275 - Going West
The modern United States took shape in the nineteenth century when half a million people headed west. Traveling by wagon, they followed the California, Mormon and Oregon Trails to a new future. The journey took several months and you can get an idea of the travelers’ endurance if you visit the National Trails Center in Casper, Wyoming. Gayle Irwin is a visitor information specialist at the Center. We asked her why so many people headed west:
Gayle Irwin (Standard American accent):
People were looking for a better life for themselves in the 1800s. People that went to Oregon were going there for free land; the US government was promoting the Oregon Territory and encouraged citizens to go west, to claim that land for the United States. So the land was given to them for free and so they could set up farms et cetera. At that time there was a major economic downfall in the Midwest – Iowa, Illinois, Missouri – and so people needed a new start in life, so they went to Oregon for that new start.
The people who followed the Mormon Trail to Utah were going for freedom of religion. They were persecuted back east, and in Missouri, and so Brigham Young decided, “Let’s go find a new place for our people,” and so they went to the Salt Lake Valley. And then, in the 1850s, after gold was discovered in California, there was this mad rush of people to California, to try to strike it rich with the Gold Rush. So there were many reasons, but, primarily, we tell people it was free land, freedom of religion and free money!
And how, we asked, did people communicate with their relatives back home?
Gayle Irwin: There was an enterprise, a business, created by three gentlemen and they called it “the Pony Express.” And what they did was they hired riders to ride a horse about 60 miles a day, taking letters, whether they be letters from one family to another, or business to business, or even government to business, and carry that mail across 2,000 miles! I can imagine how difficult that could be, but how inspiring it is also to think that people did that. Somebody thought of the business and somebody helped execute that business. And it was very successful. It only last eighteen months, nineteen months, but it was very vital to what was going on in the country, and to connect the opposite sides of the country at the time.
The views from the top of Independence Rock in Wyoming are spectacular. Back in the mid-nineteenth century, these views represented the dreams of a better future for thousands of people. Their names are carved here in the granite: “Milo J. Ayer, age 29, 1849,” “Mary Morris, N.Wales, Sep. 12 1852,” “W. G. Seamands, July 2, 1862, Platteville, Iowa.” These are just a few of the 500,000 individuals who, between 1830 and 1870, made the long journey west towards America’s Pacific Coast.
Independence Rock, almost half way along the 3,000 kilometre trail, signalled the approach to the Rocky Mountains and was a major landmark. To cross the mountains safely before the start of winter, the goal was to reach here close to the fourth of July – Independence Day.
The US government at the time promoted the idea of “Manifest Destiny”: that it was God’s will and the destiny of Americans to take over the continent. In an attempt to unite the nation from east to west, the government offered free farmland in California and the Oregon Territory. In May 1841, the first official party of emigrants left Missouri to start a new life.
Five years later, the founders of the new Mormon Church (“of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints”) decided to move from Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah, to escape persecution. Over the next 25 years, an estimated 70,000 Mormons joined the exodus west. Then, in 1849, the discovery of gold in California brought a huge wave of “Forty-Niners” onto the trail.
Native Americans, of course, had created trails of their own thousands of years before European settlers arrived. They were initially peaceful and helpful to the travelers passing through their lands. The conflict with the new settlers only started later, when their bison were slaughtered and sacred grounds confiscated. For most families, attacks from Native Americans were the least of their worries: disease, accidents, lack of food and water, wind, rain and the risk of being trapped in winter weather were the real concerns.
Few people in the US today travel cross country by train. Yet the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 brought a rapid end to the era of trail travel. In the four decades from 1830, mass migration saw the population of this young nation boom from 13 million to 40 million. The trail travelers of the mid-nineteenth century were the pioneers of modern-day America.
WHEN HISTORY COMES ALIVE...
For an interactive look at the world of nineteenth-century trail travel, visit the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center, 1501 North Poplar Street, Casper, just off exit 189 of the Interstate 25. www.blm.gov/wy/st/en/NHTIC.html and www.wyomingtourism.org/.