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  • James Wheeling

"You Want Me to Go Where?"

My husband and I have moved six times in our married lives. Save one corporate paid move, the rest were done by ourselves where we packed, loaded, drove, and unpacked our earthly possessions. There were different reasons for each move but the majority fit the theme of financial opportunity. In every instance, it was a mutual decision. And we knew the exact spot where we were unloading in every case but once – and there we had no idea.

We had migrated east for graduate school by way of the interstate freeway system, staying in the cheapest motels we could find and eating on a strict budget. Our U-Haul truck was full and we towed our Honda Accord behind. We pulled into the suburbs of our destination city and were overwhelmed with the fact that, at that moment, we had no place to stay. We were blessed to find an affordable apartment that was ready to be moved into on the very day we began our search. Quite a miracle after hearing other grad student stories!

Imagine hearing that your fortune and position in society could change if only you were willing to leave your home and livelihood, pack your belongings into the latest design of cross-country wagon, buy some mules or oxen to pull it and set out for the six-month trip. Would you go? What if your husband announced he intended to make this trip and you were expected to leave your friends and family to go with him? Would you agree to follow him? Rarely did the wife have a choice. What if you had small children? You couldn’t leave them behind, so space had to be made for them in the wagon as well.

Many westward emigrants in the late 1840s and early 1850s were following the promotions and promises of California riches but many more were just trying to make a new life in a place where they didn’t have restrictions on their upward mobility. But, many were from cities and didn’t understand demands of traveling or the enormous physical barriers that stood between them and their promised dream. Most had heard of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and their grandeur, but few had actually seen either river, let alone understood the vast quantity of roiling water and the hidden dangers.

The US Congress authorized the construction of the National Road in 1806, beginning the construction of the Cumberland Road which originated in Cumberland, Maryland, then connecting to Zane’s Trace in Ohio, on to Wheeling, Virginia where it ended for several years. Finally, the road pushed on through Ohio and Indiana, its intended terminus St. Louis. But, the Panic of 1837 tapped the government of the funds necessary to get the road over the Mississippi River to St. Louis. This halted the emigrants’ progress and forced them to use private toll roads and turnpikes of varying degrees of repair from Vandalia to the eastern bank of the Mississippi.

Whether they arrived by riverboat or ferry, once on the western side of the Mississippi, the world was new and frightening. It was broad and wide, an endless sea of open, treeless plain. Cover, like the familiar canopy of trees in the East, were limited to draws where water collected. Cliffs and crags, bogs and hidden quicksand along streams all posed obstacles to forward progress. Roads were nothing but a beaten trail, some deeply rutted by previous wagon wheel travel. Humanity was sparse and far between. Food was only what had been crammed into the wagon or hunted along the way. Nights were passed outside no matter the weather. Unthinkable accidents happened with unpredictable frequency. Women became widows instantly. Men were left alone to care for a brood of children when a wife succumbed to disease or a difficult childbirth. There was no guarantee of anything.

Imagine having survived the trip across vast plain, uncountable river crossings, great spans of waterless desert, hostile weather, and daily uncertainty only to arrive at the Sierra Mountain Range. Looking up at the granite barrier of those peaks had to have made the travelers breathless with anxiety. It had to make every person doubt how it could ever happen.

After reading many diaries and journals of wagon travelers, I have nothing but respect and awe for the souls who, for whatever reason, felt their lives would be better for making the trip westward. Our three day trip to grad school pales in comparison to the arduous journey the 19th century emigrants chose to make.

Photos courtesy of and the California Trail Interpretive Center.

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Aug 04, 2019

I am really enjoying reading the history of this era. Thank you for your work Jennifer and your continued work and dedication on this!!

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