Reviewed by B.B. Swan
By David Dary
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2004
If you get the itch for a pioneering experience in the Old West on the Oregon Trail, you are not entirely out of luck. The Oregon Trail is a National Historic Trail, and more than 300 miles of the old ruts can be seen today, along with 200-plus historic sites and the same mountains and plains viewed by 19th-century emigrants. You can also visit such fine places as the National Frontier Trails Center in Independence, Mo., and the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, in Oregon City, Ore. To top it all off, for an easy but satisfying way to scratch that itch, there is award-winning Western writer David Dary’s latest triumph, The Oregon Trail: An American Saga.
Dary, whose many writing credits include The Santa Fe Trail and Seeking Pleasure in the Old West, writes about the “Rebirth of the Trail” in the last chapter of his 414-page work. His first chapter, “The Exploration of Oregon,” opens with a quick look at the Chinooks and other native people who occupied that country before the first Europeans arrived. In short, Dary not only follows in the footsteps of noted historians Francis Parkman (The Oregon Trail, 1849) and Bernard De Voto (The Year of Decision, 1846, which is also the name of one of Dary’s chapters, and Across the Wide Missouri, both written in the 1940s) but also covers plenty of new ground. Right off the bat in his introduction, Dary clears up two points that are often confusing even to some of us who have been reading about the Western frontier for years: Although it began as the route to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the trail was used to go to many other places from the 1840s until the completion of the intercontinental railroad in 1869 and “probably should be called `the Oregon-California-Utah-Colorado-Nevada- Montana-and-Other-Points-West Trail'”; and although it began as a trail, it soon became a well-worn wagon road with plenty of cutoffs and might deserve to be called “the Road,” since it was the major overland route from Missouri to the Pacific Coast.
Dary makes good use of diaries, journals, newspaper stories and expedition reports to capture the romance and realities of life on the trail. Various diary entries, along with more than 90 photos, line drawings and maps, help spice up the account. Chapter 16, “Decline of the Trail,” will come all too soon for many readers, but the whole story did have to be packed into one volume. Most helpful in rounding out the whole picture are appendixes about historic landmarks seen by the emigrants (as well as today’s travelers) and about the cutoffs and other roads associated with the main Oregon Trail. Finally, there’s a nice little glossary to help those new to Western trail talk. So grab some hardtack and maybe a little skullvarnish and enjoy the ride, pilgrim.