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

by Will Bagley, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2010, $45.

 “A tide of immigration appears to be moving this way rapidly,” Narcissa Whitman wrote her mother in the spring of 1840. “We are emphatically situated on the highway between the States and the Columbia River and are a resting place for the weary travelers, consequently a greater burden rests upon us than upon any of our associates—to be always ready.” Will Bagley covers that “tide of immigration,” when 1 million pioneers crossed plains, mountains, rivers and desert to help transform the nation and open the West (for better or worse).

Bagley, an independent historian, marvelous writer and Spur Award winner for Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, knows his stuff. He researched various trails for the National Park Service’s Long Distance Trails Office, so he was an excellent choice to write a four-volume series Overland West: The Story of the Oregon and California Trails. Rugged and Mountainous is the first volume.

Drawing from a wide range of primary sources, including letters and journals, Bagley weaves the story of the westward migration from various viewpoints—fur traders, adventurers, merchants, priests and ordinary men and women—in an engrossing and relentlessly researched narrative. Nor does he overlook the Indians, writing, “If the first eight years of overland emigration had been a triumph for Oregon’s settlers, they were a disaster for its native peoples.”

“The history of America’s overland wagon roads to Oregon and California is a dramatic record of sacrifice and suffering,” Bagley notes, “endurance and failure, death and survival, and the small victories and great defeats that marked the lives of the people who followed these trails to new lives in the West: It is not only a great American epic but an enduring tribute to the human spirit.”


Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.