Music on the Trail: New Beginnings!
It is that time of year! Whether it is your first day of school or you are remembering your first day many years ago, there is something about the excitement and promise of new beginnings! New school supplies, new books, a new backpack, new shoes, new clothes…new, new, new! And, the butterflies! Who will be my new teacher? What will he or she be like? Who will be in my classes? During my college days, I remember looking at my new textbooks before the first day of classes and wondering how in the world I was ever going to learn all of that stuff – and in 15 short weeks!
Having had the opportunity to bring Music on the Trail to a wide variety of audiences over the years, I am reminded of the hundreds of thousands (estimates range anywhere from 400,000 to 650,000) of overlanders (they did not call themselves pioneers) who felt an excitement all their own as they prepared for a new beginning: an excursion across the Oregon Trail to a new life in the West. From the US Army Expedition with 4,000 soldiers that covered the route in 1842, to the last Prairie Schooner that landed in Oregon as late as 1912, it was an exciting time. Appropriate preparation was the difference between making it to Oregon or turning back; sometimes between life or death.
After a few wagon trains had successfully made the trek, booklets were available for 35¢ to aide preparations and guide one on the trail. One such book guided journeys that used Omaha for the jumping-off point. It covered everything about the route down to the minutest detail, including the accurate location of all landmarks, river crossings, desirable camping places, and posts. The farther out they got, the more the overlanders found it to their advantage to follow the little booklet’s directions quite literally.
Equally important to the trail directions were complete directions for provisions necessary for a months-long, 2,000-mile journey and supplies for a new growing season after arriving in Oregon. What were some of the provisions necessary for the trip? Here is a sampling:
Food for a Family of Four
- 600 lbs. of flour
- 100 lbs. of sugar
- 200 lbs. of lard
- Eggs packed in corn meal to prevent breakage
- 120 lbs. of biscuits
- 400 lbs. of bacon, often hauled in large barrels packed in bran to avoid melting the fat
- 60 lbs. of coffee
- 4 lbs. of tea
- Baking soda
- Corn meal
- Dried beef
- Salt and pepper
- Sacks of rice and beans
- Dried fruit and pumpkin
Everything needed had to be anticipated and packed:
- 1 -2 sturdy farm wagons
- 6 - 10 head of oxen
- 1 - 2 milk cows
- Wool sack and rubber coats
- Cotton dresses, shirts, socks
- Flannel shirts
- Wool pantaloons
- Buckskin pants, duck trousers
- Boots and brogans
- Felt hat, palm-leaf sun hat, green goggles, sunbonnet
- Bedding - blankets, ground cloths, pillows, tent, poles, stakes, ropes
- Utensils needed for survival: dutch oven, kettle, skillet, reflector oven, coffee grinder, teapot, butcher knife, ladle, tin tableware and cups, water keg, matches
- Tools: augers, gimlet, ax, hammer, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, chains, good hunting knife
- Farm implements for use upon arrival in Oregon: shovel, scythe, rake, hoe, saw, broad axe, mallet, plane, seeds for crops
- Handy extras: surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, thread, brandy for "medicinal purposes"
And what did they take to pass the time, to make the journey go by more pleasantly? A special small toy, a favorite book, paper and pencil to write back home, and a prized item to lift the spirits – music! Although there are stories of attempts to take a piano, most likely portable instruments such as these would fit the bill: fiddle, violin, tambourine, flute, jaw harp, accordion, guitar, dulcimer. Folk song favorites included Skip to My Lou, Cindy, Froggie Went a-Courtin’, Shenandoah, My Country ‘tis of Thee, Sweet Betsy from Pike, America, the list goes on and on!
As you feel the rush of excitement for this new season, whether it be for a new school year, the opportunity to start lessons on a musical instrument, the turning from Summer to Fall, or the beginning of football season, take a moment to revel in joyful anticipation and maybe send up a little “thank you” to those daring overlanders who showed us that anything is possible – with preparation and perseverance, determination and perspiration, and a “can-do” attitude!