Impressive Courage or Ignorance is Bliss

This is my review of Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails by Frank McLynn.

I was inspired to read this after watching the recent film about "Meek's Cutoff" in which a small number of pioneers hire an unreliable guide to show them a short cut on the Oregon Trail. The true story proves to have been much more dramatic, involving more than 1000 people and perhaps 300 wagons. Soon clearly lost, the party ran dangerously low on food and fresh water at times, or found more than they bargained for in the form of torrential rivers which could only be crossed by dismantling their wagons piece by piece. Resentment against Meek rose so high at one point that he came close to being hanged from a gibbet made from raising up the tongues of three wagons and tying them together in the kind of summary justice often practised in a society which had to maintain its own system of law and order. In fact, the travellers were often remarkably lenient. The punishment for killing a man in angry self defence might be expulsion from the group, perhaps to be readmitted fairly quickly.

"Wagon's West" provides a useful history of the background to the great pioneer movement which began in earnest in the 1840s. The young nation of the United States did not yet clearly control the western part of the continent: Oregon was still effectively a British province, and California part of the decayed Mexican Empire. The first pioneers were neither religious refugees – apart from the Mormon trek of 1847 to establish Salt Lake City – nor were they the poorest elements of society. It took moderate means to assemble a wagon and provisions for the trek along the Oregon Trail, or to branch off it at the staging post of Fort Hall to reach California.

I agree that the "blow by blow" account of the first great treks from 1841 is repetitive at times, and includes far too many characters for one to absorb. Clearer, better positioned maps would be helpful, together with a few more photographs, although Google images provide a fascinating accompaniment to descriptions of landmarks like Chimney Rock, or the many rivers, mountains and forts described en route.

McLynn conveys well the courage and resilience of people who would set out with only sketchy knowledge of a route which would cover hundreds of miles and take weeks. It helps one to understand why so many modern-day Americans are so opposed to the idea of relying on state aid. Of course, the travellers were mostly farmers or skilled craftsmen like blacksmiths, and used to living off the land. Descriptions of encounters with vast herds of buffaloes, using their droppings as fuel in the absence of timber for firewood, rattlesnakes bunking with prairie dogs, Indians who wanted some compensation for encroachment on their territory, stole horses or shot at oxen so they would be abandoned to provide them with food, the petty bickering triggered by the sheer boredom of travelling mile upon mile, or the hardship of running short of vital supplies, the crazy jockeying for position to take the lead, rather like the road rage of car drivers today – all this makes for a fascinating read.

Just when you feel that you have had enough, McLynn changes tack slightly, with a chapter on the infamous "Donner Party" who became stranded in snow on a treacherous cut-off, and may have resorted to cannibalism: other sources now dispute this horrific twist which McLynn presents as Gospel. The chapter on the Mormon Trek is particularly interesting, showing how an autocratic, manipulative leader, Brigham Young, maintained discipline to provide an impressive example of rapid colonisation. The Epilogue ends with the Gold Rush of 1848, which disrupted the former relatively orderly pattern of migration. McLynn describes how, in the craze to get to the riches first, people set out with too many goods and abandoned them after only a few miles, littering the landscape, so that the traders who had sold them could easily collect them up again for resale. The Westerns with which we are so familiar do not appear at all far-fetched.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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