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Over the past few summers I have tackled the National Road, the Oregon Trail, and I've motorcycled to the Arctic Circle (Yukon) and Alaska. In the summer of 2013 I tackled Illinois Route 1. Starting on the south side of Chicago, Illinois 1 is the longest state highway, meandering south until it ends in Cave In Rock, Illinois, on the banks of the Ohio River. Once again, I operated with the assistance of Verizon Wireless, using an Apple iPhone and Nokia Lumia 928 to make all photographs.

The end of the Oregon Trail

Posted: June 29th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: General posts | 2 Comments »

A pair of gloves, bought new the day I left, bleached white on the top.  I faced the western sun for a little over two weeks.  I did not have to face it for three-four months like the western Pioneers. I have made it home, to the land of Lincoln.

In Independence, Missouri where my trip officially began, I met Travis Boley, the Oregon-California Trail Association Manager. Boley described the Oregon Trail as the rope that tied the East and West of the United States together. The rope is an apt metaphor. At one frayed end are the many destinations of the emigrants: Oregon City and the greater Willamette Valley, Walla Walla, California, and of course, in graves, marked and unmarked, along the trail. The starting points are equally frayed: Places like Independence and West Fort Joseph Mo, Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Springfield, Illinois. But no matter where folks started, they all ended up connected by the same tether of the Trail.

So as I rode back into Illinois today I thought about the “Peoria Party,” 19 emigrants in the earliest waves of immigration who headed out to the “Oregon Country.” Their motto, as displayed on a large flag they carried, was “Oregon Or The Grave.”  Setting out on May 1, 1839 they were beset by bad luck, bad planning and bad leadership. Some turned back. They almost starved; a heated argument saw one suffer a near-fatal gunshot.   Nonetheless, nine of the 19 who set out made it west.

Coles County, and Charleston, Illinois are full of remembrances of the nation’s 16th president.

As I neared home I passed one of the original farms worked by Abe Lincoln’s parents. In terms of the miles I had covered, the farm is a mere stone’s throw from the courthouse where Abe practiced law, a hop skip and a jump from the site of his fifth senatorial debate with Stephen Douglas, and in the backyard of the final resting place of his father Thomas and step-mother Sarah. Like Independence, Mo, where they are crazy about Harry Truman, we are a little obsessed with Abe (although we have no photos of Lincoln bowling, unlike the braggarts over there in Independence).  Even the Library of Eastern Illinois University remembers Lincoln’s Assassin John Wilkes Booth. (OK, it’s really named after Mary J. Booth a librarian at the school from 1904-1945, but the irony kills me.)

The Mary J. Booth Library on the campus of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Ill.

The land of Lincoln is also part of the frayed rope known as the Oregon Trail that tied the country together.

James Reed who carved his name in the rocks at Alcove Springs, carried a Muster Roll with Abe Lincoln’s signature on it. The two were Illinois Volunteers during the 1832 Black Hawk War, although neither saw combat. Reed himself was from Springfield, Illinois.

It was President Lincoln who, worried by the possibilities of a Mormon insurrection and Confederate sympathy in the west, put the California Volunteers and other groups in charge of the West’s security. It was the California Volunteers who were responsible in part for the Bear River Massacre, a site I visited near Preston, Idaho. Some historians even suggest the horrid treatment of American Indians during this time came with the tacit consent of Illinois’ most famous president. This is open to debate. What is not however, is the simple fact that if you dig just a little, wherever you live in the United States, you will find a story from that region that is a fiber, intertwined with the rope of the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail was a people’s invention, not the government’s.  It was long after the trail was already established, and emigrants were moving west, that the government caught up with what the people had started.  It was then that they built a few forts, and later they staffed the west with soldiers. The Oregon Trail connected the existing 30 United States with what would the nation would become. It represents all that is wonderful – and inexcusable – in our heritage. Entrepreneurs, dreamers, con men, zealots, criminals, racists, pacifists and schemers; families and loners, farmers, teachers, merchants, magnates, and inventors; they all moved west. Their stories are our story – the good and the bad. We are all bound together. Now that I have made it home, I feel that I have a lot to think about. I hope that, in some way, you too are able to consider this rich aspect of our history; that you are able to find your own connection to the rope that is the Oregon Trail.

2 Comments on “The end of the Oregon Trail”

  1. 1 Gtaylor said at 8:45 pm on June 29th, 2011:

    Welcome home Brian… and thanks for the great trek across the Oregon Trail. And kudos to the brilliant pictures and fascinating history lessons.

  2. 2 Linda said at 9:36 pm on June 29th, 2011:

    Thanks Brian for taking us along on this “living” history lesson

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