Daily Life on the Trail
Wagons on the Trail

Wagons on the Trail

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1840s Emigrants Crossing the Plains

Daily Life on the Trail

Setting Out

Careful timing of the departure was vital. Too early in the spring and there would not be enough grass on the plains to sustain the livestock for the 2,000 mile journey. Setting out too late would result in a stressful race against time to cross the mountains before the winter snowfalls would render the precipitous route impassable.

The Daily Routine

At first the going was fairly comfortable as the terrain was generally flat. Daily routines were established and the necessary skills such as controlling the oxen and collecting wood and water were developed, although most of those in the early wagon trains were farmers well capable of this already. They learned to hitch and unhitch the oxen, to keep a watchful eye on the wagons and carry out maintenance as soon as problems were spotted. The animals needed a constant supply of food and water. Rules were agreed and social patterns were developed along with timings and methods of breaking and setting up camp for the night. In the early years the wagons were corralled for security and to provide a stockyard for the animals. Often the trail was dusty, and where the terrain allowed they spread out into several columns. They learned to get along with their fellow emigrants, to agree on rules they would all follow on the journey, and to set up and break camp every night and morning. Above all they committed themselves to a tiring relentless schedule because they knew that this was just the beginning, and that thousands of miles of adventurous hardship lay ahead.

In his memoirs, A Day with the Cow Column in 1843, Jesse Applegate wrote:

Sentinels fired their rifles at four o'clock in the morning to wake the camp. Fires were lighted and the herders drove the oxen into the circle of wagons to be yoked for the day's journey. This corral of the plains was made the night before by parking the wagons in a circle. The rear wagon was connected with the wagon in front by its tongue and ox chains. It was strong enough to keep the oxen from breaking out, and also served as a barricade in case of Indian attack.

Five to seven o'clock were busy hours, with breakfast to be eaten, teams yoked, tents folded and wagons loaded. Promptly at seven the bugle sounded, and the wagon train was on its way. Women and children often walked beside the trail, gathering wild flowers and odd-looking stones. Boys and young men on horseback kept the loose stock from straying too far, as they trailed along behind the wagons.

At noon we stopped to eat. Oxen were turned loose with their yokes on, so they might graze and rest. Sometimes the officers of the train got together at noon to consider the case of someone who had violated the rules or had committed a crime. He was given a fair trial and, if found guilty, was sentenced according to the nature of his offense. (sic)

At one o'clock the bugle sounded, and the wagons were once more on their way. All through the afternoon the oxen plodded, and when the wagons arrived at the spot chosen by the guide as a camping place, preparations were made to spend the night. Livestock were driven out to pasture, tents were pitched, fires built, and supper was on its way. Perhaps hunters came in with choice parts of buffalo or antelope, and everyone enjoyed a feast.

After supper, the children played their favorite games, the elders gathered in groups and talked, perhaps making plans for the new homes to be built at the end of the Oregon Trail. Some of the young folk danced to the music of the fiddle or accordion, while those more serious minded sang their favorite songs, some religious, some sentimental. 'Old Hundredth' was a favorite, and as the music and words of the grand old hymn floated on the evening breeze, many paused to listen and ponder. But youth was not to be denied, the trek was a great adventure, and life stretched far ahead. Many a troth was plighted at the impromptu gatherings along the trail, beside a dim campfire.

Guard duty commenced at eight o'clock at night and continued until four o'clock in the morning. Various companies took turns at guard duty, one night out of three. Fires were dimmed at an early hour, and everyone retired to rest for tomorrow's march. Some slept in tents, some in wagons, some on the ground, under the stars. Usually their sleep was undisturbed save perhaps by the sharp yelp of a coyote on a nearby hill, and the challenging bark of the camp dogs.

 the first emigrants
 the route
fitting out
 daily life

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Chris Smallbone September2006