University of Toledo Alumnae E-zine

Blood, sweat and the great trek west retold by alumna

 Tricia Martineau Wagner (Ed ’78) is bemused by the inability of her fellow North Carolinians to deal with two inches of snow. “It’s paralyzed the city,” she says of greater Charlotte. 

She might be less understanding than most; not only did she spend years living in Toledo and Chicago —  snow polestars both — but as the author of three books about the experiences of American pioneers, she’s a tough grader for Hardships 101. 

Those books — It Happened on the Oregon Trail, African American Women of the Old West, and It Happened on the Underground Railroad are what used to be the stuff of Americana but are now in danger, she says, of becoming seen as irrelevant. She knows better.  

Wagner was making a cross-country trek of her own when the epiphany hit. “My husband [Mark Wagner, Bus ’82] took a job in the San Francisco Bay area. Flying out there from Chicago with our two little ones, we just barely made the flight. I was exhausted, but looking out the plane window at the valleys and mountains below, I wondered how the pioneers ever managed the crossing overland.”

 A former elementary school teacher and reading specialist, she knew how badly history is often taught. “You look back over history books and it seems to be details of facts, numbers and dates,” she says. “You ask, ‘Where are the people?’”

Living in the San Francisco suburbs made it possible for her to access the many primary-source documents — journals, letters — in the library archives of the city that was near the terminus for many who rode the Oregon Trail and cutoff to Sacramento.

 “You’re wearing the protective gloves and the foam book pads that cradle and protect old documents, but you’re getting your hands on the journals, you’re seeing the blood-stained pages, you’re really getting a feel for what life was like back then,” she says.

 From the personal histories she found, Wagner narrowed them down to twenty-nine of the most remarkable Oregon Trail events for her first book. The “Go West” movement started early in the nineteenth century, she says. “The West was a symbol of health, wealth and success. In the economic depression of 1837, banks were closing, people were moving to the cities in big numbers, disease was rampant, and for many people there was no money or jobs. Some of those people decided to go where land was free, for a chance to start over.”

 Not everyone who set foot on the westward experiment found success, and her books reflect that. “I included a lot of the heartbreak. It was a two-thousand-mile journey that took four to six months. For some people, it was almost carefree, a chance of a lifetime. Unencumbered by accident, disease or misfortune, it was like an episode out of a romance. For others, it was nothing short of grueling with hardships, heartache, intolerable extremes of weather, lack of food, water and shelter, and being witness to inconceivable human behavior — it was amazing how each person’s experience was different.” 
Take the experience of Rebecca Winters, a Mormon woman from Iowa. She and her family left home bound for Utah in 1852. Rebecca made it as far as Nebraska. “She died and was buried there, beneath a big wagon wheel her friend hammered into an oval shape,” Tricia explains. The rest of her family continued west, reaching Salt Lake City. Years later, Nebraska homesteaders discovered her grave site and tended it for years. Rebecca’s resting place became something of a local attraction; when the railroad came through; arrangements were made for the tracks to go around her grave, which remained undisturbed until 1995, when officials decided that its proximity to the tracks created a dangerous situation for the many visitors who still stopped by. “They found her descendants in Utah and got permission to move her remains further away from the tracks,” Wagner says. “Her family was able to meet members of the family that had tended the grave for all those years. “From that time to now, every generation of her family has named one of their girls Rebecca in honor of the woman who was known for being so loving and giving. And I’m now corresponding with her descendants, who were very grateful for my book’s research.” 

That’s just one of the narratives covered in an intentional short-story format that makes the books attractive to both kids and time-starved adults.

 “When I decided to tell the stories of African American women, I really had to rely on primary source documents because where historians were concerned, women didn’t get much respect, and African American women got the least respect of all. So it became a passion of mine, to unearth these women’s stories,”  she says. 

Gun-toting Mary Fields from African American Women of the Old West is one such woman. She left the Ursuline Catholic Convent in Toledo to follow a friend to Montana. “What a fascinating woman,” Tricia says. “I went to St. Ursula Academy for research; they gave me the great photo of her that appears on the cover of the book.”

 Henry 'Box' Brown from It Happened on the Underground Railroad devised an ingenious way to escape slavery in pre-Civil War America. He had himself packed in a box and shipped in a crate three-hundred-fifty miles from Richmond to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was sheer determination that allowed him to survive the perilous two-day journey to freedom. "Historically there has been an overemphasis on the participation of white abolitionists in the Underground Railroad, and an under-representation of involvement by African Americans," claims Wagner. Not so in this book.

Can people still connect with complete strangers who lived more than 150 years ago? Wagner has no doubts; her experiences as a history interpreter in schools nationwide proves the connection. Dressed in period clothes and bearing artifacts, she mesmerizes kids simply by telling real stories. 

“Kids love it for being so hands-on,” she says. “A lot of them tell me they had no idea what the Oregon Trail was. Maybe just a road people drove on! They had no clue there was no road, just maybe a set of tracks that would disappear when you reached the mountains. 

“From a kid’s point of view, it seems like a long adventure, camping out for many weeks. But after talking with students now about what the trip actually meant, we take a little poll to see who would actually choose to go West. A lot of the kids change their minds!”

 Nor do children realize the horrors of the institution of slavery. The room becomes very quiet when Wagner reveals the life stories of slaves and those who helped them on to freedom. 
Teachers, in fact, have built entire curriculum units around Wagner’s books. 

“We can learn from these people,” says Wagner, who’s already planning a fourth book, this time tentatively titled Black Cowboys of the Old West. “Their stories are similar to ours, but they had perseverance, even when there was no one there to pick them up. If your husband died on the trail, what could you do? How would you get a house built when you arrived? It took a lot of courage to make that journey — I certainly learned that I wouldn’t have done it!”

 The women, men and children who rode and walked the trails leading to what they hoped would be a more free future weren’t looking for fame, Wagner notes. “They would never imagine their stories would appear in a book, that they would have anything to contribute to people more than a hundred years later. That’s not why they did it — it was the only way to make a better life for their children, so they became trailblazers. “It’s become my mission, I think, to give these people a voice.”

Cynthia Nowak, University of Toledo