The year 1843 marked the beginning of the mass movement of Americans to Oregon across the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail.

No wilderness passage was as difficult or as dangerous. In May of that year, the first of the great wagon trains left Independence and consisted of 1,000 men, women and children, 120 wagons and 5,000 assorted head of cattle. No one knows how many pigs, chickens and dogs were taken along. Leading the parade of pioneers was a quiet but courageous frontier farmer named Jesse Applegate.

Applegate wrote a lively account of a typical day in the lives of the people driving their wagons west toward the Willamette Valley of Oregon: “It is 4 a.m. The sentinels on duty have discharged their rifles – the signal that the hours of sleep are over …” The emigrants barely had a chance to yawn before starting to work. Women built fires, and hung over them pots of water to warm the morning coffee.

At the time Applegate wrote his account, the wagons were crossing the Great Plains, where there was little firewood. Fires had to be made from dried buffalo dung – or “buffalo chips,” as the settlers called them. The travelers usually ate a breakfast of sowbelly (bacon) and slam-johns (flapjacks).

At 7 a.m. each morning, Applegate gave the command, “Wagons ho!” Each wagon had to be in its assigned place at that time. The best positions were toward the front of the line. Those in the rear had to “eat dust” all day long. On Applegate’s wagon train, families alternated places in line each day. Rarely was a wagon late assembling in the morning because, “All know when, at 7 o’clock, the signal to march sounds that those not ready to take their proper places in the line of march must fall into the dusty rear for the day.”

With cows mooing, dogs barking and wagon wheels creaking, the long caravan rolled out toward Oregon. Applegate described how the wagon trains formed a line three quarters of a mile in length: “Some of the teamsters (drivers) ride upon the front of their wagons, some walk beside their teams. Scattered along the line, companies of women and children are taking exercise on foot. They gathered bouquets of rare and beautiful wildflowers that line the way.”

At noon, the wagon train stopped for lunch – usually a hurried meal of dried meat. A few families sat at portable tables, but most ate standing up or sitting on the ground. During lunch, Applegate and a council of men served as judges in sort of a traveling court to hear grievances and complaints. Then it was back on the trail.

It was almost dark when Jesse Applegate signaled a halt for the night. The wagons circled a tight ring called a “night circle.” This served as a barrier against Indian attack and also gave the camp a community atmosphere. Fires were lit and the travelers enjoyed their largest meal of the day. Families ate buffalo or antelope steak or stewed prairie chicken. Wild game was often plentiful on the Great Plains. At other points along the Oregon Trail however, the emigrants suffered through near starvation diets.

As darkness crept over the camp, Applegate wrote, “Before a tent near the river a violin makes music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green. In another quarter a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still air.” But the music ceased and the fires were doused early. Morning would come soon, and the emigrants would have to face another long day on the Oregon Trail.

Reference: “The Story of the Oregon Trail” by Conrad Stein.

Spend an evening with Frederick Douglas on Feb. 19 beginning at 6:30 p.m. at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St., Kansas City. Re-enactor Charles Everett Pace presents this one-man show to portray the prominent abolitionist and social reformer from our past. For reservations, call 816-701-3407.

To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to or call him at 816-252-9909.