In The Paths of the Overlanders

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Outside Eden, Wyoming. Photo by Bill Deverell.

By Bill Deverell

In the paths of the overlanders. We left Rawlins yesterday morning headed for a ranch outside of Daniel, Wyoming. Our route took us right by the spot where Butch Cassidy and his gang allegedly blew up a rail car with a too-enthusiastic load of dynamite. Before long, we were in Rock Springs. This gritty railroad town in Sweetwater County (the fourth biggest city in sparsely populated Wyoming) shares an ignominious history with Los Angeles – both have notorious Chinese massacres in their past. In the fall of 1871 Los Angeles, a mixed mob of Caucasian and Latino men attacked the Chinese near the Plaza, shooting and hanging men and boys (and defiling the corpses post-mortem) in an orgy of racial enmity and fury. Fourteen years later, the massacre in Rock Springs looks depressingly familiar. White coal miners and railroad workers, infuriated that the Union Pacific hired Chinese workers over them (because it paid them less), rioted and a pitched battle took place. When it was all over, nearly thirty Chinese had been killed. I told my son about this place and what it sadly shared in common with our home in Southern California; he was puzzled as he thought about how this little railroad town in western Wyoming could possibly be mentioned in the same sentence with the big metropolis of our home on the west coast.

On through the spectacular treeless landscapes. Rivers – full to their banks by way of a spring run-off still flowing – cut through here and there, divine trout water. It’s nerdy to say it, but you can feel the past out here. Overlanders came through here – migrants from Joplin and St. Louis and elsewhere who wagon-trained it out here in the 1840s and 1850s, bound first for Oregon and then, in the flash of gold fever, increasingly made their way to California.

A wonderfully talented former graduate student of mine, Sarah Keyes (now on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Reno) wrote her thesis on these people. Who they were, what they did on the long months of their tough journey, how they interacted with the indigenous peoples, and, most tellingly, how they died out here in the big sky country of the West. Sarah’s contention, and I think she is right, is that we have cleaved this westering experience off from the rest of American history and culture in the period; we’ve made it into its own thing – the Overland Trail – without interrogating it for what it can tell us about everything else other than that long walk and ride west. What intrigues Sarah most are the rituals and meanings of death on the trail, and she’s on to something big. Think about it: the overland experience took in several hundred thousand people, vast numbers of them wrote about it as participants or afterwards, and many an emigrant died before getting to Oregon or California. Disease took them. They drowned (a lot of them drowned). They died from accidents. They shot themselves, deliberately or not. They killed one another. Just before the Civil War, this was the biggest mass experience with death in American history, and Sarah’s about to publish her book about all that. I recommend it highly.

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On a ranch in Wyoming. Photo by Bill Deverell.

We pushed on into Sublette County – named for one of the famed Sublette batch of five brothers (William, Milton, Andrew, Pinkney, and Solomon), trappers and mountain men of the early era all. Into Pinedale, the county seat and a great little town, with river and creek waterways cutting here and there through it. On to a spot marking the Green River Rendezvous, the fur trapper and trader “fair” (“bacchanal” may get a bit closer to the ambience) which took place each spring. Anne Hyde, a brilliant historian and dear friend, has written of these events (surely the most culturally and linguistically diverse gatherings of the era) in her magnificent book Empires, Nations, and Families: A New History of the North American West, 1800-1860.

Through Daniel, a spot-in-the-round with not much more than a store, a bar, and a post office (I expect to patronize all three), and then to our ranch destination. No trees, vast vistas, sand hills, the soul of a wide-open space. Ranch dogs – Rooney, named for the British soccer star Wayne Rooney, and Humungous, named for his own self, an Italian sheepdog of great heart and proportion. Oh – and Sassy, an aptly nicknamed ten-year old girl who lives here on the ranch, a boon companion to my boy for our visit over the next several days.

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