Tracking Oregon

By Parag Ranjan Dutta

The story unfolds the heroic tales of epic journeys of some pioneering men in the making of the wild west of the United States of America which was vaguely known to the public till the first half of the nineteenth century.
The backdrop — 1836-1909 United States of America, when some people from the east made attempts to discover areas unknown so far to the countrymen. To understand and appreciate this adventure we have to visualise the map of the US. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the land known as the States stretched from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi Valley. The western part was unknown and unexplored, full of vast expanses of wilderness, grasslands, arid deserts, endless terrain, large rivers and snow-clad mountains. There were few settlements, thousands of bison, wild horses and reindeer.
Few fearless fur traders ventured into this area and used to sell beaver furs to their countrymen in the remote eastern part of the country. Of the vast expanses of the barren lands a small fraction was under French control, while most of it was settled by the Native American people. In early days Europeans settled along the Atlantic coast and only up to the Appalachian Mountain which were difficult to cross.
The area to the west of the Appalachian Mountain was an alien land to the Americans who did not venture into the unknown. But the efforts were on. Daniel Bonne, an American pioneer and explorer, who was on a hunting expedition, was the person to first cross the Appalachian Mountain in 1767 through the Cumberland Gap, called the wilderness road.
To the west of the Mississippi, vast expanses of the barren land were under French control, while most of it was settled by the Native Americans. Trappers used to live in the mountainous region of the west and traded furs and skins of beaver and other animals with Native Americans. The beaver fur was used in the making of felt hats, coats and blankets. Earliest fur traders were the French explorers who arrived and settled in present day in Canada.
The French colonised America because of furs. The trade began around 1500s with a barter system with the Indians and the French who offered them kettles, knives, weapons, horses and other gifts in exchange of fur. Fur traders who carried their merchandise used to narrate their stories of tireless journeys to the Americans. Impressed by these heroic tales some fearless to people from the east made daring attempts to venture and to make attempts ventured into the areas to the west which were shrouded in mystery till that time. In American history these people were called the pioneers.
America’s political map gradually extended as far as Colorado to the west. To make the people westbound up to the Pacific coast the government distributed free lands and other benefits to those who chose to move out. The British who settled along the eastern sea-board of the United States did not want to cross the Appalachian Mountain to avoid tension with the French and the natives. A Royal Proclamation of 1763 fixed the boundaries of the 13 British colonies.
The southern state of Louisiana was controlled by the kingdom of France from 1699 to 1762, when it was ceded to Spain. Through a historic deal between Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the US, the later acquired more than 800,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi for fifteen million dollars or 18 dollars per sq. mile. There were two reasons for handing over the territory.
Firstly, Napoleon thought he could not defend it if America decided to take it by force. Secondly, he wanted more money to fight the war against the British. This is known as ‘Louisiana Purchase’ (Vente de la Louisiane) in American history. As the legend goes Napoleon sold Louisiana to the Americans in 1803 sitting in a bathtub. It was though a bad idea for a war-torn country like France. When his brothers told him not to do so he splashed them with water.
La Pavilion hotel in New Orleans claimed to have a suite which had a marble bathtub in their possession valued at $350,000, that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon had a strong desire to avoid the British captivity. His brother Joseph managed to escape to America. In reality Napoleon never reached America.
In 1811, the Oregon Trail was laid down by the fur trappers and traders which could only be travelled on foot or on horseback. Robert Stuart was the first person on the Oregon Trail in 1812-13. In 1836 the first migrant train of ox driven wagons started a long and arduous journey into the unknown, to Fort Hall, Idaho and subsequently to Willamette valley, Oregon.
In 1842, Tom Bridger, known as the mountain man and a pioneer in trapping built a small settlement at Fort Bridge. This was a nineteenth century outpost where he built night shelters for caravan travelers as well as overhauling of their wagons. There were many hurdles along the trail. After several days of travel, migrants encountered deep canyons, large rivers and rapids.
There were many swollen rivers along the trail and often both man and oxen were swept away by the strong currents. In the initial years many who set off on the trail did not survive the journey. They died of Asiatic cholera typhoid, small pox, dysentery, food shortage and attack from the Native Indians. Hundreds of ox driven caravan used to be accompanied by the American army.
The trail passed through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and finally into Oregon. While traversing the trail with the immigrants the American army encountered hostile Indians and a number of fierce battles were fought between them. Known as ‘Beaver Wars’, these were started territory and fur trade.
On November 29, 1864, one of the most infamous events in American- Indian wars occurred when 650-odd Colorado volunteer forces attacked the Native American settlement of Cheyenne along Sand Creek. More than 140 Native Americans were butchered most of whom were women and children.
In 1852, Ezra Meeker, a 22-year-old man and one of the famous pioneers, ventured into the unknown on ox-drawn carriage and covered a staggering distance of 3,490 km from Iowa to the Pacific coast of Oregon. He was accompanied by his wife Eliza Zane, his brother and their new born child. Nearly after six months of endurance and struggle the entire team survived the journey. He traveled the trail several times thereafter and built monuments along the trail. Fifty four years after his first adventure he revisited the lost Oregon trail again from his belief that Americans have forgotten the trail and which opened up a new horizon up to the Pacific north west. His unparallel struggle in the making of old Oregon Trail helped around 300,000 immigrants to travel to the new world.
Meeker penned a book about his experiences of the hazardous journeys along the trail which was published in 1922 titled OX-Team Days on the Oregon Trail. The story of the Oregon Trail is an American epic. Once known as the “Hop king of the World”, Meeker became the first mayor of Puyallup, Washington.
In November 1907, a frail 76-year-old Meeker, whose beard was full of dust, arrived in Washington DC by ox-drawn carriage where he was greeted by the American President Theodor Roosevelt. Such a dedicated pioneer in American history died on December 3, 1908, at the age of 77.

(The author is former head of the Department of Geography,
St Edmund’s College)

Photos: Pixabay, Google Images

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