I took 21 second graders on a field trip today to The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City, Oregon. This was my third visit there, and every time I learn something new. Here are some tidbits from today's tour. . .
- Once they were on the prairie where there were no trees, there obviously was no wood for fires. And the ladies didn't want to give up that hot evening meal, so the children had a fun job. They had to collect buffalo chips! Don't worry, dry buffalo poop burns odorless with a nice even heat. (Makes me thank the good Lord for my stove.) One of my girls got a surprise today and actually got to hold a big ol' buffalo chip in her hands. The rest of the class went crazy because there was their friend with a big gob of buffalo poop and she was totally not expecting it. Oh, the look on her face. . .
- Parts of the trail were so dusty that you could barely see 15 feet in front of you. All that dirt is bound to end up in one's nose. And in the noses of the animals. So in order to keep the wagon train a-moving, the children got to take part in another really fun job. Wiping the snot out of the nostrils of the oxen. Hey, they've got to breathe too.
- Accidental shooting was the 4th leading cause of death along the trail. Because they only had the kind of guns that would take approximately 2 minutes to load and only one shot at that, they often kept loaded guns in the wagons. And wagons with no shocks can cause quite a bump from time to time. Very easily the triggers were pulled or bumped into with stuff flying around in the wagons and shots were fired. At other wagons. Or people. Or even at the poor animals. These crazy people often grabbed the guns out of the wagon with the barrels pointing at their chest. Hello??? Anyone needing a gun safety course?
- Sadly, Grandma's china that you received as a wedding gift didn't usually make it as part of one's necessities for a 6 month journey. And if by chance it did, it was usually thrown out of a wagon as the oxen became more and more tired and the pioneers tried to lighten the loads.
- One mother decided to unstuff her daughter's doll and fill it with garden seeds. She figured that her daughter would carefully protect her doll on the journey and that she would have seeds to plant when she arrived. Her theory worked.
- I don't think that was the same girl who fell out of the wagon and got her leg crushed when the wagon wheel rolled over it.
- If you were a wealthy pioneer, you might take along a buggy. This came in handy for extra storage and was usually not as bumpy of a ride as the covered wagon. This buggy here actually came across the trail as did the trunk in the back. Pretty amazing that it looks as good as it does.
- Once into the Cascades of western Oregon, the trail really got tough. Near the area around Mt. Hood the pioneers had two options. They could either purchase a raft and float their wagon and belongings down the raging Columbia River or they could take the Barlow Road. There's a place on the Barlow Road called Laurel Hill. It was more than a hill, it was an extremely steep incline (not quite a 90 degree drop, but pretty close) that was about a half mile long. At this point, the men would have to secure the wagons by rope to trees and slowly lower them down while the women, obviously going down the same hill, tended to all the animals and children. The only problem was that they didn't have rope that was a half mile long, it was more like 100 feet long. So they would secure the wagon to a tree and lower down 100 feet. Then someone would stand in front of the wagon and try to keep it from crashing down the hill while the other men were moving the rope to another tree. How'd ya like to be that guy? Our guide said today that if they did this right, they'd only have to move the rope about 27 times to successfully get down the hill. And that was for just one wagon. YOWZA! The picture below is part of a tree that was on the Barlow Road. You can still see the marks left behind from the ropes. We were told that there are still trees standing in the area today that also have rope marks, and in eastern Oregon, there are areas preserved where you can see ruts left by the wagon wheels.
- We heard of one obstinate wife who was so upset at one point on the trail that she set one of their wagons on fire. Her husband gave her a good flogging for it too.
- And how 'bout that Donner party? The 87 pioneers who took some bad advice and went to California. They ended up getting stuck in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the snow and half of them died. The ones who lived survived by eating their dead friends and family. (Our guide didn't mention the cannibalism part, thank goodness, but I've read about it before, and it's pretty nasty.)
The journey was long. Over 2,000 miles long. I moved from Ohio to Oregon the week after our honeymoon in a brand spankin' new Budget rental truck. Because we stopped along the way and saw some sights (Old Faithful and Mt. Rushmore), it took us about 6 days. This was in air conditioning. With food joints along the way. And rest areas. And KOA's and hotels. And paved roads. And shocks and struts. Even Walmarts. I had to leave some stuff behind, like my houseplants. (My sister got those.) And leaving my family was extremely traumatic for me. I've said I'll never drive across country again. EVER. And therefore, I cannot imagine what these people went through doing it for 6 months in a wagon. I just know that I would've ended up dead on the trail somewhere. Cause of death would either be (1) I drank the alkaline water because I would've been so thirsty and poisoned myself, or (2) I would've been gored by a stampeding buffalo, or (3) I would've died of a broken heart because I just had to throw out all my scrapbooking supplies which were weighing the wagon down. Death by cholera just seems too simple and easy.