When the pioneers headed west, they were leaving the comforts of home behind. They would be traveling in covered wagons, with bushes for restrooms and rivers for bathtubs. Water was often scarce, so daily bathing was out of the question. You bathed when you came upon a creek or river, and drinking water was far too valuable to waste on such frivolous things as bathing. That said, anyone who has ever camped out where there was not a readily available water source, can tell you that people can get pretty stinky before they finally get to a place where they can bathe. I suppose that is why many of the women…if they were financially able, had things like lemon verbena to cover the inevitable odors. While things like toileting and bathing were inconveniences, they were things people learned to live with as they traveled west in search of a homestead, and they weren’t usually life threatening, other than transferring of germs from less than clean hands to food that was to be eaten.
One of the most important things to know, of course, was what to do in the event of an emergency. An injury that is not take care of can quickly turn septic. And an illness that is treated in the wrong way, can bring death. That was one of the more difficult problems the pioneers faced. There were no doctors in nearby towns, and often there were no nearby rows either. They had to fend for themselves. And if they didn’t know what to do, people died. These days many people rely on a doctor or nurse for most illnesses, but the did not have that luxury. They had to be their own doctors and nurses.
The pioneers also had to know how to build their own homes, even if they had never really built a house before. Just because someone has lived in, or seen a house built, dies not mean that you automatically know how to build one. They had to know how to fix a broken wagon or wagon wheel, and how to shoe a horse. These were not normally skills that just everyone knew. And they certainly aren’t the life skills that any of the students of today would be taught in a life skills class, but I suppose that life skills is a class that has to be suited to the times. These days, life skills classes might include cooking and sewing, budgeting, and child care. I suppose it was taken for granted that people knew those things before they headed west in the days of the pioneers. These days it seems that fewer and fewer have those skills. I used to think life skills was rather a wasted class, but I suppose that depending on what is taught, maybe it isn’t.
Lots of people would love to find a gold mine, stake a claim, and get rich. And if that didn’t work, they would love to stumble on a hidden or long lost treasure. Of course, for most of us that will never happen but that does not mean that those things don’t exist. In 1845, a group of pioneers were traveling by wagon train from Iowa to Oregon. They got as far as the Malheur River about a mile below the present-day Vale, Colorado. They had already traveled about 1,500 miles. They were tired and more than ready to reach their destination, they camped at a spring to rest for the night. The trip had been hard, and they had lost several oxen that had apparently died from poison. When one of the members of the party examined a carcass, his hand was infected and he too died. Tempers flaring within the group of travelers. It was time to bring their journey to a close. They were tough, but this was possibly more than they had bargained for.
Part way through their journey, the wagon train was joined by a man named Stephen Meek. He joined the party somewhere in present-day Montana or Idaho, claimed that he had been to Oregon and knew a shortcut. Along the trail, many of the men had begun to distrust Meek and when the party set out westward from the springs, they split into two groups. One group followed the known route, and the other group went on to Meek’s promised shortcut. The Meek party swung to the south toward the Steen Mountain country. As it turned out, Meek didn’t really know where he was going and soon the group became angry at him, so he fled the wagon train in fear of his life, after only one week. The fighting among the members of the group caused them to split once again at the headwaters of Willow Creek. Part of the group headed towards Huntington and down the Columbia River, while the rest of the party continued to travel along the Malheur River.
Along the way, the party met with trouble again as one member was stricken with fever and died, and just a few miles later, several of the oxen were lost. Their journey seemed to be destined to fail. On August 25, 1845, three of the young men soon went out in search of the stock, walking all day and well into the late afternoon before coming to a small stream. After quenching their thirst, they picked up 15 to 20 pebbles in the creek that displayed an unusual color. Finally finding their oxen, they then returned to the train. They showed their stones to the older men in the train, and the “more seasoned” travelers said they were “copper.” When someone asked, “Was there much of it?”, one of the boys replied, “We could have filled one of these blue buckets.” One of the train’s members, Mrs Fisher, kept a single nugget and the train continued its journey, leaving behind the other stones.
Stephen Meek made it to The Dalles and returned to the train with a party of rescuers in order to save them. The wagon train finally reached its destination at The Dalles in October 1845. The people began the work of settling into their new home, and forgot about the stones until three years later when gold was discovered in California. Then someone mentioned the 15 to 20 “copper” stones found near the spring on their journey west. They re-examined the stone kept by Mrs Fisher, and soon discovered that it was actually gold. Thus began the search for the mythical or long lost Blue Bucket Mine. Though the location of the gold continues to remain a mystery to this day, it is believed to be at a tributary of the John Day River. I’m sure the people of the wagon train were sorry that they didn’t take the initial find more seriously. I have no idea how big the stones were, but I’m sure they left a sizable amount of money on the prairie that day.
As people moved West, in search of the wide open spaces, they were leaving the hustle and bustle of the big cities behind…in search of not only a better life, but maybe for the quiet life too. The East was crowded, and loud, and those people who were ready for something different, decided to make the trip out West, where there were still wide open spaces. The funny thing was that they didn’t even have to go all the way to the West coast to be west of where they were. Many families made it as far as what we would call the Midwest, but that was good enough. There was plenty of land to spread out on and it was available. And so the country began to grow. It really was inevitable anyway, whether it happened then or later. As people grow up and have families, the population grows. It just doesn’t take long to overpopulate a small area. There are few options left, the best one being for some people to move away.
I understand how they feel. While I have had my time living in the country, and I would not go back again, I am also drawn to the wide open spaces…or at least the long trails. It is such a great feeling to be able get away from it all, and just listen to the quiet for a while. Of course, the quiet is never totally quiet, but rather is has many sounds in it, like the birds chirping, the breeze blowing, bugs making their sounds, or a creek bubbling along. Nevertheless, quiet or not, it’s different, and that makes it the kind of peaceful sounds you need. And for me, a few days hiking on a long trail through the mountains and forests, is just what I need to renew my sense of balance and peace. Does that mean that I would love to have been one of the pioneers who went out West to find a better life…no, I don’t think so. Life was hard for the pioneers. In reality, they paid dearly for the quiet life. There were no stores, or at least, not many. Water was scarce. They have to grow food. They worked hard…from morning to night. Yes, it was the quiet life, but it wasn’t easy…and that’s for sure.
As kids growing up, my sisters and I were subjected to many stories, view, songs, and events that centered around the Old West. When I say subjected, I don’t mean that we hated every minute of I, because we didn’t. We lived in Wyoming, and therefore we embraced the Old West. I can’t say that my sisters and I always liked all things western, because that would be false too. We all went through our Rock and Roll era, and during that time, we pretty much hated Country music, although shows like Bonanza, the Rifleman, Wagon Train, and The Virginian…just to name a few, were among our favorites, and we each had our favorite actors, and we were going to “marry” them. I know, silly…right?
Back then, the Old West was still considered something that people were proud to know about, or even to know people who lived those times. It was the times that our grandparents grew up in, and that made it even more cool. I don’t suppose that the kids of today look back on the Old West or even the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, as being cool, because those times were before personal computers and cell phones, so I’m sure it seemed like the dark ages to the kids of today. Those years were probably best known for protests…unless you compare that era to today’s, when everyone is so offended by everything. Even when I look back on my childhood years, I can’t say that I think we as a generation did anything so amazing…at least not until we grew up, because of course, it is our generation that invented the computer and cell phone. Nevertheless, it was a vastly different era that the Old West…or maybe that’s just my opinion.
While we were little, many of the cities and states were celebrating their centennial years, and it was a big deal!! Contests were held to see who could grow the best beard, and I’m sure who had the best Old Western costume. My Dad, Allen Spencer, decided to grow a beard for the competition. I don’t know if he won or not, or even if he entered any contest at all, but he got in on the festivities…as did Dad’s girls. We each had a long dress, much like the women of the Old West wore, and our parents took pictures to document the events. It was a great time, and they made sure that they had plenty of pictures of it.
These days, you seldom hear of such events. I don’t know if states or cities are just not at the right point, or if many people have just lost interest, or what has happened exactly, but you don’t see these things happening. I find that sad, because our family found it to be very fun and interesting. Of course, there are still reinactments of old western robberies, the pony express, and wagons west trips, and I think those would be fun, but for some reason that centennial just seemed different…more interesting somehow…like we were a real pioneer family.
When most of us think of the pioneers traveling to the West, we think of the Gold Rush, but that was not the original reason the pioneers left the East. The East had become crowded. The availability of farm land was very scarce, and soon the crowded conditions became unbearable for many people. The West offered wide open spaces, farm land, and new scenery. It was the perfect solution for the city cramped, lovers of the wide open spaces. The biggest problem with the move West was the land disputes that existed. The British wanted to claim the land because they had reached it by sea, but Lewis and Clark were the first to make a land crossing. Russia and Spain had tried to claim ownership, but that fight was settled by treaty. Still the battle for Oregon remained for a time, between Great Britain and the United States of America. Of course, in the end the United States would win in that battle, as they had for their freedom from Great Britain years before. This land would belong to the United States of America, from Texas to Canada, and Maine to California.
The Oregon trail was used for eight decades as the natural corridor between east and west during the 1800s. The trail runs approximately 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon. It also sports spur trails to Salt Lake City, which was used when the Mormon people began moving there to escape what they felt was religious persecution, and to California, which kicked off during the gold rush. Originally, however, the Oregon Trail was a series of unconnected trails used by the Indians. The Fur Traders expanded the route for the purpose of transporting pelts to trading ports and rendezvous, but the main usage of the Oregon Trail came when a series of economic and political events converged in the 1840s to start a large scale migration west. And oddly, it had nothing to do with gold.
As my sisters and I were going through our parents’ things this past weekend, we came across a book about the Oregon Trail. It brought back so many memories of our family vacations, and just how excited Dad and Mom got about seeing an Oregon Trail marker. I ended up with the book, and as I was looking through it, the memories continued to flow, but what was missing was the reason the pioneers went to Oregon in the first place. I’m not sure why I didn’t know exactly, because I’m sure my Dad would have told us, and I’m equally sure that it was in my history books. Of course, both of those sources would have required me to listen to them, and history was not really of interest to me then…ironic isn’t it? Nevertheless, the good news is that it is never to late to learn, and this week I learned something new about all those Oregon Trail monuments Dad and Mom took us to, and the significance they had on this nation…and even my own life. The ruts I’ve seen mean more to me now, and maybe I’ll have to go see them again, and if I get real ambitious, maybe Bob and I will have a new trail to think about conquering. I wonder what he will say about that idea.
As a kid, I heard the song, North to Alaska often. My parents were fascinated with the idea of going to visit there. Dad talked about it so much, that when it came time for their 50th Wedding Anniversary, our gift to them was a simple choice…a cruise to Alaska. They had such a wonderful time, and it was a memory that has lived on. Then a couple of years ago, I started thinking about how great it would be to see Alaska for myself. Everyone talked about how big Alaska was, and as a state, it is…very big, but that is not really what makes Alaska big…as I found out.
There is a quality about Alaska that can’t be described any other way, but big…a vastness that you can actually feel. That was part of the draw for my parents, and then for me. I felt like the pioneers or gold rushers, setting out into the unknown. Yes, it was quite different for me than it was for them, because so many had traveled before me, and the route is known. There are guides all the way. Still, you get a feeling of being in the wilderness, in the last frontier. Alaska truly is just that, the last frontier, and yet, how could that still be when it has been a state for 55 years? I suppose that it is because much of Alaska hasn’t changed in all those years. About 94% of the state is still uninhabited…at least by permanent residents. Just knowing that makes Alaska have an air of mystery…of wildness.
While in Alaska, I found myself wondering what the gold rush was like. We watched a movie at the visitors center in Anchorage, about the Klondike Gold Rush, and I realized that not only were lives lost in the search for wealth, but lives were destroyed. People lost everything they had…betting on the possibility of striking it rich. Around 100,000 men set out on the journey to the Klondike region in northwestern Canada, most of them by way of Skagway, White Pass, and the Yukon River, where they sailed to the Klondike, but only about 30,000 to 40,000 made it. The rest gave up, or died. Alaska is a place that is very unforgiving. The mountains are very high and topped with glaciers. It was cold and filled with steep climbs. Citrus fruit was scarce, so Scurvy was common. It was a really miserable place to be in winter, and yet they came.
There is still something about Alaska that draws people to it. Yes, there is still gold in Alaska, but there is much more to it than that. There is something about its vast wilderness that challenges them…keeps them there or keeps them coming back. Maybe it’s the beauty of the whole place, or the mountains rising sharply right out of the water,…that are able to dwarf a cruise ship, or any other vessel. It could be the hunting and fishing, or maybe the whale watching. It could be any or all of those things, but for me it was a combination of several of these, coupled with a desire to see the things my parents had seen on their trip. So far, Bob and I are the only ones in the family to go to Alaska, besides Mom and Dad, but if I’m not mistaken, more will follow. Alaska has a way of calling your name…drawing you north.
You don’t grow up in central Wyoming without making at least one and more likely several trips to Independence Rock. It is a favorite for school field trips, and family outings as well…or at least it was when I was growing up. My family has climbed all over that rock looking at the names of the immigrants who passed by their on their way west. They would carve their name in the rock, as a way of saying, “I was here, in this place, on this date in history.” They had no way of knowing if anyone would ever see their name or care to wonder about who they were, but they wanted to mark their presence in time anyway. Lots of people have done that over the years, although these days people often use spray paint on the rocks or walls of a place, or even a sharp object on the stalls of a bathroom, which I have never been able to figure out. I mean, who cares about that. It’s just weird. Of course the difference is that the people who do that now are looked on with disdain, for defacing public property, but the immigrants heading to the old west were viewed as pioneers making their mark in history. I have to agree with that analogy, because graffiti is not like a historical record carved into a rock after all.
Independence Rock is located in southwestern Natrona County along Highway 220, a little over 55 miles from Casper, which is why many Casperites have been there so many times. It is a huge granite rock approximately 130 feet high, 1,900 feet long and 850 feet wide. It basically sticks up in the middle of an otherwise quite flat area on the prairie, with the mountains in the distance. I suppose that was why the pioneers decided to carve their names there. After a long day of travel, it was a good place to camp, with one side well protected and a great place to keep a watchful eye out for Indians or outlaws. The children could play on the rock, and that would put them out of their mothers’ hair while dinner was prepared. Some people say that it looks like a huge whale in the middle of the prairie, and I can say I must agree. Because of all the names carved in the rock, it was dubbed “Register of the Desert” by Peter DeSmet in 1840.
Independence Rock was a favorite place to go rock hunting as far as my Grandpa George Byer was concerned, and the family went there quite a bit. It wasn’t a historical site then. Now, it is illegal to take rocks from that area, of course Grandpa would have never taken anything that had a name carved in it anyway. I’m sure that many of his kids have passed that tradition on to their kids, although, I don’t think many of the grandchildren take their kids there much anymore. It’s not that we wouldn’t think Independence Rock is interesting, because I think many of us would, except that for a time you weren’t allowed to climb the rock to see the names recorded there. It was a little glitch in people’s thinking I think, and it made Independence Rock a lot less interesting to this generation. The time when climbing on the rock was prohibited came about because they didn’t want footsteps to kill the lichen, but I think they have changed that now, because the lichen was obscuring the names, and defacing the rock in it’s own way. I don’t go there much these days, but it will always hold a place in my memory files, because of all the fun we had there when Dad would take us to learn about history.
In days gone by, there just weren’t a lot of construction companies out west. People built their own houses. Of course, if a man has to build his own house, you can bet it took him a while to complete it. I don’t really think a lot of people built their house all by themselves however, because if they lived anywhere near the neighbors, people just seemed to show up to help. I’m not sure just how they knew that you were in the process of building a house or barn back in the old west, but somehow they did, and so they came to help. There was a camaraderie back then that doesn’t always exist today. Too many people don’t want to get involved, or they just decide that they are too busy with their own lives to go and spend time helping others.
With droughts and thunderstorms causing buildings to burn, and no fire trucks or fire stations available, your neighbors always seemed to be the first responders to fire emergencies, or any other emergency, for that matter. Unfortunately with the neighbors living so far away from each other, the house or barn was usually gone before anyone could get there to help you put out the fire, and when all you are using is a bucket and a wet towel, it’s pretty much a lost cause before you even start. Nevertheless, they were right there to help you rebuild, so that you weren’t left without shelter for your family or your animals. That was just how neighbors were in the old west.
When you think about it, it was how they had to be in order to survive. With the Indian uprisings, and the old west outlaws, the pioneers had to stick together. There wasn’t a lot of lumber companies, and if they homesteaded a piece of land with an abundance of trees on it, they could cut down the trees to clear the field, and use the logs to build the cabin too. That was doing it the hard way, of course, so having friendly neighbors to help you get the job done before winter set in was essential. And of course, meeting the neighbors and offering to help them with their house or barn always meant a big potluck dinner and barn dance when the work was done. They didn’t have to get all dressed up and go somewhere fancy to have a great evening, they just got together with the neighbors and had a hoe down.
With time and modern equipment, came more construction companies, big cities, and less neighborly camaraderie. In fact, people these days are as likely not to know their neighbors as they are to know them. Sad when you think about it. We don’t live in such a big city, that all of that has gone away. Our neighbor, Bill has a snow blower, and if it snows while we are at work, he is out there with that snow blower doing the sidewalks and driveways for about half the block. It’s very nice for Bob to be able to come home and not have to get out the and shovel every thing off. Of course, Bill knows that anytime he needs help, all he has to do is ask, because we will be there with bells on, and likely as not, Bob is out there doing something for Bill before he has a chance to ask. I love our neighbors, and after all, that is what being neighborly is all about.
Ah, here it comes…the wearin’ of the green, corned beef and cabbage, and green beer for those who like that…Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s a day for partying…and pinching for those who forget to wear green. Most people look at Saint Patrick’s Day as just another party day. And I enjoy the pinching games and the corned beef and cabbage, but I’ll leave the green beer for others.
One thing that Saint Patrick’s Day does make me think of, however, is my Irish background. I think most of us have a little Irish background, and some have a lot. You can usually find it by the last names, like Bob’s grandmother, whose name before her marriage was Leary, or my great grandmother, whose maiden name was Shaw. Many of these ancestors really never knew very much of their Irish roots, because their families have been in the United States for centuries. I don’t remember either of these grandmothers ever mentioning Irish roots, or being particularly Irish.
Still, many people whose Irish traditions, or any other traditions common to their countries, have been passed down from generation to generation, feel a deep attachment to the past and to their roots. Anytime you look back at your family history, you can’t help but feel the beginnings of an attachment to a different time and a different place. It’s easy to envision what life might have been like then. Days before cars and planes, when people traveled by horse and buggy. Days when moving to a new country meant leaving your family behind forever…never to see them again.
Travel wasn’t so easy then. And yet brave people like our ancestors, who wanted to have a better life, set out into the unknown. They had no idea what they would find out there, but they set aside their fears and went anyway. They were pioneers, and were it not for them, we would not be where we are today, or have what we have today. They are also the inventors. Someone had to come up with all of the modern conveniences that we have today. They were people with that same pioneer spirit. What would our world be like without those people and people like them. People who carried their traditions into a new world, or people who came to the new world and started traditions of their own.
Much of my background is German and English, but there is some Irish, and the Irish family members that I have had the pleasure of knowing were very much a treasure as valuable as the emerald colored hills of the old country. So I’ll carry on the tradition today. Wearin’ the green, and pinching those who forget, and eating corned beef and cabbage with loved ones. Because, today…everybody is a little bit Irish. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to all.