As I walk beside the creaking and groaning wagon, I consider what I have left behind for the next seven days: a bed, a flush toilet and a refrigerator, and a shower – the simple comforts of home.
The pioneers traveled in the same vehicles that we’re using: canvas-topped, flare-boxed, wooden-wheeled wagons. These utilitarian vehicles would later be used as freight wagons to bring in the harvest from the fields.
It’s the summer of 2008. My wife, Tracy, nine-year-old son, Davis, and I have traveled halfway across the country, from Pennsylvania, with friends to participate in a unique journey with draft horses, antique wagons and a crew of some 50 people. We’ve brought with us period costumes, including prairie dresses and bonnets that my wife sewed by hand. Each year a crew of volunteers assemble the seven to 17 wagons, and outfit them with teams and teamsters to conduct the gargantuan adventure known as the Fort Seward Wagon Train, an annual trek that’s been held in one form or another since 1969.
Saddle horses provide perspective
We’ve rented two saddle horses for a different perspective on the journey. Before we left home, since we had little experience with horses, we had lessons at a local stable. We will also walk some of the 15 miles we’ll cover each day or hitch a ride in one of the other 13 wagons.
On the morning of the second day, after we’ve gone some 10 miles, I walk on, my feet screaming at me to stop. I imagine that I’m a pioneer, and focus all of my attention forward, on the next break in the road – a solitary tree in the distance and a sliver of shade where I can rest my blistered feet. My head is a blaze of heat, like opening an oven door on a hot summer day. Behind me I see a dusty haze of wagon tops, horses and people. I sip water from my canteen, careful to portion out what I have left.
On a day that will top an unusual 93 degrees, hot and dry, I’ve decided to walk. Fortunately, the train will stop every 15 minutes to rest the horses, to give me a time to rest. When I finally reach the shaded lunch stop, cooks are already setting out boxes of peaches and nectarines. Those traveling West in the mid-1800s wouldn’t have had fresh, cold fruit or a team that arrives with trucks and trailers filled with supplies.
Our day’s traveling ends when we roll into camp in the mid-afternoon, circling the wagons, setting up tents outside the circle and a campfire in the middle. The luggage trailer arrives, unloading a trail of duffel bags containing the tents, sleeping bags and other comforts of home. A shower cannot be found, but it really isn’t necessary because we’re outside and the wind never stops, and you can always bathe out of a small bucket.
On Wednesday, we pull into camp early. First, we’re allowed a nap, but we awaken in a couple of hours by a ringing triangle: it’s time for the Pioneer Olympics inside the 14-wagon circle. Participants can choose from a gunny sack race, water balloon toss, three-legged race, wheelbarrow race or a tug of war with gold coins (Sakakawea dollars) as prizes. Davis and I competed in the parent/child three-legged race, but even though my blistered feet kept us from winning any prizes, we had fun.
In camp, everyone has a camp job assignement, which is posted on the chuckwagon the night before that includes cooking, digging the pits for the biffy (think portable latrine), setting up the picket line, washing dishes, loading and unloading the luggage trailer, and a multitude of other jobs.
If a male pioneer had no skill – couldn’t drive, shoot or cook, he was called a dandy. Along with the women and children, he would collect manure left by buffalo and cattle that could be used as a source of fuel for cooking.
One of the teamsters told me about such a dandy who didn’t like this demeaning chore, and when he was found a third time not doing his task, they tied him to the last wagon, dragging him down the road. There were no loafers allowed on the trail, then or now. Even the children have jobs, like picking up trash.
“You know how the West was won?” 20-plus year volunteer Tom Atkinson asks us. “With a slingshot,” he says, holding one up. Dinner’s over and it’s time for campfire skits.
“The jack rabbit and the slingshot were mortal enemies,” he tells us. He stoops low and scans the crowd, “I need a volunteer.” Many hands shoot up, but Tom selects his partner, Don, sending him about 100 yards out to stand behind the hood of a truck. Don extends his arm with a cracker held between his thumb and index finger that Tom will attempt to shoot with a rock from his slingshot.
Don, holding the cracker, sees Tom squinting, and cries out, “I’m worried, you can’t see.”
Tom reassures Don by handing off the slingshot to his mentor, John Ringdahl. Don quickly asks, “Can he see any better?”
John begins to aim, then decides to lay down on his back on the grass to get a better arc, and lets go of the empty slingshot, his eyes following his imaginary rock as it flies high into the air. The cracker in Don’s hands “snaps,” as if “struck” by John’s rock.
John follows this successful volley with two more, one from behind his back, and one facing the other way, looking over his shoulder. He’s showing off, and the crowd laughs and calls out, eager to encourage this silliness.
Near the end of the week, teamster Al Mayer invited me to ride along with him on the buckboard. This auctioneer and farmer is one of the original founders of the wagon train. Like many of those who make this event possible, his ancestors came West with a wagon and horses. In the 1860s, Al’s great-grandfather, his brothers and their families headed West to homestead in South Dakota. Along the way, the families encountered Indians who stole all of their livestock. So, with no way to continue, they spent the winter right there, digging out the soil and turning over their wagon boxes for makeshift houses. They not only endured the winter with 20-below temperatures, but several women gave birth.
Al was part of a small group in 1969 who organized this event to recall those difficult days when their ancestors risked it all to find new lives for themselves and their following generations. Since the beginning years of the wagon train, the makeup of the crew and the participants has changed dramatically, with many more families than in the early years.
As we near our destination, I’ve begun to see my fellow travelers in a different way. This adventure has shown me what community is and how a group of unknown people can come together to trust and appreciate each other. My wife and I have watched our son move independently among what has become a large family group traveling across the prairie. This journey has allowed me to see what the pioneers were seeking – a new life with hope and promise.
Going on the Wagon Train
The week can be demanding physically, as the summer sun in North Dakota rises at 5 a.m. and sets close to 10 p.m. Young children will find the constant movement challenging, but they can sleep in the moving wagons during the day. Guidance is available for what to bring, and the experience is well illustrated in DVDs of a prior year’s train.
Saddle horses are available for rent only from private individuals. The food is filling and plentiful, the people are friendly, and there’s nothing like being part of a moving history lesson.
Each year, the train takes a different route, always originating in Jamestown, but usually ending in a town celebrating an anniversary; the 2009 train followed the Ruby Legacy Trail, June 21 through 27 and ended in Binford. Since it takes the whole week to arrive at a distant destination, the staff shuttles the wagons, horses and people back to Jamestown in modern vehicles.
Contact Mary Ann Kaiser, Registrar, Fort Seward Inc., P.O. Box 244, Jamestown, ND 58402, www.covered-wagon-train.com, for more information.