Today, when you enter Wyoming, signs greet you declaring WYOMING. LIKE NO PLACE ON EARTH. Many of today’s travelers will find this to be true. They will enjoy the relatively unspoiled landscapes, the rugged mountains, the flowing plains, the broad skies. And, at day’s end, they will still be able to eat in their favorite restaurants, sleep in their familiar national chain motels, shop at the chain discount store of their choice, and get their news from a recognizable face. The changes, then, will be relatively subtle.
In some ways, the emigrants of 150 years ago had a similar experience, although there was no sign welcoming them to this new state. In fact, there was no Wyoming. It wasn’t yet a territory, much less a state. For the emigrants, the "States" had been left behind several weeks earlier when they crossed the Missouri River and headed west across the plains in search of new lands. They were now in foreign lands, both literally and figuratively.
If you had been among those travelers, by the time you crossed what is now the state line separating Nebraska from Wyoming, you would have considered yourself well-seasoned. Chances are, you would have been pretty green at the time you bought your supplies at one of the jumping-off points along the Missouri. In the course of doing so, unless you were heading west with a sizable group of your own, perhaps a large number of emigrants from the same hometown, you probably would have "shopped around" for a group of amiable emigrants with whom to join your fortunes. Once you knew who would be traveling in your wagon train, you would have chosen leaders to guide your actions and make decisions for the benefit of the whole. Then, when the grass was high enough to provide consistent forage for your livestock, you would have headed off across the plains on what would probably be the adventure of your lifetime.
As you crossed the relatively flat lands of what is now Kansas and Nebraska, you would have learned plenty about the hardships of your enterprise. Animals, that you may have taken somewhat for granted back home on the farm, now became a valuable member of your party and you watched each for signs of illness. Your carefully packed wagon had probably been re-packed more than once as you discovered more efficient methods. Quite probably, some of your valuable possessions had already been tossed away to lighten the load or as obviously excessive. If you were really lucky, you might have been able to barter away something you didn’t need for something you forgot. If not, you would have had to spend some of your scarce dollars to acquire the forgotten essential.
Wagons would have broken down and those with carpentry or blacksmithing skills would have been enlisted to repair them. As you approached each river, you would have become adept at gauging the depth and speed of the current. Should you try to ford or caulk the wagon and float across? Maybe there was a ferry or a bridge. But could you afford the toll? Was it worth trading some clothing or food to hire an Indian guide? Maybe you should wait a day or two and see if conditions improved. If it was raining, it was probably best to set up camp in the mud and wait it out, possibly with hundreds of others. And, while you waited, worry about the time you were losing and how you were going to trick the animals into crossing the river.
The Indians had probably appeared within a week or so of the start of your journey. Your heart may have quickened when you first saw them. After all, you’d heard about how ferocious they could be your entire life. Maybe your parents told you stories they’d heard or maybe you’d read the popular Indian Captivity Narratives with all of their terrifying, gruesome details. It made you shudder to think of what those savages did to men, not to mention the horrors visited on women and children. But, to your pleasant surprise, the Indians usually turned out to be very helpful. Oh yes, they probably wanted some food or clothing for their help, but that was only fair for being shown the best route to cross the river or cross that hill or some fresh game delivered to your campsite. Sometimes they did just hang around the camps and make a nuisance out of themselves but there wasn’t much you could do about that. And, if you were honest with yourself, you knew that it really was their land. In any case, they didn’t often make you afraid.
You had figured out early on that no one was going to ride across the prairies in the wagon. First of all, once you got all your stuff packed in there, there wasn’t any space left. And at the end of each day, your stuff was tossed all over by the constant motion. There was no way anyone could take the constant jostling unless, of course, they were just too sick to walk. Eventually, you would make the happy discovery that that same motion could be used to wash clothes or to churn butter. But, in the beginning, you just knew that it meant you would be walking the next 2000 miles. You probably didn’t bring enough shoes with you but you’ve been looking at those Indian moccasins and they look like they would work well and be pretty comfortable. And everyone else would be walking along with you, including the children who would be playing and running, making trouble, scattering around, and getting lost.
The men have elected their leaders and parceled out the chores but they also continue to jockey for position. Disputes are all too common. After all, nearly every day, the men have to make some key decisions in order to get this wagon train to the promised land. They have their guides and guards and scouts and hunters and outriders and carpenters and blacksmiths and doctors and preachers and a special few to keep all the egos and talents pooled for the common good. They needed to form the leadership of a community, no less than if they had stayed back home.
The women have learned to do all their usual chores in new ways and challenging environments. They have become adept at keeping track of wide-ranging children, setting up camp and breaking it down, packing and repacking the wagons, cooking over an open fire, tending the ill with prairie medicines, finding temporary shelter from the fierce plains storms, coping with endless clouds of dust, lifting the spirits of the downhearted, and trying to keep up the children’s education. They learned that they could get a little bit of privacy on the open prairies by forming a line and holding up their skirts. They learned who were the best cooks, the best nurses, the best midwives, the best at amusing the children and keeping them safe. They knew who to turn to when tempers frayed and enmities surfaced. While women rarely, if ever, held elected positions in the wagon train, they clearly had their own leaders.
No doubt, before you reached Wyoming, you had also experienced illnesses and deaths – if not in your immediate family, then within your wagon train. Illness and death were especially common along the Platte. By that point, those who began the trip in less than robust health, had weakened considerably and the trip simply became too arduous. Ironically, many in less than top physical condition had set out for the western climes specifically because they were looking for a more healthy climate. What they often found was a final resting place in the harsh soil of the plains. Even the very healthy succumbed to the ravages of illnesses such as cholera which, resulting from polluted water sources, raged along the shallow Platte. Accidents claimed many others. Children fell off wagons and were crushed beneath their wheels. Men shot themselves using the guns that they had just bought before leaving home. Buffalo crushed inexperienced hunters and scarcely noticed. People drowned or become fatally chilled while trying to cross a river.
And so, most likely, you have left one or two behind in a shallow grave somewhere on the plains. If they were lucky, you had been able to fashion a crude headstone from a rock or a board. But many others ended up buried in an unmarked grave between the furrows of the trail. This was not because you cared any less about them. Rather, you hoped that the constant passing of the wagons would wipe away the scent and keep your loved ones safe from Indian grave-robbers and scavenging animals.
By the time you got to what is now Wyoming, you considered yourself a seasoned traveler. You had engaged in the heated debates about how long to travel each day, whether or not to travel on Sundays, whether to lay over for a day or two when someone became ill, how long to wait for the member of your party who didn’t return from the hunt, whether to divide the spoils of a hunt with someone who was hungry, how to handle the Indians that hung around your camp, how late to allow the revelers to play their instruments and dance each night, how long to stop so that one of the women could have her baby, how to discipline those who failed to perform their assigned chores, how to handle those who wanted to pray too much or didn’t want to pray at all, how much food and water to waste on that guy who obviously wasn’t going to make it, whether to continue to entrust your future to this captain or pick another. Perhaps, you’ve already answered that last one for yourself and chosen to join another wagon train – where you’ll find yourself engaged in pretty much the same debates.
But you’ve also joined together to bury your dead, to watch the young ones court, to help a new mother and father welcome their child into the world, and maybe even hold a wedding. You’ve found strengths you never knew you had, found an astonishing willingness to try new things. You’ve faced real danger and survived. You’ve seen things you thought you would only read about. You’ve met Indians and found them funny and colorful and mostly interesting. You’ve eaten things you’d rather not think too much about. You’ve conquered terrifying obstacles and then relived and boasted of those exploits with your new comrades. You’ve found out a lot about yourself as you follow your dreams and make a new life for yourself and your family. You’ve met new friends and laughed and dreamed along with them. You have joined a mobile community.
You have chosen to spend four to six months of your life, living virtually the same demanding, dangerous, nomadic life as the native peoples who have inhabited these plains for thousands of years. You will find it exhilarating and terrifying. But, mostly, you will find it routine and numbingly grueling.
Welcome to Wyoming. Your mark will be left here …like no place on earth.