Facts About Pioneers: Heroes of the Wild West

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The word pioneers has various meanings. All the meanings relate to the first group to do something. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary pioneer refers to

  1. A person or group that originates or helps open up a new line of thought or activity or a new method or technical development.
  2. One of the first to settle in a territory
  3. A plant or animal capable of establishing itself in a bare barren or open area and initiating an ecological cycle.

When speaking about pioneers though people are usually referring to the men and women who in the early 19th century, braved untold hardship and made the 2000 mile journey westwards across the United States .

FACT 1: The Mormon pioneers started out in New York. Religious intolerance and persecution led them out on what is called the Mormon Trail. They moved westward to Ohio then Missouri and on to Nauvoo, Illinois. The westward migration did not stop the persecution, in fact it intensified. They continued to be killed because of practices like polygamy. In 1844, they acquired John Fremont’s map and report of the West. By 1846 the Mormon exodus to the Salt Lake region of Utah had begun.

FACT 2: Pioneers to the state of Utah, came into the region from the north. They were daring independent carefree adventurers. Their interests were mostly the fur trade and their maps of trails, rivers, streams, mountains and desert lands were kept in their heads. They communicated with each other by leaving signals along the trails. These pioneers are known as the Mountain Men. They include American heroes such as Peter Ogden, Jim Bridger, Etienne Provost, Miles Goodyear, Jedediah Smith and John Weber.

FACT 3: In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to find an easy water route to the Pacific. In 1804 a team of 31 men set off up the Missouri river. It took them 2 tears to reach the Pacific but they brought back detailed notes and maps and facts about the unknown American west.

FACT 4: There were many pioneer trails to the American West the most popular were the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail, the California Trail, the Southern Trail, and the Cherokee Trail. In the mid 1800’s, over half a million people travelled west on the Oregon Trail.

FACT 5: The pioneers undertook the 2000 mile journey west along the treacherous trails for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to escape the economic depression of the 1830’s; others to escape the political strife preceding the Civil War. Many pioneers were chasing adventure and new opportunity.

FACT 6: Settlers in Oregon were being given 320 to 640 acres of free land in Oregon. This was a huge incentive to hazard the Trails. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 lured 150,000 pioneers west.

FACT 7: Between 20,000 and 30,000 pioneers (approx.10%) died along the route. Contrary to popular belief, most of the deaths were caused by the killer disease, cholera. Accidents, typhoid, food poisoning and mountain fever also led to many deaths.

FACT 8: Less than 1% died in altercations with Indians. Most Indian encounters were peaceful and mutually beneficial. A study estimates that 362 pioneers and 426 Indians were killed in confrontations. Hollywood hits of the 20th century depicted these altercations as fierce Indians rushing full speed into a circle of caravans. This does not fit in with the nature of the Indians who were accomplished military strategists.

FACT 9: Many tales of bravery and endurance on the trails live on as an inspiration for people today. In August 1991 a life size statue of pioneer Nellie Purcell was installed on the campus of the Southern Utah University. Nellie Purcell was found orphaned and frozen on the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City. Her legs had to be amputated without anaesthetic using a carpenter’s saw and a butcher’s knife. Yet she went on to spend most of her life in quiet acts of service. Her patience and serenity touched the lives of all with whom she associated.

FACT 10: Willa Cather’s ‘My Antonia’ is a classic pioneer novel. The book is based on a comprehensive study of the history of the times. The book highlights the grit and determination of the pioneers

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