A major one-volume history of the Oregon Trail from its earliest beginnings to the present, by a prize-winning historian of the American West.
Starting with an overview of Oregon Country in the early 1800s, a vast area then the object of international rivalry among Spain, Britain, Russia, and the United States, David Dary gives us the whole sweeping story of those who came to explore, to exploit, and, finally, to settle there.
Using diaries, journals, company and expedition reports, and newspaper accounts, David Dary takes us inside the experience of the continuing waves of people who traveled the Oregon Trail or took its cutoffs to Utah, Nevada, Montana, Idaho, and California. He introduces us to the fur traders who set up the first "forts" as centers to ply their trade; the missionaries bent on converting the Indians to Christianity; the mountain men and voyageurs who settled down at last in the fertile Willamette Valley; the farmers and their families propelled west by economic bad times in the East; and, of course, the gold-seekers, Pony Express riders, journalists, artists, and entrepreneurs who all added their unique presence to the land they traversed.
We meet well-known figures-John Jacob Astor, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, John Fremont, the Donners, and Red Cloud, among others-as well as dozens of little-known men, women, and children who jotted down what they were seeing and feeling in journals, letters, or perhaps even on a rock or a gravestone.
Throughout, Dary keeps us informed of developments in the East and their influence on events in the West, among them the building of the transcontinental railroad and the efforts of the far western settlements to become U.S. territories and eventually states.
Above all, The Oregon Trail offers a panoramic look at the romance, colorful stories, hardships, and joys of the pioneers who made up this tremendous and historic migration.
This is another lively work from one of our best chroniclers of the Old West. Dary (Cowboy Culture; The Santa Fe Trail; etc.) looks at the men and women who trekked the trouble-strewn paths to the nation's northwest coast. It's an epic American story of limitless hopes, searing losses, pioneers, missionaries and not a few bad characters. Dary opens with 18th-century maritime explorers and carries us into the late 19th century, when the trail west from Independence, Mo., had ceded its importance to the railroads. In the shadow of such great earlier historians as Francis Parkman and Bernard De Voto, Dary is matter-of-fact and exhaustive. Unfortunately, the facts are sometimes overwhelming, and a reader yearns for some analysis. But Dary makes up for this lack by salting his account with quotations from travelers' diaries and illustrations. He follows the rutted way of keeping the Indian tribes subsidiary to the story. Yet his closing chapter on the Oregon Trail's rebirth as a tourist draw in the 20th century is a real contribution to modern western lore. It's hard to imagine a more informative introduction to the westering itch along the Oregon Trail and to those who responded to it. 86 b&w illus., 7 maps.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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October 14, 2005
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Excerpt from The Oregon Trail by David Dary
Before the first Europeans arrived, people had lived in Oregon for more than 10,000 years. Anthropologists believe as many as 180,000 natives in about 125 tribes once made modern Oregon their home. Of these the best known today are the Chinooks who lived along the lower Columbia River and on the narrow coastal plains between the rugged Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean from Shoalwater Bay north of the Columbia to Tillamook Head, about fifty miles south of the river's mouth. They also ranged inland from the mouth of the Columbia to a large rapids first called The Dalles by French-Canadian trappers, who gave it a French name meaning "rapids of a river going through a narrow gorge."
The Chinooks, named for the warm, moist southwest wind blowing in from the Pacific Ocean, included the Cooniac, Cascade, Clatsop, Clackamas, Multnomah, and Wasco tribes, which all spoke the same language. Many lived in multifamily cedar-plank houses forty to sixty feet long and twenty feet wide that were roofed with bark or boards. Trading with other tribes was their pleasure. Their livelihood came from fishing, hunting, and gathering nuts, berries, and plant food. They hunted game with bows and arrows, and they were skilled boat builders, shaping their canoes from single cedar logs. Their smallest canoe carried only one person and the largest as many as sixty. Using a homemade twine seine made from nettles, the crew of a large canoe could catch two tons of salmon on a single outgoing tide on the Columbia River.
The Chinook women wore skirts of deerskin thongs fastened to a braided belt. In the winter both men and women wore furs for warmth. They flattened the temples of their children's heads with headboards on their cradleboards. Their society was highly stratified and based on voluntary cooperation and association. They were among the wealthiest natives north of Mexico, so wealthy that they could afford to devote two months each winter to artistic and spiritual pursuits. Their culture was rich.
But then the Europeans came. The events leading to their discovery of Oregon began centuries earlier when Marco Polo, at the age of seventeen, joined his father and uncle, both Venetian merchants, on a long overland journey to China. They left Venice in 1271 and were gone about twenty-four years, seventeen of which were spent in China. They returned to Venice in 1295, and when they recounted stories of their travels, the Venetians found them difficult to believe, many thinking they were fables. Marco Polo soon entered the military and about three years later was taken prisoner while commanding a Venetian galley during a battle in a war between Venice and Genoa. While in a prison at Genoa, Polo dictated the story of his travels to another prisoner, a writer of romances named Rustichello da Pisa. After Venice and Genoa made peace in 1299, Polo and Rustichello were released from prison. Polo's manuscript was widely copied, translated, and circulated in many versions. When mass printing developed late in the fifteenth century, Polo's manuscript appeared in book form and reached an even wider audience. His descriptions of jewels, silks, porcelain, and spices such as cinnamon, pepper, and cloves, plus paper money, eyeglasses, ice cream, spaghetti and other Oriental discoveries, fascinated readers. These Europeans found it difficult to believe that there was a civilization larger and more advanced than theirs. In fact, it took nearly a century before Polo's account was accepted as more fact than fiction. His book became the basis for some of the first accurate maps of Asia produced in Europe.
The fifteenth century marked the beginning of the great age of Western discovery and exploration that took place along with the Renaissance, the revival of the classical forms developed by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the intensified concern with secular life, humanism, and the importance of the individual. Apparently inspired by Polo's belief that the Orient and its riches might be reached by sailing west from Europe, Christopher Columbus set sail in three small caravels, the Santa Maria, the Nina, and the Pinta, in 1492. Columbus carried with him a copy of Marco Polo's book in which he had made notations on the margins of some pages. Columbus, of course, found the Americas and not the Orient, but believing he had reached India or the East Indies, he labeled the natives as "Indians." It was a few years later that Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian navigator, sailed along the northern coast of South America and concluded in 1499 that the lands discovered by Columbus belonged to a new continent and not the Orient. Martin Waldseemuller, a German geographer and mapmaker, read Vespucci's journal and suggested the new lands be called America, an adaptation of Vespucci's first name. By then King Henry VII had sent John Cabot, the English navigator and explorer, to find a direct western route to the Orient. Aboard his ship the Matthew with a crew of eighteen, Cabot left Bristol in May 1497 and in late June landed on what must have been Cape Breton Island, now part of Nova Scotia, and then sailed along what is today the coasts of Labrador, Newfoundland, and New England. Cabot claimed his discovery for England.