Two Trails West

Hambleton, James, and Theona J. Wood, Water and Grass: Meek Cutoff of 1845. Printed by Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Id., 2014. 192 pp. Paper $24.00. New. ISBN: 978-0-9903860-2-5.Water and Grass: Meek Cutoff of 1845

Most writers contend that the Meek Cutoff of 1845 across eastern and up through central Oregon to The Dallas, and led by former mountain man Stephen H. Meek, was a clear disaster. These historians conclude that Meek, a proud and confident man, led astray those hundreds who traveled the 435-mile, 45-day route with him. The critics say he got lost, pushing travelers through areas he knew but glancingly; so, he caused some overlanders to separate from the main group, and was the reason too many went hungry, lost their livestock, or even some their lives.

The writers/compilers of this factual volume dissent from these negative writings about Meek and the Meek Cutoff route. They assert that Meek knew his way, and the travelers should have believed him. The goal of this volume, the authors make clear, is “to clear up misconceptions and misinformation about Stephen Meek and the Meek Cutoff and to define the trail as accurately as possible” (xii).

The authors’ oversize volume is a rich harvest of factual details. They draw extensively on about a half dozen contemporary, hand-written, and revealing diaries on which to base much of their account. Their book overflows with these diary entries and numerous maps, but contains less narrative detail. James H. Hambleton’s fifty years as a professional land surveyor repeatedly shows up in the cartographic and trail details in this narrative. He employs the latest technology to give readers a strong sense of what the trail travelers saw and experienced in their arduous travel.
Generally, this is very local history, concentrating intensively on daily details. If the book is narrow in focus and light on sociocultural detail, it is exhaustively thorough on land surfaces, water sources, and grass availability. Trail aficionados will relish the abundant factual details the husband-and-wife authors have compiled.

Dary, David. The Oregon Trail: An American Saga. New York: Knopf, 2004. 415 pp. Cloth $40.As new, Signed. ISBN: 0-375-41399-5.The Oregon Trail: An American Saga.

Journalist and historian David Dary combines talents in those two fields to produce this valuable overview of the Oregon Trail. When this smoothly written narrative appeared a dozen years ago, it was hailed as the best general summary of this history-changing series of events. Some reviewers were even willing to place Dary’s appealing book alongside such classics as Francis Parkman’s The Oregon Trail and Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri.

Dary travels chronologically, from the first events shaping the trans-Mississippi West to the end of the trail about 1870–and beyond. The first eighty pages are devoted to backgrounds before the 1840s, the major section to the 1840s and 1850s, and the closing chapters to the Civil War and postwar happenings.

The author spices his narrative with lively accounts of dozens of overland trail groups and individuals traveling with those companies. For example, we hear much about Robert Stuart’s trip from Astoria eastward that became, in part, a route for later overlanders coming west; Dr. John McLoughlin and the Hudson’s Bay Company; and the coming of missionaries such as Jason Lee, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and several Catholic priests. Then follow chapters that trace yearly crossings to Oregon, California, and Mormon Utah, from the early 1840s through the Civil War years.

Dary lards his narrative with dozens of long block quotes that provide human interest, physical descriptions, and daily details of trail travel. He uses the words of Jesse Applegate, the Sager girls, John C. Frèmont, and dozens of other writers and diarists. He also makes good use of information culled from newspapers, LeRoy Hafen’s series on the mountain men, and Kenneth Holmes’s volumes on frontier women. Final listings of cutoff routes and covered wagon landmarks and a glossary of important trail terms add substantially to this appealing volume.
In short, those interested in the history of the most important trail snaking across the American West should begin with this notable book on the Oregon Trail by David Dary.

— Richard W. Etulain

Follow Up On Books About Western Trails

  • Bagley, Will. So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812-1848. Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails. Vol. 1, 1812-1848. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. 458 pp. Cloth $35, as new, signed. ISBN 978-0-8061-4103-9.
    Thorough and detailed, this smoothly written big book is a valuable overview of overland trails from 1812 to the California Gold Rush time. First of a four-part series.
  • Bagley, Will. With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849-1852. Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails, Vol 2. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012. 448 pp. Cloth $30. As new. Signed. ISBN 978-0-8061-4284-5.
    This extensive study by the most recent authority on the overland trails offers a rich, thorough account of the trails that numerous pioneers took coming west. Valuable in all ways.
  • Ely, Glen Sample. The Texas Frontier and the Butterfield Overland Mail, 1858-1861. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2016. 440 pp. Cloth $32. New. ISBN 978-0-0806-1522-19.
    Richly illustrated, this attractive history traces an important frontier mail route through mid-nineteenth-century Texas.
  • Hazelett, Stafford J., ed. Wagons to the Willamette: Captain Levi Scott and the Southern Route to Oregon, 1844-1847, by Levi Scott and James Layton Collins. Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2015. Signed by “Stafford.” 254 pp. Paper $20; as new. ISBN 978-087422-333-0.
    This account of travel via the Applegate Trail provides an alternative to the usual Oregon Trail narratives. Numerous footnote annotations help clarify obscure references in the Scott diary.
  • Jackson, W. Turrentine. Wagon Roads West: A Study of Federal Road Surveys and Construction in the Trans-Mississippi West…1846-1869. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952. 422 pp. Cloth $40; very good.
    Jackson, an authority on frontier and western transportation and mining, furnishes here a very useful account of the surveying and construction of wagon roads west in the mid-nineteenth century. Still an authoritative work after more than sixty years.
  • Johnson, Ken. Legendary Truths: Peter Lassen and His Gold Rush Trail in Fact and Fable. Np: Prong Horn Press, 2012. 348 pp. Signed. Paper $25. As new. ISBN 978-1-932636-93-2.
    Johnson treats the facts and legends surrounding noted California pioneer Peter Lassen. The author provides a very useful and fact-filled account of major northern California trails.
  • Korns, J. Roderic, et al., eds. West from Fort Bridger: The Pioneering of Immigrant Trails Across Utah, 1846-1850. Rev. and updated by Will Bagley and Harold Schindler. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1994. 328 pp. Cloth $21.As new. ISBN 0-87421-178-6.
    This collection of diary and journal excerpts provides major insights into immigrant trails crossing Utah in the later 1840s.
  • Lass, William E. From the Missouri to the Great Salt Lake: An Account of Overland Freighting. Nebraska State Historical Society, Vol. 16. Lincoln: Nebraska State Historical Society, 1972. 312 pp. Cloth $20.Very Good.
    This overview of trailing from Missouri and Nebraska to Utah is by a major trail historian. He covers the period from 1848 to 1869, in the pre-railroad era.
  • Ragen, Brooks Geer. The Meek Cutoff: Tracing the Oregon Trail’s Lost Wagon Train of 1845. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013. 156 pp. Cloth $35. New. ISBN 978-0-295993096.
    This oversized, richly illustrated volume will attract readers with its inviting layout and content. The book traces the controversial Meek Cutoff route from the Boise area to The Dalles, Oregon.
  • Russell, Ashley Howard. Siskiyou Trail. Portland: Binfords and Mort, 1959. Signed to a friend. 195 pp. Cloth $30. Very Good.
    This historical novel follows the Siskiyou Trail stretching from northern California into southern Oregon. The author features conflicts with Indians and among settler groups, miners, and packers.

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In this issue: Fictional Wests: Two Recent Novels, Two Trails West, The Civil War In The American West, 10 Historical Overviews Of The American West and Lewis and Clark Books

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