Until Captain Randolph B. Marcy published his indispensable guidebook The Prairie Traveler in 1859, surmounting the western trails amounted to little more than a crap shoot.
For a century, pioneer Americans trekked thousands of miles over terrain topographically and culturally hostile, blindly heading West. Marcy saw this firsthand. He spent many years bivouacked in the Midwest, first as a soldier in the Black Hawk War, and again as an official escort for the US Army, guiding pioneers to Oklahoma and Texas. Without a doubt, the copious and careful maps and travel advice he gathered during those years on the trail saved the lives of many American ancestors.
In the early to mid-1800s “guides” would charge ridiculous fees to escort entire wagon trains through the muck of Indiana and Illinois, over the muddy waters of the Mississippi and then into the endless flatlands of the American prairie. Poorer families afford a personal escort may only purchase maps that promised secret shortcuts shaving from the journey. While some of these resources were reputable and honest, just as many were not. And in the days before a mass transit or mass communication, it was all too easy for a charlatan to disappear.
The Donner Party remains the most infamous example of this. The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, which they used as their primary guide, promoted a direct route which took settlers not only through the arid Great Salt Lake Desert, but also through 100 miles of the Sierra Nevada. It was in the thin air of those mountains the Donner Party made its “hard decisions.”
Marcy certainly would have been aware of this story as he organized and finalized The Prairie Traveler: A Hand-book for Overland Expeditions. When published in 1859—by the US Government—it quickly became a kind of bible for Westward expansion. It remained the best-selling guide for emigration from the East and Midwest into the American West until the end of the 19th century.
The key to the guide’s popularity wasn’t just the accuracy of Captain Marcy’s carefully reconnoitered maps and trails, but its wealth of supplementary information. In that, Marcy offers practical, trail-tested advice on virtually all subjects of importance to pioneers:
How to store bacon in hot weather (“…put in boxes and surrounded with bran, which in a great measure prevents the fat from melting away…”).
How to drink from a riverbed of quicksand (“…a flour-barrel, perforated with small holes, should be used as a curb, to prevent the sand from caving in. The barrel must be forced down as the sand is removed…”)
How to behave upon meeting Native-Americans (“…all that is necessary in order to ascertain their disposition is to raise the right hand with the palm in front, and gradually push it forward and back several times. They all understand this to be a command to halt, and if they are not hostile it will at once be obeyed…”)
How to properly skin and butcher a buffalo (“…The tongues, humps, and marrow-bones are regarded as the choice parts of the animal. The tongue is taken out by ripping open the skin between the prongs of the lower jaw-bone and pulling it out through the orifice…”
Coupled along with this advice are not only maps, but descriptions of every point of interest along the way, from trading posts, military forts, mines, villages, and geography. The Prairie Traveler was, in itself, a master course in frontier exploration.
Had he any rights to royalties from the guide, no doubt Marcy would have been a wealthy man in addition to being famous, but the book was owned by the United States War Department. However, for his great contribution to American expansion and settlement of the West, he was promoted to Major Randolph B. Marcy and served the Union throughout the Civil War, most famously as the chief-of-staff for General George B. McClellan (who also happened to be his son-in-law), Lincoln’s controversial ally during the Civil War and chief opponent in the 1864 presidential election.
McClellan’s soured reputation did not tarnish that of Marcy, and Marcy received a battlefield commission of major general by the end of the war. In 1878, the US Army celebrated Marcy’s service—his guide still sold thousands of copies a month, even 20 years after first published—and made him a full brigadier general. He retired from the military in 1881, after 49 years of service.
Want to Know More?
Read reporter Ann Japenga’s article “Tracking Down the Truth of What Happened to the Donner Party” from the Los Angeles Times.
Need to check out the Marcy’s guide right now? Project Gutenberg uploaded an excellent HTML version of The Prairie Traveler HERE, complete with illustrations and maps.