The Overland Trails
The Overland Trails
Traveling West. From the 1830s to the 1860s between 250,000 and 500,000 individuals traveled to California and Oregon on the overland trails. The trip from the Missouri River to the West Coast was nearly two thousand miles. Emigrants came from many backgrounds, but about six in ten male heads of households were farmers who hoped to find better farmland in the West. Other men worked as artisans or professionals, but many of them also took up farming in Oregon or California. The men and women who made this journey expected it to be long and dangerous, and most prepared carefully for its rigors.
Limitation. The people who traveled on the overland trails, like most Americans in their day, had limited wardrobes of largely handmade clothing. Little girls began learning to sew early, and by the time they married, women knew how to make clothing for themselves and their families. Women who were preparing to take the overland journey found their workload increased, for there would be few opportunities to make or mend clothing on the trail. Before departing, then, all the clothing needed for the trip had to be made.
Making Clothes. Making clothes was a timeconsuming process. In much of the West settlers bought raw wool and cotton and grew flax for linen. Women spun and wove their own cloth. A popular cloth was linsey-woolsey, made by weaving linen and wool together. This cloth was less expensive than pure wool but still warm and strong. Women also dyed the clothing they produced. They used some local materials, such as alder bark and black oak bark, to produce browns and yellows. Imported woad and indigo (both for blues) and madder (for reds) were also popular. Women made much of the family’s clothing from these homemade fabrics although they might also buy calico or gingham cloth for special occasions. In the winter Westerners wore knitted socks, mittens, and caps, but in the summer no one wore socks, and children usually went barefoot.
What They Wore. Generally, families tried to bring two or three changes of clothing for each person. Men wore loose, full shirts, often open at the neck, and loose trousers. They also wore heavy boots and hats made of straw, fur, or felted wool and brought heavy coats of jean fustian. Women almost always wore long dresses. According to the historian John Mack Faragher, women “required two or three dresses, usually of dark gingham, calico, or heavy wool, with perhaps one or two petticoats of linen, aprons, and shoulder kerchiefs, a warm shawl, and perhaps a coat.” These clothes were simply tailored. Unlike fashionable Eastern women, Western women wore simple, slip-on dresses. Dresses might be made in one piece or might consist of a sacque and overskirt. The sacque was a long dress with a full skirt that hung loosely to the floor or the ankle. Over it, women wore a long skirt. Women also wore sunbonnets, often of colorful calico stretched on wire or wooden frames. Men wore the loose shirts and trousers common in Western settlements. They used knit or leather suspenders or a leather belt. Men usually also wore a hat of straw or felted wool although fur was sometimes used. Both men and women wore heavy boots to protect their feet on the trail. Children above the age of six or seven dressed like their parents, but younger children of both sexes wore a loose linen dress called a wannis.
On the Trail
Catherine Haun was a young bride when she and her husband “decided to follow the path of the gold rush.” In later years she dictated an account of the 1849 journey to her daughter:
It was the fourth of July when we reached the beautiful Laramie River. Its sparkling, pure waters were full of myriads of fish that could be caught with scarcely an effort…. After dinner that night it was proposed that we celebrate the day and we all heartily join[ed] in. America West was the Goddess of Liberty, Charles Wheeler was orator and Ralph Cushing acted as master of ceremonies. We sang patriotic songs, repeated what little we could of the Declaration of Independence, fired off a gun or two, and gave three cheers for the United States and California Territory in particular! The young folks decorated themselves in all manner of fanciful and grotesque costumes—Indian characters being most popular. To the rollicking music of violin and Jew’s harp we danced until midnight. There were Indian spectators, all bewildered by the (to them) weird war dance of the Pale Face and possibly they deemed it advisable to sharpen up their arrowheads.
Source: Catherine Haun, “A Woman’s Trip Across the Plains in 1849,” reprinted in Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, edited by Lillian Schlissel (New York: Schocken, 1982), pp. 180–181.
Bloomers and Dress Reform. Women’s long dresses were not well suited to the trail. They dragged on the ground, tore frequently, and made cooking over an open fire hazardous. A few women hemmed their skirts up or wore wash-day dresses, designed not to drag on wet ground, but most preferred to wear the clothing to which they were accustomed. A few women in the 1850s made the trip wearing bloomers, full skirts that reached to the knee or below, with full pantaloons. Bloomers were associated with female radicals, and so many women rejected them. Furthermore, women who had only two or three dresses were unlikely to make an entirely new suit of clothes that they would use only on the trail. Finally, women were badly outnumbered on the trail. In a culture that highly valued female modesty women’s long skirts
were useful as curtains. As the historian Lillian Schlissel observed, for these women, “So simple a matter as bodily functions on a terrain that provided no shelter could make daily life an agony of embarrassment when there was no other woman to make of her extended skirt a curtain.”
Recreation. In the settlements of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois women had fewer opportunities for leisure than men, and the same was true on the trail. Indeed, women were often lonelier on the trail than they had been at home. Away from the ties of family and friends, women on the Overland Trail felt isolated. Until 1849 women made up only 15 to 20 percent of immigrants, and women’s diaries show that they missed female companionship. When traveling parties stopped, women were responsible for cooking, child care, and washing while men were able to rest and play. The most popular sport for men was hunting, and they thought little of stopping the journey for a chance to kill buffalo. Little of this hunting was done to feed the travelers. One traveler recalled that he and his companions had killed enough buffalo for forty thousand pounds of meat, but as they “had neither the time, the equipment, nor the inclination for butchering,” they left nearly all of it to rot on the plains. Children also enjoyed sports and play on the Overland Trail. Adults on the trail noted their energetic play, sometimes with some irritation. One traveler’s diary noted that the children were “grumbling and crying and laughing and hollowing and playing all around.” Children occasionally invented sports of their own as well. In the summer of 1841 boys in a party on the Oregon Trail discovered the bloated body of an ox. Somehow, the historian Elliott West wrote, “they discovered that if they jumped against the animal’s bloat, it would fling them vigorously back. Champions rose and fell as boys ran faster, jumped harder, and bounced farther. Finally, Andy, a long-necked redhead, backed off a great distance, lowered his head, sprinted, leaped—and plunged deep into the rotting carcass. His friends pulled him out, though with some difficulty, and the contestants went on their way ….” Children’s sports on the trail were usually simple. Girls and boys played variants of hide-and-seek and tag as well as simple ball games.
“Sweet Betsy From Pike”
Immigrants on the trails entertained themselves with popular tunes of the day. “Sweet Betsy From Pike,” a popular song in the 1850s, told of the adventures and mishaps of one pair of travelers.
Did you ever hear tell of sweet Betsy from Pike,
Who crossed the wide prairies with her lover Ike,
With two yoke of cattle and one spotted hog,
A tall shanghai rooster, an old yaller dog?
Chorus: Sing too-ral-ioo-ral-ioo-ral-i-ay,
They swam the wide rivers and crossed the tall peaks,
And camped on the prairie for weeks upon weeks,
Starvation and cholera and hard work and slaughter,
They reached California spite of hell and high water.
Out on the prairie one bright starry night
They broke the whiskey and Betsy got tight,
She sang and she shouted and danced o’er the plain,
And showed her bare arse to the whole wagon train.
The Injuns came down in a wild yelling horde,
And Betsy was skeered they would scalp her adored;
Behind the front wagon wheel Betsy did crawl,
And there she fought the Injuns with musket and ball.
The alkali desert was burning and bare,
And Isaac’s soul shrank from the death that lurked there:
“Dear Ole Pike County, I’ll go back to you.”
Says Betsy, “You’ll go by yourself if you do.”
Source: Margaret Bradford Boni, ed., Fireside Book of Folk Songs (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1947), pp. 62–63.
Lillian Schlissel, ed., Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey (New York: Schocken, 1982);
OVERLAND TRAIL. Established and owned by the "Stagecoach King," Ben Holladay, the Overland Trail was a variation of the Oregon Trail. In 1862, Holladay and his Overland Stage Company were directed by the U.S. Post Office to move from the established route through Wyoming that followed the North Platte River to a different route following the South Platte. The new route had the advantage of being shorter, but it was also chosen in an effort to avoid Indian attacks that had been occurring on the Oregon Trail.
The route of the Overland Trail followed the southern bank of the South Platte River to Latham, near today's Greeley, Colorado, then went up along the Cache le Poudre River, crossed the Laramie Plains, traveled through Bridger's Pass, and rejoined the Oregon Trailat Fort Bridger. The western route out of Latham was also known as the Cherokee Trail.
While the Oregon Trail may have been more popular, the Overland Trail was not simply a detour. From 1862 to 1868, it was the only route upon which the federal government would permit travel and it served as the main highway to the west in those years. Holladay owned the Overland Stage Company until 1866 when, realizing the Transcontinental Railroad would end the need for stagecoach travel, he sold it to Wells Fargo.