Pioneer Heritage

by Bruce Patterson, September 18, 2013

Over on the Snake River Plateau the old Immigrant Trail split into its Oregon and California forks. The first thing the westering bull-whackers saw as they came up near was a retired prairie schooner parked broadside being used as a billboard. “Gold Fields” was boldly painted on its canvass. “Gold Fields” plus a big fat arrow pointing at 10:00 O’clock. At the fork was a second prairie schooner painted the same way and, straight up the trail so far away a person could hardly read it, was a little wooden sign hanging on a wooden stake. “Water,” the sign said. Below that was a straight and narrow arrow pointing at 12 O’clock high.

Some say that’s how Oregon got the smart ones and California the fools.

* * *

I didn’t move to Prineville, Oregon, because of its Pioneer Heritage. In fact, I liked the idea of it having none. Neither the Oregon nor Applegate Trails, nor any of their spurs, came anywhere near here and I was thankful for that (for one thing, it means no major highways run through here). In fact, except for a scattering of pick-and-shovel mining camps, some banded-together cattlemen and a sprinkling of federal soldiers manning lonely outposts, the land on the leeside of the Cascades was still Indian Country. It was Indian Country until, in 1878 (the Trans-Continental Railroad was completed in 1869), the US Cavalry won the Bannock War and made the land once and for all “safe” for widespread and dispersed settlement. And when, just before the Civil War, a small number of short wagon trains did start rolling into this country, they came from the west — not the east. They came from the Willamette, Umpqua and Rogue River Valleys; from Modoc and Siskiyou in California. “Back-washers,” the newcomers were called. They were hungry human overflow heading the wrong way. In terms of numbers, when the American Frontier “officially closed” in 1890, the back-washers were just getting started.

I should add (I didn’t know this until Trish and I joined the Crook County Historical Society) that, during the Great Migration of the 1840s, there was one wayward wagon train that did in fact come shuffling down the Crooked River. It passed right through what would become, some thirty to forty years latter depending on your standards, the settlement of Prineville. To rest and refortify their boney teams of oxen, mules and plow horses, roaming herds of livestock, kids, pets and selves, for a few days they even camped here beside the mouth of Ochoco Creek in this here residential neighborhood.

The Lost Wagon Train of 1845, Oregon school children learn to call it. Up here the story of those genuine pioneers functions like California’s Donner Party saga (’46) except there’s no cannibalism. The record of the Lost Train is filled with tales of optimism, fear, exhilaration, hubris, humor, death, heartbreak and — yes — True Grit. Allowing for the inevitable individual transgressions given the size of the party (at least 1,200 men, women and children, 200 wagons and 2,000 head of cattle and horses), their journey was marked by daily acts of collective Good Will. The record of the lost train is far more representative than the Donner Party’s. At least a quarter of a million wagoneers, horseman and trekkers (kids walked) made their ways west along the 2,000-mile-long Immigrant Trail, and although they had plenty to be afraid of, the fear of getting eaten by their fellow pioneers was way down on their lists.

You know what a pioneer is in Russia? He’s a Boy Scout. Originally the word pioneers was French for foot soldiers (or peons). As the centuries wore on, pioneers came to refer specifically to those soldiers sent out ahead of the main body of the army. Today to “pioneer” something is to go someplace new or do something new. If you’re a researcher and you “blaze in new trail” then you’re a pioneer. But the definition that best fits the American Pioneers is “those going into the wilderness” — and right there’s the rub. Wilderness is a European concept that, like desert, implies un-peopled. And that simply wasn’t the case and the pioneers all knew it somewhere in their bones. Even if an individual or a family made it the whole way without laying eyes on a single “Renegade Indian,” every day they passed by Indian Signs and that made some of them real spooky.

The American Pioneers came to steal Indian land, to put it plain. They got it as a gift from their legally constituted government, therefore it was lawful and proper and that was plenty good enough for them. The great bulk were illiterate and dirt poor, after all, the last as in lacking dirt to farm in, and they were out to fix that one way or another. Getting a fresh start was also one of their top goals and expectations and, on that count, they got their wish in every sense of the phrase.

Given the raw physicality of the stakes, it was easy for the pioneers (any pioneers) to see the rightful owners of the land as sub-human savages. Mistaking the native’s hostility and aggression toward you as proof of racial/cultural/intellectual inferiority makes it a cinch to justify all you do to them as righteous self-defense. Nothing particularly American about that — it’s human group-think at its worst. If history proves anything, it’s that you flat out can’t have wars without making them into a battle between Good Guys and Bad Guys; Black Pawns verses White Pawns. In 10,000 years no conqueror anywhere has ever broken that rule. Slaughtering people just ain’t natural any other way but that.

Once they unhooked their wagons, put their animals to pasture, built their lean-tos and pounded in their corner stakes, the wagoneers ceased to be pioneers and became conquerors. Conquerors, squatters, nesters, settlers, homesteaders, colonists — take your pick. They were a part of a much larger 19th Century social movement (Ah, the glories of gunpowder!) as seen in the Russian conquest and colonization of Siberia and the Caucasus, the English in Rhodesia and Australia, etc., the French in — and on and on around the world. Bottom line: If America’s Pioneer Heritage means anything today it is that the settlers brought with them the Old English/European World and, in the main, they did so staunchly and with vigor.

But was it really America’s Manifest Destiny to swindle, conquer, enslave and exterminate the natives? To me, that sounds like blaming God for our forebear’s atrocities. It doesn’t sit right with me seeing how America’s native peoples are still getting screwed in so many ways it’d be a national disgrace if such a concept was “still operative.” And look at America’s Manifest Destiny as practiced today: our Commander-in-Chief hailed by us as the world’s Generalissimo — the UN, International Law, the Constitution, common sense, common decency, world opinion and the consequences be damned. Again, there’s nothing particularly American about that “patriotic” attitude. As painfully grandiose as it is in our case (you’d think we’d’ve at least learned a little something these last 150 years), the attitude is older than the Old World. It’s older than the oldest chapters of the Old Testament. In terms of human affairs, self-justified fratricide is as old as old gets. If it can be said that the 21st Century is being stalked by history’s zombies, it is they who engineer, cheer-lead and profit from wars.

None of the wagon trains were organized as military operations — about the opposite in plain fact. Loyalty, Obedience, Disciple and Self-Sacrifice were the demands of kings, emperors, field marshals and popes, and the pioneers didn’t have anybody looking over their shoulders. They were footloose Americans beyond the Frontier and their parties were run democratically. Captains, pilots and hunters could be fired by vote; disputes peacefully arbitrated and settled, disagreeable people or parties reprimanded or made outcast, criminal behavior dealt with by trail and jury (as the old saw goes and the fate of Pvt. Bradley Manning shows: Military Justice is to justice what rape is to chastity).

In fact the pioneers were so democratic they could act downright anarchistic. It’s been said that the ends of the Trails West were like the ends of frayed ropes with strands leading every-which-way. Back in Missouri you’d paid your fee to the wagon master and so what was to keep you from dropping out of the train any time you damned well pleased and for whatever reason that struck your fancy? Think on it long and hard and you see there’s nothing to stop you. When you tell the others of you’re leaving, they’ll congratulate you oftener than not. They might even find something they’re hauling they can either do without or replace and hand it to you as a gift.

It’s not necessary to idealize the pioneers in order to admire them. I’d argue that telling lies about them — especially the lies of omission at the heart of the official textbook history being force-fed America’s school children — is insulting to the pioneer’s memory. Their vices we share but their virtues it seems we can only vaguely remember. First and foremost, the pioneers were not afraid to take a chance, even with their lives. They saw the dignity in hard physical labor and they tackled it with dignity. They knew what a dollar could and couldn’t do, and they knew the difference between tools and toys, economy and waste, independence and subservience. They were the creatures of history, the land and seasons, of time and place, and they set out to not just put down roots but to have them grow healthy, fruitful and magnificent trees. In the 21st Century’s headlong stampede toward perpetual warfare and global environmental catastrophe with all its implications for today’s children and all people to come from here on out, we’d do well to emulate the pioneer’s virtues while dispensing with their vices.

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