The Way It Was…

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Travel west of the Mississippi river in the mid-1800’s could be full of challenges.  Some of those trials were recorded in diaries, newspapers and letters of the time period.  Other travelers recounted memories in book form to be shared with future generations.  All of these primary source accounts help us better understand the stresses faced by the vehicles, animals and individuals headed west into rugged and wild terrain.
From time to time in this blog, we’ll share some of these actual events and remembrances from folks who lived and participated in one of the greatest migrations in American history.  This week, we’ll look at excerpt from The Old Journey, a nineteenth century book by Alfred Lambourne as he shares of a particularly harsh, stormy night on his wagon trip west in 1847… 
“The night drives were among the most trying experiences upon the overland journey.  Usually they resulted from the drying of some stream or spring where we had expected to make the evening camp, and the consequent necessity of moving forward.  Our worst drive of this kind was to reach La Prelle River after leaving Fort Laramie…  Wildly the lightnings glared, their lurid tongues licking the ground beside us.  The road was deluged in the downpour of water; and what with the crashing of thunder, the sudden glare of light, and the wild dashing of rain, the poor cattle (ox teams) were quite panic-stricken.  It was hard work to make the poor brutes face the storm.  Yet, after all, their sagacity was better than ours.  Several times we would have driven them over the edge of a precipice had not their keener senses warned them back.  We would have shuddered, so our captain afterwards told us, could we have seen where the tracks of our wagon-wheels were made that night.”
While trials could take their toll on man and beast, there were also many heroics recorded in newspapers of the time.  Some read like an action-packed Hollywood script as did this account from the Shasta Courier in December of 1855...
"One day last week the driver of one of the California Stages was thrown from his box, a short distance this side of Cottonwood.  The team at once commenced going at a frightful pace.  The outside passengers jumped off, and the chances for a beautiful smash-up were quite flattering.  This would doubtless have been the consequences, but for the conduct of Mr. Lusk, messenger of the Pacific Express, who, with a daring seldom equaled, climbed from the inside of the stage upon the driver's foot board, thence upon the tongue of the stage, and finally upon the back of the near wheel horse, from which position he gathered up the lines, and brought the frightened team, and still more frightened passengers, safely up to the Cottonwood station."
Both the early and modern film industry is sometimes accused of exaggerating or sensationalizing the 1800’s western experience.  Perhaps it’s somewhat to be expected as time has a way of clouding reality and generating a certain amount of cynicism in larger-than-life tales.  However, the fact that so many of these adrenaline-packed events can be found in early narratives reminds us that our ancestors did indeed possess mettle worthy of respect and woven with reward.
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