Oregon Or the Grave! (And Other Lessons from the Oregon Trail)


If you read my posts even occasionally, you know that I am a genealogy nerd. So it should be no surprise to anyone that I am a fan of the show “Who Do You Think You Are?” on TLC. It’s one of three shows I am willing to pay for when I can’t get it online for free.

A recent episode featured Kelsey Grammer. At some point he follows his family line from California back to Illinois, and is surprised to learn that his ancestors traveled west along the Oregon Trail. I’m just going to go out on a limb and assume you all know about the Oregon Trail- and if you don’t, you should at least have a vague concept about this bit of history from the computer game. Kelsey’s family lost a son to Cholera along the way. (You probably could have guessed that.)

I have been thinking about the Oregon Trail ever since. Mostly I have been comparing my own world to the world of those early trail blazers. One of the first Oregon pioneers was a group of sixteen men from right here in Peoria, IL who called themselves the Oregon Dragoons. Their intention was to colonize Oregon on behalf of the United States; and in the spring of 1839 they set off to claim Oregon Country from the English fur traders.

I imagine Oregon seemed at least as exciting as anything happening in Peoria in 1839. Or even in 2014. The Dragoons carried a flag that said, “Oregon or the Grave!” because that’s the kind of slogans our ancestors liked. And because one of the wives sewed it for them. It may have been a bit dramatic, considering several of the group’s members only made it to Missouri before heading back to Peoria unharmed.

There was a lot of conflict among the Dragoons. One man was accidentally shot during an argument, but there were no fatalities. For a few of the members the journey would prove successful. It is interesting to note that the original leader of the group, Thomas Jefferson Farnham, wrote an influential book which inspired many others to also make the journey to Oregon.

I suspect this could have been our life. Not with the Dragoons, but maybe during the 1843 migration. If a large local group was organizing a trip and there was the promise of cheap and fertile land out West, we would certainly have been swept up in the adventure. We are irresponsible like that. And if you add in a family history of migration, a complete lack of modern conveniences, and some knowledge of farming- we would be helpless to avoid it.

I have been reading the diaries of pioneers on the Oregon Trail and it only convinces me further. A group typically covered 15-20 miles a day and ate a lot of johnny cakes. It sounds exhausting, exciting, and horrible. Lots of hard work and death; both things I prefer to delay as long as possible. I would still do it.

Another day, another person dead. Just bury them and keep walking. And walking. And walking. They buried the dead right on the trail, so everyone had constant reminders.

And still there were accidental shootings.

By the time this baby grows up, travel to the West is easier. He will make the move from Michigan to Oregon soon after the turn of the century with all his family- except his oldest son (my great-great grandfather). I was almost from Oregon!

By the time this baby grows up, travel to the West is easier. He will make the move from Michigan to Oregon soon after the turn of the century with all his family- except his oldest son (my great-great grandfather). I was almost from Oregon!

I don’t know anyone who has been accidentally shot, but it happens. In the 1800’s it happened frequently, and not just on the Oregon Trail. My husband’s aunt wrote a book about his family history, and an incredible number of Wisconsin Norwegians perished in accidental shootings during this time. I am a little relieved to know it isn’t just some weird genetic thing.

Unless I live to see the apocalypse, walking across the country is not happening in my world; but it does offer some perspective for my own daily adventures.

Teghan had a meltdown on the bus ride home? Well, at least she wasn’t the third kid this week to get run over by a covered wagon.

Teghan just drank water from the toilet…. Gross. But at least she probably won’t die later today from Cholera.

Traffic is ridiculous while they are STILL repairing that stupid bridge; but at least I won’t ever spend two days moving all of my belongings across those river waters below. And then lose my spouse to drowning.

Seriously, the other day I waited out a traffic jam just thinking about that. Can you imagine us, a team of oxen, and our U-Haul truck swimming across the Illinois River? “Oh, no. We lost all our food and five oxen. And I think Dave is dead. Better keep going, it’s getting dark.” My current reality allows me to feel anxious when I have to slow down to 45 MPH while comfortably driving over that river.

The Oregon pioneers lived in a time when life-threatening adventures were a way of life. My grandparents fought in World War II, and my parents were teens in the 1960’s. These pioneers had grandparents who fought in the Revolutionary War, and whose parents began the migration to the Midwest.

And I thought I had a lot to live up to.

One of my Revolutionary War ancestors was given free land in New York as payment for his service. He and other soldiers set up communities in the wilderness because it was the obvious thing to do. Their own parents had started a new life in this way, and their parents before them. Their children set out to conquer new lands, too.

It’s what people do when there is an opportunity to do it. Sometimes opportunity is vast and we spread like an infestation across the land. Other times we spend years working out a pathway. This longing for the next destination is what carries us across oceans, to the corners of the earth, and beyond the stars. And I have always believed it is what makes us most uniquely human.

So once again history has left me feeling both adventurous and more patient through life’s twists and turns. If you decide to read a few Oregon Trail diaries yourself, you may want to avoid your Facebook news feed until you re-adjust to modern American life. These pioneers lived a real adventure, but we don’t know how good we have it. Now and then a reminder from history can reset our brain and motivate us to keep walking.


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