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Oregon Trail brought to life in Bourbon

November 14, 2012

Randy Polston, left, explains Oregon Trail materials to Jim Jackson and Naomi Young.

BOURBON — How to pick the noses of oxen and other fun facts were explained last Tuesday night in a presentation on the Oregon Trail by Randy Polston. The event, sponsored by the Bourbon Public Library, was held at the Matchett Center in Bourbon.
The Oregon Trail, probably the most historically significant route traveled by pioneers as they migrated to the West, started in Independence, Mo., and ended in Oregon City, Ore. The trek is 2,100 miles long, which had to be traveled by covered wagons in eight months before winter snows set in. The pioneer families, however, did not ride (except for very young children and the elderly). Instead, they walked beside their wagons, according to Polston, the wagons being too full of household goods.
Actually, “the ‘Oregon Trail’ did not always end in Oregon,” Polston said. Toward the end of the trip, some families veered south to California (to pan for gold), while Mormons turned off toward Utah. The actual estimates of men, women, and children, from 1834-1867, and their respective destinations are as follows: to Oregon — 80,000; to California — 250,000; and to Utah — 70,000, for an estimated total of 400,000 people migrating west.
Why is this route called the “Oregon Trail,” and why would people brave the hardships to go to Oregon? The answer lies in the fact that in 1843, the federal government offered a tract of 300 acres to any man who arrived in Oregon. Each woman was also given 300 acres, but she had to be married to a man, for a total of 600 acres per couple. This was a great incentive to families who wanted to make a new and hopeful life for themselves.
The dream was not without danger, however. Disease claimed 6,000-12,500 people. Indian attacks killed another 3,000-4,500. Freezing and scurvy took the lives of 300-500 each. Wagon run-overs, drownings, shootings, and miscellaneous dangers accounted for 200-500 deaths each. In short, of the 400,000 people making the journey, 9,400—21,000 were killed en route.
“The trail primarily followed flat land,” said Polston. The wagons used Indian hunting trails, which naturally followed the easiest terrain. To this day, certain actual paths and building foundations are still in existence along the extensive route.
In an interesting true story of determination and fortitude, Polston related that slavery was not accepted in Oregon. Any family who tried to transport or smuggle an African American slave on the trip was turned back and not allowed to continue. One white man, a Dr. Allen, had a favorite household slave named Rose Jackson, who had become a respected part of the family. He built a wooden box, about 4-foot by 4-foot, in which Rose hid for the entire 2,100 mile trip. According to Polston, the family arrived safely in Oregon.
In another little-known fact, children were assigned two main jobs for the trip. The first was to measure the miles traveled each day. This was done by walking beside a front wheel of the wagon and counting the number of revolutions of the wheel. All day. Every day. The other job involved saving the precious oxen pulling the wagons. The dusty terrain caused dirt and particles to collect in the oxen’s’ noses, preventing them from breathing. The children were expected to clean out the animals’ nostrils with a stick wrapped in a cloth.
Polston is well equipped to present information on the Oregon Trail. In the Warsaw School Corporation, he taught fourth and fifth grades for nine years. He then became principal of Claypool Elementary School for the next 25 years. In 1991, he opened Harrison Elementary School as its first principal. Since retiring from the school corporation, he instituted and became director of applied learning at Grace College. This is a program, similar to an internship, in which students can experience the real world by working in area businesses and institutions. Besides Warsaw, business partners are located in Mishawaka, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Anderson, and other places.
His expertise, however, came in 2009, when, after three applications, he received an $8,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment to pursue his dream. He and his wife traveled the entire Oregon Trail, making side trips to see and photograph appropriate related historical sites. Due to the side trips, they logged more than 6,000 miles in their rental car. He has used this experience to educate various groups and classes about this significant period in the western expansion of the United States.
A prime book recommended by Polston for anyone desiring to travel the Trail is “Traveling the Oregon Trail” by Julie Fanselow (2001). Further questions can be directed to Polston at polstorw@grace.edu.
The Bourbon Public Library holds regular educational presentations. A schedule may be accessed at www.bourbon.lib.in.us.

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