Searching For Old Pioneer Wagon Trail Ruts

A fun and educational experience on your western road trip is to view old wagon ruts from the boom days of the Overland Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. Searching for old pioneer wagon ruts through the western U.S. and learning of the history about that era can be a fun vacation experience for the entire family.

Even today, reminders of the pioneer emigration westward are still visible in many sections of these historic routes. Some sections of course are today on private land but a good many are preserved in national and state parks throughout the west.

Two popular sites to view pioneer wagon ruts are Lake Guernsey State Park in Wyoming and Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico.

guernsey state park wyoming

Guernsey State Park Museum, Wyoming

Wyoming’s Lake Guernsey State Park

This site is a must see during your Wyoming vacation. If you’re just traveling through Wyoming, this is one of the finest side trips you can add to your itinerary.

Inside Lake Guernsey State Park is a separate National Historic Landmark named the Oregon Trail Ruts.The best examples of wagon wheel ruts put there by wagon trains, many made by wagons weighing  2,500 pounds, are a few miles to the south of Guernsey in southeastern Wyoming. This area of Wyoming was crossed by the 1841-1869 era Oregon Trail. Today, in several parts of Wyoming, remnants of The Oregon Trail can still be seen. Some of the best examples are the ones located around Guernsey Wyoming.

conestoga wagon

Conestoga Wagon

Guernsey Lake State Park also offers numerous exhibits about the Civilian Conservation Corp and buildings from the era. The buildings were constructed of timbers and hand-forged iron by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. The park which contains the Guernsey Reservoir on the North Platte River  was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

The historic Guernsey Lake State Park is located northwest of Guernsey Wyoming about 100 miles north of Cheyenne.

Fort Union National Monument New Mexico

Fort Union National Monument is located between the cities of Raton and Las Vegas New Mexico, a bit closer to Las Vegas and just to the west of Interstate 25. The partial ruins of the adobe structures that were built at this important fort have been saved and restored and are fascinating.

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Santa Fe Trail markings within Fort Union

Fort Union was a crucial western fort for several reasons. The fort was located at a point where two segments of the old Santa Fe Trail intersected. The fort was an important supply base for travelers on the trail and also offered a degree of protection. The railroad would not come through the area until 1879 therefore the Santa Fe Trail was a major trade route. Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was literally a commercial highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spain was not warm to the idea of settlers from the east traveling to Santa Fe. In fact they regarded the lands south of the Arkansas River as part of their territory and prohibited trade with the Americans to the east. The Mexican government formed after Spain was ousted from North America in the early 1820’s took the opposite approach and encouraged the trade the Santa Fe Trail made possible.

The historic Buffalo Soldiers also had a presence for years at Fort Union. This included the 9th and 10th cavalry units and the 24th and 25th infantry units.

 

wagon ruts santa fe trail

Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts outside Fort Union National Monument

Fort Union would also be key during the Civil War years when Confederate troops tried unsuccessfully to reach and attack it.

The Confederates made a move to the north and occupied  Old Town Albuquerque for about thirty-nine days. They made an advance northward to the east of Santa Fe in an effort to cut off Union supplies and forces on the Santa Fe Trail. The result was a battle at Glorieta Pass, just about twenty miles east of Santa Fe along what is now Interstate 25. Union forces from Fort Union and Colorado Volunteers defeated the Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

The wagon ruts at Fort Union can be seen within the National Monument itself and are marked. Ruts are also very visible outside the park between it and Interstate 25.

More Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are found on the links below…

Re-Riding the Old Pony Express Trail

The Black Canyon Arizona Stagecoach Route

The National Ranching Heritage Center / A Texas Treasure

wyoming oregon trail wagon ruts

A section of Oregon Trail through Wyoming

More Sites to Add to Your Trip Planner

Additional trail sections where 1800’s pioneer wagon ruts can be viewed include the 350 acre Rock Creek Station Historical Park. The park is about a 123 mile drive southwest of Omaha Nebraska near the town of Fairbury.

Another good site that takes in the Santa Fe Trail is the Cimarron National Grassland. The Cimarron National Grassland is located in Morton County Kansas with a small part in Stevens County. The grassland includes twenty-three miles of the old Santa Fe Trail and wagon train ruts are clearly visible. The Cimarron National Grassland is located about 112 miles southwest of Dodge City Kansas.

Yet another excellent viewing site is just nine miles west of Dodge City Kansas on Highway 50. Here you can view the wagon ruts from a convenient boardwalk.

(Article copyright 2014 Trips Into History. Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts from Trips Into History Collection. Remainder of photos and images in the public domain)

 

Juan Bautista de Anza and the Expedition that Established San Francisco / The National Trails System

There is a very historic old Spanish trail that eventually established what is today San Francisco California, the historic Mission Dolores and the Presidio. Today, this trail is administered by the National Park Service through a partnership with other federal, state, county and municipal parks and volunteer groups. Some of the areas of this Spanish trail are in the hands of private ownership but there is a remarkably large amount of the trail that is ideal for a California auto tour. In 1990, Congress established the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail as a part of the National Trails System.

juan bautista de anza

Juan Bautista de Anza, public domain

This very important Spanish trail was blazed by a Spanish military officer by the name of Juan Bautista de Anza. Ther idea actually originated with Anza’s father who dreamed of finding an overland route to Alta California. This was an important route for Spain who was trying to secure their stronghold in the region. Spain’s concerns were the explorations of both the Russians and the English. The Russians had a thriving trade operation in the area about 100 miles north of San Francisco Bay at Fort Ross on the Pacific coast. The English of course had operations in what is today Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Using mission and Indian trading routes, Juan de Anza found a path into Alta California in 1774. This route would allow passage of supplies, livestock and much needed settlers. When Anza identified the route he secured permission from the Viceroy of New Spain to make the Spanish expedition.

Juan Bautista de Anza’s expedition was quite different from a mere exploration. Some of the earlier expeditions were for simple exploration. This expedition was to help colonize a distant land. This essentially went hand in hand with the Spanish Mission system being established around the same years. Traveling through Sonora New Spain, Anza put out a call to men to join him and be paid as soldiers. His men told about the lush land to the north which was greatly different than the desert region around Sonora. Interest was high but Anza placed certain requirements to many of the prospective recruits. There were two primary conditions. The men would agree not to return to New Spain and they were obligated to bring along their families.

de anza trail map

Route of the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition, public domain

Anza’s expedition departed from Tubac Presidio on October 23, 1775. The expedition included thirty families which amounted to some 240 men, women and children. The expedition had a purpose. The purpose in general was to safely deliver the settlers and their livestock to el Rio San Francisco, the first Spanish settlement in that key area. There was no guarantee of success but the travelers put their full faith in Anza. The families who joined the expedition, after weighing their current opportunities in Sonora, felt strongly that a better life could be found in Alta California. They risked everything for a chance to be among the very first settlers to California.

As with just about all Spanish expeditions, religion and the Franciscans played a large role. Most days began with Mass and hymns of praise. These were conducted by Franciscan priest Pedro Font. In addition to Font’s religious duties, he kept a very detailed diary and recorded latitudes using a quadrant. His journals were a running historic record recording locations, miles traveled and supplies used. It is from his diary and one written by Anza himself  that today we have an excellent record of the Anza expedition. Coming up from present day Mexico around the Nogales area, the expedition which included some 1,000 head of cattle crossed the Colorado River into Alta California at present day Yuma Arizona. Anza was fortunate to have received able help from the local Indians and this included finding the Yuma Crossing. The trail went through Riverside and north of present day Los Angeles to the coast near Oxnard. Then it was up the Pacific coast past San Luis Obispo and to the east of Monterey before reaching present day San Francisco. Much of the route fairly follows US Hwy 101. It’s interesting that riders on Amtrak’s Coast Starlight train from Los Angeles to Oakland also follow a section of this trail.

juan bautista de anza interpretive center in martinez california

The Juan Bautista de Anza Interpretive Visitor Center in Martinez, CA, from author's collection

The Juan Bautista de Anza expedition was a great success for Spain. After Juan de Anza selected a site for both a presidio and a Spanish mission, on June 27, 1776 a Lt. Moraga led the settlers to what is today the city of San Francisco. This marked the establishment of Mission Dolores on the San Francisco peninsula. This also marked the very northernmost settlement to that date for Spain. What’s very interesting to the tourist is that many of the names of settlers and military involved with Juan de Anza’s expedition are still seen today throughout northern California. These are names such as Moraga, Berryessa, Bernal and Peralta. Today, these are names of towns, highways, landmarks and counties. De Anza’s name can be found on buildings, schools and streets.

The National Park Service has sixteen sites along the de Anza Trail where many visitors like to collect stamps showing their visit. These stamps are given out by the NPS to officially confirm the visit. The National Park Service administers the Anza Historic Trail Exhibit Visitor Center located at John Muir National Historic Park in Martinez California. This is the historic adobe on the Muir grounds that has been made into the Anza Historic Trail Center. This center has some great exhibits and would be a fine addition to any san Francisco area trip planner. Martinez is located northeast of San Francisco opposite the town of Benicia California.

Cattle Drives and Cowboys / What It Was Really Like

When you think of the days of the great western cattle drives and cowboys you might just think of all those western movies and television series that were made. While these were entertaining, quite a bit about the daily life of the western cowboy and the actual mechanics of a cattle drive were romanticized to the point of being inaccurate. This is to be expected. A motion picture or television show was made to entertain, not to necessarily educate. There’s nothing wrong with that. With that being said, the real life of a working cowboy was more adventuresome and dangerous and with much less glamor than you might think. A cattle ranch was a business and the work of a western cowboy was part of that business.

american cowboy

American Cowboy, circa 1888

One of the best places I know of in the U.S. that accurately portrays the cowboy life is the Western Cowboy and National Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK. The exhibition wing houses a turn-of-the-century town and interactive history galleries that focus on the American cowboy, rodeos, Native American culture, Victorian firearms, frontier military and western performers. Another interesting stop is the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame located in the stockyards historic district of Fort Worth Texas. The museum opened in 2001 and honors men and women who have excelled in the sport and business of rodeo and the western lifestyle. A third very interesting museum of the American cowboy is the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame located in Hobbs New Mexico in the Western Heritage Museum Complex. Lots of excellent artifacts and information about the cowboy way of life.

The Cattle Drive Trails

charles goodnight

Charles Goodnight, the Father of the Texas Panhandle

One of the best ways to describe accurately the life of an 1800’s western cowboy is to detail what was involved in a cattle drive. After the end of the American Civil War there were three trails established from Texas to the rail heads and markets to the north. Because of the Civil War, there was an abundance of cattle in Texas that under normal circumstances would have already been driven to market. The three trails that came into being were the Chisholm Trail, the Goodnight-Loving Trail and the Great Western Trail (sometimes referred to as the Texas Trail).

The Chisholm Trail led from the south Texas grazing land up through Texas near the current Dallas-Fort Worth area and then north over the Red River, through Indian Territory and ended in Abilene Kansas. The Goodnight-Loving Trail went west into New Mexico near Fort Sumner and then northward east of Las Vegas New Mexico and then into Colorado. The largest trail, the Great Western, started in south Texas with feeder trails at the Rio Grande. The trail went north parallel to the Chisholm but about 100 miles further west. It crossed the Red River near present day Vernon Texas and led through Indian Territory with a final destination of Dodge City Kansas.

jesse chisholm

Jesse Chisholm of whom the Chisholm Trail was named after.

The Western Cowboy and the Cattle Drive

The book Trail Driving Days, by Dee Brown and Martin F. Schmitt, offers a very detailed look at the mechanics of driving a herd of cattle hundreds of miles to a rail head.

A typical drive of 3,500 head of cattle, and there were drives of many more head, might require eighteen cowboys. Also needed was a cook and his chuck wagon and a horse wrangler who was responsible for the “remuda”. The remuda was a herd of tame riding horses which the cowboys chose to use. Many horses were required because the cattle drive was a long distance affair over rivers and ever changing terrain.

To start the cattle drive, cowboys would have to gather all their equipment together and report to the trail boss. The trail boss essentially ran the operation.The trail boss would select one dominant steer to act as a lead for the herd. The drive would not begin all at once. Typically, the steers would be left to graze in the morning and then slowly led down the trail. This type system of grazing and driving would be employed for the purpose of getting the cattle used to the drive. After days of this, the herd would be accustomed to the routine and automatically begin to follow the lead steer who would be led by the point cowboys. The placement of the cowboys in relation to the herd was very important. In addition to the two point riders at the lead steer, there were swing and flank riders. The swing riders would be on each side of the herd about one-third of the way back. The flank riders would be two-thirds of the way back. The tail riders rode behind the herd. This was the least desired position. This might be the job less highlighted in cowboy western movies. Their job was to keep the weaker steers moving. As you can imagine, the tail riders rode in a cloud of dust not to mention the smell. No surprise this wasn’t a coveted position.

Western Cowboy Event at the New Mexico History Museum

Cowboys Real and Imagined: April 14, 2013 through March 16, 2014

This is a stop you want to put on your trip planner if your travels take you to New Mexico. The New Mexico History Museum is located in Santa Fe New Mexico behind the Palace of the Governors on the Santa Fe plaza.
Using artifacts and photographs from its wide-ranging collections, along with loans from more than 100 people and museums, Cowboys Real and Imagined (April 14, 2013, through March 16, 2014) blends a chronological history of Southwestern cowboys with the rise of a manufactured mystique as at home on city streets as it is in a stockyard.

More on the Western Cattle Drive

At his point you can see how the western cowboys, each with their particular assignment, kept the herd moving and in the right direction. The trail boss and the chuck wagon cook would ride perhaps two or three miles ahead of the herd. The trail boss would be looking for a suitable location for the noon rest. A suitable location would include a good watering hole. At the end of a typical day, the herd might have advanced perhaps fifteen miles. This could vary because of rivers to cross and terrain.

cowboys of the xit ranch

XIT Ranch Cowboys, 1891

Stopping at the end of the day meant more things to do. The herd needed to be bedded down. Watches were scheduled throughout the night. A watch might be two to four hours long. At night you wanted quiet and peace. Above all you didn’t want anything to rile the herd. You wanted to avoid a stampede at all costs. A stampede, if one did occur, would more likely occur at night. It could be set off by a thunder clap, the noise from the cook’s skillet, the breaking of a twig. Any sudden noise if just right had the potential of causing a stampede. In addition to causing the drive to lose valuable time, a stampede could be a deadly affair for a cowboy. More than one cowboy was crushed to death in a stampede after his horse stepped into a prairie dog hole and fell over. A stampede was serious business. Keeping the camp as quiet and peaceful as possible at night was important. To be sure, stampedes could also happen during daylight. Causes could be everything from a violent thunderstorm to an Indian waving a blanket at the herd. The possibility of being caught up in a stampede would be the most dangerous thing that could happen to a cowboy on a cattle drive.

Links to two additional articles on our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy are The XIT Ranch and Building of the Texas State Capital and Cattle Brands in the American West.

Relaxing on the Drive

Most accounts of old western cowboys on cattle drives say very little about relaxing. For all intents and purposes there was very little relaxing. A trail drive was a tough and dangerous business. As we say today, it wasn’t a Sunday drive. The trail boss was under a lot of tension and the drovers were weary from the hard riding. Two constant threats were weather and Indians.

What relaxing there was might be card games at night if time allowed. Poker would usually be played using match sticks as chips since the cowboys pockets were empty. They would not see money until the end of the drive. Relaxing for the western cowboy was at night when things were hopefully quiet and the herd contented. It might very well be this quasi-relaxation while on the long cattle drive that culminated in the celebrations at trails end. In other words, the real relaxing was after the drive ended and the cowboy received his wages.

A Rare Diary of a Cattle Drive

Cowboys keeping diaries on the cattle drive was rare. The book, Trail Driving Days, does mention one diary kept by an early cowboy on a south Texas to Iowa trail drive in the year 1866. This was about ten years before cattle were driven up the long Western Trail to Dodge City. This particular drive in 1866 consisted of a herd of about one thousand. The diary makes special mention of two big fears, weather and stampedes. The diary was kept by a man named George Duffield. Some excerpts…May 1st, “Big stampede. Lost 200 head of cattle”. May 2nd, “Spent the day hunting and found but twenty-five head. It has been raining for three days”. May 8th, “Rain pouring down in torrents. Ran my horse into a ditch and got my knee badly sprained”. May 9th, “Still dark and gloomy. River up. Everything looks blue to me”. George Duffield continued to drive the cattle through Texas and after a difficult crossing of the Brazos River near present day Waco attempted to cross the Red River into Indian Territory.

His diary entry of May 31st states, “Swimming cattle is the order. We worked all day in the river and at dusk got the last beefe (diary spelling) over. I am now out of Texas This day will long be remembered by me. There was one of our party drowned today”. The cattle drive continued north. On June 19th, Duffield recorded an encounter with Indians. “15 Indians came to herd and tried to take some beeves. Would not let them. Had a big muss. One drew his knife and I my revolver. Made them leave but fear they have gone for others”. After the Arkansas River was crossed on June 27th, George Duffield wrote…”My back is blistered badly from exposure while in the river and I with two others are suffering very much. I was attacked by a beefe in the river and had a very narrow escape from being hurt by diving”.

George Duffields cattle drive finally ended when the herd reached Ottumwa Iowa on October 31st. There he sold his herd. By the time the cattle drive reached it’s destination it had about 500 of the original 1,000 head. The diary of George Duffield is invaluable as it paints a realistic picture of the extremely hard work and dangers of being a western cowboy on an 1800’s cattle drive. The year of Duffield’s drive was a time before Indian troubles calmed down. Some of the later drives into Nebraska and further north occurred in the late 1870’s after the Sioux had largely retreated to their reservations.

wyatt earp and bat masterson

Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, Dodge City Kansas, 1876. Public Domain photo.

The Cowboys Celebrates the End of the Cattle Drive

Again, the best way to learn the truth about cowboy rowdiness or lack thereof is to compare real eyewitness accounts and statistics to what you may have seen watching the old westerns at the movies or on television.

There is a statistic of shooting deaths in Dodge City Kansas during the year 1872. Dodge City gained it’s reputation not only from the massive cattle drives but also, before that, from the buffalo hunters and Indian fighters. In fact, the shipping east of buffalo hides was the trade of Dodge City before the cowboys arrived. In the year 1872 there was a recorded twenty-five murders in Dodge City resulting from fights. Out of these twenty-five, only one involved a cowboy.

While on the trail, cattle drive trail bosses were the law. Rules to follow were known before the drive ever started. Breaking of the rules would be dealt with harshly. Murder could result in a hanging. The cowboys during the drive would usually follow the rules and regulations to the letter. Some ranchers would forbid gambling and drinking during a drive. Once the trail drive ended, the cowboys would be paid and they would let off steam. Depending on the length of the drive, a cowboy might have eighty or ninety dollars in his pocket when paid. There were many saloons and gambling halls more than willing to relieve the young cowboy of his new found wealth.

In fact, the large Texas influence was not lost on saloon keepers and others in Dodge City. Business names such as The Alamo, Nueces, and Lone Star popped up. Some establishments advertised Russian Caviar, anchovies and ice cold beer. Quite a departure from the beans, biscuits and beef served on the trail drive. The cowboys had money in Dodge City and the merchants had delicacies.

Setting aside Hollywood stereotypes, what really went on in Dodge City Kansas at the end of a trail drive? First of all, it was common knowledge that innocent people very very rarely were touched by violence. In a town like Dodge City, if an innocent woman walking down the street were attacked by a drunken cowboy, the punishment would be swift and severe. Letting off steam at the end of a drive would be characterized more by bragging and drinking rather than breaking the law. Practical joke playing would be experienced before gunfire would.

For sure, things could become rowdy but very rarely deadly. You also have to realize that a booming cow town attracted a wide assortment of colorful characters. Gamblers, prostitutes, outlaws and con men came to Dodge just as they came to the gold mining towns of California two decades earlier. Shootings in general in a town like Dodge City Kansas were not nearly as frequent and deadly as the Hollywood movies would have you believe. The difference was that if they happened in a place like Dodge City the eastern newspapers jumped on the story.

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Modern Day cattle drive

The Cowboy and the Rancher

There’s an interesting relationship between the cowboy and the rancher. When you strive to learn more about the cowboy, his daily life and habits, you really need to go back and look at the rancher himself. The book Cattle Kings, by author Lewis Atherton, talks about the relationship of the two. Atherton points out how the rancher took a background role in many cowboy novels.

Literature about the history of the ranching industry places much more emphasis on the cowboy than it does on the rancher. Few novelists have used ranchers as the central figure. Novelists have employed the rancher as a background figure in the shadows. The rancher was described as a businessman, not a hero. The hero in most of these novels was the cowboy himself. The majority of authors seemed to place the cowboy in the role of hero in an otherwise lawless land. This type of setting was perfect for fiction writers. Most descriptions like this were simply the imagination of dime novelists. It was discovered that you could actually sell more books by creating a western hero. Who better than the lone cowboy? The novelists for the most part chose the cowboy over the rancher. What isn’t a part of most cowboy novels is the influence that the rancher himself had on how the cowboy conducted himself. After all, this wouldn’t help sell the dime novel. For the cowboy to actually have a boss would take away from the rugged individualism that the author’s wanted to highlight.

The majority of ranchers discouraged the carrying of revolvers by their cowboys. With the exception of carrying firearms to protect oneself from wild animals, firearms were not a piece of equipment seen as frequently as Hollywood or the dime novelists would portray. One rancher summed it up pretty well when he pointed out that an unarmed man would not be challenged to a gunfight. The Code of the West as it was known forbid firing on an unarmed man. Many ranchers felt that the act of carrying six-shooters could lead to unwanted trouble. As a result, there were more cowboys walking around unarmed as there were armed. In the majority of cases, the branding iron and a rope were tools more familiar to the cowboy than a six-shooter.

cowboys branding cattle

Cattle branding, circa 1888

The American cowboy was a hard working man. The glamor however attached to the work was largely literary embellishment. A cowboy’s daily routine working with livestock was hardly glamorous. Reading some excerpts from the diary written by George Duffield is evidence of this. A cowboy, just like the general public, could be good or bad or in between. Usually he was good, hardworking and had a sense of humor. The cowboy had to adapt to a rugged and sometimes hostile environment. His job was not something suitable for everyone. The cowboy had a boss. The boss was either the rancher himself, the trail boss, or both. What the literary authors may have had correct was the fact that the cowboy represented individualism. It took individualism to decide to become a cowboy in the first place. Individualism after all is what America was about. The cowboy fit the bill to a tee and it wasn’t a major literary leap to also make him a hero. The cowboy legend may be one of the only legends that actually gets larger as time goes by.

(Photos from the public domain)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oregon Trail Diaries / Would You Have Taken One Family’s Trek Across America?

In the year 1849, would you have taken one family’s trek across North America? The chances are that you could have embarked on the journey, but the real question is “would you have?”. Learning about the trip from Oregon Trail diaries and narratives will help you decide. Hearing about the sacrifices and ordeals of such a journey from someone who made it is the best history narrative available. The Oregon Trail diaries and narratives are invaluable historic artifacts.

Covered Wagon and gear on display at Sutters Fort in Sacramanto California, from author's collection.

In the very enlightening book, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, by author Lillian Schlissel, there is a very vivid description of one family’s travels from Clinton Iowa to Sacramento California. The reason the trip was made were purely economic. There was gold in California. There was plenty of it but not quite the easy pickings that most stories that made it back to the midwest declared.

Why Head West?

One major reason that many families decided to risk a trip through hostile lands was the economic shape of the U.S. at that time. Most historical accounts, not all but most, ignore the real driver of this emigration. That was the Economic Panic of 1837. Just like today, there were economic panics that placed many in rough economic shape. In fact, this economic collapse depressed farm real estate prices well into the 1840’s. It wasn’t a one or two year event. Many merchants lost their businesses or owed a considerable amount to creditors. To say the California Gold Rush was talked about is an understatement. Our history books tells us that it was THE subject being discussed everywhere in America during 1849. People asked their neighbors and friends if they would be making the journey. Advice was given out freely. Some of it good and some of it not so good. You can imagine just how exciting the prospect was for a new start in life and the possibility of riches in a backdrop of national economic weakness. What exactly would it take to make the decision to risk everything for possible riches? Even if the risk didn’t result in riches, which for most it didn’t, would the journey through America’s wilderness in a covered wagon still be worth it? Many people in 1849 thought it was.

The family chronicled in this particular diary and narrative were newlyweds with the husband being a lawyer by trade. They ran into financial difficulty like many others. Also, like many others, they were hearing incredible stories from California. In the case of this particular family, their desire to go to California, which they termed the new El Dorado, was to acquire enough gold to return to Clinton Iowa and pay off their creditors. A return trip to Iowa at some future date was always part of the plan. The Oregon Trail beckoned. It was the shortest way to California from the jumping off towns. Whether for economic reasons or time frame, a voyage to California by ship was not realistic.

Guernsey Lake State Park Wyoming Museum

The majority of the Oregon Trail travelers in 1849 were midwesterners. Those from the eastern seaboard states that wanted to get themselves to California often went by ship whether around Cape Horn or through the isthmus of Panama.

Assembling in Council Bluffs Iowa

When the decision was made to head west, the family left with four wagons. Two of the wagons were filled with merchandise that they would sell at enormous profits when once reaching the remote gold fields. The profits were there to be made if only you could reach California. In 1849 there were three main jumping off points as they were called for those heading west. They were Council Bluffs Iowa, St. Joseph Missouri and Independence Missouri. These are the points where people convened to join wagon trains. It was where you might spend some time beforehand acquiring what supplies you hadn’t already. The journey to Council Bluffs of course was the easiest segment. You could camp near farmhouses, easily purchase needed food supplies and the terrain was flat and green. For obvious weather reasons, journeys started in April after the winter snows melted. Understanding that the journey might very well take at least six months, an April start was necessary to avoid the Sierra Nevada snowstorms in the fall. The launching off from Council Bluffs Iowa most likely would begin in May. The diary and narrative excerpts of this 1849 journey were kept by Catherine Haun, who with her husband and five other men and a female cook, set out from Clinton to Council Bluffs Iowa and from there into what was referred to as the wilderness. To an Iowa family in 1849 it was the great unknown.

The notes taken by Mrs. Haun point out that there were certain attributes looked for when joining a wagon train. First was that there was an ample supply of firearms and ammunition. Secondly, that the train’s wagons were not loaded so full that they would hinder travel time. Animals needed to be sturdy whether they were oxen or horses. Oxen were preferred because they were considered less likely to stampede and were less likely to be stolen by Indians. Indians wanted horses, not oxen. Good general health was also a benefit and you didn’t want a caravan with a disproportionate amount of women and children. Of course all the planning in the world could not totally isolate one from the surprises and dangers of the wilderness. When all was said and done, the caravan which included the Haun party consisted of seventy wagons.

Indians

The biggest concern seems to have been the possibility of Indian attack although it was thought of more than spoken about. Mrs. Haun writes that the bucks with their bows and arrows, buckskin garments and feathered headgear followed the wagon train regularly. They were relatively friendly yet were to beg often at mealtimes. She wrote that they seldom molested any of the whites. Catherine Haun does write that throughout their journey the Indian presence still caused anxiety. She was never sure of their friendship and being alert was a necessity. She writes of instances where Indians crept into their camp at night and stole items such as blankets. Mrs. Haun describes how their soft moccasins made it hard to hear their presence. The fact that Indians could enter a campsite undetected was itself alarming to the wagon train party. Compared to what some pioneers endured the Haun caravan seemed fortunate. Mrs. Haun notes in her diary that after the wagon train passed the prairie lands, the Indians appeared to be more treacherous and numerous. At night, for protection, the caravan would draw their wagons in a circle. When they determined where they would spend the night, one wagon would go left, the other to the right and so on and so forth until they had a circle with a good size area in the middle.

Monument near site of Gratton Massacre in 1854. twenty nine soldiers were killed near Fort Laramie

It should be noted that the year the Haun’s journeyed to California was not nearly at the height of Indian trouble on the Oregon Trail. The real trouble appeared to start between 1854 and 1860 when a large number of army troops were sent east to fight the Civil War. At the same time there were disputes between the U.S. government and Indians regarding emigrants and promised annuities. This led to increased Indian attacks throughout the plains and down into Texas. Many times, wagon trains were the targets.

Sickness

Emigrant deaths along the Oregon Trail stemmed from many causes. Accidents, drownings and sickness being the major ones. Indian attacks would not be significant causes. There may have been no larger single cause of death among the Oregon Trail pioneers than cholera. The chief cause of cholera was bad water and the sickness was highly contagious. Catherine Haun points out the enormous number of graves, some fresh, that their wagon train passed along the Oregon Trail. One of the reasons that exact estimates of cholera deaths on the Oregon Trail is hard to determine is that the custom was to bury many people in unmarked graves. This was to avoid having them dug up by Indians or wild animals. Mrs. Haun notes that their caravan passed a grave which had been opened by Indians in order to get at clothes. Many suppose this also caused the Indians to pick up the dreaded disease. It’s been written that cholera may have killed up to 3% of all Oregon Trail travelers during the epidemic years of 1849 to 1855.

Rivers

Wagons could cross rivers on their own if the water was shallow enough. If not, they would be rafted over to the other side but not before removing their wheels so that they would lie flat and not tip over. Not an easy job in any circumstance.

Before trying to drive your wagon pulled by oxen over a river you would need to be sure the bottom wasn’t quicksand. This was a problem with several river crossings and there was more than one wagon lost to the river bottom.

The Mountains

There was a reason the short lived Butterfield Overland Stage Line ran through Texas and the New Mexico Territory in 1858. Less high mountains. Much of the Butterfield Stage route traveled over desert. What mountain passes that were encountered were nothing like the Sierra Nevadas in California. Imagine trying to manage wagons, teams of oxen and horses, not to mention people, over some of the most formidable mountain passes in North America. Everyone was aware of the fate of the Donner Party in the Sierra Nevada winter of 1846.

 

Sierra Nevada Mountains from Emigrant Gap California, from author's collection

When the trail reached steep inclines and declines, people had to join in to keep the wagons going uphill, and when they started a descent, ropes behind the wagons needed to be pulled by as many people as possible to keep the wagon from crashing into the oxen in front.

Following is an excerpt on this subject from Catherine Haun..”and oh, such pulling, pushing, tugging it was! I used to pity the drivers as well as the oxen and horses-and the rest of us. The drivers of our ox teams were sturdy young men, all about twenty-two years of age who were driving for their passage to California”.

Passing the Time

It’s a fact that most wagon trains tried to start moving before 6 AM. As a consequence most people didn’t keep late hours. Catherine Haun describes the evening hours…” We did not keep late hours but when not too engrossed with fear of the red enemy or dread of impending danger we enjoyed the hour around the campfire. The menfolk lolling and smoking their pipes and guessing or maybe betting how many miles we covered the day. We listened to readings, story telling, music and songs and the day often ended in laughter and merrymaking”.

The Haun’s wagon train reached the Laramie River on July 4, 1849. Mrs. haun goes on to describe some of things planned for that special day. ” After dinner it was proposed that we celebrate the day and we all heartily joined in. America West was the Goddess of Liberty, Charles Wheeler was orator and Ralph Cushing acted as master of ceremonies. We sang patriotic songs, repeated what little we could of the Declaration of Independence, fired off a gun or two, and gave three cheers for the United States and California Territory in particular!”. (California would gain statehood one year later).

Two related articles regarding the Oregon Trail which you should find interesting are Lake Guernsey State Park Old Wagon Wheel Ruts and Fort Kearney and the Oregon Trail.

Summing Up the Overland Journey

Catherine Haun wrote down her feelings about the after they reached California. She wrote…”Upon the whole I enjoyed the trip, spite of it’s hardships and dangers and the fear and dread that hung as a pall over every hour. As though not so thrilling as were the experiences of many who suffered in reality what we feared, but escaped, I like every other pioneer , love to live over again, in memory those romantic months, and revisit, in fancy, the scenes of the journey.

Inside of Sutters Fort, Sacramento California. The destination for many traveling the Oregon Trail. From author's collection.

As it turned out, the Hauns did not strike it rich in the California gold fields. Someone was calling for a lawyer to help draw up a will. Mr. Haun offered to do it for the man for a fee of $150. With the money Mr. Haun earned he bought lumber to construct a home. After that he dropped any idea of working the gold fields and hung out his lawyer shingle. Mrs. Haun noted that they had gamblers on one side of the house (they gave them the property to build on) and a saloon on the other. She goes on to conclude that she never received more respectful attention than she did from those neighbors.

As mentioned previously, the Hauns were fortunate to have traveled over the Oregon Trail before major problems developed with the plains Indians. Clashed leading to much bloodshed occurred starting in 1854 around Fort Laramie Wyoming and generally escalated with fits and starts into what is commonly referred to as the Plains Indian Wars. They led up to Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn and beyond. Most historians believe the Indian Wars ended for good with the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Wagon trains that journeyed over the Oregon Trail and connecting trails after 1854 and especially after 1860 and beyond were regularly attacked. The attacks were also much more violent as opposed to the harassment in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s. The level of warfare between the U.S. Army and particularly the Sioux and Cheyenne bands grew in violence up through George Armstrong Custer’s expedition in 1876.

Again, the question is… knowing, or perhaps not knowing, what the wilderness between Iowa and California had in store during the gold crazed year of 1849, would you have elected to make this journey?

 

Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel and the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad

There is probably no better example of the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad’s early promotion of Santa Fe as a tourist destination than the La Fonda Hotel. Located directly across from the southeast corner of the plaza, The La Fonda Hotel, a glowing example of Santa Fe’s unique adobe architecture, remains one of Santa Fe’s busiest hotels. One of the hotel’s most famous attributes is that it is located at the end of the Santa Fe Trail. Across the street from the hotel and near the southeast corner of the plaza is a plaque demarcating the end of the Trail.

la fonda hotel santa feThere had been an inn at the current La Fonda location since early in the 1800’s. In fact, when General Kearny took over Santa Fe during the Mexican-American War in 1846, he stayed at the inn which was then named The United States Hotel. At a point years later the hotel was renamed the Exchange Hotel. Later, a group of local Santa Fe investors took over the hotel and named it La Fonda. 

Real changes came to the hotel in 1925 after it was sold to the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The hotel that the AT&SF bought was reconstructed in 1922 but when the railroad took ownership they expanded the building once again. By the latter part of the 1800’s the main way people traveled to the American southwest was by train and the AT&SF was the first rail line to enter New Mexico. The year was 1878. Railroads had a history of using their natural influence with travelers to promote destinations. The Southern Pacific did this with the Del Monte Hotel in Monterey California. The Northern Pacific did the same thing with it’s rail line crossing the southern end of Glacier National Park. The Canadian Pacific was quite successful promoting the natural scenic beauty of western Canada. The railroads had active advertising departments that could tap into the adventurous spirit of the turn of the century tourist.

atchison topeka and santa fe railroad engineThe AT&SF along with the hotel/restaurant management skill of the Fred Harvey Company. Fred Harvey’s company made Santa Fe their top priority. What’s interesting is that the city of Santa Fe does not lie directly the the AT&SF line but is connected to it by an eighteen mile spur line to it’s station in Lamy New Mexico. Most historians agree that besides being part of the railroad’s name. the town of Santa Fe and it’s surrounding area was the obvious area to promote. The railroad as well as The Fred Harvey Company contributed greatly to the promotion of Santa Fe as an art community. When the rail spur was completed from Lamy, artists in great numbers traveled to Santa Fe and started putting the areas scenic beauty on canvas. Additionally the railroad commissioned several artists to create artwork highlighting the unique features of the region. Adobes, mesas, mountains, beautifully colored rocks..all  the things that make Santa Fe stand out. Many of these paintings ended up adorning AT&SF stations along their line as well as the Fred Harvey restaurants and hotels. AT&SF brochures captured the architectural distinctiveness of Santa Fe as well as articles put out by the advertising department. All of this promotion resulted in more and more people traveling to the area. Many people credit both the AT&SF and Fred Harvey with literally inventing southwest tourism.

hotel la fondaAnother first for Santa Fe was the “Indian detour” escorted trips by specially equipped cars and buses. These motor tours typically started at the La Fonda Hotel lobby and took travelers to surrounding areas of interest including Indian pueblos and other scenic sights. Often there would be informative lectures about the sights to see in and around Santa Fe by well informed Indian detour guides. Many of these lectures would take place at AT&SF’s La Fonda. Indian detour was a very successful endeavor which was owned by the AT&SF and managed by the Harvey people. The highpoint of motoring lasted from the mid 1920’s through the 30’s. The start of World War Two put a halt to sightseeing tours and the improvement of roads such as with Route 66 and the fact that more and more people were driving their own vehicles started the decline of these type of ventures. Fred Harvey as many know also had great success with his Harvey motor tours at the Grand Canyon. That was another AT&SF/Harvey venture.

The AT&SF took advantage of Santa Fe’s multicultural uniqueness, both with it’s people and it’s architecture, and was very successful in urging visitors to a region they had only previously read about in the eastern papers. The railroad was responsible for the building of a burgeoning art community and also for the promotion of Indian artwork and jewelry products to the traveling public. The railroad brought a market right to the doorstep of Santa Fa natives. That doorstep as far as the railroad was concerned was the La Fonda Hotel, recognized by many as Fred Harvey’s most famous Harvey House.

What the railroad did in essence was to highlight the attributes that really were in Santa Fe and the surrounding area all along. When looking back now after over a century, the success that the AT&SF had with helping to make Santa Fe a national tourist destination is an amazing story.