Back in 2017, I came upon a book in a museum gift shop at Pecos National Monument in New Mexico along the old Santa Fe Trail. It was a reproduction of the 1859 emigrant’s travel bible, “The Prairie Traveler.” Written by Captain Randolph B. Marcy, it provided guidelines for overland travel for emigrants heading to Oregon, California, Utah, and other western destinations. Marcy had a highly-decorated military career and was commissioned by the War Department to create the guide. It provided instructions on such topics as how to ford a river with your horse by “seizing his tail allowing him to tow you across,” the correct firearms to use when you make contact with a grizzly bear, and incredibly dated advice on interacting with indigenous peoples.
Maybe it was because I was in the land of enchantment, or perhaps because I’d imbibed a paloma or two before my museum visit, but I was obsessed with this little book. So much so that it would spur the next five years of my personal exploration of various trail systems, specifically in the Great Plains. It became the catalyst of some of my favorite road-trip experiences–a midday hamburger in a dimly lit dive bar in Dodge City; a stop to view a prescribed prairie burning in the Flint Hills of Kansas; a visit to the Homestead National Historic Park in Nebraska to marvel at life in a sod house; a break at the famous Independence Rock in Wyoming, the halfway point on the Oregon Trail and the “birthplace of American graffiti” (pioneers liked to make their mark too). Nearly all of my travels began where many others before me started their journey, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in Missouri.
“We cross the prairie as [in days] of old
The pilgrims crossed the sea…”
John Greennleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
The Kansas Emigrants
I have driven across the Great Plains at least a dozen times over the past decade, leaving my home close to the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee to drive to the Rockies to work at ranches throughout the American West. Every time I travel, I pass significant landmarks, both clearly seen and unseen. Portions of the great interstates and highways of the United States (think I-80, I-84, I-70, the old Route 66) traverse, parallel, and at times even intersect the major trail systems of the 19th century. Between 1830 and 1880, over 500,000 people traveled overland, with well over 80,000 emigrants not completing the trail in its entirety. The farthest I’ve made it on the trail systems is Idaho, mimicking the pioneers before me, veering off of the route, choosing to settle sooner. Even in modern times, it’s a long, long road.
The first indication I have of the many miles before me comes when I arrive in St. Louis, Missouri, the “Gateway to the West.” Here emigrants, fur trappers, and missionaries would converge in the last established city before their pilgrimage. Before road systems dictated our travel across the continent, waterways were the thoroughfares, and St. Louis was a prime location. Cradled at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, the city was the epicenter of the Native American Mississippian culture and the starting point of Lewis and Clark’s 1804 expedition. St. Louis was also an important trading point of a once-thriving fur industry, and a bustling port city dependent on enslaved workers. Its history pulsates with western expansion and misguided notions of manifest destiny. My stops in St. Louis are incredibly ritualistic: a visit to the Museum at the Gateway Arch (would recommend), a stop for a cortado at Rise Coffee, and a quick look through vintage pearl snaps at May’s Place. I know besides a possible detour to Kansas City, this is the last stop of its kind for 1,000 miles. For emigrants, one of their biggest stops on the journey was to come after a five-day ferry ride upstream from St. Louis; they’d arrive in Independence, Missouri, the official start of the trail.
Independence, known as the “Queen City of the Trails”, was once the bustling hub of trail preparation. The city lies on the western edge of Missouri, at the convergence of the Missouri and Kansas River, the furthest a steamboat could travel. Here was the common start of the Oregon, Mormon, Santa Fe, and California trails. Emigrants would begin the tedious and nerve-wrecking preparation of their prairie schooners, or for some, modest handcarts. Basic food provisions for a family of four included: 600 lbs of flour, 120 lbs of biscuits, 400 lbs of bacon, 60 lbs of coffee, 4 lbs of tea, 100 lbs of sugar, and 200 lbs of lard.
Decisions were to be made: Ox or mule? Breech-loading or muzzle-loading rifle? Who will be appointed captain of the wagon train? What month should the journey begin? Miscalculations on one of these fronts could result in anything from petty frustrations to catastrophe. The ill-fated Donner party departed Independence on May 12th, 1846, a late start. The ramifications became one of the most infamous emigrant stories of the century. Preparation and a pragmatic approach to travel was key. Parties had 2,170 miles to traverse with four to six months to complete the journey, and it would all begin in the “Great American Desert.”
“I once traveled with a part of New Yorkers enroute to California… they soon learned that Champagne, East India sweetmeats, olives, etc., etc., were not the most useful articles for a prairie tour.”
Prairie Traveler (1859)
For me, the West starts where the Great Plains begin. Where many people dread driving through what they perceive as pure monotony, I see the opening of our country. I am in awe of a violent summer storm in the Kansas sky, I wake up early to sit by the North Platte River in Nebraska to watch the black-eyed susans hug the waters edge, I stay up late in the buttes of the Dakota Badlands and watch the silhouettes of bison under a harvest moon. To those who speed through this “flyover” country, I would encourage them to slow down. It’s hard to see it all at 80 miles an hour.
Despite its beauty, the plains of today are much different than that of the 19th century. Spanning a region from Texas to Saskatchewan, and from west of the Mississippi River to the eastern slope of the Rockies, the North American prairie is expansive. Of the nearly 500,000 square miles of native grasslands that spanned the Great Plains, less than half remains. The plains teemed with an abundance of biodiversity that author Dan Flores has so aptly referred to as the “American Serengeti.” Prior to European settlement, it was the home of wolves, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, deer, elk, prairie dogs, and innumerable bison.
For the emigrants, this swath of land was the “Great American Desert,” a namesake attributed to famed explorer Stephen Long who described the region as “almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” It was seen as arid, treeless, and unusable. That perception was not a deterrent to the introduction of the Homestead Act of 1862 though, signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, which allotted 160 acres of free land to claimants. It was a transformative piece of legislation accessible to even underrepresented populations including immigrants, women, and formerly enslaved peoples. It added another attraction to westward expansion.
“An allusion has been made to the Homestead Law. I think it worthy of consideration, and that the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefitting his condition.”
As I zip by on I-80 W in Nebraska, Dwight Yoakam singing to me about guitars and Cadillacs, I see whispers of the great historic roads of our nation. This corridor served as an important trading route for Native Americans for over 10,000 years. After European settlement, fur trappers explored the area in search of beaver pelts until the mid-19th century, laying the blueprints for the great overland trails, the Pony Express, and the transcontinental railroad. By the 20th century, the first coast-to-coast road, the Lincoln Highway, crossed through Nebraska and was eventually superseded by I-80. Along the route, I see the typical hazards of 21st century travel: roadside crosses, a semi with a blown tire, a sedan in the ditch, obscene potholes, and up until recently, posted warnings at rest stops about decreasing the spread of COVID-19.
150 years ago, the hazards shared a surprising amount of similarities. During its height, the trail was not a picturesque two track but a massive, flattened patch of prairie, kicking up dust with as many as six wagons abreast. The trail was littered with discarded family heirlooms, corpses of overworked stock, broken wagon axles, and hastily dug graves. One in ten emigrants would not survive, garnering the trail’s sobering title of “the nation’s longest graveyard.” These deaths rarely came from hostile Natives, an exaggerated threat of the trail bolstered by Hollywood and dime novels. Most Plains Indians allowed emigrants to travel peacefully through their lands, even at times assisting as guides or offering trades.
“We have good roads comparatively. We mean good roads if the sloughs are not belly deep and the hills not right straight up and down and not rock enough to turn the wagon over.”
Henry Allyn (1852)
The main threat of the trail was disease, often caused by stagnant water and unsanitary conditions. Cholera and dysentery were rampant, and an estimated 6-10% of emigrants succumbed to an illness of some kind. Accidental gunshot wounds were common, as well as mishaps ranging from being crushed by a wagon wheel, dragged by livestock, drowning at one of the many river crossings, or less frequent but incredibly shocking, trampled by thousands of stampeding bison.
Weary from the long drive, I take a roadside break at the Buffalo Bill State Historical Park and ruminate on the man who boasted about killing 4,000 bison between 1867 and 1868, only to later travel the world between 1887 and 1906 reenacting scenes in his Wild West Show memorializing the great herds of bison that were now nearly extinct. Like many pioneers before me, my time is cut short as there is an unexpected May winter storm crossing the plains, and I have to reroute my trip. Instead of making it to Fort Robinson, where Oglala Sioux leader Crazy Horse was fatally stabbed by a guard with a bayonet in 1877, I find a spot right off of I-80. I spend the night in a little cabin, owned by a ranching Mennonite couple, who bring me fresh muffins and coffee in the morning, and I feel a slight pang of guilt at the ease of my travel.
“Passed six fresh graves!… Oh, ’tis a hard thing to die far from friends and home—to be buried in a hastily dug grave without shroud or coffin—the clods filled in and then deserted, perhaps to be food for wolves…”
Esther McMillan Hanna (1852)
When you see Chimney Rock on the horizon, it appears like a silent sentinel, rising 480 feet above the North Platte River Valley on the western edge of Nebraska. It is composed of brule clay, volcanic ash, and Arikaree sandstone. It is a relatively small rock formation, but here on the plains it is a stunning silhouette against the prairie grass and expansive blue sky. Historical accounts of emigrants’ journals credit Chimney Rock as the most consistently mentioned landmark on the Platte River Road. To me, it is significant as the precursor of the astounding (and incredibly challenging) landscapes that await the pioneers in the Rocky Mountains. 20 miles west they will pass Scotts Bluff, and another 20 miles after that they will enter into a new state, Wyoming.
As I cross over the Nebraska-Wyoming border, I have my defrost on high. A snow storm has hit the interstate–it’s May 21st. If I was an emigrant, I’d have to make sure I was giving my stock extra feed, keeping my children from developing frostbite, and ensuring my wagon was in proper order to handle the inclement weather. I take a detour north of I-80, and link back up with the Oregon Trail, heading to Casper, Wyoming. Here in Casper I arrive at the National Historic Trails Center, right as they open at 9:00 am. It’s just me, and a couple in their late 70s. I walk around the museum, and take a virtual ride in a wagon crossing a river, look at an ancient bison skull from over 10,000 years ago, and watch an immersive film with realistic wax figures depicting life on the plains. I finish my visit by sheepishly stocking up on the free National Park Service literature in the museum library. The silver-haired attendant behind the counter grins at me with a mutual understanding, “Oh, you’re in the know, those are the best guides. Travel safely.”
There it was, Independence Rock. The round monolith that lazily rises 130 feet from the Wyoming plains. It is not magnificent because of its appearance, but because of what it represents. A significant point on the trail, covered in 19th century graffiti. I had traveled well over 1,000 miles of the trail, and like many emigrants before me I won’t finish this trip. I will splinter off through South Pass to horse-pack in the Wind River Mountains. Here on this rock, you see the insatiable urge in humans to make their mark, to immortalize themselves in a world in which they are constantly reminded of their impermanence. This unrelenting desire to let someone know “I was here.” Through the diseases, the weather, river-crossings, death, and life, “I was here.” And I’m only half way.