Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Prarie Schooners and the Oregon Trail

The final resting place of a 40 year old man who died along the Applegate Trail in 1867 near what is now Merlin, Oregon.

Between the 1830's and the 1870's, roughly 200,000 people migrated from the Eastern portion of the United States to the Western coast of North America along what is popularly known as the Oregon Trail. Officially, the trail extended over 2000 miles across a mostly unpopulated and very wild continent, typically starting at Independence, Missouri and usually ending at Oregon City in Oregon's fertile Willamette Valley. The average journey took four months and was filled with extreme hardship. Contrary to popular myth, many of these people actually turned back toward their homes and never did make it out West.

Along the trail, over 25,000 of these immigrants (they didn't call themselves "Pioneers") died from various causes and it has been estimated that there is an average of one grave along every eighty feet of the trail. Though most of these graves were unmarked and their locations long since forgotten, a large number of markers can still be found along the trail.

Contrary to the popular misconception, the Oregon Trail isn't actually a single trail. Though Independence, Missouri was the popular gathering spot to asemble wagon trains, the trail actually began wherever the immigrants originated. (I use the term "immigrants" simply because the people involved used that same term for they were actually leaving the United States and moving to a new country, which early on was actually under European rule). Much the same way, though the official end of the trail was originally Oregon City, the journey ended wherever a family chose to settle. Though many did go to the Willamette Valley, many others went on to California or what became Washington (then called Columbia). Quite a few actually settled in British Columbia which is now part of Canada. Those who chose to go on to the Pacific North West essentially stayed on the Oregon Trail, while those who chose to go to California, took a branch in the trail in Western Idaho that went south west. (Here in Oregon, we have an old legend about where the trail splits in that the northern spur of the trail was marked by a sign which read "To Oregon", while the southern branch was marked by a pile of pyrite (Fool's Gold) and marked the way to California. People who could read took the northern branch, while people who were greedy and illiterate went to California. Some Californians like to claim that it was really the other way around.) As well, in addition to these two main branches, some parties also made their own way. One such group were the Applegate Brothers who migrated to the Willamette Valley in 1843, yet lost three family members while floating the Columbia River near the Dalles. By the Spring of 1846, the three brothers were determined to find a safer route to the Willamette Valley and soon established the Applegate Trail which cuts off of the California Trail in Western Nevada and then meanders through Southern Oregon toward the Willamette. In 1853, over 3500 people used this route, which today runs the same route as Nevada State Highway 66 and Interstate 5.

Contrary to what you may have learned in history class at school or have seen in movies, these people did not come over the Plains in Constega Wagons pulled by mules or horses. Constega Wagons were actually much too heavy to make the journey, while horses and mules were not only too expensive and difficult to keep in condition during the journey, but they also proved very tempting to Indians who had a fondness for stealing them. Instead, they used much lighter wagons which were pulled by six oxen.

As well, nobody actually rode in the wagons, either. In addition to there not being enough space for riders (too many provisions in the wagon), the wagons actually didn't have a seat for a driver. (Instead of drivers and reins on a harness, they had bullwhackers which moved the oxen along with the aid of a huge bullwhip. Contrary to popular misconception, bullwhackers don't actually whip the oxen either. Instead the bullwhip has a little "popper" at the tip which when used properly makes a great snapping sound through the air to move the animals along). In otherwords, everyone walked 2000 miles to come to Oregon.

Though I mentioned that horses were not used on the trail because they appealed too much to Indians who saw horse theft as a great personal challenge, contrary to all those movies you've seen, most wagon trains never had any problems by Indians. In most movies about the Oregon Trail, you see the wagons placed in a circle to guard against Indian attack while the people camp inside the circled wagons. Though they did place the wagons in a circle, the people actually camped outside of the circle and they actually used the wagons to form a corral for their animals by chaining the tongues of each wagon to the axle of another so that it was secure.

Contrary to the movies, of the 25,000+ people who died along the trail, only about 400 of them were killed by Indians and for the most part, many wagon trains were assisted by Indians. Most of the old fashioned herbal cures that pioneer women knew were actually learnt from Indians that these women often met along the trail to Oregon.

Although the establishment of the intercontinental railroad largely spelled the end of the Oregon Trail by the 1870's, the trail actually remained in use by migrants using covered wagons as late as 1912.

Kind of makes you wonder what else they didn't tell you in school, doesn't it?

Something about Six Shooters

One probably can't think of the Old West without having the image of a six gun in their head.

In addition to being interested in the Old West, I also have a real thing about revolvers and I own several. In fact, the Ruger Single Six that you see here is mine. It fires a standard .22 Long Rifle cartridge and though it is far from a toy, it is largely just a little plinker that is just a lot of fun to shoot.

I also own an 1851 .44 Colt Navy that is quite a lot different from the Ruger you see here. In the first place, it's a black powder weapon which means that it relies on a percussion cap, a lead ball and a measured charge of black powder to do its thing. Also, unlike the Ruger in the photo, it's not a little plinker. In fact, the first time I ever fired it, I immediately stopped to make sure that I had a right hand left because it made one hell of a big boom. All in all, it's a totally different experience from firing a modern firearm. Contrary to what one sees in Western films, most people in the Old West actually used black powder revolvers and many gunmen, such as Jesse James, used the 1851 Colt Navy to do their business simply because a large number of them were left over from the Civil War.

Another thing that you see in films that's not exactly accurate is how many shots a gunman typically fired.

Most of us really make fun of old Westerns that involve shoot-outs where people seem to have limitless supplies of ammunition loaded in their gun. But what you probably don't know, is that despite being often called "Six Shooters" (so-called because MOST revolvers have six chambers), most people actually only kept five of the cylinder chambers loaded and to be safe kept the hammer of the gun on an empty. Needless to say, when they drew their sixer from their holster, they would have to cock it so that a primed chamber moved into line with the hammer.

The reason is, these old guns are actually pretty damn dangerous. In addition to having a charge of gunpowder in each cylinder chamber, each one also has a percussion cap that fits onto a nipple behind the charge of gunpowder. When you pull the trigger, it slams onto the percussion cap, which sets off a charge that ignites the gunpowder, the force of the explosion which propells the ball out of the barrel. It's a pretty simple concept, but unlike modern guns, these old relics are a bit unreliable, not to mention unpredictable. In addition to sometimes chain firing (where the ignition of the percussion cap or powder accidentily sets off an additional chamber - that's not a good experience), the caps themselves can be set off by even a small blow, which in turn sets that chamber off. (Believe it or not, the first person who lost their life on the Oregon Trail wasn't killed by Indians, nor did they die of some dreaded disease. Instead, the guy accidentily shot himself while taking a loaded rifle out of a wagon).

Wyatt Earp (who was perhaps not always so handy with a six gun, afterall) quite often carried his revolver with all six chambers loaded in his younger years. That is, until one day, he sat down in a chair in some saloon and his un-thonged gun fell out of its holster, hit the floor and promptly discharged. The resulting shot whizzed past his head and buried itself into the ceiling above him. Following that experience, Earp always kept that sixth chamber empty.

So needless to say, the next time you watch a Western and you see some guy take six shots with his revolver, just remember that he's likely a tinhorn with a deathwish.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Old West

My name is Kerby Jackson and I write Westerns.

Welcome to my Old West blog!

Periodically I'll be posting tidbits of all sorts about the Old West.