COUNTDOWN – 7 DAYS TO LAUNCH
First Travelers on the Oregon Trail
The launch for my new historical novel, The Shifting Winds, is now seven days away, one week, and I plan to do a blog post each day from now until the day before the event. For each post I’d like to share some historical factoids that relate in some way to the book, from today’s brief overview of the first travelers on the Oregon Trail to bits of information on mountain men, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and other background elements that may work into a tapestry of color surrounding the story.
Jennie Haviland, protagonist of The Shifting Winds, comes west across the Oregon Trail in 1842 with one of the earliest wagon trains of emigrants from the States. But fur traders first blazed that trail across the continent. As early as 1812 men employed by John Jacob Astor, founder of Fort Astoria, were probably the first white men to locate South Pass, a remarkably gentle passage across the otherwise rugged Rocky Mountains which made it possible for later emigrants to cross the Continental Divide with ease.
Missionaries began to make their way across the trail in the 1830’s, stopping along the way at the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, the raucous summer gatherings of American mountain men and traders. In the words of mountain man Joe Meek in our story, “My heavens! That was the time fer big doin’s, mind ye, when the company sent out supplies, and after bein’ temperate all year, we let loose a mite, we did. A man would spend mebbe a thousand dollars a day on—” Jennie’s pa interrupts before Joe can say more.
The first white women to cross the trail, missionaries Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Spalding, traveled by wagon in 1836 with their husbands, Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding. After a few days at the rendezvous, which must have brought a little shock to their sensibilities, they took the wagons as far as Fort Hall in what is now eastern Idaho, the first to take wagons that far. Beyond that point they used pack animals.
The picture above shows the Fort Hall replica my daughter, granddaughter, and I visited when we backtracked the trail taken by our ancestors.
By 1840 as beaver played out in the Rockies, the American mountain men held their last rendezvous and some headed for Oregon. Joe Meek and his friend Robert Newell managed to get three wagons from Fort Hall to Walla Walla, the first to take wagons overland as far as the Columbia River.
As promoters sang the praises of Oregon, hoping to gain the land with settlement, more emigrants dared take the trek. A fair-sized party of seventy or so left the States in 1841, but about half the party went to California, all of them leaving their wagons at Fort Hall.
That brings us to 1842 when just over a hundred emigrants took the journey, the group my fictional Haviland family joined. This group also left the wagons at Fort Hall and went by foot and horseback to the Columbia River, where some proceeded either by boat or raft down the river, while others like the Havilands took horses over the Cascade Mountains.
The story of The Shifting Winds opens as the family approaches their destination, Willamette Falls, soon to be named Oregon City. Jennie expects to see a thriving town there, a semblance of civilization in this godforsaken wilderness, but she has a few surprises in store.
NEXT: Willamette Falls