Alright, she may not have been the first, but she was certainly one of the most successful travel bloggers ever! And she did it in the 1830’s. Let me explain…
I have been reading and thoroughly enjoying The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck. It is the true tale of a man who, based on an accidental encounter, decided to buy a wagon and mules and travel the full length of the Oregon Trail from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. The book is a fascinating and very readable mix of history, adventure, self-exploration and healing, and the fun of family dynamics (his brother goes on the journey with him). In his recounting of the history and popularity of the trail, Mr. Buck introduces us to the woman who almost single-handedly opened the west to settlement.
From 1804-1806 the Lewis and Clark expedition had forged a path to the Pacific, but their journey had been difficult and downright harrowing at points and few pioneers had followed in their footsteps to settle the west. Homesteading required tools, supplies, and labor in the form of a whole family to work the land and, although military wagons had traveled short stretches of what would become the Oregon Trail, a pathway to get wagons all the way to the coast didn’t yet exist. Enter Narcissa Prentiss. Narcissa was an evangelist from upstate New York who had decided to devote her life to converting American Indians to Christianity, but she’d been stymied because her applications to the Foreign Mission Board were consistently denied because she was an unmarried woman. Taking her future into her own hands, Narcissa decided to marry a man (Dr. Marcus Whitman) that she barely knew. He too was a missionary and, on the day after their hasty wedding, they and another missionary couple joined a fur caravan and set off for the west. At the time the journey was considered far too arduous for the “gentler sex” but Narcissa proved the stereotype dead wrong. She began sending letters back east to friends and family describing her journey. In those days, having personal letters printed in the local paper was the easiest way to spread family news, and her letters were so intriguing that other newspapers began to reprint them, her fame spread, and her letters were eventually published as far away as London, England. In her letters she wrote of the wonders of the countryside, the plentiful game, and how easy it was to travel by wagon in the open landscape. In a time when only genteel women were expected to ride horses for sport, Narcissa broke convention by riding sidesaddle for much of the journey, often galloping far ahead of the caravan to explore. She was clearly a nomad at heart, and wrote about the joy she felt at being liberated from a conventional life of housekeeping, routine chores, and conventional female roles; about how healthy and free she felt on the trail (I strongly identify with her feelings of liberation and freedom). The Whitman-Spalding wagon train blazed the difficult Idaho extension of the trail, and in 1836 became the first ever to complete the Oregon Trail. Along the way Narcissa (along with Eliza Spalding) tallied up many “firsts”: first white woman many American Indians had ever seen, first woman to cross the Rockies, first woman to complete the Oregon Trail, and first woman to do so while pregnant. When women back East read of the birth of her child in March 1837, they quickly calculated that the baby had been conceived on the journey. Not only could a woman survive the rigors of this journey, she could do so while pregnant & give birth to a healthy child. Imagine! [Insert eye-rolling.] Already intrigued by Narcissa’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and accounts of the journey and by the wagon train’s ability to find food and safely cross rivers (thought to be a major impediment to wagon travel), the news of her healthy baby was proof positive to the public that the “gentler sex” could survive the journey and the rest, as they say, is history. By 1843 the first mass migration of pioneering wagon trains was underway. Ultimately, half a million people followed in her footsteps and on preserved sections of the Trail the ruts from their wagon wheels are still visible more than 150 years later.
Today Narcissa Whitman has been largely forgotten, but her impact on American history was enormous and during her lifetime she was one of the most influential and famous women in the country. Without her, the settlement of the west would have been delayed by years, and the California Gold Rush of 1849 would have either been completely re-written or might never have happened. If you’d like to know more, her letters and journals are available and The Oregon Trail is a very engaging read. Thanks to Rinker Buck for introducing me to such a remarkable woman!
Wagon wheel ruts along the Trail