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10 Facts About the Real-Life Oregon Trail

Children of the '80s will recall the elementary school outbreaks of cholera, typhoid, and dysentery that took the lives of our loved ones. We shared the experience of hunting desperately for buffalo, and having to choose whether to ford the river, or caulk the wagon and float across. The Oregon Trail was an Apple II staple in classrooms, and fond memories of the game urged me to pick up and read Rinker Buck’s memoir, The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.

His is no recollection of a computer game, though. In the book, he and his brother embark on a far more ambitious undertaking: they buy a covered wagon, hitch it to a team of mules, and travel the actual trail, from Kansas City to Portland—six states and over 2000 miles in all. The result is a funny and poignant reflection on modernity, family, and the pioneer spirit of America. Here are 10 fun things we learned about the Oregon Trail in the 19th century and today. 

1. FOR THE MOST PART, WHAT YOU SAW IN THE GAME—AND WHAT PIONEERS SAW IN THE 1800S—IS PRESERVED. 

Associations such as the Oregon-California Trails Association take care of monuments and markers along the trail, as well as grave sites. They also track fence-lines to be sure that landowners do not attempt to encroach on the trail. Buck writes that today, even where it is covered by modern highways and railroad lines, the trail is charted, marked, and largely preserved as a National Historic Trail. Almost all of the trail is accessible, and much of it runs through protected federal lands. Today, there are still more than 600 miles of wagon ruts created by the original settlers. “The dreamscape terrain of natural landmarks and river views that the pioneers saw—Signal Bluff and Chimney Rock along the Platte, Devil’s Gate on the Sweetwater, Rendezvous Point at the Green—is all still there, virtually intact,” he writes. 

2. AMERICAN LIFE IN THE 1850S DROVE MIGRATION ALONG THE TRAIL. 

The 1840s and '50s were turbulent times in American history. As Buck describes it, “Families were disrupted and lives destroyed by the financial panics and bank failures that recurred every decade, towns were divided by bitter religious squabbling and labor strife, and the biggest political issue of the day—the spread of slavery—had degenerated into guerrilla warfare on the Kansas and Missouri frontier.” He observes that “to be American then was to be periodically unmoored, transient, so bereft of options that moving on was the only choice.” Westward expansion was a “safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding.” 

3. NO ONE PLANNED THE OREGON TRAIL.

The Oregon Trail happened on its own, created by the explosion of travelers moving westward in the 1840s in search of farmland, adventure, or gold. With prairie stretching seemingly endlessly in every direction, wagon travel depended heavily on the season’s river depth and the quality of grazing for animals. According to Buck, the pioneers “didn’t follow a single set of ruts worn into the prairie. They meandered along a collection of trails, requiring many choices. Each turn in the road involved considerable freedom, but also the peril of not knowing what was ahead.” As such, the trail “was really just an aggregated landscape that the pioneers followed across the plains and then the high deserts.” 

4. TODAY, THE TRAIL TELLS THE STORY OF AMERICA'S ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL EXPANSION. 

Many parts of the trail have been paved with highways, which annoys preservationists but also tells the story of America itself. Pioneer trails eventually became ideally suited for farmers and ranchers to drive their cattle. Cities such as Omaha and Kansas City, with their railroad yards, grew as a result. Those cattle driving trails were paved during the first World War so that animals could instead be trucked faster for slaughter, canning, and shipment to soldiers in Europe. 

5. THE COVERED WAGON BUSINESS REMAINS A HUGE PART OF AMERICAN LIFE TODAY. 

Over the decades, as pioneers moved west, wagon technology improved and they became lighter and more durable. Wagon manufacturing was a major part of the American economy, and many companies instrumental in the trade were still around in the 20th century, and some operate even today. Among the companies that began as wagon manufacturers, reports Buck: John Deere, Studebaker, and Sears and Roebuck. 

6. THE ROAD WEST WAS PAVED WITH MULES.

Though the Oregon Trail computer game involved oxen, many pioneers on the actual Oregon Trail used mules, which were cheap, strong, and reliable. “Mule calls,” as seen in westerns, are for more than show. They are specific (“easy now!” or “whoa!”) and mules respond to them, and to their own names. (The animal would be easily trained, for example, to respond to the call “Walk lively now!” and move at 4 mph.) Mules also respond well to the caller’s mood, which is why so many callers use a sing-song style. As Buck explains, the calls mean much more than that, however, expressing also “a feeling about life, a passion for the land that is being crossed, and a love of the animals in front of you.” 

7. WE CALL THOSE WHO SETTLED THE WEST “PIONEERS”—BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? 

The word “pioneer” derives from the Latin word pedonem, which means “one who goes on foot.” It was applied to foot soldiers in the army. The word eventually came to mean one of lower social status, such as an infantry soldier or laborer. The evolved word for this was peon. In French, it came to mean an agricultural worker—“one who clears land”—and because of its use during 18th century wars, pionnier meant units that “go first” to prepare the path for the larger army. 

8. THE PIONEERS WERE NOTORIOUS LITTERBUGS.  

In The Oregon Trail, Buck explains that he brought too many items for his journey, and early in the trip discarded much of the useless gear. The pioneers in the 1840s and '50s often made the same mistake. Salesmen would sell an enormous number of “necessities” to travelers attempting the frightful, arduous move west. As the journey would unfold, pioneers would realize how little of it they actually needed (to say nothing of what a pain it was to unload and reload wagons with each river ford). “The result,” writes Buck, “was a historic American dumping.” One pioneer writer in 1855 listed dozens of items tossed by travelers not far past Salt Lake City. Included on the list: “all kinds of dishes and hollow ware, cooking stoves and utensils, boots and shoes, and clothing of all kinds, even life preservers … good geese feathers in heaps, or blowing over the Desert, feather beds, canvas tents, and wagon covers.” 

9. WATER, WHETHER RAIN OR RIVER, WAS AN ENORMOUS CHALLENGE TO PIONEERS. 

The weather could be terrifying and impossibly difficult. The storms in Nebraska were, to pioneers, “King Lear in the height of his madness.” Subterranean flows beneath seemingly shallow rivers could turn “into a porridge of quicksand that can swallow a man or a draft animal in less than a minute.” In the decades before these rivers were dammed, they might stretch a mile across, including mudflats, and unlike the computer game, fording a river was never a solitary affair. Wagon masters had to organize “staged fordings,” and the whole scene was invariably chaotic, with multiple wagon companies crowding and pushing to cross at the same time. Water could rise menacingly and unexpectedly mid-ford, and wagon companies might have to wait days on the riverbanks for waterlines to lower before they could cross. One historian notes that “almost every overland diary records drownings or near misses along the rivers.” 

10. IF YOU TRAVEL THE TRAIL TODAY, YOU WON'T DO IT ALONE. 

During Nick and Rinker Buck’s crossing of the Oregon Trail, word spread along their route, and supporters would sometimes crowd rural roadsides to catch a glimpse of a real covered wagon and modern-day pioneers. Those towns were often built by the Oregon Trail and those who crossed it, and as one observer along the trip advised them, nobody would be upset if the brothers used public campgrounds and corrals along the way. “Look,” she said, “those corrals are for you … Everybody is going to be so into this, all the way out. Your biggest problem is going to be dealing with all of the people who want to help you.”

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Build Your Own Harry Potter Characters With LEGO's New BrickHeadz Set

Harry Potter is looking pretty square these days. In a testament to the enduring appeal of the boy—and the franchise—who lived, LEGO has launched a line of Harry Potter BrickHeadz.

The gang’s all here in this latest collection, which was recently revealed during the toymaker’s Fall 2018 preview in New York City. Other highlights of that show included LEGO renderings of characters from Star Wars, Incredibles 2, and several Disney films, according to Inside The Magic.

The Harry Potter BrickHeadz collection will be released in July and includes figurines of Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and even Hedwig. Some will be sold individually, while others come as a set.

A Ron Weasley figurine
LEGO

A Hermione figurine
LEGO

A Dumbledore figurine
LEGO

Harry Potter fans can also look forward to a four-story, 878-piece LEGO model of the Hogwarts Great Hall, which will be available for purchase August 1. Sets depicting the Whomping Willow, Hogwarts Express, and a quidditch match will hit shelves that same day.

[h/t Inside The Magic]

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10 Things You Might Not Know About Little Women
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Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is one of the world's most beloved novels, and now—nearly 150 years after its original publication—it's capturing yet another generation of readers, thanks in part to Masterpiece's new small-screen adaptation. Whether it's been days or years since you've last read it, here are 10 things you might not know about Alcott's classic tale of family and friendship.

1. LOUISA MAY ALCOTT DIDN'T WANT TO WRITE LITTLE WOMEN.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Louisa May Alcott was writing both literature and pulp fiction (sample title: Pauline's Passion and Punishment) when Thomas Niles, the editor at Roberts Brothers Publishing, approached her about writing a book for girls. Alcott said she would try, but she wasn’t all that interested, later calling such books “moral pap for the young.”

When it became clear Alcott was stalling, Niles offered a publishing contract to her father, Bronson Alcott. Although Bronson was a well-known thinker who was friends with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, his work never achieved much acclaim. When it became clear that Bronson would have an opportunity to publish a new book if Louisa started her girls' story, she caved in to the pressure.

2. LITTLE WOMEN TOOK JUST 10 WEEKS TO WRITE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott began writing the book in May 1868. She worked on it day and night, becoming so consumed with it that she sometimes forgot to eat or sleep. On July 15, she sent all 402 pages to her editor. In September, a mere four months after starting the book, Little Women was published. It became an instant best seller and turned Alcott into a rich and famous woman.

3. THE BOOK AS WE KNOW IT WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN TWO PARTS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

The first half was published in 1868 as Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The Story Of Their Lives. A Girl’s Book. It ended with John Brooke proposing marriage to Meg. In 1869, Alcott published Good Wives, the second half of the book. It, too, only took a few months to write.

4. MEG, BETH, AND AMY WERE BASED ON ALCOTT'S SISTERS.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Meg was based on Louisa’s sister Anna, who fell in love with her husband John Bridge Pratt while performing opposite him in a play. The description of Meg’s wedding in the novel is supposedly based on Anna’s actual wedding.

Beth was based on Lizzie, who died from scarlet fever at age 23. Like Beth, Lizzie caught the illness from a poor family her mother was helping.

Amy was based on May (Amy is an anagram of May), an artist who lived in Europe. In fact, May—who died in childbirth at age 39—was the first woman to exhibit paintings in the Paris Salon.

Jo, of course, is based on Alcott herself.

5. LIKE THE MARCH FAMILY, THE ALCOTTS KNEW POVERTY.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Bronson Alcott’s philosophical ideals made it difficult for him to find employment—for example, as a socialist, he wouldn't work for wages—so the family survived on handouts from friends and neighbors. At times during Louisa’s childhood, there was nothing to eat but bread, water, and the occasional apple.

When she got older, Alcott worked as a paid companion and governess, like Jo does in the novel, and sold “sensation” stories to help pay the bills. She also took on menial jobs, working as a seamstress, a laundress, and a servant. Even as a child, Alcott wanted to help her family escape poverty, something Little Women made possible.

6. ALCOTT REFUSED TO HAVE JO MARRY LAURIE.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

Alcott, who never married herself, wanted Jo to remain unmarried, too. But while she was working on the second half of Little Women, fans were clamoring for Jo to marry the boy next door, Laurie. “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only aim and end of a woman’s life," Alcott wrote in her journal. "I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.”

As a compromise—or to spite her fans—Alcott married Jo to the decidedly unromantic Professor Bhaer. Laurie ends up with Amy.

7. THERE ARE LOTS OF THEORIES ABOUT WHO LAURIE WAS BASED ON.


Frank T. Merrill, Public Domain, Courtesy of The Project Gutenberg

People have theorized Laurie was inspired by everyone from Thoreau to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. In 1865, while in Europe, Alcott met a Polish musician named Ladislas Wisniewski, whom Alcott nicknamed Laddie. The flirtation between Laddie and Alcott culminated in them spending two weeks together in Paris, alone. According to biographer Harriet Reisen, Alcott later modeled Laurie after Laddie.

How far did the Alcott/Laddie affair go? It’s hard to say, as Alcott later crossed out the section of her diary referring to the romance. In the margin, she wrote, “couldn’t be.”

8. YOU CAN STILL VISIT ORCHARD HOUSE, WHERE ALCOTT WROTE LITTLE WOMEN.

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts was the Alcott family home. In 1868, Louisa reluctantly left her Boston apartment to write Little Women there. Today, you can tour this house and see May’s drawings on the walls, as well as the small writing desk that Bronson built for Louisa to use.

9. LITTLE WOMEN HAS BEEN ADAPTED A NUMBER OF TIMES.

In addition to a 1958 TV series, multiple Broadway plays, a musical, a ballet, and an opera, Little Women has been made into more than a half-dozen movies. The most famous are the 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn, the 1949 version starring June Allyson (with Elizabeth Taylor as Amy), and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder. Later this year, Clare Niederpruem's modern retelling of the story is scheduled to arrive in movie theaters. It's also been adapted for the small screen a number of times, most recently for PBS's Masterpiece, by Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas.

10. IN 1980, A JAPANESE ANIME VERSION OF LITTLE WOMEN WAS RELEASED.

In 1987, Japan made an anime version of Little Women that ran for 48 half-hour episodes. Watch the first two episodes above.

Additional Resources:
Louisa May Alcott: A Personal Biography; Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women; Louisa May Alcott's Journals; Little Women; Alcott Film; C-Span; LouisaMayAlcott.org.

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