There was ‘freedom’ but freedom with rules…
One of the enduring myths of the pioneer era is that it was a time of complete freedom. After all, people just had the open road in front of them. They left their old lives – and old troubles – behind them and had the chance to start anew. While this is mostly true, most pioneers didn’t enjoy complete freedom ‘on the road’. Moreover, hardly anyone would have wanted that. To travel alone (and so completely free) came with a number of risks. Far safer to travel in a group or in a convoy. And traveling with others usually meant following the rules of the road.
Histories of the trail reveal that almost every wagon train was highly-organized. And for good reason – those with rules in place were more likely to make it to Oregon safe and sound than those with a more anarchic approach to heading west. In most cases, a group would elect a leader or leaders before they set off. Often, members would also sign a written constitution or set of rules, too. Such rules would vary between wagon trains. In some cases, they were very strict indeed. Drinking was discouraged, or even banned for most of the time, while gambling could also be banned. So, those old films of pioneers drinking hooch while playing cards? Not always completely accurate. On the plus side, wagon groups could be as benevolent as they were strict. Provisions were in place should a member fall sick or even died on the way. This improvised form of social security kept the wagons on track and looked after the more vulnerable members of a group. Some groups took this even further by forming companies among themselves: The Peoria Pioneers and the Wild Rovers were just two of the (best-named) firms on the Trail.
And, this being the 19th century, there was hardly much equality of the genders on the Oregon Trail. Indeed, even in the middle of nowhere, the traditional gender roles were firmly entrenched. Sundays were a rest day for the men and for the animals too. But for women? Well, a day’s rest gave them a chance to catch up on their domestic chores. Above all, Sunday was usually set aside for doing laundry. As you might expect, the road was dirty and dusty, with clean, fresh water hard to come by. So, once a week, the women were expected to clean what they could – after they’d attended a religious service, of course.