Between 1840 and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, a quarter million people crossed the great plains on foot or in wagons as they moved west to begin new lives. This summer, 77 youth (14 to 18) and 44 adults (acting as chaperons) went on a three day trek with the Sooner Cattle Company in Pawhuska, Okla. to experience a little of what they went through. The Sooner Cattle Company runs these treks from spring through fall. The youth, all members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) came from Concordia (5), Great Bend (5), Hays (9), Junction City (35), Manhattan (36), Salina (18) and Wamego (11), and wished to experience a little of what their 80,000 predecessors had experienced on the trek to Utah seeking freedom to worship Jesus Christ as they saw fit.
To make the trek more realistic, the youth were encouraged to dress as people did in the mid-1800s. This was easier for the men, as it just meant cotton pants, long sleeved shirts, suspenders and wide brimmed hats, either straw or cowboy. Levis, shorts, baseball caps, sandals and flip-flops were ban. For girls it was harder, long dresses, bonnets and aprons. Free patterns were even provided for things like bloomers, waistcoats, aprons, petticoats and corsets. No one took them up on the corsets.
When the youth arrived at the ranch they turned in all phones, radios, games, IPods and other electronics and were assigned to families. They were also given the name of a real pioneer, whose life they would learn about over the next few days and ultimately, if that pioneer survived the trek west. As they were traveling on the economy plan, they were then assigned to a handcart. About 3,000 original pioneers, particularly those coming from Europe, had no money for wagons and so invested in a large, 2 wheeled cart in which they packed all their possessions and then pulled it across the plains. For the next three days the youth would do the same thing, packing everything they wished to take in the cart and then pulling it an averaging 6 miles a day, in 90 degree weather over the rough back trails of the Sooner Cattle Ranch. They would set up camp each night, cook meals over the fire and generally live like pioneers. Of course, this wasn’t all work. During rest stops and lunch breaks there were games and time to swim and at night music and square dancing and stories around the fire about the real pioneers.
Some concessions were made to modern times, like bottled water, insect repellent, sun screen, chapstick, sunglasses, flash lights and porta-potties along the way. Also, all trash was collected and hauled out. Medical needs were seen too by three doctors, Bryan Smith from Salina and Joseph Chiara and Preston Omer, both assigned to Fort Riley, who went along on the trek. But, in general, the trek was designed to be a three day experience in pioneer life and, according to those who went a hands-on history lesson, hard work, a lot of fun and a truly spiritual experience.