Who Were the Western Pioneers?

TrailofHopeIn my new western historical romance series, Hot on the Trail, I’m giving a glimpse into the lives and loves of several sets of people traveling west on the Oregon Trail. My particular stories are set later in the history of the Trail, but all the same, I wanted to give a picture of the kinds of people who would leave everything back East to start over in the West. So who were these people? What would really induce someone to drop the life they had to run west?

Of course, the obvious answer that we’ve learned since childhood is that these were people in search of opportunity. And that’s still a true answer. From the moment the West was opened up through exploration and discovery, Americans back East saw it as one great big ball of opportunity just waiting for someone to rush out and claim it. The land was fertile, natural resources abounded, and gold (and later silver) were found.

But as I mentioned in an earlier post. The very first intrepid settlers who made the trek west during the first days of the Oregon Trail in the early 1840s were not going for gold. They weren’t even going to California. They were headed to the territory in the Pacific Northwest that was already minimally settled by both American and British trappers and merchants. The American government encouraged settlers to high-tail it for Oregon, because the more American butts were on the ground, the more likely it was for the U.S. to claim a larger chunk of the land that was proving to be so profitable. It was about showing Britain up. Working the land was important and ports along the Pacific coast were vital to trade, but really it was an international land grab.

The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt

The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt

All that changed, of course, when gold was discovered in California. We hear a lot about the gold rush and the Forty-Niners. That was just the tip of the iceberg. The truth was that there was some gold easily available, right on the surface of the ground for those who could get out there fast enough to grab it. And many, many men did zip out from the east to try to get rich quick. Most failed, though. Too many exhausted their entire life savings trying to make something of themselves. And a bunch of them ended up going home to the East, empty-handed.

The people who succeeded in California, and later in Colorado and Wyoming and Montana, and all the other future states and cities that survived and thrived, were the ones who followed the get-rich-quick schemers and set up businesses to cater to them. The real riches to be had were in mercantile business, selling things to the burgeoning population of the West, or in ranching or farming to feed the West. These weren’t get-rich-quick sorts of enterprises, but they definitely made a lot of people a heck of a lot of money in the long run.

Okay, it’s pretty obvious that the West was populated by adventurers and entrepreneurs, folks with stars and dollar signs in their eyes. But who exactly were these people? What were they like?

As I’ve done research for my Hot on the Trail books, I’ve discovered one consistent trend that I haven’t heard a lot of people talk about before. It seems that a great many of the people who were willing to pull up their roots and chase their dreams west were (unsurprisingly) restless, ambitious dreamers and (surprisingly) quite liberal and secular in their thinking.

Mayer-Awakening-1915Yep, I think the trend is to think that these early settlers were pious and god-fearing, but all the research I’ve done seems to indicate that religion didn’t reach the West until many, many decades after the people did. After all, this was the land of gunslingers and prostitutes. There’s a reason the West was called “wild.” But it was true even for peaceable settlers in the earlier days. In fact, an early missionary heading to Oregon wrote home that she was shocked by the amount of godlessness she found in the West and felt something had to be done.

In fact, something was done, and as the great revivals of the 19th century swept in from the East, lonely settlers out West adopted religion as a means to come together to stave off the sheer loneliness of life on the prairie. But I’ll write more about that later.

The other remarkable thing about people in the West was that they had far more liberal ideas about a variety of topics, especially women’s rights. As the century rolled into its later years, settlers throughout the West began to see the necessity of all people, including women, participating in every facet of life, from farming to politics. Women were given the vote in several western territories as early as the 1880s. They also owned land and operated businesses, and ended up being used as an example of the progress that women could make once the cause of women’s rights took center stage at the turn of the century.

So the people who settled the West were some of the heartiest and cleverest people in America. That can’t be denied. The West also drew a lot of foreigners looking to start anew, but that’s a whole other story. Would you have had what it takes to start over in an untamed land? Would you have been the one to tame it?


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