On May 16, 1842 one of the first organized wagon trains, with one hundred and sixty souls, half of them armed men, left Elm Grove, Missouri for the Oregon Territory. At some point on their way one man proposed to steal an Indian pony and the rest of the group, worried about the consequences, decided to try the man before the entire company. But since he had only talked of stealing the horse and had actually done no wrong he was acquitted. This event caused much discussion about the need for rules of conduct in the company. A committee was formed to discuss it but decided that no law other than the ‘moral code enacted by the creator and recorded in every man’s heart’ was all that was required. Their verdict was met with great favor by the rest of the emigrants and sufficed to carry the party safely to the Willamette Valley.
Prior to the rush of 1849 more and more wagon trains made the long journey west, either to Oregon or California. Most of these trains consisted of neighbors, families and good friends who already knew each other and planned to settle in close proximity. They had recognized leaders and were generally subservient to the good of the whole. There was little need for a code of laws and, except in rare cases, it was never even thought of. Year after year more and more wagons laden with children, the cattle driven alongside, made their way across the great expanse of the continent with little more disagreement than if they’d never left the east.
But with the onset of the gold rush in 1849 when large mixed groups of adventurers headed west with no other purpose except to reach the mines in the fastest and least expensive way, it was quickly found that a code of conduct and provision for tribunals to enforce it was needed. Unlike those who came west by ship, there was no captain, no brig, and no law of the sea along the trail to California. Nearly every overland train thus began with a leader and regulations for the government and mutual safety of the members. But, like any law or code based on theory and not actual experience, these early codes were found to be insufficient and impracticable.
And it also proved that the majority of the companies, so carefully organized before departure, broke apart well before the South Pass across the Rocky Mountains. In 1849 there was an almost uninterrupted string of wagons and riders stretching as far as the eye could see. Men made new friends, traveled at a pace they were comfortable with, wagons broke down, and animals had problems. Parties would pass each other again and again as they worked their way west. Many men gave up their wagons altogether, preferring to carry their supplies by mule back. It was faster, the mules didn’t break down and were much easier to get across the high passes in Sierra Nevada Mountains. Once into California, the transient nature of the miners continued and was a major reason that the method of quick justice that came to be called Lynch law became such an important part of the early mining times.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush. For more about John and his writing visit www.goldrushtales.com.