Wagons West Analysis

Wagons West (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The familiar tableaux of hardy pioneers traversing the continent in covered wagons, enduring dangers and hardships in their journey to the promising lands of the American West, has become so ingrained in the national conscience that it can be difficult to imagine a time when this ordeal was a new and unfamiliar undertaking. These early years of emigration westward, roughly 1840 to 1849, are the focus of this engrossing chronicle by Frank McLynn, Visiting Professor of Literature at Strathclyde University, Scotland. His British perspective breathes refreshing life into these tales of the risk-takers who, especially in these early years between the prominence of the so-called mountain men and the California Gold Rush, were truly journeying into a foreign land fraught with countless unknown perils.

In these early years, the trek was considered by many to be impossible, a venture only for the foolhardy. With well-chosen excerpts from diaries and primary sources, McLynn vividly portrays the sense of restlessness and striving for a better life which motivated the early pioneers, and tellingly contrasts this with the European peasant farmer, who looked upon land as a lifetime investment and was less likely to migrate.

The Overland Trails, which eventually became well traveled and worn with ruts from countless wagon trains, were less defined in these early years, and the best routes were often a matter of opinion and controversy. Clearly there was a northern route to the Oregon Territory, and a southern route to California, but there were numerous choices along the way. Such was the crux of the disastrous journey of the Donner Party in 1846, which chose to travel on the Hastings Cutoff to save time, but encountered bad luck and delays at every turn, eventually spending the winter in the snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and degenerating into cannibalism to survive. McLynn is especially good at portraying how the Donner Party members were selfish and uncooperative, unlike the stereotypical happy family of pioneers immortalized in many Hollywood movies, traits which greatly contributed to their demise.

What it was actually like to be on a wagon train has never been better recreated. Despite considerable historical detail the narrative is lively and fresh. Even those who think they know all there is to know about wagon trains will be delightfully surprised by the multitude of new insights in this engrossing history.