By Bill Martin

Ours is a transient society. We move from place to place, job to job, knowing that home and family are only a phone call or a plane flight or a Facebook post or text message away. It hasn’t always been like that, of course.

Until midway through the 19th Century, Americans settled in a place and stayed there, as their Europeans forbearers had, moving only gradually as a new nation expanded slowly westward. In 1840, most people lived east of the Missouri River, the great majority east of the Appalachians.

That changed in the mid-1800s when the far American West beckoned, fueled by the golden lure of California, the land-rich promise of Oregon Territory, and the religious freedom offered in Brigham Young’s newly founded Zion in Utah Territory.

Attracted by a mostly vacant continent (nobody counted the indigenous Native Americans), families leap-frogged west, a journey of up to 2,000 miles and six months from “jumping off” places along the Missouri River.

Beginning in the middle of the late 1830s and continuing well into the 1860s, as many as a half a million people traveled the emigrant roads, known today as the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Pioneer Trail, and others. They were a different breed from those of us today who consider a move across town a great adventure.

Every spring, souls were packed along the eastern banks of the Missouri River, at places like Independence, Council Bluffs, and St. Joseph. They were anxious to press westward to claim their own small piece of an expanding nation. Single men, usually traveling in small companies, were largely headed for the California gold fields. Families in wagon trains were bound for Oregon Territory or Utah.

            The movement West from the Missouri River began slowly at first, a soft heartbeat, growing in urgency until it became a steady drumbeat. A few wagons gave way to legions of emigrants. Author John Unruh, in his seminal The Plains Across: the Overland Emigrants and Trans-Mississippi West, estimates less than 1,200 emigrants crossed between 1838 and 1843, a number that was matched in 1844 alone, growing into the tens of thousands each year for most of the 1850s. By 1868 when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, Unruh estimates there had been 250,000 emigrants going to California, 80,000 headed for Oregon, and 70,000 called to Utah.

            For the Oregon-bound families, if they worked the land, as most did, it was enough to know that thousands upon thousands of acres of unoccupied field or forest – which they could turn into farmland – was waiting to be claimed by their calloused hands. They knew they would find it plentiful and, best of all, cheap, if not free, paid for with little more than a family’s backbreaking labor. Fueled by dreams and hopes and faith in themselves, they knew without reasoning that it would be better than the land they left behind. In most cases, going to Oregon was a practical decision; they seldom thought of philosophical or natural or even God-inspired reasons or the political platitude of “Manifest Destiny,” To them, it just seemed logical. It was there, it seemed welcoming, and so they should claim it.

            Within the women was the mostly unspoken thought that the temptations of the West bred something akin to blindness in their men. They would not have been as plain-spoken or outspoken as to call it such, of course, any more than they would have attached to a man’s simmering mind-set words like wanderlust or ambition or day-dream. But it is likely that a woman, sensing a mood, was prone to fret when she found her husband on the porch of an evening, gazing thoughtfully at the setting sun. When that happened, a wife knew that she could do not much except wait to see if what smoldered inside her husband would in time bank of its own accord or be fanned into a full fire, a Siren’s call to go West. If they had to say goodbye to friends and family with certainty that they would never see them again, they would not protest. If they must walk away from the carefully tended gravesite of a child who died young, one they could gaze upon when they looked out the farmhouse window, they would do it, although not without quiet tears. If it meant that children, husbands or they themselves would be buried in a strange land far from where they were born, no objection would be raised, no concern voiced, no debate permitted.

            Men headed to California and its beckoning gold fields were also fueled by hopes and dreams. They had heard the stories of gold just lying on the ground for you to pick up and put in your pocket; they ignored the more truthful stories about the back-breaking pick and shovel work ahead of them. Single men with nothing to lose and everything to gain were willing to head off to California in search of their fortune. Married men were willing to leave their families behind to grab opportunity by the shoulders. A few came home wealthy, many slunk home poorer than when they left, some were never heard from again.  

            The LDS church was by no means a late-comer to the emigrant party, following Brigham Young into the Salt Lake Valley beginning in 1847, coming over the old trails by the thousands, in wagon trains or pulling simple wooden handcarts. They were not coming to claim land or search for gold, but obeying the church’s call for the faithful to assemble in a promised land. Patriarch and founder Joseph Smith had called for a gathering of the community of believers, a call that became louder when Brigham Young led his followers into the Salt Lake Valley.

            Regardless of their reasons for going, in the middle of the 19th Century, leaving really meant leaving. No phone calls, no easy journeys back to wherever they had come from. When a young family left for Oregon, they knew that the only communication they might have with those left behind would be through letters that might take six months to be delivered, if indeed they were ever delivered at all. Communication was even more difficult for European families who traveled by ship, railroad and wagon train for Utah.

Imagine a son or a granddaughter dying in an empty plains somewhere in Wyoming or Nebraska – victim of disease or snakebite or accident on the trail – or after arriving in Oregon or Utah or California and you don’t hear about it for six months or more, receiving a letter in a wrinkled, dirty envelope that had been passed from hand-to-hand along the way.

Parting in the face of such uncertainty was heavy on the sorrow and very light on the sweetness. We have diary accounts and reminisces that tell us of the heartache of the last goodbye, the last embrace, the last kiss, the last look over the shoulder as the wagon pulls away.

“On the evening before, the whole family, including my mother, were gathered together in the parlor, looking as if we were all going to our graves the next morning, instead of starting on a trip of pleasure, as we had drawn the picture in our imagination. There we sat in such gloom that I could not endure it any longer, and I arose and announced that we would retire for the night, and that we would not start to-morrow morning, nor until everybody could feel more cheerful. I could not bear to start with so many gloomy faces to think of.” – Margaret Frink, California bound, 1850.

The difficulty of parting under such circumstances and wrapped in such emotions is hard for us to grasp today. There may be tears upon separation, but we know it’s not a permanent situation. The telephone and the airplane, emails and Interstates have made saying good-bye a lot less permanent. Yet, we can understand the pain of parting in the 1850s and the endurance and courage required to make a 2,000 mile journey because we are blessed with the written record of their journeys, before they left, while traveling and after they arrived. Collectively, they offer a wonderful insight into the strength of the men and women who opened the nation.

Best of all for those willing to immerse themselves in the pioneer experience in a modern context, we have the trails themselves.

You can still walk in the ruts of the wagons and follow the emigrants’ footsteps on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, now designated as federally protected National Historic Trails (NHT). Lesser-known trails, like the Cherokee, the Butterfield, the Santa Fe, the collective Southern Trails to California, and more, some with NHT designation and many more pending, are still around. You can follow the short-lived Pony Express Trail and the trail Lewis & Clark followed on their Journey of Discovery in the early 1800s.

Of course, in many places the trails are no longer visible, haven been swallowed up by urban development, modern highways or natural growth. But in many places the trails exist unmarked by time. A good example can be found on a 100-mile stretch of the California Trail in Nevada and the Sierra Nevada.

The legendary and in its day much-feared 40-Mile Desert, which stretches from near Lovelock to Fernley in Western Nevada and parallels Interstate 80, remains a pristine example of the trail as it was. Visitors can find 170-year-old ruts left by wagon wheels of emigrant caravans, untouched by time or man, they can stand next to the graves of pioneers who died on the journey, and they can see rusting parts of wagon wheels and water barrels. Change comes slowly in the dry desert climate. 

A little further along, the California Trail follows the Truckee River into Reno and the Truckee Meadows. No sign of the trail exists today and for decades historians have been arguing over where exactly it traversed the valley before heading up into the Sierra Nevada.

Once you are in the Sierra, it becomes extremely difficult to find where the trail went. In the past century and a half, trees have grown, logging roads have been added and the original trail has all but disappeared into the landscape. Man-made reservoirs have flooded sites such as one of the last campgrounds of the Donner Party before they were stranded in the High Sierra in the winter of 1846-47. Historians have spent decades looking for rust on rocks that were left by wagon wheels and other signs to figure out exactly where the emigrants traveled.

This is a scenario played out all along the historic emigrant trails. There are still a plethora of places where the trails – including main routes, cut-offs and segments – are plainly visible where it crossed Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, California, Oregon, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and other western states. In many places, where towns and cities sprang up along the trail, the original routes can only be found when they are marked – sometimes erroneously – with historic plaques. Even in states like Kansas and Nebraska, where farmland now covers the trails, evidence of emigrant travel is easily spotted. But time has erased much evidence of trail travel. It might have been worse if not for the efforts of an early Oregon settler.

The idea that the historic trails should be preserved, marked and remembered dates back to an early Oregon pioneer by the name of Ezra Meeker. Born in 1830, he traveled the Oregon Trail in 1852 with his wife and infant son, eventually settling near what would become Puyallup, Washington.

As an old man, he decided that the route of the Oregon Trail was being lost and was in danger of being forgotten. Farmers were plowing up the trail and cities were growing along it. He wanted the trail properly marked, so between 1906 and 1908, he traveled the trail in reverse by wagon, encouraging towns along the way to help. Before he died in 1928, he had traveled the Oregon Trail by wagon, by automobile and even by airplane (in 1924), had enlisted the support of Henry Ford, met with President Calvin Coolidge, and founded the Oregon Trail Memorial Association. Monuments he placed can still be seen in many locations along the Oregon Trail.

Historian Howard Driggs wrote after Meeker’s death:

So the Oregon Trail was blazed and tramped—traders, trappers, gold-seekers, missionaries, colonists—until the highway stretched from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. Years passed and railroads supplanted the old Oregon Trail; its very location was forgotten; disputes arose. Then an old man, almost eighty, clambered into a prairie schooner, made in part of some in which the pioneers had journeyed westward, and the Oregon Trail was retraced and marked with monuments, that a people and a nation may not forget.

In 1968, Congress passed the National Trails System Act, which mandated the preservation of historic trails, as well as setting up a system of National Historic Trails and National Scenic Trails. Today, there are 20 federally recognized historic trails, ranging from the Oregon, California, Mormon, Pony Express and Lewis & Clark Trails to the Trail of Tears NHT, the Selma to Montgomery NHT and the Iditarod NHT in Alaska. More are pending federal designation. In addition, there are about a dozen National Scenic Trails, including the Appalachian and the Pacific Crest trails. All are managed largely by the National Park Service, although the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service are also involved.

            Despite legislated protections, threats to the trail continue today. We wouldn’t allow suggestions that we tear up the Washington Monument in order to build high-priced condominiums or allow development to infringe upon the Gettysburg Battlefield. But historic trails, especially those far removed from population centers and not high in the public consciousness, are easier targets.

            In Oregon, Idaho Power is leading a consortium in the proposed development a 290-mile, 500-kilovolt power transmission line across eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho. It is called the Boardman-to-Hemingway project, or B2H for short.

            Much of the route will follow the historic Oregon Trail and the project has invigorated strong opposition, led by the Stop B2H Coalition, which is made up of local property owners, the Oregon-California Trails Association, and other environmental groups.

            In court and in filings before the Oregon Public Utilities Commission and its Energy Facilities Siting Council, the Coalition has argued that the powerline will damage sections of the Oregon Trail used by tens of thousands of emigrant wagons and families. In particular, there is concern that the vistas enjoyed by pioneers will be lost forever, replaced by 200-foot towers and 250-foot wide clear cuts on the land.       

In Nebraska, the Nebraska Public Power District is proposing a 345,000 volt transmission line, the so-called “R-Project,” that will stretch 225 miles north-to-south through central Nebraska.

            Opponents, including local property owners and the Oregon-California Trails Association, argue the line will threaten endangered species and migratory birds in the Sandhills area of north-central Nebraska. For trails aficionados, the greatest threat is to well-preserved ruts of the Oregon, California and Mormon trails near Sutherland. Opponents of the powerline have suggested damage could be prevented by moving the proposed transmission line to avoid trail ruts.

            In both the B2H and R-Project battles, a final decision is not expected until sometime in 2020 and court cases are likely to take even longer to decide. But both are symptomatic of challenges historic trail preservation faces wherever the trails crossed the western landscape. Natural gas development in Wyoming and gold mines in Nevada are more symptoms of the threats to historic trails.

            An argument that trails proponents have made frequently is that once the trails are lost – to development, neglect, ignorance, or just time – they can never be replaced. When that happens, what on-the-ground evidence of the pioneering of the American West will remain? Is it worth the effort in the face of the nation’s energy and other expansionist demands?

Academicians will give you a lot of reasons why it is important to understand our history, saying it teaches us lessons that can be applied today while connecting us to our national, ethnic and cultural roots and identity. The stories of the men and women, families and children who said goodbye to all they knew in search of a new home in the west – touching off one of the great emigration movements in world history – are emotionally moving and worth preserving for future generations.

All true, of course. But academics aside, just as important is the pure enjoyment of knowing that when we travel along State Highway 220 in Wyoming we will come upon Independence Rock, so named because westbound emigrants wanted to reach it by July 4 in order to assure they made it over the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevada before the snow fell. You can still climb the 130-foot elevation, just as the emigrants did, and see inscriptions left by pioneers in the 1850s, who considered climbing the rock a welcome diversion from the sometimes monotonous wagon trek.

Five miles to the west, you can visit Martin’s Cove, where 200 handcart-pulling Mormon emigrants died when they were caught in a Wyoming snowstorm, and walk to scenic Devils Gate, where the Sweetwater River has carved a deep gorge through granite.

Not far away, on Wyoming Highway 28, you can park your car just off the highway and walk across South Pass, a broad open saddle that marks the dividing line between the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds, where a stone monument recognizes lonely plaque recognizes Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding as the “first white women to cross this pass, July 4, 1836.” Once across South Pass, for the emigrants it was all downhill from there. Before long, on the same highway, you’ll come to Parting of the Ways, where the historic trail split traveling parties into those headed to Oregon and those bound for Utah or California.

Of course, not every spot on the emigrant trails is blessed with landmark status. There are many places where the trail is little more than a swale through a wheat field or wagon ruts nearly invisible on a hillside. The trails are much more than individual locations. Collectively, they identify a time and a people who grabbed opportunity by the throat and held on, building a nation and establishing a legend.

Threats to the trail are constant and occur everywhere along the historic routes to the west. Vigilance is important if we are to preserve historic trails for the enjoyment of future generations.

Bill Martin is a freelance writer based in Georgetown, Texas. He has been involved in historic trail preservation efforts for more than 25 years and is a past president of the Oregon-California Trails Association. He can be reached at wordsure@gmail.com.