This could have been a reasonably realistic epic of a typical wagon train journey from Westport, Missouri to the Oregon Territory. Unfortunately, the vision of the script writer was myopic. In some respects, it's accurate. J.G. Bennett was an influential newspaperman of this era, founding the New York Herald. There was a dispute between the US and Britain over the northern boundary of the Oregon Territory, and this was settled in 1846: the year this wagon train rolled over the prairie. The imminent war with Mexico was an important consideration in settling this dispute quickly and peacefully. Samuel Colt's 6 shooter revolver, a shipment to Fort Laramie being dramatized, was available in 1846. A large order for this weapon was sent by the army in preparation for a war with Mexico. Probably, considerable numbers of soldiers in frontier forts were re-assigned to the Mexican War, but I doubt that the forts were left virtually defenseless, as dramatized.
On the other hand, I saw only horses pulling the wagons, whereas historically, they pulled only a small percentage of overland wagons, in contrast to the larger Conestoga freight wagons of the East.. Oxen were the preferred draft animals unless time was of the essence. Those trains that left late in the good traveling season often used mules, because they were faster. Also, participants, except for the very young and infirm, seldom rode in the wagon. That added weight to what the stock had to pull and was very uncomfortable with the rough roads and lack of shock absorbers... The climax of the film is a raid on Fort Laramie by a substantial number of Indians. Historically, this was very unlikely, especially in broad daylight. Indians very rarely attacked well built and defended forts. What was their motive for such an attack? We have no idea, other than whites were crossing their territory. As long as they moved on, no problem. They might even want to do some trading. Then again, they might want to steal some things. In this case, perhaps they knew the fort had few army defenders, thus might be vulnerable. But, all those wagons couldn't have fit in the fort, so many must have been outside, but we didn't see any. The Indians should have attacked them instead of the fort. In fact ,especially in the early years of mass migrations, Indians very seldom attacked substantial wagon trains, except maybe stragglers. Over a 20 year period, it's documented that only 360 emigrants died from Indian attacks, and that 90% of those killings occurred west of South Pass, to which this wagon train never made it during the film. Out of an estimated 20,000 deaths during this travel, a mere 2% are attributed to Indian attacks. The main documented causes of death included being run over by wagon wheels or trampled by livestock, accidental firing of firearms, drowning in crossing rivers, and various diseases, especially cholera. All of these could have easily been included in the film instead of an Indian attack. Children and the elderly were the most frequent victims
There has been criticism by several reviewers about the Indian maiden Shona(Gloria Talbott) renouncing her Indian identity, near the end of the film. Remember that her father was a European, and was killed in the Indian attack. Her mother apparently was also dead. Thus, she felt free to marry whomever she chose, which was Harris(Fred MacMurray). True, at age 51, he seemed a little old for an Indian maiden, but he had no objections. Perhaps she was also angry that the Indians attacked the fort for no apparent reason. At the same time, Harris renounced his association with his newspaper, in favor of becoming a settler with Shona.
In conclusion, this film could have presented the events of a typical wagon train much more realistically, without the obligatory Indian attack, and including the last half of the journey. To do so, it would need to have been nearly twice as long.
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