Overland Trail Myth- Alexis Clark

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Laura Ingalls Wilder once wrote that, “In the West the land was level, and there were no trees. The grass grew thick and high. There the wild animals wandered and fed as though they were in a pasture that stretched much farther than a man could see, and there were no settlers.”[1] This myth has been around for awhile and is taught to us from a young age. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder is largely attributed to spreading this myth because of how she describes her family’s pioneer experiences as they moved along the Overland Trail, from Wisconsin through western territories and states, eventually to start a homestead. It shows self reliance and the lack of civilization around them. It describes the trip West as lonesome and mentions nothing about government aid along the way.[2] As children we normally read this book which teaches us this myth at a young age. Our minds are sponges when we are young and we do not have the background to determine if this information we are receiving through this book is fact or not. We view it as truth and it becomes implanted in our minds and we never learn anything different until we are young adults. In spite of the images of settlers of the West being isolated and on their own, the government provided financial and medical aid to settlers as they traveled in packs that sometimes went on for miles.

In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s later years of life, she wrote another memoir titled Pioneer Girl. In this memoir it describes the horrors of life on the prairie and tells stories from her childhood, omitted in Little House on the Prairie.[3] She once saw a man become so drunk that, when he lit a cigar, the whisky fumes on his breath ignited and killed him instantly but reasonable, she could not publish that in a children’s book. It also tells us that the Ingalls family and the community of De Smet were not quite so isolated during the hard winter of 1880-81 as her earlier books, would lead you to believe.[4] This book helped disprove the myth that the Overland Trail and homesteading was lonely and without neighbors. The fact that it was written by the same person who wrote Little House on the Prairie is huge in disproving the myth she helped create. By publishing what life along the Overland Trail actually looked like, it revealed the truth and came clean about the lie taught to us from a young age.

An article called, Federal Government’s Aid to Overland Immigrants, talked about the deployment of the military over the Overland Trail to protect travelers from Indians and Latter-Day Saints. “Throughout the 1850s up to 90 percent of the U.S. Army was deployed at the seventy-nine posts dotting the trans-Mississippi West”. Protection was needed primarily because people were nervous around them and did not want to endanger themselves, even though violence from these groups was a lot less common than we are prone to believe. There was a federally built road to Oregon and the pacific coast, which included military posts, stores at forts, and hospitals along the way. Much of this aid was established at the beginning of the California gold rush. Once forts were established, trail traffic increased because of supplies being shipped to the forts. The forts were very civilized and the hospitals were often “crammed” with migrants. Government aid was crucial to maintaining the Overland Trail and getting people to move West.[5] Reading this made me come to realize all the civilization and towns that formed along the Overland Trail that helped it to become civilized. Much of the Civilization came from the government paying people to move into the new western territory. At the military posts, the government paid for and established hospitals to help heal and cure travelers along the trail. The most common injury and cause of death was being ran over by a wagon wheel, and the most terrifying illness was cholera.

Impressions of the Overland Journey from Vincent Geiger and Wakeman Bryarly, is a journal written by two men that describes life while traveling along the trail. It talks about a line up of a “government train” which refers a trail of wagons going along the Overland Trail. The journal describes how they found camp spots as a group and often had to choose between staying by a water source or near wood for fires, cooking, and protection. Vincent Geiger and Wakeman Bryarly formed a community among other travelers.[6] They treated one another as family as they made their way West. This proves that in most cases, the travelers along the Overland Trail were in no way alone, they had people around them and a community for support.

Throughout my childhood I believed that travelers along the Overland Trail were families on a solo adventure, without any help and self-reliant for everything. This myth was perpetuated in children books, such as Little House on the Prairie. After reading the books and watching the television shows, we are trained to think that this myth is true. However, many sources and documents show that nearly all travelers had government aid in the form of money, and land from the Homestead Act of 1862. There were also wagon trains that went on for miles so the pioneers of the west were not alone and had a community to travel along with. Established forts along the trail had stores, hospitals, and military posts which demonstrates civilization. The truth is that, pioneers of the west were assisted by the government and supported by one another as they moved in packs across the Overland Trail. My research has proved this myth an inaccurate representation of what life on the Overland Trail actually looked like. Even though it is a myth, Americans hold onto this idea of the settlers being alone and on a personal journey into the unknown, I think because it falls inline with the idea of independence and freedom that we value and built our nation upon. It would only make sense that as we expand we would want to continue the legacy of adventure and independence.

[1]Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (New York: Little House Heritage Trust, 1935), 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Alison Flood, “Laura Ingalls Wilder memoir reveals truth behind Little House on the Prairie”.

The Guardian. August 25, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/25/laura-ingalls-wilder-memoir-little-house-prairie

[5] John D. Unruh, “Federal Government’s Aid to Overland Emigrants”. Major Problems in the History of the American West, no. 2 (1979): 142-156.

[6] Geiger, Vincent, and Bryarly, Wakeman, “Impressions of the Overland Journey from Vincent Geiger and Wakeman Bryarly”, Major Problems in the History of the American West, no.2 (1940): 126-128.

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