As a child, I was fascinated by stories of Indians, wagon trains, cowgirls and cowboys— and although I'm fairly certain I've never admitted this to anyone before— I used to daydream about living on a ranch in the Wild West back in the days when life was more simple. Mind you, this was likely inspired by the fact that I loved horses and as a teenager could not imagine anything more wonderful than spending all day, every day riding horses! But I digress...
As authors, we often spend copious hours researching topics and period details before we put our first word down on paper. This was the case with a recent book that I wrote for a collaboration with two author friends, one of whom is part of our own Sweet Americana Sweethearts group, Annie Boone!
The particular story, Emma's Epiphany, required research on wagon trains, and I found myself more than a little surprised by some of the facts uncovered during the research phase of this book.
|Photo taken in 2016, Oregon Trail
Fact #2: The Oregon Trail wasn't a single set path that every wagon followed, for several reasons. In some cases the emigrants realized food and game would be more scarce if everyone followed one another, so they often spread out over several hundred miles for this very reason. As time progressed, people began to spread the word about new routes and ways the wagon trains could save time by using a certain cut offs, etc., yet enough traveled the same paths that we still have the ruts from the wagon trains heading west in the mid-1800's.
Fact #3: The large conestoga wagon was not the typical wagon used by most people heading west because it was too large and unwieldy to be manageable across the rough and challenging trail; rather, most people used a wagon known as the prairie schooner, so-named because the canvas covers resembled the "sail" of a ship.
Fact #4: Most deaths along the trail were caused by illness, not by attacks by Indians, as was often depicted in Hollywood Westerns and dramatizations. The wagons typically formed a circle at night largely to keep the animals from wandering off, and many Native American Indians served as trading partners and guides at various points along the trail. After the beginning of the Civil War, there were more attacks than there had been, but overall historians estimate that only 400 deaths out of over 20,000 were caused by conflicts with Indians.
Fact #5: Although the first major wagon train took place in 1843, it wasn't until 1849 that an actual guide was published that fully described the journey over land to California. Truthfully, I hadn't given the fact that a "map" didn't exist for several years after the wagon trains began much consideration prior to my research, and it was a big surprising that it took five years for it to happen. Yet in defense, it took an average of five months for people to make the trek along the trail, and as you can imagine, the first few trips likely took much longer than that. They were true pioneers!
Researching these facts took a little bit of the "romance" out of the way I had always imagined the wagon trains traveled back in those days, and what that may have looked like, yet in all honesty, those Hollywood Westerns and images are indelible on my mind. At the end of the day, a visual image can often be more powerful than an imagined one.
I hope you enjoyed these facts about the Oregon Trail and the wagon trains that paved the way for settlers in the west.
Kate Cambridge is a bestselling Amazon author, wife, and mother who writes sweet historical and sweet contemporary romance with happily ever after or happy for now endings. She is a hopeless romantic, strong supporter of women's rights, and loves to write stories that inspire, characters who seem real long after "the end", and always with a thread of faith, hope and love.
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