Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails

Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails

by Frank McLynn
     
 

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In what The Washington Post has called “fascinating,” Frank McLynn has penned a year-by-year account of the pioneering efforts to conquer and settle the American West. Wagons West is a stirring history of the years from 1840 to 1849--the years between the era of the fur trappers and the beginning of the gold rush. In all the sagas of human migration,…  See more details below

Overview


In what The Washington Post has called “fascinating,” Frank McLynn has penned a year-by-year account of the pioneering efforts to conquer and settle the American West. Wagons West is a stirring history of the years from 1840 to 1849--the years between the era of the fur trappers and the beginning of the gold rush. In all the sagas of human migration, few can top the drama of the journey by Midwestern farmers to Oregon and California in those years. Although they used mountain men as guides, they went almost literally into the unknown, braving dangers from hunger, thirst, disease, and drowning.

Using original diaries and memoirs, McLynn “provides intimate, perceptive insights into that time”(The Baltimore Sun) and underscores the incredible heroism and dangerous folly on the overland trails. His well-informed and authoritative narrative investigates the events leading up to the opening of the trails, the wagons and animals used by the pioneers, the role of women, relations with Native Americans, and much else. The climax arrives in McLynn's expertly re-created tale of the dreadful Donner party, and he closes with Brigham Young and the Mormons beginning communites of their own. Full of high drama, tragedy, and triumph, it brilliantly chronicles one of the principal chapters in the creation of the United States as we know it today.

The Anglo-Americans were the last people to arrive in the West. The British had penetrated the Oregon Territory, the Spanish had occupied Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California, and even the Russians and Chinese had traveled to the Pacific seaboard. But until the 1840s, the West was a mere backwater in the life of the United States. The U.S. interest in the West didn’t begin until the 1840s, years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, commissioned by the US President Thomas Jefferson after he purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon in 1803. This new territory doubled the size of the United States, and Lewis and Clark were to explore the newly acquired and unfamiliar land. However, exploring the vast area between the Mississippi and the Pacific was largely the work of the “mountain men,” who between 1820 and 1840 reconnoitered the routes that would later be recognized as the Santa Fe, California, and Oregon trails.

Whereas in 1841 just thirty-four people had made it overland to California and in 1842 a mere 125 had reached Oregon, in 1844 1,528 people reached the west coast on the Oregon and California trails. Though the 1844 emigrants were very well organized and equipped, they faced problems no previous Pacific-bound emigrants had had to contend with: torrential rain and tremendous flooding. Having scarcely survived the high waters, the originally combined Oregon-bound and California-bound parties decided to go their separate ways at Fort Laramie. The Oregon-bound party then endured many deaths from disease, and largely degenerated into a free-for-all, with individual riders heading as fast as their horses would take them for the Columbia River. Though the first snows were not expected for a month, they came unseasonably early and caused starvation. One group did however get safely over the Blue Mountains. Around the same time, the Stephens-Murphy party reached Sutter’s Fort and was subsequently the first party to prove that wagons could be taken all the way to the Pacific Coast in California.

The Donner party unknowingly headed into the most unimaginable disaster. Moving too slowly to avoid the coming snowstorms, the Donner party proceeded without maps, direct trails or guides. After weeks of starvation due to the snow, members of the Donner party began to discuss cannibalism as an option. Those who did not survive the starvation were eaten by some of the survivors. When relief parties finally found the survivors, they learned to their horror that some of the party’s members, including infants and children, had been murdered for their flesh. But the press purposely silenced and suppressed news of the Donner party so as not to discourage overland pioneers. By the time the news reached the Midwest it was too late to deter the emigrants of 1847, and by 1848 the gold strike in California had swept aside all other considerations.

The most dramatic emigration of 1847 was that of the Mormons from Illinois to their new Zion in Oregon. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was killed by a mob of anti-Mormon militiamen in June of 1844. Brigham Young, one of his appointed “apostles,” became the new leader of the Mormons after his death. In March of 1846 he led 5,000 Mormon emigrants on their westward trail. To ensure the loyalty of the Mormons in territory that was still technically Mexican, President Polk demanded that the Mormons furnish a battalion of five hundred men to serve in the Mexican war, specifically to march against Santa Fe and California with US forces. By complying with the President’s request, Young got the US government to provide free transsssssport to the West, plus allowances for future Mormon emigrants. However, despite the aid, the going was very difficult for the Mormons and the casualties suffered were much more severe than those of previous emigrations. Four hundred deaths occurred from disease at one Mormon camp alone, and the Mormons also suffered Indian hostility and massacres greater than ever seen before on the trail. While Oregon saw nearly ten times more emigrants in 1847 than the previous year, because of the Mexican war and reports of Indian attacks, less than a third of the previous year’s emigrants arrived in California in 1847. But the discovery of gold in California in 1848 overwhelmed all deterrents and created numbers beyond the power of Indians to resist.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rarely has a book so wonderfully brought to life the riveting tales of Americans' trek to the Pacific. A prolific British writer taken by the complex aspirations and often desperate hardships of the saints and scoundrels who filled the Western trails, McLynn (Carl Gustav Jung; Napoleon) relates their travails with a brio and understanding too seldom encountered in books on this naturally compelling subject. He vividly paints the unforgiving geography and the obstacles of human nature that often daunted but rarely defeated these pioneers. And he overlooks few of the people. There are plenty of familiar characters here, their stories freshly told: the ill-fated Donner Party, the Whitmans on their way to Oregon, mountain man Jim Bridger, the historian Francis Parkman and the Mormons. What helps make this narrative distinctive is that McLynn doesn't limit himself to known pioneers. His pen captures characters and situations from almost every wagon train that crossed the continent in seven or so pivotal years (1841-1847). Women play a large role in his pages. The outsider's perspective that allows McLynn to offer shrewd comparisons between European and American conditions does make one wish for more analysis. Most of all, though, he leaves the reader with a fuller understanding of the grit and resolve that motivated waves of people seeking escape and opportunity to head West and make the United States a continental nation in fact as well as in name. 16 pages of b&w illus.; maps. (Jan.) Forecast: This could do very well regionally, like H.W. Brands's recent and equally engaging The Age of Gold. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
While the title implies that all westward trails will be covered, McLynn (literature, Strathclyde Univ.; Villa and Zapata) describes only the trail across the central United States to Oregon and California and only for the period from the Bidwell party of 1841 to the Mormon emigration of 1847-48. This allows him to explain why the emigration occurred and to put it into the context of Manifest Destiny. Drawing on numerous diaries and previously published research, he tells the story of each wagon train that set out from Missouri or Iowa during the early years but is selective for the later years, being careful to cover the Donner Party and the Mormon emigration of 1847-48 in detail. By putting both the California and Oregon trails together in one book and placing the story in a national context, McLynn provides a very useful starting point for undergraduates and general readers to begin their own investigations into this aspect of American history. He also provides an extensive bibliography to continue those investigations. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries.-Stephen H. Peters, Northern Michigan Univ. Lib., Marquette Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Detailed, intermittently interesting, but finally unrewarding study of America’s 19th-century overland expansion from (perhaps too) prolific biographer/historian McLynn (Napoleon, 2002, etc.). "The 19th century saw the American character at its best, and the best of that best was probably evinced on the wagon trains West." This cheering sentiment, like much else in McLynn’s sweeping study, is factually questionable and ultimately empty. The author is keen to demonstrate what the drive west says about the American character, marked in his view by "permanent rootlessness . . . spatial mobility, relocation, and the belief in the Fresh Start." In doing so, however, he overlooks a basic reality of 19th-century life: most of the men who went west (often accompanied by unwilling women and children) did so not out of some grand sense of Manifest Destiny or adventure, but because they wanted land, a commodity in short supply in the crowded East. Generations of American historians have established this fundamentally economic motivation for the acquisition of lebensraum, but McLynn persists in holding a romanticized and eminently European view of the era, as well as an eminently European lack of knowledge about the Native American cultures that Anglo pioneers encountered and battled. That said, he does a reasonable job of charting the rise and fall of such important overland routes as the Oregon and Santa Fe trails and of depicting some of the well-known pioneers and explorers who crossed them, such as Charles Frémont, Jedediah Smith, and the unfortunate members of the Donner Party. McLynn’s anecdotes and odd bits of fact, which make up the best parts here, are well chosen, particularly those havingto do with how newcomers to the West gouged, swindled, and otherwise mistreated those who arrived a day later, a constant of American history much worthier of examination than our supposed wanderlust. Only marginally useful for general readers, and likely to be dismissed by specialists and knowledgeable buffs.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802199140
Publisher:
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
12/01/2007
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
528
Sales rank:
306,889
File size:
4 MB

Meet the Author


Frank McLynn is currently Visiting Professor in the Department of Literature at Strathclyde University. His most recent books include Carl Gustav Jung, Napoleon, 1066 and Villa and Zapata.

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