Historical Context: Life on the Trail
by Steven Mintz
Each spring, pioneers gathered at Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, to begin a 2,000 mile journey westward. For many families, the great spur for emigration was economic: the financial depression of the late 1830s, accompanied by floods and epidemics in the Mississippi Valley. Said one woman: "We had nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune." Between 1841 and 1867, more than 350,000 trekked along the overland trails.
Most pioneers traveled in family units. At first, pioneers tried to maintain the rigid sexual division of labor that characterized early-nineteenth-century America. Men drove the wagons and livestock, stood guard duty, and hunted buffalo and antelope for extra meat. Women got up at four in the morning, collected wood and "buffalo chips" (animal dung used for fuel), hauled water, kindled campfires, kneaded dough, and milked cows. At the end of the day, men expected women to fix dinner, make up beds, air out the wagons to prevent mildew, wash the clothes, and tend the children.
The demands of the journey forced a blurring of gender role distinctions for women, who performed many chores previously reserved for men. They drove wagons, yoked cattle, and loaded wagons. Some men even did things, such as cooking, that they previously would have regarded as women's work.
Accidents, disease, and sudden disaster were ever-present dangers. Children fell out of wagons, oxen hauling wagons became exhausted and died, and diseases such as typhoid, dysentery, and mountain fever killed many pioneers. Emigrant parties also suffered devastation from buffalo stampedes, prairie fires, and floods. Pioneers buried at least 20,000 emigrants along the Oregon Trail.
Still, despite the hardships of the experience, few emigrants ever regretted their decision to move west. As one pioneer put it:
Those who crossed the plains . . . never forgot the ungratified thirst, the intense heat and bitter cold, the craving hunger and utter physical exhaustion of the trail. . . . But there was another side. True they had suffered, but the satisfaction of deeds accomplished and difficulties overcome more than compensated and made the overland passage a thing never to be forgotten.