- So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812-1848
Will Bagley has begun an epic four-volume journey through the mountains of personal accounts, newspaper reports, government records, and scholarly studies that have recounted the saga of the overland trails. This book examines the era before the California gold rush, an event that changed dramatically both the number and destination of the emigrants. Starting in 1812 allows Bagley to recognize the importance of Robert Stuart's discovery of South Pass, the gateway through the Rocky Mountains that made transit to Oregon and California more accessible. Other extreme obstacles lay farther west, such as the formidable Sierra Nevada in eastern California. A public historian with over a decade of experience working in the National Park Service, Bagley knows both the terrain and the literature.
Bagley is an accomplished writer and historian whose earlier book Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows (2002) produced enough concern within the leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that a team of Mormon historians attempted a refutation. The book built on the heroic efforts of Juanita Brooks, the Mormon author who in 1950 exposed the Mormons' involvement in the 1857 killing of at least 120 men, women, and children. Here Bagley's first installment has another vital scholarly antecedent, John D. Unruh's monumental The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60 (1979). Unruh's foreshortened career never intersected with those of a new set of historians, like John Mack Faragher, who demonstrated that westward emigration had a greater complexity than popular assumptions about heroic pioneers and wagon trains. By the mid-1980s, a "new western history" arose exemplified best by the work of Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White.
Bagley's interpretations are influenced by these no-longer-so-new historians, but his extensive research is impressive in its own right. He has utilized some five hundred overland narratives unknown to scholars before 1988. The desire of so many to record what they experienced in the journey has provided the greatest source of information. The prominent trails historian Merrill Mattes "estimated that of the almost 500,000 sojourners . . . [End Page 82] between 1812 and 1866, about 1 in every 250 left some sort of meaningful record of their adventure" (285). Perhaps only the accounts of Civil War soldiers can match such an outpouring.
These records contain many surprises. For example, native peoples played an important peaceful role interacting with the overland migrants. John Unruh first researched this aspect of the journey, and Bagley effectively expands this analysis by looking at the work of Lillian Schlissel and Glenda Riley. Their examination of women's trail diaries revealed much fear of possible Indian hostilities but remarkably few, and in many cases no, incidents. As Bagley recognizes, "Until the 1860s, the level of violence on the road west was surprisingly low" (348).
Women's stories along the trail demonstrate the dominant male attitude in gender relations. Bagley incorporates the accounts of two women—Lucinda Jane Saunders and Narcissa Burdette Land Vasquez—that are not included in earlier histories of the overland trails. Saunders's and Vasquez's accounts reveal the hostility, as well as the occasional admiration, that independent women elicited from male observers. Yet, Bagley does not ignore the better-known episodes and prominent characters. For example, John Charles Frémont appears regularly with his government expeditions and political ambitions. The two disastrously foolish purveyors of "shortcuts" to California, Lansford W. Hastings and Peter Lassen, retain their notoriety. And the Donner party becomes trapped in the high Sierra Nevada, with many succumbing to desperate measures and starvation.
Very appropriately, Bagley uses the Jesuit missionary and traveler Father Pierre-Jean De Smet as a narrative bookend for his study. In 1841, De Smet journeyed with the Bidwell-Bartleson party, often proclaimed as the first pioneer train to reach the Oregon country. Before the end of...