Friday, April 14, 2017

Daily Life On A Doomed Wagon Train

April 14, 2017
   One of the coolest things about finding a diary or the interview of an old pioneer, is the details about how they actually traveled. Here is the description of a young, 16-year-old girl, Susan Thompson, who was actually on the Oatman wagon train:

A Perpetual Picnic
   "We were divided into companies and each band was governed by a captain. Royce Oatman was the man from whom we received directions and counsel." Each wagon had a supply of "jerked meat, dried apples and berries, flour, corn beef, meal, preserved fruits, bacon and beans that we had prepared during the spring months and which we planned were sufficient for eighteen months, lay with our bedding and clothes in a compartment beneath the wagon floor.

  "In a few weeks we had passed beyond the occasional towns and the scattered farms of Kansas and were out into that vast unknown region known as the West. We were a happy, carefree, lot of young people and the dangers and hard-ships found no resting place on our shoulders. It was a continuous picnic and excitement was plentiful.

   "Every two or three days a stop was made and while the women baked and washed, the men hunted for antelopes n' buffalos or smaller game, such as rabbits and pheasants. Often, when we were camping near a stream, we had quantities of fresh fish.

   "Never since those days have I seen churning done so easily. Each morning, after the milking, the milk was put in the churn which sat on the projecting cross beams which supported the canvas top of the wagon, and each evening, when we made our night's halt, we had fresh butter ready for supper.

   "In the evenings we gathered about the campfires and played games or told stories or danced. My grand-daughter in El Monte, has my old violin, which so many evenings gave out the strains of 'Money Musk' and 'Zipp Coon' as the young folks danced in the light of the campfire and the lard-burning lanterns. Often, during the daytime halts,we ran races or made swings. There was plenty of frolic and where there are young people gathered together, there is always plenty of love-making."

A typical wagon train on the move in 1855. Contrary to popular opinion, the trains
often attempted to traverse wide areas in parallel lines, as you can see here, with a second line forming along side the first. On the Santa Fe Trail, the big freight wagons would sometimes travel four abreast where the space permitted it. This strategy was utilized for  protection.

   When the wagon train would reach towns, sometimes, the resulting traffic jams would resemble big city congestion.

Oxen pulling wagons was the main mode of power.

   Eventually, the perpetual picnic gave way to more somber themes, as when a young girl died on the trail:

"We were on the prairies and there was no timber, so each family gave a board from their wagons for the casket. A kind of terror of the plains came over me as the dusk of the evening [came on]. . .we left the grave on a little hillside and heard the howling of the wolves drawing nearer and nearer."
—Susan Thompson, “Following the Pot of Gold at the Rainbow's End in the Days of 1850: The Life of Mrs. Susan Thompson Lewis Parrish of El Monte, California. By Virginia V. Root--Huntington Library, San Marino

   The Oatmans began their ill-fated journey on this wagon train that had some 93 members, riding, or walking beside 43 wagons (Susan Thompson, above, says 30), bound for The Land of Bashan  (today known as Yuma). Petty infighting, alternative visions and illness took its toll. So much so, that by the time they reached Socorro, New Mexico their ranks had been cut in half.

   And by the time they reached the Gila River west of the big bend, in Arizona, the wagons had been reduced to only one.

   To read that full story of the Oatman massacre go HERE.


  1. Anonymous5:10 PM

    enjoying this series

  2. Anonymous7:23 PM

    So well written and fascinating.

  3. Anonymous8:27 PM

    so why weren't they better armed?

    1. I believe they were adequately armed, especially in the first part of the journey, but when Royce Oatman left the other two families at Maricopa Wells, to push on alone, he got careless and the Yavapais that came into his camp caught him off guard. He knew he couldn't leap for his rifle in the wagon and he thought he could negotiate his way out of the situation. He was wrong about that.

    2. I don't see how the Oatmans were not more wary about letting strangers ,especially Indians get into their camp. This made me so dang ill that I was unable to finish the article.That rifle should have been within reach at all times.

    3. Yes, they were wary, but they were also tired after traveling for so long, without seeing anybody. They tried to cross the Gila the night before, but their oxen were so tired they couldn't make it across, so they camped on a spit of sand in the middle and the water kept rising and putting out their meager fire. I don't think they got much sleep. The next day, they successfully crossed the river then had to make it up the steep grade to the bluff and they had to unload the wagon and then carry all the baggage up by hand. The boy, Lorenzo, was just putting the last of the luggage back in the wagon when the Indians walked up. The Oatmans were exhausted and it was a perfect storm. . .

  4. Thanks, Bob. This was great.

    I wonder if they did their Taxes before leaving town?

  5. Mary Jo Steele8:16 AM

    We do wagon trains and I know we have so many modern things that help keep us safe and comfortable. Nothing like what these folks experienced. But ever so often, sometimes at night, I think about the extreme isolation they must have felt. If they got in trouble it was up to them to get out of it. No cell phone, no tow trucks, no help except their own hands. They probably did not realize at the beginning how brave they were going to have to be to accomplish their goal. But they were brave and did face the hardships of starvation death and loss of every kind. They kept going. I am in constant awe of what they faced and forever thankful that they succeeded.

  6. Anonymous9:32 AM

    WOW, this is great. I need to get this book. Oatman is just up the road from me here in Bullhead City, AZ.

  7. Is this series appearing in "True West" - I'm a subscriber! Thanks.

    1. Yes, going to run in the September issue along with a feature on The Great Western, who was the nurse who received Olive when she arrived at Fort Yuma after five years of captivity.

    2. This is interesting. The article, long delayed, finally appeared in the March, 2018 issue.


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