A trek through history

By Bryce Martin

Pioneer Editor


James Butler is an avid wagon trail enthusiast.


James Butler of Faith, S.D. stands inside his wagon.
James Butler of Faith, S.D. stands inside his wagon.

Published Sept 20, 2013

The Herald

He travels with a large covered wagon and an even larger grin as he’s doing what he loves.

Butler had an early morning start Aug. 31 in Buffalo, S.D. packing his gear and readying his four horses and wagon for the days-long haul to Medora.

An icon of the American Old West, dozens of covered wagons wheeled their way from Buffalo to Medora last week, stopping for supper Sept. 4 in Amidon.

“In this area, it’s my first time,” Butler said.

The wagon train, navigating through above-average temperatures and dry conditions, made its way through Bowman and on to the Amidon Fairgrounds in time for a suppertime celebration.

People from near and far gathered there to dance, eat and reminisce of old times.

Jim Anderson of Joliet, Mont., originally from Bowman, also took part in the wagon train, hauling with him his covered wagon.

“It was fantastic,” Anderson said. “I got to go to the old county where I lived and got to meet with old friends.”

Butler let his four horses rest and also took part in the festivities.

“It’s great. I really enjoy it,” he said.

The covered wagon, also known as a prairie schooner, symbolizes the hardships during the Old West. Although they were widely used for transporting goods within the country, in the mid-19th Century, thousands of Americans took them across the Great Plains.

The Medora-Deadwood line “reopened” for the annual wagon train, delineating a past not known by many.

In the fall of 1884, French entrepreneur Antoine de Vallombrosa, or the Marquis de Morés, sent the first of four coaches down the trail from Medora and Little Missouri River country to Deadwood in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. The trip was a one-shot continuous trek that took 36 hours with riders and horses changing often.

The route for this year’s wagon train covered roughly one-half the original route and was embellished with living history lessons and campfire entertainment.

The trains arrived Sept. 7 in Medora.

“This is a user-friendly opportunity for people who want to travel on some of the original trail,” Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Leona Odermann said. “Participants will have an opportunity to be close to the original route used by the Medora Stage and Forwarding Company.”

The wagons trekked through visual history, experiencing what pioneers experienced in the Old West era.

Historically, small children, the elderly and the sick or injured rode in wagons, but since the wagons had no suspension and the roads were rough, many people preferred to walk, unless they horses to ride.

While covered wagons traveling short distances on good roads could be drawn by horses, those crossing the plains usually were drawn by a team of two or more pairs of oxen. These were driven by a teamster or drover, who walked at the left side of the team and directed the oxen with verbal commands and whip cracks. Mules also were used; they were harnessed and driven by someone sitting in the wagon seat holding the reins.

One covered wagon generally represented five people. A well-to-do family might have two or three wagons, or a group of single men traveling together might share a wagon.

While crossing the plains, emigrants banded together to form wagon trains for mutual assistance and occasionally defense. The covered wagons and wagon trains were only the first to come in what would be a westward expansion driven by airplanes, rail trains and automobiles.

Together with the history, the experience and the celebrations, Butler said it was a good time.

“It’s just a fun deal,” he said.



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