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Will Bagley reveals the history of Wyoming's South Pass in his latest book.

Will Bagley’s no-holds-barred 2002 book Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows established him as one of the great writers of the American West. And he followed that award-winning book with fulfilling volumes about the overland trails experience, including So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812–1848 and With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West, 1849–1852. With David L. Bigler he wrote The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857–1858, which relates the confrontation when the U.S. military marched on Utah Territory to install a new governor. He is writing/editing an ongoing series about the Mormon settlement of the West for the Arthur H. Clark Co., and he recently published South Pass: Gateway to a Continent, an account of the historic passage through the Rocky Mountains in the mid-19th century. No working writer has a better knowledge or understanding of the primary documents related to the era of Western overland migration. Bagley, who also writes for Wild West, recently spoke about his work.

Why write about the overland trails and the emigrant experience?
It’s an epic American story of triumph and tragedy with a cast of 500,000 heroes (mostly women and children) and scoundrels (almost all men). During their long and perilous journey across the West they wrote some of the greatest prose of the 19th century. The trail is a journey, a subject that has engaged writers since Homer wrote the Odyssey. What storyteller could resist such a great saga?

What does it tell us about our past?
That history is never simple. The “vicissitudes, trials, incidents and dangers” [to paraphrase Forty-Niner William B. Lorton] of crossing the plains, mountains and deserts prove that crazy people make the best history.

What about the present or future?
History is about choices but indicates people are better at repeating mistakes than learning from them. But if we don’t know—or care—about where we’ve been, how can we hope to have any clue about where we’re bound?

What were travelers to Oregon like?
They were, as a Hudson’s Bay Co. officer observed, “the scum and refuse of the back states.”

What about those bound for California?
According to Dexter Tiffany, people “from every part of the Union, lawyers, doctors, farmers, mechanics, storekeepers, brags, boys, & nothings” went to California. “Some very decent, some very clever & many about half drunk all the time.” Californians, Charles Bush noted in May 1849, “laid drunk in the streets for days at a time.”

And those bound for Utah?
“The Mormons are not such a bad people after all,” Dr. Edward Kitchell wrote in July 1852. “They are a remarkable tribe.” But hearing “some infernal slang & rant from Kimball & Brigham Young” convinced him “that the leaders of the ‘Saints’ are a regular organized set of scoundrels.” Mormons themselves told Charlotte Allis there “was a perfect set of Devils in Salt Lake City.”

Seriously, there’s a lot of truth to the old stereotypes about the trails—families went to Oregon for land, to California for gold and to Utah for religion. They were people from all parts of the world who had one objective—“bettering their condition, but the particular means by which each proposed to attain that end were as various as can be imagined” [wrote Oregon settler Jesse Quinn Thornton]. Nobody ever went west to get poor. Everyone who went west had his or her own reasons. Each was chasing the American Dream—that in a new land you could make a better life for your family. They all had their own story.

What made you write about South Pass?
Remember Paladin’s Have Gun—Will Travel? I’ve got a pen, not a gun, but as an independent historian I have to scratch out an income as best I can. I do consulting work to finance my writing habit, and my contract with the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management was a lifesaver. So South Pass started as a historical context and landscape study but evolved into a pretty good book, I hope.

Any revelations about South Pass?
My research turned up two real shockers. I’d long suspected the Mormon missionaries who were “gathering the poor” from the slums of Victoria’s England had ulterior motives, but I hadn’t found any evidence. Then a descendant of William H. Kimball, Heber’s oldest son, gave me an 1854 missionary letter William wrote from London while “commanding upwards of 4,000 sterling volunteers, still enlisting for the great conflict.” He and his fellow missionaries were “all recruiting officers sent out to enlist volunteers. We hope to select chosen battalions of sterling soldiers and march them safely to Zions’ standard, there to defend virtue, truth, & genuine liberty.” The march turned into the handcart disaster. Second shocker: Brigham Young diverted men and teams from saving the lives of the freezing and starving victims of his “handcart scheme” in 1856. Why? To rescue six tons of liquor and tobacco.

Who are some of the trail scoundrels?
As William Temple wrote home in 1850, “near all the stealing and killing is done by the Whites,” who then blamed it on the Indians. “No fear of man, and no respect for woman, restrain these plunderers from committing the most atrocious crimes,” William Dixon observed in 1866. To my surprise, most believed that “white Indians are more troublesome than the red ones” and were behind virtually all the crime of the trails. But of course, every people on earth have their share of bad actors, and teenagers of all shades were behind most of the trouble on the trails.

Of the subjects you’ve covered, which do you like best?
My best editors—my wife, Laura Bayer, and publisher Bob Clark—agree my Western history is better than my Latter-day Saint history. Clark asked me to edit a 16-volume documentary history of the Mormon frontier. I’m working on the last—and hardest—volume about Mormons and Indians. Like all my hard work on Mormon history, the Mormons aren’t going to appreciate it. Sometimes I wish I’d worked on the fur trade instead.

Anything missing from the “official record?”
If there’s an official record, it’s the masterful Merrill Mattes 1988 bibliography Platte River Road Narratives, which had 2,082 entrees. I’ve identified about 600 new narratives and the LDS Church’s “Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel” has at least 1,000 more. Last March the National Park Service posted my labor of love, a new overland bibliography. Across the Plains, Mountains and Deserts: A Bibliography of the Oregon-California Trail has almost 900 live links to full-text versions to its National Trails websites. A search for “Plains, Mountains, and Deserts” will take you right to a PDF copy of it.

What are the threats to the trails?
Greed—and the industrialization of the American West that threatens to bulldoze, strip mine, hydraulic, frack, pave-over, pipeline, powerline, turbinise, towerize, dig up, dynamite, dam or drill every last open acre in pursuit of the Almighty Buck.

What are you working on now?
I’m editing a collection of Dave Bigler’s articles and hoping to wrap up (with Jean and LeRoy Johnson’s help) a project I started 22 years ago—William Lorton’s journal, which Dale Morgan called “the finest Forty-Niner diary I have ever laid eyes on.” And he should know—he saw hundreds of them. I want to finish these projects this year so I can tackle the last two volumes of the “Overland West” series—The Long and Perilous Journey: Trails and Transformation, 1853–1860 and The War for the Medicine Road: Trails and Conquest, 1861–1912. Then I plan to start drinking a lot more to cure my workaholism. But I’d like to grow wings and fly, too.

Any final thoughts?
This summer Johnny D. Boggs and I were commiserating about the financial thrills of walking the freelance tightrope, but we agreed we wouldn’t trade our independence for anything. I joke about being the world’s luckiest historian, but I am—my daughter said I should trademark the phrase, but nobody else even claims the title. Every day I get to do what I love, and every day I learn something new. I’ve got two great children, two talented grandchildren, and a beautiful wife who is a great writer and editor and smarter than me, too. Heck, maybe I’m the world’s luckiest man.