Excerpt from Commerce of the Prairies: A Selection
Edited by David Freeman Hawke
Originally published in 1844
One thing that pioneers had in common was courage. For years, cautious observers in the East had warned against selling one's belongings, packing a wagon, and heading west. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley called it "palpable suicide" and statesman Daniel Webster warned that the West was a "region of savages and wild beasts."
By the 1840s, however, several events made the West more appealing to settlers: a long economic downturn that lasted from 1837 to 1842 encouraged many to seek their fortune in the West; Congress hinted that it would give land to Oregon settlers; Britain ceded the present-day states of Oregon and Washington to the United States in 1846; and the California gold rush attracted many people. The Great Migration, the name given to the first major departure of emigrants westward, drew one thousand settlers onto the Oregon Trail in 1843, and more came every year after that. The small trail soon became a well-traveled road stretching to the promised land. Many Americans felt that it was their "manifest destiny"—their right and duty to expand throughout the North American continent and secure these western lands.
A well-stocked wagon was as important as strength, endurance, and luck in making a successful trip west. Outfitters developed special wagons strong enough to endure the two thousand miles of rough trails, light enough to be pulled by a team of oxen or mules, and big enough to carry a family's possessions. The wagons were known as prairie schooners because their billowing canvas covers looked like sails from a distance.
The wagons could carry between 1,600 and 2,500 pounds of household goods. Food, of course, was essential. The early guidebooks recommended that each family have available 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. (In addition to the food they carried, pioneers supplemented their diet with wild game, berries, and—if they had brought along a cow—fresh milk.) Cooking supplies and utensils were needed to prepare meals, but the cook had to be flexible and learn to cook over a campfire. Many families brought along furniture and heirlooms, though they often regretted the extra weight when the trail got rough. Barrels of water, rope, and wagon wheel grease also added weight to the wagon. Spare parts—including spokes, axles, and canvas roofs—could be carried under the wagon bed.
On an average day, a party of pioneers could expect to travel about fifteen miles; on some days they traveled more, and on others much less. Sometimes entire days would be spent just crossing a river. At the end of the day the wagons were pulled into a circle to provide a corral for the animals and to act as a defense against Indian attacks (which were quite rare). Evening campfires provided the members of the wagon train with the rare opportunity to relax. Campfires were made from whatever wood could be found or from buffalo chips (a polite name for dried buffalo dung). As the fires died, the settlers retired to makeshift sleeping arrangements: some slept inside the wagon, but most stretched out with a blanket on the ground. After a long day of travel, even the hard earth must have been a comfort. A few sentries stayed awake to ward off wild animals and look out for Indian thieves.
Josiah Gregg's Commerce of the Prairies has been hailed by some as the greatest book about the American West. Publishedin 1844, Gregg's book recorded the difficult task of overland travel and painted an optimistic picture of emigrant trains forging across the prairies to claim western regions. Many people used the book as a reference as they prepared for their own journey.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Commerce of the Prairies:
- Note that Gregg did not engage in violent conflict with Native Americans.
- Gregg recorded detailed notes about the various Indian cultures found on the prairies and in the Southwest.
- Commerce of the Prairies also included extensive descriptions of the geography of the prairies.
- Commerce of the Prairies is considered a classic account of how to organize caravans and how to handle mule trains.
Excerpt from Commerce of the Prairies BOOK ONE
1. The Departure
As Independence is a point of convenient access (the Missouri river being navigable at all times from March till November), it has become the general 'port of embarkation' for every part of the great western and northern 'prairie ocean.' Besides the Santa Fe caravans, most of the Rocky Mountain traders and trappers, as well as emigrants to Oregon, take this town in their route. During the season of departure, therefore, it is a place of much bustle and active business.
Among the concourse of travelers at this 'starting point,' besides traders and tourists, a number of pale-faced invalids are generally met with. The Prairies have, in fact, become very celebrated for their sanative effects—more justly so, no doubt, than the most fashionable watering-places of the North. Most chronic diseases, particularly liver complaints, dyspepsias, and similar affections, are often radically cured; owing, no doubt, to the peculiarities of diet, and the regular exercise incident to prairie life, as well as to the purity of the atmosphere of those elevated . . . regions. An invalid myself, I can answer for the efficacy of the remedy, at least in my own case.... Though I set out myself in a carriage, before the close of the first week I saddled my pony; and when we reached the buffalo range, I was not only as eager for the chase as the sturdiest of my companions, but I enjoyed far more exquisitely my share of the buffalo, than all the delicacies which were ever devised to provoke the most fastidious appetite.
The ordinary supplies for each man's consumption during the journey, are about fifty pounds of flour, as many more of bacon, ten of coffee and twenty of sugar, and a little salt. Beans, crackers, and trifles of that description, are comfortable appendages, but being looked upon as dispensable luxuries, are seldom to be found in any of the stores on the road. The buffalo is chiefly depended upon for fresh meat, and great is the joy of the traveller when that noble animal first appears in sight....
The supplies being at length procured, and all necessary preliminaries systematically gone through, the trader begins the difficulttask of loading his wagons. Those who understand their business take every precaution so to stow away their packages that no jolting on the road can afterwards disturb the order in which they had been disposed. The ingenuity displayed on these occasions has frequently been such, that after a tedious journey of eight hundred miles, the goods have been found to have sustained much less injury, than they would have experienced on a turnpike-road, or from the ordinary handling of property upon our western steam-boats.
The next great difficulty the traders have to encounter is in training those animals that have never before been worked, which is frequently attended by an immensity of trouble....
At last all are fairly launched upon the broad prairie—the miseries of preparation are over—the thousand anxieties occasioned by wearisome consultations and delays are felt no more. The charioteer, as he smacks his whip, feels a bounding elasticity of soul within him, which he finds it impossible to restrain;—even the mules prick up their ears with a peculiarly conceited air, as if in anticipation of that change of scene which will presently follow. Harmony and good feeling prevail everywhere. The hilarious song, the bon mot and the witty repartee, go round in quick succession; and before people have had leisure to take cognizance of the fact, the lovely village of Independence, with its multitude of associations, is already lost to the eye.
It was on the 15th of May, 1831, and one of the brightest and most lovely of all the days in the calendar, that our little party set out from Independence. The general rendezvous at Council Grove was our immediate destination. It is usual for the traders to travel thus far in detached parties, and to assemble there for the purpose of entering into some kind of organization, for mutual security and defence during the remainder of the journey. It was from thence that the formation of the Caravan was to be dated, and the chief interest of our journey to c
On the following day we had a foretaste of those protracted, drizzling spells of rain, which, at this season of the year, so much infest the frontier prairies. It began sprinkling about dark, and continued pouring without let or [hindrance] for forty-eight hours in succession; and as the rain was accompanied by a heavy northwester, and our camp was pitched in the open prairie, without a stick of available timber within a mile of us, it must be allowed that the whole formed a prelude anything but flattering to [us]. For my own part, finding the dearborn carriage in which I had a berth not exactly water-proof, I rolled myself in a blanket and lay snugly coiled upon a tier of boxes and bales, under cover of a wagon, and thus managed to escape a very severe drenching.
The mischief of the storm did not exhaust itself, however, upon our persons. The loose animals sought shelter in the groves at a considerable distance from the encampment, and the wagoners being [loath] to turn out in search of them during the rain, not a few of course, when applied for, were missing. This, however, is no uncommon occurrence. Travellers generally experience far more annoyance from the straying of cattle during the first hundred miles, than at any time afterwards; because, apprehending no danger from the wild Indians (who rarely approach within two hundred miles of the border), they seldom keep any watch, although that is the very time when a cattle-guard is most needed. It is only after some weeks' travel that the animals begin to feel attached to the caravan, which they then consider about as much their home as the stock-yard of a dairy farm.
After leaving this spot the troubles and vicissitudes of our journey began in good earnest; for on reaching the narrow ridge which separates the Osage and Kansas waters (known as 'the Narrows'), we encountered a region of very troublesome quagmires. On such occasions it is quite common for a wagon to sink to the hubs in mud, while the surface of the soil all around would appear perfectly dry and smooth. To extricate each other's wagons we had frequently to employ double and triple teams, with 'all hands to the wheels' in addition—often led by the proprietors themselves up to the waist in mud and water....
Early on the 26th of May we reached the long looked-for rendezvous of Council Grove, where we joined the main body of the caravan. Lest this imposing title suggest to the reader a snug thriving village, it should be observed, that, on the day of our departure from Independence, we passed the last human abode upon our route; therefore, from the borders of Missouri to those of New Mexico not even an Indian settlement greeted our eyes.
This place is about a hundred and fifty miles from Independence, and consists of a continuous stripe of timber nearly half a mile in width, comprising the richest varieties of trees; such as oak, walnut, ash, elm, hickory, etc., and extending all along the valleys of a small stream known as 'Council Grove creek,' the principal branch of the Neosho river. This stream is bordered by the most fertile bottoms and beautiful upland prairies, well adapted to cultivation: such indeed is the general character of the country from thence to Independence. All who have traversed these delightful regions, look forward with anxiety to the day when the Indian title to the land shall be extinguished, and flourishing 'white' settlements dispel the gloom which at present prevails over this uninhabited region. Much of this prolific country now belongs to the Shawnees and other Indians of the border, though some portion of it has never been allotted to any tribe....
. . . Upon the calling of the roll, we were found to muster an efficient force of nearly two hundred men without counting invalids or other disabled bodies, who, as a matter of course, are exempt from duty. But no matter what the condition or employment of the individual may be, no one has the smallest chance of evading the 'common law of the prairies.' The amateur tourist and the listless loafer are precisely in the same wholesome predicament—they must all take their regular turn at the watch. . . . Even the invalid must be able to produce unequivocal proofs of his inability, or it is a chance if the plea is admitted. For my own part, although I started on the 'sick list,' and though the prairie sentinel must stand fast and brook the severest storm (for then it is that the strictest watch is necessary), I do not remember ever having missed my post but once during the whole journey....
The wild and motley aspect of the caravan can be but imperfectly conceived without an idea of the costumes of its various members. The most 'fashionable' prairie dress is the fustian frock of the city-bred merchant furnished with a multitude of pockets capable of accommodating a variety of 'extra tackling.' Then there is the back-woodsman with his linsey or leather hunting-shirt—the farmer with his blue jean coat—the wagoner with his flannel-sleeve vest—besides an assortment of other costumes which go to fill up the picture.
In the article of fire-arms there is also an equally interesting medley. The frontier hunter sticks to his rifle, as nothing could induce him to carry what he terms in derision 'the scatter-gun.' The sportsman from the interior flourishes his double-barrelled fowling-piece with equal confidence in its superiority. The latter is certainly the most convenient description of gun that can be carried on this journey; as a charge of buck-shot in night attacks (which are the most common), will of course be more likely to do execution than a single rifle-ball fired at random. The 'repeating' arms have lately been brought into use upon the Prairies, and they are certainly very formidable weapons, particularly when used against an ignorant savage foe. A great many were furnished beside with a bountiful supply of pistols and knives of every description, so that the party made altogether a very brigand-like appearance. [Gregg, pp. 5–6, 7–9, 10, 11, 12–13]
What happened next . . .
For the first several years after 1843 the vast majority of the travelers ended up in Oregon Country. However, by 1846 the trend began to change. Once word of gold in California spread eastward the number of travelers going south to California was four times the number venturing north into Oregon. Those going to Oregon had promises of vast acres of fertile farmland, but California had gold—and a warmer climate.
Along the Santa Fe Trail, many merchants had been reaping the benefits of trade in New Mexico since James Becknell and companions discovered profitable opportunities in Santa Fe in the 1820s. By 1846 it was estimated that the trade using the Santa Fe Trail had reached $1 million from a traffic flow of 363 wagons and 750 men; by 1860 trade topped $3.5 million. Such trade was conducted not only by American merchants but also by enterprising Mexican adventurers.
Did you know . . .
- Between 1843, the year of the Great Migration, and 1869, when the transcontinental railway was finished, the Oregon Trail carried an estimated 350,000 pioneers across two thousand miles of tortuous terrain.
- Even after the trains made transcontinental travel easier and cheaper, some pioneers continued to use the trails to cross the country as late as 1895.
- During the peak years, the Oregon- and California-trail was an essential link connecting the East and West.
- Gregg noted that "The wagons now most in use upon the Prairies are manufactured in Pittsburgh; and are usually drawn by eight mules or the same number of oxen. Of late years, however, I have seen much larger vehicles employed, with ten or twelve mules harnessed to each, and a cargo of goods of about five thousand pounds in weight."
- Botanists honored Josiah Gregg's botanical records by giving twenty-three plants the species name greggi.
Consider the following . . .
- Did Gregg consider the Indians' right to the land sacred?
- Did Gregg expect to meet hostile Indians?
- What job on the trail was shared by all?
- What effect did travel have on the health of settlers?
For More Information
Billington, Ray Allen. Westward to the Pacific: An Overview of America's Westward Expansion. St. Louis: Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, 1979.
Gregg, Josiah. Commerce of the Prairies: A Selection. Edited by David Freeman Hawke. 1844. Reprint, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1970.
McNeese, Tim. Western Wagon Trains. New York: Crestwood House, 1993.
Penner, Lucille Recht. Westward Ho!: The Story of the Pioneers. New York: Random House, 1997.
Peters, Arthur King. Seven Trails West. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.
Place, Marian T. Westward on the Oregon Trail. New York: American Heritage, 1962.
Roscoe, Gerald, and David Larkin. Westward: The Epic Crossing of the American Landscape. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995.