "God in his love/and charity has/called in this/beautiful valley/a pioneer mother/May 29, 1846."
The year 1846 would prove to be the big year of America's westward expansion, the year of decision, as the historian Bernard DeVoto called it. The emigrants moving west that spring were part of a vast army of Americans fulfilling what they had only just been told was their manifest destiny to overspread the continent. In 1846 the Mexican War began, Britain ceded Oregon, and before the year was over, all of California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas-almost two million square miles-would belong, de facto if not quite de jure, to the United States.
Of course, no one waiting to cross the Big Blue that spring knew any of this was coming, and for each member of the party the future remained as inscrutable as it is to any of us. Edwin Bryant, as it happened, made it to California and wrote one of the most eloquent and perceptive accounts of the overland trail ever published, What I Saw in California. James Reed got there too, in the end, but not before he and his friend George Donner decided on an untried route across the Great Basin to California - a shortcut to paradise that would lead to the most nightmarish disaster of the pioneer period.
Why did they go? What were they after? The homely signs of human passage scratched into the landscape at Alcove Spring provide some clues - testifying, if nothing else, to the primordial human instinct to sign one's name on nature. …