How Animals (and their people) Went West
ANNETTE TELLS TALES Most 19th Century Westward Migrants Across the US Plains to California and Oregon Travelled on Four Feet. So What's Their Story?
How Long is This Post? Around 6,000 words. About 30 mins read.
James Philly was all set to move his family to California, and get rich. It was 1849, and the Phillys would have a head start over the thousands heading west in that mad Gold Rush year. That's because they lived in Missouri, halfway across the United States.
There was only one problem: James Philly’s daughter refused to go without her cat, Jip.
Now, of course, Victorian fathers were stern patriarchs, and of course, the kid won this battle. So parents, kid, and Jip the Cat set off with a covered wagon for California, across thousands of miles of hills and mountains, prairies and deserts, rivers and forests.
I have zero idea how you take a cat on such an epic journey. Since cats are not easily herded, maybe Jip was in a crate in the wagon much of the time?
Never mind. Jip would eventually justify the decision to bring him along. When his little friend was ill in the desert, in what's now Nevada, Jip caught a rabbit every morning, brought it to the kid’s tent, and dropped it at her feet. This fresh food, or maybe just Jip's devotion, reportedly kept the child alive.
See? Even I (not a cat person) will admit that cats could be useful on the long and weary journey of many months across America.
But yes, okay, a cat wasn’t typical of animals on the California trail. Most animals that went West were working animals, not pets. Although it’s easy to see how people became attached to the animals that made their journey possible.
The work of academic history I'm writing about today has a unique take on 19th century Westward migration. Historian Diana L. Ahmad found a calling to write about the largest group of westward migrants: Animals. Her book is Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840-1869.
It's not all about animals, though. Because nobody can tell the story of these animals without telling a story of people.
Prelude: Annette and Hoosen Go West (2018-19)
Animals were the last thing on my mind when Hoosen (He Who Shall Not Be Named On The Internets, HWSNBNOTI, aka Hoosen Benoti) and I took a purposeful trip West a few years ago.
Remember I said earlier that I’m not a cat person? Full disclosure: I’m not much of an animal person at all. I grew up terrified of cats (slashed across the face as a kid by a grumpy feline after very gently trying to pet it), and dogs (bitten once). I cured the dog phobia by acquiring a lovely beagle, and tried to cure the cat phobia by housesitting for a cat lady . . . eight cats at once . . . That didn’t work. Yes, there’s a story, and it's very Stephen King. But not now.
These days, I’m very fond of dogs (so long as they’re not capable of ripping my throat out). Otherwise, although I have great respect for animals, I can take or leave meeting them.
But I’ve always been fascinated by people. That includes the diverse folk who took 19th century covered-wagon journeys West across the Great Plains, and the diverse folks they met on the way. And I’ve been obsessed with the Westward journey ever since Sacramento native Hoosen and I departed Atlanta in pursuit of the wagon trains to the California Gold Rush. Yeah, I know people went to Oregon, too, but whatever. That’s a more boring story. Not that I’m prejudiced, as a former Californian, or anything.
I trained as an early American (colonial) historian, with a side of Britain. So, despite having earned my PhD on the outskirts of Los Angeles, at a university renowned for its Western history, my knowledge of the American West is absolutely pathetic.
In 2018, however, I found myself reading about a dozen books of collected diaries from the 19th century trails, mostly written by women. Look, most westward migrants (and so most diarists) were men. But I thought it might give me an interesting take, as a newcomer, to start with the women.
Two things I learned: First, everyone had a different experience of westward migration. Second, wow, I should have done 19th century history! So many lovely documents compared with the 18th century! So detailed and colorful! A typical early American diary pretty much amounts to “Weather clear. Ephraim has fever. Sold horse”. But Victorian diaries include feelings, descriptions, and even jokes. OooH! What fun!
Having marinated myself in these original documents (or, as historians call them, primary sources), I didn’t leave enough time that summer to read what historians of the westward trails and Gold Rush had to say before Hoosen and I set off to retrace the wagon trails.
Before any historians of the 19th century West react with shock: Ok, yes, I did read John Mack Faragher's Women and Men on the Overland Trail before we left, and a bit of Jesse Unruh’s Plains Across . . . Oh, it’s John Unruh? Not Jesse? Well, whatever. Him too.
I embarked on the journey with long-suffering Hoosen (designated driver, and occasional listener to constant stream of historical commentary) plus guidebooks, a couple of the volumes of diaries I’d read, but not studied, and otherwise no clue.
Our trip ended up being taken in two stages, in 2018 and 2019. We visited almost every museum, no matter how eccentric, and peered at almost every alleged surviving wagon track, no matter how hard to see. Altogether it took thousands of miles, because America? She is very big.
We flew into Kansas City, Missouri, rented a car, and headed to Independence. Today, Independence is a Kansas City suburb. Nearly two hundred years ago, though, it was the most famous launching pad (or “jumping-off point”, as it’s usually called) for the westward journey taken by thousands of 19th century people. Here was where they arrived on riverboats and stage coaches, to prepare for a journey into the unknown by buying up all the stuff they thought they would need on the journey, including a covered wagon to load it in.
None of the mid-19th century migrants had a clue. Indeed, I was well-informed in comparison (thanks, history!) Most were middle-class city people, who frequently didn't know how to ride a horse in an urban street, much less manage four oxen pulling a loaded wagon up a steep hill. They were greeted in Independence by merchants with dollar signs in their eyes, just as Gold Rushers who went West by ship and riverboat were greeted by excited Sacramento merchants. Ka-ching!
I’ll write about that journey for you soon. My fascination with westward migration can’t be contained in one essay. You may already have read my post and/or seen my interview with historian Shirley Moore about Sweet Freedom’s Plains, her great book on the stunning, courageous, and touching experiences of Black migrants. I will be bringing you more stories from these journeys, including those of American Indians along the way, from Shawnee (Kansas) to Nisenan (California) whose perspectives and actions will almost certainly surprise you.
And many times since that trip, I’ve reenacted my westward journey from Independence to Sacramento with kids in schools, as Gone West, in which nine year olds and I pretend to take the journey in 1849.
I can’t claim that the journey Hoosen and I took had much to do with animals. We left behind Daisy the Wonder Dog (RIP), our goofy Cheagle (Beagle/Chihuahua mix) (we think) with a friend in Atlanta. Our “wagon” was a rented Honda. The only buffalo we spotted on the entire journey were in a fenced ranch we passed in Wyoming, glumly awaiting their future as buffalo burgers. But we did take two chauffered wagon journeys, one of which (involving a pair of horses called Brad and Bart) was epic. More about that later, too.
Our lack of animal encounters was just one huge difference between the actual experiences of migrants to California, and Annette and Hoosen's Pretendy Adventure.
The Legs of the Journey
Who hauled all your stuff west in the mid-19th century? Well, if you were a British factory worker who had converted to the Mormon faith, and who decided to emigrate to Salt Lake City in the mid-1850s, then you did. Yes, literally. You were your own oxen.
That's because The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints had to pay your way, since, as a Victorian factory worker, you were too poor to foot the bill. Mormon leader Brigham Young figured out that the cheapest way to get British Mormons to Salt Lake City was to charter ships from Liverpool to New York, then take the Brits on trains to the frontier, the area where roads, railroads, stagecoaches, and other modern facilities stopped. There you would spend the winter in Council Bluffs, Iowa, preparing to go West in spring. In your winter quarters, British Mormons formed organized groups for travel. Each group's adult members took turns pulling everyone’s luggage, the equivalent of a small carry-on, on an IKEA HeadinWestin handcart you assembled yourselves. Fun Non-Fact: IKEA is Swedish for designed by Brigham Young.
You see, Brigham Young had observed the wagon trains over several years, and realized that wagons pulled by animals, at great expense, weren't absolutely necessary for the journey West. If you didn’t bother with them, the cost of the journey was much less. Handcarts brought food, a few clothes, and many a tiny keepsake from Britain. It was enough.
Most migrants, including many Gold Rushers, did bring wagons West, and they were pulled by animals. Who were these people? Forget the cartoons of little working-class Southern gold miners yelling “there’s gold in them thar hills.” Most Gold Rushers were middle class. They had to be, to afford the expense of this journey. Their wagons carried everything essential, everything they might possibly need, and a whole bunch of crap they definitely did not.
Let’s get one thing clear: The legendary covered wagon wasn’t typically a Victorian RV (UK motorhome) in which you slept and rode on the trail.
(Mind you, there was at least one glorious exception. That was the luxury wagon with inflatable bed that a well-off thirtysomething couple took to California in 1850.)
Most often, the covered wagon was your moving van. You didn't camp in it, because it was crammed full of your stuff, like food, medicine, and coffee pots. Oh, you thought they did without coffee on the trail? Not a chance. There was no Starbucks west of Missouri in 1849. Or east of it, honestly.
Oh, and since there weren’t any mini-storage places, either, you also brought along all the stuff you really couldn't bear to leave behind, like Grandma's piano.
At night, you slept in a tent, not a wagon. During the day, unless you were ill or old or exhausted, you didn’t ride in a wagon. You walked. Yes, thousands of miles. Your wagon, meanwhile, was pulled by animals, mules or, most often, oxen, not horses.
So, please, forget old TV and movie Westerns. Absolute rubbish. Here’s a museum representation of reality:
Being Friends With Animals, 19th Century Style
So what attitudes to animals did westward travelers bring with them on the trails?
Humans have always wondered how much animals actually have in common with us. By the 17th century, the big question was: Do they have souls? Ministers said no. Philosophers usually agreed, suggesting that basically animals were machines for human use.
But, by the mid-19th century, things had changed. Clergymen and philosophers now agreed we should be nice to animals. This was at a time when the growing middle class (US and UK) was coming to see the home, not as basic shelter with working animals outside—or inside— but as a nice place, a clean, tastefully-decorated refuge from an increasingly stressful modern world. Niceness was one thing that distinguished poshness (gentility) in the 1800s from its 18th century (1700s) version.
Part of niceness included owning and loving pets. Being kind to animals was a way of saying “Hello, I’m middle class!” One author of a How to Be Nice and Middle-Class self-help book advised parents to teach their kids how to look after pets, and advised that they not allow the little wretches to stomp on worms or anthills. Kindness to creatures would lead them to become nice, middle-class adults, not horrible working-class people who would probably end up hanged for murder.
Working-class Americans (and Brits), meanwhile, didn’t get the memo about this cultural change, and carried on treating their animals as working resources, with no feelings that humans need worry about.
So I bet I know what you’re guessing happened when middle-class citified Americans with no experience of working animals hit the trails with oxen and mules! HOWEVER, and this is a KEY POINT in Non-Boring History, things are never that simple, or predictable. That’s what makes it fun! And also very good for exercising the brain.
People on the westward trails often started relationships with animals by naming them. A man called Joel Barnett, for example, named his oxen Old Baldy and Dick. No snickering in the back, there. But as historian Dr. Ahmad would confirm, that doesn’t necessarily mean Joel Barnett got all sentimental about his animals. I can only add that I once knew a young farmer in Georgia who nicknamed his pigs Ham, Bacon, and Sausage, and sure enough, that’s what they became.
Farm animals weren’t and aren’t pets. And even the most citified middle-class Gold Rushers knew that. Still, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had started in Britain just 25 years before the Gold Rushers set out, and had inspired laws in New York and Massachusetts that banned pointless cruelty to cows, sheep, and horses. Most Westward migrants brought with them a tendency to be kind to their animals. That positive attitude helped them cross the Plains safely.
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A Crash Course in Wrangling Animals
Forget any idea you might have that 19th century Americans were all horsey people. Some middle-class Americans had never actually ridden a horse. Middle-class people were best prepared financially to go West but least prepared to handle cows, oxen, mules, or even horses.
However, they soon learned, in towns like Independence, St. Joseph, or Kanesville (renamed Council Bluffs in 1852). These were the launchpads (or, as they’re more usually called, the jumping-off places) from which people went West. The first thing they learned was that they had a lot to learn, and a lot to buy, starting with wagons and animals to pull them.
Most people in the mid-19th century didn't buy horses to pull wagons to California or Oregon. Horses were fast, sure, but they were picky eaters, and expensive. Plus they would struggle in the mountains. Some folks who took horses to California strongly advised others not to.
They often took mules, which were less choosy, and tougher, than horses, but expensive. Most, however, bought oxen, which are basically castrated bulls. I can’t say “castrated” when I speak to fourth graders, because some parents are infantile and prudish, so I call them “super-cows”, which is basically not true. But at Non-Boring History, I can say castrated! I can even say they had their balls cut off. So there you go. Now you’ll never forget what oxen are.
Oxen could get overheated, and they were slow, adding weeks to the journey. But they were also affordable, and considered easier to manage than mules or horses, a definite appeal for inexperienced animal handlers. And if your oxen died on the way? You could eat them, or sell their meat to others, as a nice little side hustle on the trail. Oh, and you might bring a cow or two to provide milk, as well as cream for your coffee, and butter for your biscuits (UK soda bread), and to take the place of the oxen if one of those died.
You not only needed animals to pull your wagon, but all the stuff that comes with animals: Yokes for the oxen, pickets to tie your mules or horses, halters, bridles, ropes, and whatever the heck a “whiffletree” is. There were also nearly fifty blacksmiths in Independence standing by to meet your animals’ shoeing needs, so that your horses', mules', or oxen’s feet would be prepared for the journey.
Once you bought your animals, they had to be boarded until you were ready to leave in spring, and there were businesses offering that service, too. You also bought animal food for the journey, like hay and grain. That’s because you set out in April or May, to make sure you arrived before snow did in the Sierra Nevada mountains (California) or the Cascades (Oregon) so you wouldn’t end up eating your family. Then, in early spring, the prairies grasses were still pretty sparse, so it was best to bring animal food. By 1856, migrant Finley McDiarmid, leaving Wisconsin, had learned enough from others’ experience to bring an extra wagon, just for the animals’ food. When all the food was eaten, he dumped the wagon, and kept the animals as back-up.
So now you had animals, and they were equipped. But you weren’t equipped to deal with them, not yet. You know how it is when you start an exciting new activity, whether it’s scuba diving, quilting, or bird feeding: You get all the expensive equipment, and then you’re, like, standing there, surrounded by your new toys, saying pitifully “Now what?”
Fortunately, trained professionals were standing by in jumping-off places like Independence to offer you crash courses in How To Take A Wagon and Four Oxen Across America (PLUS horseriding for idiots). And you could hire guys to break your animals for you, teamsters, most of them Black or Mexican, who would use whips up to twenty feet long to literally beat your animals into shape. These were experienced working-class guys, who charged five bucks (a lot of money) to train the animals, and would have rolled their eyes at using treats and other positive reinforcement to tame a mule. They also taught basic animal maintenance.
Migrants were newbies. But they began to learn animal management right away, because they had to. Charles Brandt, in 1851, removed the yoke from around the neck of one half of his ox team. The other ox, still yoked, took off running, and then tried frantically to shed the big piece of wood attached to him. Finally, he gave up, exhausted, and Brandt, having wisely bided his time, was able to remove it without incident. Some migrants gave up with their difficult mules, and traded them in for cheaper oxen or ponies, losing money in the process. Migrants got laughed at as they practiced wonkily steering a team of up to eight oxen, yoked in pairs, in a straight line. But after a week or two, most migrants got the hang of their animal teams. It was time to go West.
How to Care for Your Animals: Self-Help Books
People who headed to California weren’t going blindfolded. They didn’t have Google Maps, but they did have guidebooks, 19th century versions of Lonely Planet. These were of varying quality, some written by charlatans like Lansford Hastings (tell you about him later), which included advice (again, of varying quality) on how to manage animals on the trails.
One thing most guidebook authors did get right: They emphasized the importance of caring for the animals. Not for sentimental reasons, but because, otherwise, good luck with getting all your crap (and yourself) to California! Guidebooks advised not rushing your animals, giving them plenty of rest, and not overloading your wagon. That’s another reason why people seldom traveled in wagons, but walked instead.
As for pets? The advice was to keep an eye on your dogs, in case they scared the livestock. Guidebook author Lansford Hastings’s own group decided to slaughter all the dogs in their company as a precaution. After shooting a few, they were advised by the owners of the remaining dogs that if they killed any more, they would find themselves also dead. That marked the hasty end of their “no dogs” policy.
Dogs could be useful, though. They guarded the livestock against theft, or hostile Indians (who existed almost entirely in the imaginations of westward migrants in the 1840s and 1850s). Dogs could be used for hunting or cuddling in the cold desert nights. And if things got bad, dogs could be dinner.
Don’t get mad at me. I’m just the messenger. And anyway, if you ran out of food, I bet Fido did start looking tasty. Hey, the tragic Donner Party, trapped and starving in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846-7, thought their family members looked tasty. And they ate them.
See? This is why historians don’t get invited to parties. Especially dinner parties. And why NBH Nonnies are special, because you don’t cancel me. Please.
And They’re Off! Animals (and People) Head West
If you started west from St. Joseph or Kanesville/Council Bluffs, you first had to cross the Missouri River. Wrangling animals onto a ferry proved a major challenge, especially to people who were new to wrangling animals. John Hawkins Clark persuaded one of his mules to board the boat, and then turned his attention to his next animal. Just as he did, the first mule did a U-turn, and jumped in the drink. Once all Clark’s mules were onboard, they all ran to one side of the ferry, tipping boat and mules into the water. Clark and his helpers finally got all his mules and oxen aboard, to the sympathetic applause of the crowds of waiting migrants on the shore, who were terrified the same thing would happen to them. Nobody said working with animals was easy.
The migrants’ steep learning curve in dealing with animals continued. You couldn’t just camp anywhere: You had to park your wagons and pitch your tents where there was food for your animals. The earliest migrants, until maybe mid-1849, found plenty of prairie grasses for their animals to eat on the trails. But as thousands of wagons crossed the Great Plains, their animals stomped and ate native grasses to the roots. So migrants had to walk farther and farther from the trails to find fodder. Meanwhile, you can probably guess that all this was extremely bad news for Indigenous folk, the Indian peoples of the Great Plains, and the buffalo on whom their lives depended. You would be right. This is a big subject for another post.
Migrants had to learn how to persuade large, potentially dangerous animals to pull wagons loaded with up to several thousand pounds of stuff. This sometimes brought conflict between middle-class migrants who wanted to treat animals kindly, and others who didn’t see things the same way. Finley McDiarmid, formerly of Wisconsin, fired the teamster he had hired, for brutally whipping his horses. Some migrants felt so strongly about animal rights that they threatened to beat or shoot abusers.
Among the acceptable methods of persuasion? Ox whips wielded lightly, whistling, and having an “inexhaustible vocabulary of cuss words”, as Dr. Ahmad quotes one bit of advice. These naughty words offended the ears of some travelers. Hannah Cornaby, a Mormon, reasonably pointed out that, since the animals didn’t understand English, there was no need for swearing.
Especially at the beginning, wagon trains took it slow, for the sake of the animals. They set out at dawn, and took a long break at noon. People and animals were fed and watered, and had a siesta. And they took Sundays (or sometimes Saturdays) off, at least until starting to worry they weren’t going to beat the snow in the Sierras.
The Wagons Are Circling
Ooh, I’ve been looking forward to telling you this, my lovely readers! So remember how, in movie Westerns, people would circle the covered wagons to protect against Indian attack?
Yeah, no. As in, yes, they circled the wagons, but no, not to protect against Indians, because Indians in the 1840s and 1850s seldom attacked migrants, and never like you saw in the movies.
So why did they circle the wagons? Because that made a corral, an enclosure to keep the animals safe at night! Night watchmen could make sure they didn’t wander off or get stolen. As migrants and animals got used to each other, the migrants allowed more freedom to their livestock, but still kept a watchful eye.
Okay, now you can tell this story! Go for it! Spread the word. Feel free. Once again, NBH will make you a hit at Thanksgiving, because your NBH stories will give everyone a break from hearing Uncle Ralph’s inexhaustible supply of Opinions.
On Their Way: The Long and Not Winding Road West
Much of the early journey, the first month or two, wasn’t too difficult, just boring. That’s because much of it was spent walking alongside the Platte River, through what today are Nebraska and eastern Wyoming. Let me tell you, the Platte River Valley is very long, and very boring, but also very flat. Not much fun when you’re touring by car, but very helpful, I’m sure, for the animals and people with wagons.
There were also (surprise!) places to stop and get help. The federal government set up stations along the Platte, staffed by US soldiers (practically the only federal employees) to assist migrants. They were supposed to protect against Indian attack, but since that wasn’t happening, they sold supplies, offered blacksmithing facilities, and shipped mail and packages. Yes, you read that right. Imagine having stocked up all that stuff in Independence, assuming you would not see civilization again for months, only to arrive at a post office, convenience store, and mechanic shop (UK: Think motorway services) in the middle of nowhere. Yet this was exactly what Fort Kearny and Fort Laramie actually were.
Fort Kearny also sold lots of fuel, in the form of animal feed, because, as the grass supply trail between there and Fort Laramie, along the Platte River, got thinner and thinner within a few years, people learned about it, and so were forewarned to restock.
After Fort Laramie, the next fifty miles proved challenging. The grass supply declined dramatically. The water was often laced with alkali, making it dangerous to the animals who drank it. Their stomachs bloated as this alkaline water mixed with stomach acid. Many died. The trails got harder, too, more going up and down hills, on rocky soil, which was very hard on hooves. People now began to see how sore and tired their animals were becoming, and, to help, they began dumping the stuff they didn’t need out of the wagons. Starting with Grandma’s piano.
People now began to bond with their animals. They sometimes thought animals were trying to communicate with them, complaining resentfully of a lack of water by winking at their owners, or trying extra hard to keep going on a hard day, out of loyalty.
About fifty miles after Laramie, animals got relief at Independence Rock on the Sweetwater River, where, as the name implies, the water improved, and so did the grass supply. But migrants would struggle through the rest of the journey to keep their thirsty animals from alkaline water, and death.
The weather on the journey was often brutal. Thunderstorms, with hail the size of eggs, could freak out animals, and their handlers could only hang onto them, and try to comfort them. Sometimes, animals took off in panic, and search parties tried to track them down, without getting lost themselves.
And it wasn’t just bad weather that drew the animals away from camp. Some simply got fed up of the arduous journey, and tried to go home. Aww, that makes me think of the old movie The Incredible Journey, only with horses and oxen instead of dogs and a cat. In 1849, migrant John Benson met three men who’d given up, and were returning home. Soon, he also met an ox and a mule who were doing the same thing, walking east together. How cute is that?
Some oxen and cattle tried to escape by running away to join the buffalo, who seem to have accepted them into the herd. Some horses wandered off to join herds of horses belonging to Indians. Sometimes, the grass really is greener on the other side.
Going west was a rotten journey for everyone, and that includes the animals. Bad water, lack of enough food, and sheer exhaustion killed many oxen, mules, and horses. Before it was too late, though, you could trade worn-out animals to Indian communities you met along the way, such as the Pawnee or Shoshone, or at trading posts, like Fort Bridger, run by mountain men turned businessmen Luis Vasquez and Jim Bridger, or to Mormon businesses in Salt Lake City. All these folks did a roaring trade in animal replacement.
Buyers along the trail paid cash for a worn-out animal, and they would nurse it back to health, before selling it to someone else the following year. They would also sell to you (at a much higher cost, of course) a nice, shiny, pre-owned, and refurbished animal for the next leg of the trip. Indians also pinched animals that crossed their lands, rather than buying old clapped-out ones, and sold them to migrants for medicines, clothing, and guns. more useful to them than cash.
To keep their animals going, migrants continued to dump wagon contents by the, er, wagonload, all across the West. They cut down wagons to make them easier to pull. They learned the hard way how to dodge expensive and slow ferries by fording rivers, often losing animals (and sometimes their own lives) in the process. The Green River, a ribbon of plants and water in the Wyoming desert, looks easy to cross (I’ve seen it), but local Indians warned a migrant in 1859 that he would be unwise to attempt the crossing. He went anyway, losing several cattle to drowning. Watching migrants thought he was an idiot. Fair enough.
The Worst Is Saved for Last: Animals and the Last Leg of the Journey
Mountains and deserts marked the area after Salt Lake City. In the desert, The Humboldt River (nicknamed the Humbug) offered noxious water that gradually became a repulsive alkaline slurry, before finally vanishing into the sandy soil at an area called the Humboldt Sink, which you can still see today from the freeway.
Next up? The Forty-Mile Desert, where there was no water at all. The trail was bordered with the remains of animal bones and rotting carcasses. Even traveling by night did not prevent deaths. The animals were simply exhausted, overcome by heat and inadequate water. Migrants, sometimes without water and fearing for their own lives, sometimes abandoned their animals.
They wept for the animals left behind. Sometimes, they turned back to try to find abandoned animals. Margaret Frink, in 1850, left behind her horse, then returned for it, only to find it had died. Lodisa Frizzell found a cow with a note attached to her, asking that whoever found her took care of her, because “she had been one of the best of cows.” Suddenly, I’m thinking of Paddington Bear. Someone fetch me a tissue, okay?
Later in life, former migrants never forgot the cry of Another ox down, and what that had meant. They recalled the wails of the other oxen, who surrounded their fallen friend. But animal or human, all had to leave behind the animals that could not go farther. They could not carry an ox or a horse that was slowing them down. They could not risk dying themselves. Sometimes, an abandoned animal would follow the wagons, mooing or neighing, until it could no longer keep up. No wonder the migrants cried for the animals: These were people who had left behind family and friends they feared they would never see again. They mourned for the animals, and more.
Why didn’t migrants shoot the animals they abandoned? Often, they did. Others did not, because they hoped a miracle would occur, that the animal could fend for itself, or might be adopted by others. And some migrants did, indeed, try to help the abandoned animals they found, offering them a little water or food. But often, it was too late for animals that could no longer even get to their feet.
When they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, migrants who had made it with their wagons through the desert were terrified. The prospect of somehow getting over those huge peaks was overwhelming. Some abandoned their wagons, sold the animals if they could, and went on.
Others did take their wagons, and some went to extraordinary lengths to get them through the Sierras. I have seen the spot on the Carson River trail where, in one account I read, migrants took apart their wagons, coaxed mules up a sheer cliff face to a plateau, and then had the mules, tied to ropes, pull up the wagon pieces bit by bit. Like the rest of the journey, this was stunning to read about, and even more staggering to contemplate.
Migrants who arrived in California usually sold their animals for a quick infusion of needed cash, and also because the animals needed to rest and recover, care that traders provided. Some sold their animals in Hangtown (today Placerville) as soon as they reached the Gold Country, in the western foothills of the Sierras, trading them for long-anticipated fresh food, which cost a small fortune in the gold mining areas. Others went on to Sacramento, where there was, for example, a Grand Horse Market on K Street (I add that last detail for my fellow Sacramentans, past and present).
The relationships between migrants and the working animals who had made this epic journey together were now over. People were already moving on to what they hoped was an exciting future in California. For some, the trip had brought new skills: Working with animals.
But they didn’t give up their animals lightly. Many cried when they abandoned or euthanized or sold them. As Dr. Ahmad astutely observes, though, their tears were never entirely about the animals: They were crying for families and ways of life left behind in the East, and for the role the animals had played in bringing them to what they hoped was a bright new day in the West. Success, indeed, had depended on the animals.
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Diana L. Ahmad’s Success Depends on the Animals: Emigrants, Livestock, and Wild Animals on the Overland Trails, 1840-1869 is an academic book, but a very short one: 86 pages, not including notes. It also includes a chapter which I have not discussed at all, on the migrants’ relationships with wild animals. She’s done a good job of explaining the journey, too, to people who aren’t familiar with it. In short: I recommend this book if you’re especially interested in Westward migration and animals. Do ask a public librarian to get you a copy if the cost is too much for you.
The women’s diaries I mentioned are in a classic series that you can easily find in cheap used copies or libraries: Kenneth L. Holmes (ed.), Covered Wagon Women (This is a series! Many volumes for your enjoyment)
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