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So Rugged and Mountainous: Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California, 1812–1848

 Vol. 1 in the Overland West series, by Will Bagley, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2010, $45.

 This award-winning book about westward migration, the overland trails, Oregon and California has been out more than a year, but it’s worth a reminder if you missed it. There may be no better overland trail historian than Will Bagley, and certainly he is one of today’s best narrative nonfiction writers.

In the superbly written prologue he describes eagles circling canvas-covered wagons as the first pioneers depart the Missouri River headed overland. Bagley quickly draws you into the adventure, hardship and opportunity the West presented in the early half of the 19th century, noting that it took the pioneers six months to cross from the Missouri River to the Willamette Valley—the same distance an eagle could fly in just six days.

Drawing from his incredible research library and literally hundreds of primary documents, he talks of Yankee seafarers, known as “Bostons,” who reached the Pacific Northwest in 1812. He writes of the fur traders in Hudson’s Bay Co., New York’s Astorians, the “enterprising men” of William Ashley’s fur brigade. He further sets the scene of “difficulties and hardships attending travel across the continent,” as pioneer John Henry Brown wrote of his trek in 1845.

However, it is the period of emigrant travel, beginning in 1841, that is the heart of Bagley’s research and narrative in this book. As he notes, “We owe our knowledge of the trails to Oregon and California to a hardy band of letter writers, journal keepers and memoirists who chronicled their experiences crossing the continent.” The pioneers were, for the most part, not only literate but also somewhat socially superior, so their stories don’t necessarily reflect the full range of economic and social status in America’s population at the time. Further, many hoped their reports would be published, so they no doubt made an effort to include interesting and important details. Of course, illiterate and poorer people crossed the continent during the period, but we just don’t have accounts of their journeys, although we get glimpses of their travels through the recollections of other pioneers.

Bagley’s scholarship is the backbone, but his writing is the meat of this book. His skill as a writer means that while every detail is documented, it is anything but dry, scholarly history. It’s no wonder the book won the Wrangler Award for outstanding nonfiction history from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum and was a finalist for the Western Writers of America Spur Award. (An earlier review appeared in the October 2010 Wild West.)


Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here