For those of us in the Pacific Northwest, our interest in the Oregon Trail fades about the eighth time we're dragged to an Oregon Trail interpretive center, museum, or monument. As the goal of America's most famous overland route, we're inundated with facts about the Westward migration from a young age, and at some point you've had enough and you don't want to read another book or see another highway sign on the topic.
Of course the Oregon Trail isn't the only local color we get bored of. Lewis and Clark can get pretty old, too, but at least they fought bears and saw Bigfoot and stuff. Pioneers traversing the Oregon Trail, on the other hand, were tired most of the time, dirty all the time, frequently sick, pummeled by the weather, drowning in rivers, and skipping the Barlow Toll Road so they could use their mouse to navigate the great Columbia River; Indians attacked only infrequently.
Who wants to read about that all the time? Well, the pioneers for one. Many of those convinced to take the trip from the American East and Midwest were led to do so by reading literature of those who'd been there, and in some cases, those who hadn't been there but had vivid imaginations. One of the latter tracts beckoned people to Oregon by describing pigs running around, fully cooked, and with forks and knives sticking in them for ready eating.
It's doubtful whether very many people were convinced to go West from fantasies like this—19th-century people were no more gullible than modern humans, and in many ways less so. It's equally doubtful that the author of said pamphlet figured people would take him altogether seriously. What is certain is that hyperbole like this led restless, individualistic, hardworking, adventurous people through hell and high water to a land of green trees, green fields, and clear water.
Compared to the increasingly industrialized East, the West really was the new Eden. It was largely peaceful, green beyond belief, fertile for farming and ranching, and (best of all for rural folk) it was empty. Those who left the citified East often spoke of their desire for "elbow room," a concept which for us in this era of suburbs and metropolitan sprawls means a double-sized lot, but for them meant acres and acres and acres of farm land and square miles of uninhabited forest and wilderness.
But the draw of empty spaces and arable valleys weren't the only sources of impetus for the pioneers. Two important ideologies were at work in mid-19th century America, both of which took a long time to wear off, and neither of which have fully departed even now: the idea of Manifest Destiny, and the ideal of rugged United States individualism. These ideas took hold of both the educated and the uneducated, and made Westward migrations into a kind of pilgrimage or religious duty.
Manifest Destiny was the idea that the United States had a divine warrant for expansion, that Americans were obligated as good citizens to expand its borders and bring their particular brand of republicanism mixed with democracy to the rest of the poor, unenlightened world. On the North American continent, this meant subjecting or displacing the native peoples (American Indians) and settling the farthest corners of the sovereign land of the still-young nation.
Rugged individualism is a little more amorphous as a philosophy. Basically, it was the result of Enlightenment thinking, which said that the individual was the final arbiter of truth, that one was responsible for himself to organize facts and establish a system of knowledge by which to interpret all things. Most Americans didn't understand this philosophical background, of course, but nearly all of them resonated with the idea that they were no longer constrained to Old World notions of authority, and could shape their own destinies by virtue of their own decisions.
Not everyone who headed West went for such dubious reasons. Many were missionaries, intent on bringing God's Word to the Indians; others wanted to see a pristine land; others were looking for land to be tamed and settled far away from the corrupting influence of cities and population hubs. Whatever the individual reasons, the pioneers came in droves, braving all sorts of dangers and deprivations for the Eden of the West.
Some went to California, some went further North to what became Washington State, but plenty of them came straight for Oregon, particularly the Willamette Valley. Once you've seen the Valley, you'll know why so many of us tolerate the interpretive center trips and stay here. It really is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It's much more crowded than the pioneers found it, but it's still not enough to make anyone suffocate.
Manifest Destiny has largely fallen out of favor, though the desire to take "American Democracy" to the world is its latest (and most destructive) iteration. Rugged individualism exists currently both as an admirable tendency toward self-sufficiency and hard work, and as a flippant attitude toward morality and laws. Neither of these ideologies are wholly bad, but inasmuch as both focus on men rather than God, they're pernicious.
That's why we prefer to focus on those pioneers who came West in the service of Christ. Perhaps the most famous (and among our favorites) were the Presbyterian missionaries, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. The Whitmans turned Manifest Destiny on its head by following Christ's instructions to make disciples everywhere, and they baptized individualism by being among the first to come to Oregon Country. These are the pioneers we most want to imitate in a settled land that needs Christ as much now as it has ever done.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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