Westward Migration – History and Recreation of Traveling the Oregon Trail

oregon trailThe Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck offers three travel tales braided together. There is the westward migration of Americans starting around 1840; the tale of Buck’s own crossing of the old trail with a mule team and wagon; and memories of his father’s horse and mule, wagon and carriage adventures – and unresolved father issues.

Buck decided to make “an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail.” In preparation he read many travel diaries and historical accounts. The trail “has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail” but also crossing private land. I was surprised to learn that, “except for two bad stretched of suburban sprawl,” the trail is generally accessible, especially since much of the way is now farm and ranch roads or even paved highways.

Early in the book Buck presents a lengthy story of the brother who accompanied him. The brothers woes of unemployment after the Republican Recession of 2008 and temporary crippling in a building accident segues into the 1840s and 1850s, when “families were disrupted and lives destroyed by the financial panics and bank failures that recurred every decade” further aggravated by “religious squabbling and labor strife” and the political issue of slavery. Migration west became “a safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding.”

Pioneer knowledge has been lost
Buck recounts his efforts to obtain a wagon and mule team – somewhat hard to do since no one does this sort of trip anymore. He’s lucky to have his childhood familiarity with livestock and Amish and Mennonite friends who use horses for farming.

But horses aren’t suited to a long hard trip. Draft horses of the 1800s were “agrarian mastodons” while mules were smarter, tougher, and “the common phrase ‘stubborn as a mule,’ [is] a classic example of a man ascribing stupidity to the beast instead of to himself.”

Buck provides a lot of information about mules. “No less a figure than George Washington was America’s original maharajah of mules… [students don’t know] that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer.”

I enjoyed this part of Washington’s life, which I hadn’t read about before. Europeans viewed Washington as a hero for defeating the despised British, so in 1785 the king of Spain sent him donkeys as breeding stock for working mules. I’ve met little burro donkeys with backs a bit higher than my waist and big riding donkeys – so different – so I found the descriptions delightful.

Buck also shares his efforts to recreate a suitable wagon, and even diagrams of the triple-tree design for hitching a three-mule team to a wagon. I didn’t know that the term “Conestoga” refers to an eastern cargo wagon that played almost in role in the western migration, or that the first factory assembly line produced wagons, not Ford cars. There’s even a side trip through how building the famous eastern canal system helped evolve a practical wagon.

After a hundred pages, the journey west begins
There’s a lot of information from trail diaries on the trip west. Runaway teams, disease, and hunting accidents caused frequent injury and death. Bridges are a special hazard for mules, which “can get a third of the way across… look sideways… panic… and overturn the wagon or crash into cars in an attempt to escape.” Covered bridges prevented this by blocking the animals view – and I thought they were just pretty! Buck includes a story of his father getting a terrified team across a bridge with his kids help.

RVs are a special hazard for Buck. They would often drive slowly very close to the mules to take pictures or drive ahead to stop, nearly blocking the road, to take more pictures as Buck drove by. He calls RVer men who wanted to make jokes about the wagon as “himbos,” as a play on “bimbos.”

An amazing woman pioneer
The westward migration was a huge change from fur traders and “backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone [who] could disappear into the great forests for months alone. Carrying just a small haversack, a musket, and a long knife.” But in 1836 there was “enormous prejudice against” white women going west with their husbands. This led into a wonderful tale of Narcissa Prentis, the firs white woman to cross the Rockies. She married a fellow missionary – apparently for the convenience of both – and sent installments of her diary back east with various fur traders they encountered who were headed that way. (People seemed to take the burden of delivering letters very seriously.)

Continue reading

In a Nutshell

The phrase means something is concise, or reveals its core or essence in a short incident or event. Phrase Finder says Pliny the Elder used the phrase in Natural History in AD 77. As translated into English in 1601 by Philemon Holland, Pliny says a copy of Homer’s poem the Iliad was written on parchment and “enclosed within a nutshell.” A rather ridiculous idea since the poem runs hundreds of modern pages, and parchment – animal skin – would be hard to fold. But whether Pliny believed such a thing existed or not, here the phrase seems to mean something that is very small, not concise.

Shakespeare, who often took themes from the classics, alluded to the ‘something compact’ idea of ‘nutshell’ when he gave Hamlet the line:

“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”

The figurative use of ‘in a nutshell’ to mean specifically ‘in few concise words’ didn’t emerge until the 19th century. Thackeray used it in print in The Second Funeral of Napoleon, 1841:

“Here, then, in a nutshell, you have the whole matter.”

SayWhy picks up on Pliny the Elder, and Wikipedia refers to Shakespeare, but I think Phrase Finder has the best explanation – an origin to the modern meaning.

Thank You Charles Dickens

For this week’s expression I’m working backwards – on words.
We know the origin of these terms – the works of Charles Dickens.

“It’s a sign of an author’s genius when his characters step out of the stories and become words in the language. Dozens of Dickens’s characters are now part of the English language.” wordsmith.org

Wellerism: Dickens’s novel Pickwick Papers. Earliest documented use: 1839. A familiar phrase followed by a humorous invention. “Prevention is better than cure,” said the pig when it ran away from the butcher.
Fagin: From Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist. Earliest documented use: 1847. One who trains others, especially children, in crime. A fagin crook led a gang of young thieves.
Gamp: From Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit. Earliest documented use: 1864. A large umbrella. “By the time we fumble with our gamps, the air is dry once again.”
Scrooge: This is the only one I’ve ever used, and it took a while to enter the language. From Dickens’s novel A Christmas Carol. Earliest documented use: 1940. A miser. “He was not entirely a Scrooge. There were times when he secretly helped poor people.”
Thanks to wordsmith.org

America’s First War With Islam

Thomas Jefferson Tripoli PiratesBrain Kilmeade, of Fox News, working with Don Yaeger who receives co-author credit in a much smaller font and may be responsible for the large number of primary sources listed in the Notes, wrote this book about America’s first war as a nation to feature the “relatively unknown, unsung patriots” who fought and died to makes our famous founding fathers’ vision come true.

I’m glad I picked up the book and will, therefore, forgive him for using one of the most famous of those founding fathers in the title: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates, the Forgotten War that Changed American History.

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli…
Hymn of the US Marines

Around 1800, Tripoli (known today as Libya) was the most aggressive of the nations on the North African Barbary Coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tripoli, and part of Egypt, nations beholden to the Ottoman Empire. These nations, each with its own an absolute ruler, controlled the Mediterranean Sea and extended their reach into the Atlantic Ocean. They extorted protection money from nations trading in the Mediterranean, and mostly received whatever they demanded, even from powerful nations like Britain and France (which persisted in fighting each other through the period.) Ships not under the rulers’ protection were routinely captured by “pirates” working for these nations, their crews enslaved, and vast ransoms demanded. It was “a centuries-old practice of building economies around kidnappings, theft, and terror.”

US ships were easy targets
The newly formed United States, untried in the region, found “its status was lowly indeed,” but needed the economic boost from trade. At first, the US paid “tribute” like other nations did, but didn’t have the credit-rating to raise the increasing sums demanded and was still deep in debt from the Revolution. Eventually, the US fought the Barbary nations – especially Tripoli – and won the right to free passage in international waters.

I chose to title this review as a war with Islam, which is a bit hyperbolic.

  • At one point a Tripoli diplomat explained that “all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave.”
  • Later, however, when America supported an exiled prince against his brother who ruled Tripoli (regime change as a tactic is not new) the US emissary “touched upon the affinity of principle between the Islam and American religion. Both taught the existence…of one God… both enjoyed the universal exercise of humanity, and both forbade unnecessary bloodshed… the viceroy had to agree: indeed these were the maxims of his faith.”

Forgive my cynicism, but those seeking wealth and power seem to use religion when it suits their purpose. Continue reading

Islam’s Golden Age of Science

House of WisdomJonathan Lyons’ book House of Wisdom is about the most splendid period for science in Islamic – and particularly the Arab Islamic – history. This corresponded with Europe’s Dark Ages when a “great struggle between faith and reason was about to come crashing down on an unsuspecting Europe.”

The arrival of Arab science and philosophy “transmuted the backward West into a scientific and technological superpower.”

Too many Westerners think of Arabs as mere guardians of ancient Greek scholarship, holding it safely until it could be recovered by its rightful European heirs. Lyons wants you to see that Muslims made vast additions to this ancient base, and that the religion of Islam was a driver for many of their efforts.

Lyons feels the “Western consensus… that Islam is inherently hostile to innovation” is a “persistent notion” that is wrong. Because of this, Lyons tells the story from the viewpoint of Arabs – invaded by brutal, ignorant, and unsanitary barbarians (they tended to call all Europeans “Franks”) as the Crusades began.

Anyone clinging to a romantic of the Middle Ages will be disgusted by accounts of the People’s Crusade, fueled as much by political machinations as religious furor. A rabble swept towards the Middle East, killing and sacking through Christian Europe as they went, only to be slaughtered by Muslim troops. A few years later, a Crusade of troops had better luck in war.

The first couple chapters cover this period and amply document its horrors, but I was more interested in Muslim science.

“Early Islam openly encouraged and nurtured intellectual inquiry of all kinds,” which was encouraged by many sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Caliph al-Mamun was anxious to collect knowledge from Hindu, Persian, and Greek scholars, and initiated the House of Wisdom, “the collective institutional and imperial expression of… intellectual ambition.” But they didn’t simply translate and copy the works of others.

Here’s what I found most interesting – how the religion of Islam encouraged science. Continue reading

The Quartet – Founders of the America We Live In

QuartetJoseph J. Ellis sub-titles his book Orchestrating the Second American Revolution 1783 – 1789.

In 1776, thirteen American colonies won their independence and prepared to go their separate ways, “destined to become a western version of Europe, a constellation of rival political camps and countries.” The Articles of Confederation were a Peace Pact among them, not a national government. Any far-away government was distrusted like the “quasi-paranoid hostility towards… London… [and] described as inherently arbitrary, imperious, and corrupt.” (Distances were hard to overcome back then.)

Ellis sketches biographies and covers pre-Constitution attempts at governance, the Revolutionary War, the dawning Enlightenment, the Great Debate that led to the US Constitution, and the “not-so-vacant” western lands that rendered “the local and state perspective… pathetically provincial.” Ellis provides a lot of detail on the flaws in the Confederation and political machinations that created the US Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Drawing on “massive,” “recently published” primary sources as well as other scholars; Ellis presents a compact 174 pages (Epub edition) with appropriate notes – fattened by appendices containing the texts of the Articles of Confederation, Constitution of the United States, and The Bill of Rights.

The vast majority of Americans had no interest in an American nation. It was “a small group of prominent leaders, in disregard to popular opinion, [who] carried the American story in a new direction.” Continue reading

As American as Apple Pie

pie_apple.svg.medAn article on Slate.com explains that sweet dessert pies are a fairly recent invention:

“We eat sweet pie at Thanksgiving on the premise that it captures the cuisine of colonial America. It does nothing of the kind. Sweet pie didn’t gain wide popularity until the 19th century… (in A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain included sweet pies in a list of things he missed about his homeland…), and the full American pie menu, in all of its moods and seasons, did not come into being till the 20th. American as apple pie, the phrase and concept, entered our lexicon in the late and cosmopolitan throes of the Jazz Age. The most American thing about pie, in fact, may be its retroactive claim of folksy authenticity and early dominance.” The apple’s status as an immigrant seems appropriate since it mirrors most of America’s families.

Today I Found Out notes that “the first recorded recipe for apple pie was written in 1381 in England, and called for figs, raisins, pears, and saffron in addition to apples.” But no sugar – a rare and expensive ingredient – and the pastry was used as a baking container, not to be eaten. “A recipe for apple pie very similar to today’s recipes appeared in a Dutch cookbook in 1514.” But the apple pie hadn’t made it to America yet.

Skipping ahead to World War II, a common soldiers’ slogan was “‘for mom and apple pie’ which later gave rise to ‘as American as motherhood and apple pie’. Along with Phrase Finder, Today agrees that “apparently in the 1960s, we began to be ‘as American as apple pie.'”

I found one outlier. Kelly Kazek posted that the phrase “was in use by the 1860s, leading to its place in history as an American favorite,” but – alas – she lists no citation. Could “1860s” be a typo? Her phone number is on the web page, though, if you’d like to pester her.