A Fourth of July on the Oregon Trail


Lander, Wyoming. -- Off State Route 220, a few miles south of this western town of 7,000 people (which makes it the eighth-largest municipality in Wyoming), a great granite dome rises almost 200 feet out of the dry flatland. "Independence Rock," it has been called since 1830, when a group of fur trappers celebrated the Fourth of July there.

Within a few years, there were celebrations each year as hundreds of thousands of Americans on the Oregon Trail went by it between 1840 and 1860. The rock, covering more than 50 acres, can been seen for dozens of miles across a pretty barren landscape. There were two reasons to have a party there. First, it was Independence Day back in "the states." Second, if wagon trains from jumping-off towns along the Missouri River -- the western border of the United States when the trail opened -- reached the rock by July Fourth, they would almost certainly make it over the western mountain ranges before the snows came.

"The glorious Fourth has once more rolled around," James Nesmith, a 19-year-old sailor from Maine, wrote in his diary in 1843. "Some of our company ruminating upon the luxuries destroyed in different parts of the great Republic on this day. Occasionally you hear something said about mint juleps, soda, ice cream, cognac, porter, ale and sherry wine, but the Oregon emigrant must forget those luxuries. . . ."

Nesmith and the rest of his company settled for cold water. But there was time for fun, he wrote: "After breakfast, myself, with some other young men, had the pleasure of waiting on five or six young ladies to pay a visit to Independence Rock. I had the satisfaction of putting the names of Miss Mary Zachery and Miss Jane Mills on the southeast point of the rock. Facing the road, in all the splendor of gunpowder, tar and buffalo grease, may be seen the name of J.W. Nesmith, from Maine, with an anchor."

His name is still there, along with thousands of others who did the same thing on their way west. This is what Enoch Conyers wrote nine years later, in 1852:

"July 3 -- Several of the boys started out this morning for a hunt in the mountains for the purpose of obtaining some fresh meat, if possible, for our Fourth of July dinner. Those who remain in camp are helping the ladies in preparing the banquet. A number of wagon beds are being taken to pieces and formed into long tables.

"A little further on is a group of young ladies seated on the grass talking over the problem of manufacturing 'Old Glory' to wave over our festivities. One lady brought forth a sheet. This gave the ladies an idea. Quick as thought, another brought a skirt for the red stripes. Another lady ran to her tent and brought forth a blue jacket, saying: 'Here, take this, it will do for the field. . . . '

"July 4 -- The day was ushered in with They thought they saw a new world dawning, and they thought they were in the best part of it. And we? Are we now the old world?

the booming of small arms, which was the best that we could do under the circumstances, so far away from civilization. Just before the sun made its appearance above the eastern horizon, we raised our 40-foot flagstaff with 'Old Glory' nailed fast to the top. . . . Our company circled around the old flag and sang 'The Star Spangled Banner.' Then three rousing cheers and a tiger were given to 'Old Glory.' . . .

"To whom should the honor be given to deliver the oration? [It] fell to the lot of Virgil Y. Ralston, a son of Dr. J.N. Ralston, of Quincy, Illinois. Unfortunately he, with several other young men of our company, went this morning to the Devil's Gate, where they obtained a little too much 'firewater,' and by the time they reached the camp were considerably under the influence.

"But this was the glorious old Fourth, therefore the oration we must have. The Declaration of Independence was read by R.L. Doyle, of Keokuk, Iowa, after which several of the boys gathered around Virgil, lifting him bodily upon the end of one of our long tables, where they steadied him until he became sufficiently braced up, and then let go of him. He spoke for over half an hour, and delivered, off-hand, an excellent oration."

The board tables were decorated with evergreens and wild flowers, and the long menu, described in Conyers' diary, included roast antelope and roast jackrabbit, potatoes brought from Illinois and baked beans from Boston, fruitcake, apple pie, coffee, tea and more of that cold water from the Sweetwater River. That night he wrote: "A Fourth of July on the plains never to be forgotten."

The next morning the trains were on the move again, beginning the climb over the Rocky Mountains on the gently sloping South Pass. On July 19, 1846, at the Continental Divide, an Overlander named Charles Stanton wrote:

"Yesterday at noon we arrived at the 'culminating point' or dividing ridge between the Atlantic and Pacific. Thus the great daydream of my youth and of my riper years is accomplished. I have seen the Rocky Mountains, have crossed the Rubicon and am now on the waters that flow to the Pacific! It seems as if I had left the old world behind and that a new one is dawning upon me."

That is how they thought, though their lives were harder than ours. Many of them, and the Indians whose land they were using and taking, died there of cholera, of malaria, of diseases undescribed and misunderstood. But they did think they saw a new world dawning, and they thought they were in the best part of it. And we, their great-great-grandchildren? Are we now the old world, or have we just lost confidence in ourselves this Fourth of July?

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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