The Later Oregon Trail

Image by Captain-tucker, via Wikicommons Can you imagine traveling for a month in this?

Image by Captain-tucker, via Wikicommons
Can you imagine traveling for a month in this?

So for a while now I’ve been meaning to share some of my research for my new series, Hot on the Trail. The books of Hot on the Trail take place on various Oregon Trail journeys (and several of them overlap from book to book!). But I wanted to throw a slightly different twist into the works. The heyday of the Oregon Trail was the 1850s, but my stories, beginning with Trail of Kisses, take place in the 1860s.

So what is it about the 1860s that made me want to set a series of novels there? Especially when that’s not the usual time period for the Oregon Trail.

Well, technically the early part of the 1860s was still the very tail end of the days of the Trail. The First Transcontinental Railroad wouldn’t be finished until 1869, although it was officially started in 1863. Prior to that there were some stretches of railroad that spanned some of the distances over the gigantic midsection of the continent that people wanted to cross, but not enough to make the entire journey.

There was an alternative way to get from east to west besides the Oregon Trail in the 1860s, however. Stagecoaches. Companies like Wells Fargo could get you and your goods across the vastness of the prairie, for the right price. The disadvantages of stagecoach travel, however, were that they didn’t have room for much more than your basic suitcases of supplies. They were also crowded and uncomfortable. If you think cramming more than a dozen people into a tiny old stagecoach for a couple of hours was bad, try shoving them all in for a couple of weeks. Stagecoach travel was much faster than wagon trains, but it was hellish in the best of times.

So if you were planning on starting over and wanted to take anything with you to the wide open west, in the 1860s, wagon trains were still the way to go. But another aspect of the history of the Oregon Trail that led me to choose the 1860s over a decade or two earlier is the fact that by this time, the trail itself was less of a bleak wilderness trek and more of a gritty jaunt from one outpost to the next to the next.

Entire businesses had grown up along the trail by the 1860s, from supply depots to military escort forces to entrepreneurial ferrying companies that would take wagons across rivers. Instead of feeling like you were taking your life in your hands by venturing out into the unknown, the later Oregon Trail was more like a long, slow walk through the past two decades of enterprise to add your own piece to the pie. And when it comes to writing books set in an era, it’s a lot of fun to be able to have your characters come across established, recurring, populated places. Especially if there are several books in a series.

Image by National Park Service, via Wikicommons

Image by National Park Service, via Wikicommons

But the number one cool thing that prompted me to set the Hot on the Trail series in the 1860s was the Civil War. Everybody knows how much impact the Civil War had on the lives of everyday Americans. But what fewer people stop to consider was that there was an entire chunk of the population that wanted nothing to do with the war. And they had an alternative to staying back east and sticking it out. They could leave and head west. Many did, either because they were pacifists or because they were new immigrants who wanted no part of the conflict or because they had served their time and were tired of war. There’s a wealth of character motivation in the stories of these people.

One other aspect of the Civil War comes into play as well. Something that provides high drama. And we know that high drama is awesome for stories. I mentioned a few paragraphs above that by the 1860s, there were entire enterprises established along the trail, including military escort services. The military would accompany wagon trains along the most dangerous parts of the journey, when Indian attacks were more likely. But when war broke out back east, all of those troops were called to join the fighting. Military garrisons were either abandoned or restaffed by unseasoned, undisciplined militias. And that meant that Indian attacks saw a huge uptick.

On the one hand, this makes for great drama. On the other, much sadder hand, because the attacks by Native Americans defending their homelands from incursions of settlers they didn’t know and didn’t understand rose so high, when the war was over and soldiers were free to be sent out west again, it spelled the beginning of the end for the indigenous people of this country. Attacks during the early 1860s when there was no military meant war when the army came back, and none of those wars did anything good for the Indians.

So there you have it. I hope to take deeper looks into some of these things as the weeks go by and the Hot on the Trail books start coming out. I’ll also be posting excerpts and snippets here and there, so stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “The Later Oregon Trail

  1. Hi, Merry! Due to an overwhelming email in-box, I had to unsubscribe to your weekly newsletter–but I have enjoyed it and wish you ongoing success in your work! Very best, Janet Benton

  2. Fun stuff here. This is a great time period, fraught with all kinds of conflicts, both war-related and otherwise. Can’t wait to see the new series!

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