As a youngster, I was fascinated by the stories I read of the Oregon Trail. Now, I know those stories were only made possible by the efforts of women like Mary Louisa Black.
Mary Louisa kept a meticulous journal of her trek west, at times following the Oregon Trail. In 1865, she left Missouri with her husband and three children and eventually travelled through what today would be Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.
Her diary, and the diaries of other frontier women, give future generations the ability to read first-hand accounts of brave pioneers who walked away from their eastern homes, knowing they would never see their birth families again.
What led people west?
In the 1840s gold was discovered in California. Also starting in the 1840s, various religious groups, like the Mormons, sought land where they could live in peace. In 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. This gave any adult 160 acres to claim and farm west of the Missouri River, if they successfully worked the land for five years.
By the turn of the twentieth century, 400,000 American pioneers would make their way west.
The cost of a wagon, supplies, animals, and provisions for a family of four would be $1200. That is the equivalent of $39,000 today. People sold off their possessions to gain the money needed for the trip.
And the trip was not easy. The mortality rate was one in four. Although sickness, Indian attacks, and accidents contributed to the death rate, cholera was the main killer. We think of cholera as occurring in dense populations, but it spreads through contaminated water. There is little documentation of the wagon trains boiling the river water they drank freely along the trail. However, many journals attest to widespread diarrhea. Considering the vast numbers of stock animals that defecated and urinated in the rivers, it seems plausible the water was highly toxic.
Like the wagon train shepherding Mary Louisa and her family, there were approximately 100 wagons in each train that left from Independence, Missouri. The departure date was April 15th, to guarantee passage over the western mountains prior to October 1st, when blizzards could become a deadly consequence.
The pioneers were told to expect the journey of 2,000 miles to take five and a half months – all of it on foot.
But wait, if they had wagons, why would anyone walk 2,000 miles? The wagons were small Studebaker wagons, not the large freight-only Conestoga’s popularized by Hollywood. The four-wheel wagons, or two-wheel hand carts, were crammed with everything the family owned, and without springs, the wagon bed lay directly over the axles. This meant that riding in the wagon was a noisy, bumpy, jostling ride. Walking was easier.
So, they walked the entire journey; men, women, children, the elderly, and the stock animals. On a good day on the prairie, the trains could average 20 miles, going 2 miles an hour. Yep, that’s a 10-hour day. At night, the travelers slept out under the stars, weather permitting, or bundled under their wagon for cover.
Here are some of the more telling details from Mary Louisa’s diary.
By early June the wagon train reached Colorado under brilliant blue skies, but where they find the remains of a settlement sacked by Indians. By late June the train encountered other Indians and traded with them. Grass on the prairie was waist high and the stock became well fed.
However, as they camp alongside the rivers and drink the water, almost everyone in the train comes down with forceful diarrhea. The remedy is to take laudanum (opium).
In July, the mosquitoes swarms in Wyoming are so thick that the pioneers continuously swat the insects away from the horses, mile after mile, after mile. Wagons break down, some stock animals drown while crossing the Laramie River and two women give birth. None of the newborns survive.
By August the diarrhea is so pervasive that the women need to sew new clothes for everyone. As wagons climb up into the mountains, the grass becomes scarce and the pioneers resort to feeding the livestock the grain reserved for emergency food.
In Idaho, the river water is green in color. They drink it anyway. Everyone gets sick, again. Arriving at a settlement, Mary Louisa trades her feathered mattress for a sack of flour. Food supplies are diminishing. She is thankful for the fish they catch in the Snake River.
By late August the heat in Idaho is heavy, dust infiltrates everything, and Mary Louisa now has a decayed tooth that needs to be pulled. Fortunately, there is a doctor on their wagon train. By early September they are eating the oats intended for the stock animals.
On September 29th they arrive at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. They have walked 2,000 miles in five and a half months, buried loved ones, suffered hunger and disease, and have traded precious possessions for food. But they have survived.
Mary Louisa Black is thirty years old. She puts her journal in her trunk, presumably to share with her children when they are older.
Hats off to strong women like Mary Louise who walked with their families, side by side, on the trails west and chronicled such an important part of American history.
Little did I know at age nine, I would one day walk a very small portion of the Oregon Trail and stand on the same soil that Mary Louise Black trod one hundred fifty-two years before me.
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My novels of strong women who brought history to life are available on Amazon in print and Kindle. Cut From Strong Cloth and Last Curtain Call.