History lecture to follow the Oregon Trail
When people today think of the Oregon Trail’s pioneers, they recall the Westerns that depicted wagon trains, and the constant threat of attacks by Indians.
Nothing could be further than the truth, said private pilot Dorian De Maio, who will give a lecture about the Oregon Trail at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 13, at the Park City Museum’s Education and Collections Center.
“What I think many people don’t realize is that most of the people walked, and many of the kids had no shoes,” De Maio said.
Those who were lucky to ride in the wagons weren’t comfortable either.
“The wagons didn’t have springs, so it was a bone-jarring ride,” he said.
De Maio will share stories from the Oregon Trail and illustrate his lecture with photographs.
“I’m not a historian by profession,” De Maio, who was formerly a satellite engineer, said. “Since retiring 15 years ago, I’ve combined my passion for flying with my interest in early American Western history to see where history was made. The plane not only gets me to remote places by also provides a different aerial perspective of some of these historic places. I like to show my audiences pictures of landmarks from the air and land.”
Through his research of the Old West, De Maio has learned that most of the pioneers traveled 20 miles every day.
“There were some that refused to travel on Sunday, but, interestingly, the ones who rested on the Sabbath did just as well or better than those who powered through,” he said. “The reason is that one day of rest was important for the animals.”
De Maio also found that one of four of the women on the trek were in different stages of pregnancy.
“Not only did they walk 20 miles, they cooked, took care of the kids and darned the clothing,” he said. “A lot of people (I know) have called the women the real heroes of the Oregon Trail, and there is a lot of truth in that.”
The 2,000-mile journey was also filled with danger.
“One in 10 people died while on the trail, and if we believe what was seen in the movies, we’d think a majority of deaths came from conflicts with the Indians,” he said. “That’s not true. Most of the deaths came from intestinal diseases, especially cholera, because of poor sanitary conditions.”
Every day a wagon train would create two latrines, and the waste could leak into the drinking water, according to De Maio.
Other trail deaths were accidental.
“People would fall off the wagons and get run over by the wagon or trampled by the animals that pulled the wagon,” De Maio said. “Sometimes children who were playing while they walked would get killed or maimed because the wagons and animals would stir up dust clouds and the wagon drivers couldn’t see them.”
Some families made the journey with just the necessities – food packs and clothes.
“Others insisted on bringing heirlooms and potbelly stoves,” De Maio said. “These proved to be far too heavy for the draught animals to pull. So many items were jettisoned along the trail.”
Many of the pioneers began their journey west of the Kansas River Independence, Missouri, and ended it in the Willamette Valley south of Portland, Oregon, De Maio said.
“People just wanted a better life because many of the farmers couldn’t get loans or defaulted on existing loans in the 1830s,” he said. “So they packed up their belongings and went West.”
The treks weren’t cheap, either.
“In today’s dollars, they cost between $15,000 to $25,000,” De Maio said. “So they used their life savings or borrowed money.”
But the ordeal didn’t stop once they got to Oregon.
“Although the valley was rich in farmland, and many of them were able to get land because of land grants made by Congress, they would arrive in late October or early November,” De Maio said. “It would be too late in the year to work the land, so they would work at odd jobs throughout the winter so they could make ends meet before they could start working their land in the spring.”
De Maio’s Oregon Trail lecture is the third in a series that he has titled “How the West Was Won.”
His first lecture is about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which ran between 1804 to 1806 and was one of the first attempts by the United States to map the West. And his second is about the Mountain Man era, which ran from approximately 1807 to 1840.
De Maio’s interest in the West began while he was a child growing up in New Jersey.
“My only exposure to the West in the 1950s was through watching Saturday morning TV serials,” he said. “It was fascinating to me because that was so different than what I knew.”
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