At this time, the new railroad from Baltimore extended no farther westward than Cumberland, yet it served to carry one well toward the Ohio River at Pittsburg; whence, down the Ohio and up the Missouri to Leavenworth, my journey was to be made by steamboats. In this prosaic travel, the days passed monotonously; but at length I found myself upon that frontier which then marked the western edge of our accepted domain, and the eastern extremity of the Oregon Trail.
If I can not bring to the mind of one living to-day the full picture of those days when this country was not yet all ours, and can not restore to the comprehension of those who never were concerned with that life the picture of that great highway, greatest path of all the world, which led across our unsettled countries, that ancient trail at least may be a memory. It is not even yet wiped from the surface of the earth. It still remains in part, marked now no longer by the rotting head-boards of its graves, by the bones of the perished ones which once traveled it; but now by its ribands cut through the turf, and lined by nodding prairie flowers.
The old trail to Oregon was laid out by no government, arranged by no engineer, planned by no surveyor, supported by no appropriation. It sprang, a road already created, from the earth itself, covering two thousand miles of our country. Why? Because there was need for that country to be covered by such a trail at such a time. Because we needed Oregon. Because a stalwart and clear-eyed democracy needs America and will have it. That was the trail over which our people outran their leaders. If our leaders trifle again, once again we shall outrun them.
There were at this date but four places of human residence in all the two thousand miles of this trail, yet recent as had been the first hoofs and wheels to mark it, it was even then a distinct and unmistakable path. The earth has never had nor again can have its like. If it was a path of destiny, if it was a road of hope and confidence, so was it a road of misery and suffering and sacrifice; for thus has the democracy always gained its difficult and lasting victories. I think that it was there, somewhere, on the old road to Oregon, sometime in the silent watches of the prairie or the mountain night, that there was fought out the battle of the Old World and the New, the battle between oppressors and those who declared they no longer would be oppressed.
Providentially for us, an ignorance equal to that of our leaders existed in Great Britain. For us who waited on the banks of the Missouri, all this ignorance was matter of indifference. Our men got their beliefs from no leaders, political or editorial, at home or abroad. They waited only for the grass to come.
Now at last the grass did begin to grow upon the eastern edge of the great Plains; and so I saw begin that vast and splendid movement across our continent which in comparison dwarfs all the great people movements of the earth. Xenophon’s March of the Ten Thousand pales beside this of ten thousand thousands. The movements of the Goths and Huns, the Vandals, the Cimri—in a way, they had a like significance with this, but in results those migrations did far less in the history of the world; did less to prove the purpose of the world.