Forget all the movies you’ve seen about it . . .
Every year, every generation gets further and further from the actual Pioneer trek that Utah celebrates each Twenty-Fourth of July. At one time, if your ancestors didn’t either ‘cross the Plains’ or ‘come round the Horn’ (Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America) you were out of sync, and were even criticized if you dared join in the celebration of that Day.
My ancestors certainly didn’t come ’round the Horn’ for that was expensive, while you could Cross the Plains by just having a good wagon, oxen, food, and stamina. That’s the breed my family came from and it’s a tale of a 14 year old lad whose mother, as did many women, ‘worked her way across the Plains’, and her son herded cattle.
The tale comes from Ada Goodall Garrity, the youngest daughter of that boy, James “Jimmie” Goodall, who told that her father solemnly said that, “From the very first day of the journey, if I could’ve found a Wagon Train, or anyone, going the other way, I’d have been the first to join them.”
Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t say he’d forsake his church, but he did say that the trip was a nightmare that he never recovered from and paid for the rest of his life. A journey to never wish upon his worst enemy.
So, having no money, he and other young lads, paid their way by herding cows and bulls. It was an absolutely vital job, for those cows meant their future food , milk, butter, cream and cheese. Their very lives depended upon those animals, and so had to be well tended, because, where they were going, there were no towns, or stores of any sort. Live or die, it was up to those Pioneers, and to be accomplished solely upon their work and what they brought with them.
It was the formation of the Wagon Train that made herding a horror. Up front and first in line, were the Leaders of the Train, the Scouts. They put up ‘signs’ of some sort, to point the way over mountain passes, marked the best place to cross rivers, and they led the Train to protected areas where the oxen, horses, cattle and people could eat, find water, and rest for the night.
In Second place were the wagons and people. Dozens of wagons and carts pulled by man or oxen, hundreds of people walking and countless men riding back and forth on horses, seeing that the sick and dying were cared for, that women in child birth were tended, and broken wagons repaired.
Forget all the movies you’ve seen. They are a farce and the people on the real wagon trains would never dream that the movies were ever intended to portray the actual journey they had made.
Then, behind all the wagons, horses and people came the cattle. Hundreds of cows and bulls formed a mile-long tail of the already strung-out migration. And bringing up the very end of the whole, were the young boys, prodding the slow or worn-out cows, chasing and capturing any that roamed, and finally, keeping them all moving so none were lost or left behind.
In other words, they breathed and ate the dust made by every person and animal that went before them. There were no paved roads, just dry dusty land and every step created more dust. It was recorded that the ‘dust laid low like a black cloud, and could be seen for miles.’
And those kids, only a few years from childhood, breathed that dust, night and day with never a breath of clean air from the time they left the west bank of the Mississippi until they reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake. And hard for us to realize is that there were no towns, none at all. No homes, no drive-ins for a cold drink. Nothing, but dry land and its dust.
Jimmie’s daughter remembered her father saying he never, as long as he lived, was ever free of ‘that black cloud, for he coughed up its dust the rest of his life.’ Claiming his lungs brought part of the Plains right along with him into our valley, and stayed here.
We romanticize Crossing the Plains, and movies make a plastic dream of it, picturing people working, laughing, singing, dancing and praying, but those actually doing it, saw nothing romantic about it. It was outright hell for women, cruelly demanding on men, and often deadly for children.
The train stopped for nothing. They didn’t have the time to stop for sickness, birthing, broken bones, sick, worn out children, injured oxen, or death. Many would never complete the trip, but enough did, that we have the Salt Lake Valley of today. It was the survival of the fittest. Wait till night to bury the dead, say a prayer, shed a tear and then get your sleep so you will be ready for the next day’s work.
Those people would look at our cleaned-up and romanticized versions of their trek with the parades, and rodeos, and find them so far away from the truth of the Journey that they would wonder what the connection could be. But anyway, if you’re of Pioneer stock or not, no one cares any more, just be glad for an extra holiday, and for whatever reason, have a Happy Twenty-Fourth.