The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Pioneer leader to caravan: 'Wagons ho!'

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  • The year 1843 marked the beginning of the mass movement of Americans to Oregon across the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail.
    No wilderness passage was as difficult or dangerous.
    In May of that year, the first of the great wagon trains left the Missouri River banks and consisted of 1,000 men, women, and children, 120 wagons, and 5,000 assorted head of cattle.
    No one knows how many pigs, chickens, and dogs were taken along. Leading the parade of pioneers was a quiet but courageous frontier farmer named Jesse Applegate.
    Applegate wrote a lively account of a typical day in the lives of the people driving their wagons West towards the Willamette Valley of Oregon:
    “It is 4 a.m. The sentinels on duty have discharged their rifles — the signal that the hours of sleep are over.”
    The emigrants barely had a chance to yawn before starting work.
    Women built fires, and hung over them pots of water to warm the morning coffee.
    At the time Applegate wrote his account, the wagons were crossing the Great Plains, where there was little firewood. Fires had to be made from dried buffalo dung, or “buffalo chips,” as settlers called them.
    The travelers usually ate a breakfast of sowbelly (bacon) and slam-johns (flapjacks).
    At seven each morning, Applegate gave the command, “Wagons ho!”
    Each wagon had to be in its assigned place at that time. The best positions were toward the front of the line. Those in the rear had to “eat dust” all day long.
    On Applegate’s wagon train, families alternated places in line each day. Rarely was a wagon late assembling in the morning because, “All know when, at 7 o’clock, the signal to march sounds that those not ready to take their proper places in the line of march must fall into the dusty rear for the day.”
    With cows mooing, dogs barking, and wagon wheels creaking, the long caravan rolled out toward Oregon.
    Applegate described how the wagon trains formed a line three quarters of a mile in length:
    "Some of the teamsters (drivers) ride upon the front of their wagons, some walk beside their teams. Scattered along the line, companies of women and children are taking exercise on foot. They gathered bouquets of rare and beautiful wildflowers that line the way.”
    At noon, the wagon train stopped for lunch, usually a hurried meal of dried meat.
    A few families sit at portable tables, but most eat standing up or sitting on the ground. During lunch, Applegate and a council of men serve as judges in a traveling court, of sorts, to hear grievances and complaints.
    Page 2 of 2 - Then it was back to the trail.
    It was almost dark when Applegate signaled a halt for the night.
    The wagons circled a tight ring called a “night circle.” This served as a barrier against Indian attacks and also gave the camp a community atmosphere.
    Fires were lighted and the travelers enjoyed their largest meal of the day. Families ate buffalo or antelope steak or stewed prairie chicken.
    Wild game was often plentiful on the Great Plains.
    At other points along the Oregon Trail, however, the emigrants suffered through near starvation diets.
    As darkness crept over the camp, Applegate wrote, “Before a tent near the river a violin makes music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green. In another quarter, a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still air.”
    But, the music ceased and the fires were doused early. Morning would come soon, and the emigrants would have to face another long day on the Oregon Trail.
    Information from Conrad Stein's "The Story of the Oregon Trail" was used in this column.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell, email teddy.stillwell@yahoo.com or call (816) 252-9909.
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