Historical Note

From The Columbia, by Stewart H. Holbrook.

In May of 1843, an astonishing concentration of people gathered at Independence, Missouri. Without any general plan they had come from the border settlements and from farther east. They had suddenly been taken with the newest fever of their kind, the Oregon Fever. Either they or their fathers had been through migrating fevers before. They were professional pioneers almost, and this time they were going to rut the Oregon Trail so deeply it could be seen a century afterward. Almost nine hundred of them were crossing the Missouri border into Kansas on the early morning of May 23rd. By the time they reached the Willamette Valley, the settlers already there had adopted their plans for provisional government. It is worth knowing that many of these Americans, who had set forth with desire not only to get and settle a farm but with belligerency toward Great Britain because of national excitement over the “Oregon Boundary Question,” were grateful when they reached the Columbia gorge, with its fearful surge of dangerous water, to find some boats waiting to take their women and children safely through the rapids. They were the boats and men of the Hudson’s Bay Company, sent expressly by order of Dr. McLoughlin.

The Great Migration of forty-three was followed a year later by another almost twice as large. In 1845 the wagon trains brought no less than three thousand settlers. The Covered Wagon was joining the Mayflower as a symbol of America. The ship of the great plains was on its way into song and folklore. Until the very last of the Covered Wagon people passed, they remembered the biggest sun and the biggest moon in the biggest skies they had ever seen. It was the hottest sun, and the coldest moon; and the sky or something played cruel tricks. Mirages danced ahead of their wagons, or flickered in their wake; and the youngsters cried with joy, then wept bitterly as a handsome blue lake suddenly appeared, shimmering cold and inviting for a few moments, then sank out of sight into the horizon. It came to seem that their goal and the horizon were moving in unison; they weren’t getting anywhere. The wind never ceased. It blew out of hell, then from the antipodes. It piled up purple murk that split in thunderous crashes, and out of it came salvos of cast-iron hailstones to stun the imagination and to fell oxen.

Some said the sun was worse than the wind. Here in the great void there was no getting away from the sun. You could not hide from it. Worse was its confusing brightness. A gopher was seen plainly to be a coyote, a clump of sagebrush became a mounted and plumed Indian; a wrecked and abandoned wagon grew and grew until it loomed like a monstrous barn with weather vanes that glinted, then fused with nothingness. But on went the Covered Wagons, and out of the wagons, when desperate men saw that Time was passing them, that they must mend their pace lest they be caught in a mountain winter — out of the great wagons went a massive bureau of carved oak, or a chest, a chair or two, or even an organ. Winter must not find them on the trail; out went the furniture. . . . Parkman the historian saw the furniture along the trail that led to Oregon. He recognized, as did lesser men, that these things were not the mere trumpery of households, but were the last physical evidence of family importance, or at least of family continuity. They were not discarded lightly. Next to food and powder, they were the last things to be left along the way. The family who jettisoned them was a family in desperate straits. . . . These were some of the things talked or thought about in later years, when the Pioneers gathered for reunions and remembered their youth in the circle of campfires blinking like small red eyes in the endless dark.

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