Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Prairie Traveler handbook led adventurers across continent


Aptly named “The Prairie Traveler,” Army Captain Randolph B. Marcy’s best-selling handbook led both military and civilian travelers through all the pathways and pitfalls of journeying into the West in the 1860s and beyond. Originally compiled by order of the federal government and first printed in 1859, Marcy’s fascinating little guidebook is available still as a reprint from a variety of publishers. It is usually available from several publishers and sellers at Amazon.com and eBay.

Marcy’s Prairie Traveler was hugely popular just before and after the Civil War, when the earliest wagon trains and adventurers started traveling the Oregon and Santa Fe trails. In fact, one of the more fascinating sections of the book is the list of eight “Itineraries” or common western trails listed at the end of the handbook. Each itinerary gives detailed listings of prominent mileage markers and landmarks along the particular trail. Just reading the names of those itineraries gives an excellent summary of the entire westward movement of the 1840s-70s:

1. From Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico.
2. From Leavenworth City to Great Salt Lake City.
3. From Great Salt Lake City to Los Angeles and San Francisco, California.
4. From Indianolo and Powder-horn to San Antonio, Texas.
5. Wagon-road from San Antonio, Texas, to El Paso, N.M., and Fort Yuma, California.
6. From El Paso, New Mexico, to Fort Yuma, California, via Santa Cruz.
7. From Westport, Missouri, to the gold diggings at Pike’s Peak and “Cherry Creek,” N.T., via the Arkansas River.
8. From St. Paul’s, Min., to Fort Wallah Wallah, Oregon.

Territorial names, town names, and other locations have changed since the 1859 publication came out, but the details of the terrain, availability of wood and water for cooking, even the general presence of game, make the guide an invaluable look at the daily struggles of going West. As an example, at mile 17 from the mouth of Cherry Creek near the end of Itinerary 8, Marcy has this: “Mouth of Cherry Creek, at the South Platte. — Good camp, and a town built up since I passed, called ‘Denver City.’ “

But the entire little book is so much more than a simple mileage guide. It is filled with excellent pen-and-ink illustrations of camping equipment, scenery, animals, and common tasks on the trail. It has a detailed table of contents with summary points of each chapter. For example, Chapter 2 is titled “Marching,” and includes details about treatment of animals, finding water, a detailed discussion of the Mexican concept of “Journadas” (fixed “day’s journey” segments on the trails) and how to benefit from them, setting up rear and forward guards on the trail, and finding and setting up camp sites.

This book is was invaluable for 19th century travelers actually making the trek West, having been put together by a military man who had ventured into the West in exploration (Marcy was in charge of the 1852 expedition which discovered the headwaters of both forks of the Red River) and discovery. His guidebook, as it was originally intended, was used extensively in the 1860s and later as the Army expanded westward.

For us, it’s a great resource if you want a detailed glimpse of life traveling across the Plains and on to the West Coast. It makes an excellent reference for writers and offers a fascinating look at life on the trails of the Old West.