Monday, November 29, 2010

We Have Our Reasons

From an exhibit in the Frontier Trails Museum, we learned pioneers endured hardships crossing the western American wilderness for a surprising variety of reasons. Among the reasons to climb into a covered wagon on the 900-mile Santa Fe Trail or the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail were the following.
  • Not be left alone
  • Write a book
  • Avoid the law
  • Be an actress
  • Start a company
  • Build an empire
  • Have a honeymoon
  • Live as a slave
  • Gain religious freedom
  • Be a missionary to Native Americans
  • Go to war
  • Go fishing
  • Paint
  • Escape debts
  • Get free land
  • Trap and sell furs
Another pioneer account said, “Why not? I’ve lost everything else.”

Think of the stories behind each pioneer’s decision to go west. I wonder how many people knew the dangers that awaited them and took the risks anyway, and how many gloried in idealistic visions. My guess is that in the early 1800s, most pioneers were used to hard work and exposure to the elements; they probably didn’t think life on the trail would be easy. I know some underestimated the grueling terrain, however, because one artifact in the Trails Museum is a grandfather clock chucked trailside to lighten the load.

I wonder what group dynamics were like then, too. For safety, people traveled in organized wagon trains. Who was in command? Why was he chosen? What were his leadership skills? How did he make decisions and communicate them?

Not much has changed since pioneer days—at least inside people. We each have frontiers to cross, we need to manage expectations and cooperate with others to survive and thrive, and we all have our reasons.


Marlene M. said...

Hi Jane,

I recently watched a fascinating Steven Spielberg DVD miniseries called "Into The West". It follows various members of a Virginia family as they travel west during the 1800's for various reasons. I've done a lot of reading on this era, but nothing compares to experiencing it visually, when it's produced by a master storyteller!

When I was finished watching it, I was struck by two thoughts: first, I have deeper respect for the pioneers who sacrificed everything in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Second, I was saddened by the fragmentation of families that occurred during westward expansion. When family members lived on opposite sides of the country, they couldn't hop on an airplane, nor could they call loved ones on cell phones. Going west meant the probability of never seeing certain family members ever again. It almost seems to be a foreshadowing of the increasingly fragmented family unit that is becoming the norm in today's society.

As you pointed out, motivations were many and varied... funny thing is, if you look at that list of motivations, they're fairly similar to motivations for moving someplace different/exotic today. I agree with you that times have changed, but many motivations have not!

AquaJane said...

Sounds like an eye-opening miniseries, Marlene. I agree, the pioneers made HUGE sacrifices. Once the railroad extended coast to coast, some people could visit family they'd left behind, but I don't imagine most could afford the time and money to do that. Handwritten letters were all they had. It is sad indeed. Sometimes the search west for a better life did not pan out, as evidenced in a novel like Wallace Stegner's powerful Angle of Repose. In that novel, loneliness is painful and palpable enough to be a major character!

Ferree Bowman Hardy said...

Realizing all that the pioneers went through . . . wow! I'm a weakling! And a whiner! I have soooo much to be thankful for, and thankful to those who've gone before me. Thanks for the reminders. (Last winter I read "The Childrens' Blizzard"--setting aside all the weather data and explanations reveals a heartbreaking story of the 1800's in the Midwest prairies.)