Idaho History

Diaries bring to life journey by covered wagon

For most of those Oregon Trail emigrants who crossed the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains and southern Idaho's sagebrush desert, it was the great adventure of their lives. They saw a pristine wilderness with majestic mountains and prairies teeming with herds of buffalo, deer, and antelope. They met Native Americans of several tribes along the way.

They forded rivers, struggled up and down steep grades, and faced dangers unlike any they had known before.

They had plenty of time to take in the scenery and marvel at the strange new sights as they traveled because they moved at a walking pace. Two miles an hour was good progress, and walking was easier than riding over the bumpy trail in covered wagons with iron tires.

Many of the emigrants drove cattle and extra horses with them. They had to regularly find grass for them and for the oxen that pulled the wagons.

At the height of the great migration and in the heat of summer, this became increasingly difficult, and the animals had to be driven farther off trail to forage.

The most vivid accounts of that epic journey are found in the diaries that many of the emigrants kept. They knew they were making history, and every sight along the way was so unlike their former homes in the East or Midwest that it seemed worth describing. Diaries rate as primary sources for historians and are considered far more reliable than memoirs written long after the events they describe.

Many anecdotes, like old soldiers' war stories, may get more entertaining with constant retelling, but tend to stray farther from the truth.

Oral history is a rich and wonderful source of historical information for at least two reasons. It tells us what memory has retained as significant over years or decades, and it tells us what people think happened, whether it's true or not. Because we are apt to act on our perceptions rather than on facts that have been verified, it can explain why historical events turned out as they did.

Long before there were tape recorders, readers of the Idaho Statesman's Pioneer Page were treated to accounts ordinary people wrote of their first experience of Idaho as they came through on the Oregon Trail.

In August 1930, the Statesman published the reminiscences of a woman identified only as "Grandma Fulton," who had arrived in Boise on Sept. 20, 1864.

"The town proved to be a motley affair. Some buildings were log cabins; some, tents; some, dugouts; perhaps one or two frame buildings were up. The frames were made by hand with axes and saws, and the lumber was brought down from a little saw mill up in the Bannock mountains. This mill had been established with great difficulty, much of the machinery being brought in with pack trains. I think the main eating house in Boise (dignified with the name of Hotel), one small store, and a very pretentious saloon and dance hall were of this frame structure. Crude and primitive though it looked, this was the embryo of one of the finest and prettiest little cities I have seen in all my travels."

How accurate were Grandma Fulton's memories 66 years after she first laid eyes on Boise?

Next week we'll look at the written evidence from September 1864 and make a comparison.

After all, it was just a few weeks after The Statesman began publication, and the first census of the little city had just been compiled, so there is factual data available.

We also will quote more from Mrs. Fulton's 1930 account, for it is a delightful personal story, despite understandable lapses in memory.