JAMESTOWN, N.D. — History has a way of coming alive in North Dakota. It happens every June. A weeklong trip into the 1800s of the American West draws buffs from across the nation and around the world to Ft. Seward, northwest of Jamestown.
This old U.S. Cavalry post is the starting point each year of a working pioneer wagon train.
It is exactly what the words wagon train conjure up in your mind's eye: canvas-covered box wagons with iron-rimmed wooden wheels snaking through tall prairie grass under the vast North Dakota sky. Outriders parallel the wagons while pioneer walkers string out in scattered bunches.
Founded in 1969, the Ft. Seward Wagon Train began as a one-time historical project by residents interested in preserving the history of North Dakota. They wanted to re-create the atmosphere and experiences of our early settlers as they journeyed west. An authentic ride was planned, with participants sharing all responsibilities, as was the custom on the wagon trains of the 1800s.
Preserving a Heritage
"That trip made us all aware that what we were doing was not just reliving North Dakota history," said Jean Miller, one of the directors of Ft. Seward Inc. "We felt we were preserving part of our national heritage. We decided it was important to keep the wagon train going." The nonprofit group has organized the trip annually ever since.
This year's Courtenay Centennial Ride, June 20-27, will take the would-be pioneers to the small town of Courtenay to be part of its centennial parade and celebration. The route will also wind through Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge, providing a true picture of virgin prairie wilderness. It is an area rich in history, surface Indian artifacts and scenic beauty.
Conestoga wagons are the main mode of transportation for this adventure, with staff members serving as teamsters. Many participants bring their own saddle horses, or arrangements can be made to rent them from ranchers. Families and individuals are assigned to a wagon that is their daytime home, but tents serve as sleeping quarters. Period clothing is required, including long dresses and bonnets for the women and Western wear for the men.
The wagon train is necessarily a community of people dependent upon one another for survival. Everyone shares the chores, including chopping wood, cooking and serving food, cleanup and picket line.
"But no one is overworked," said Ramrod Delno Kleinkneckt. "Our days allow lots of time for fun."
Day Begins Early
The daily schedule of the wagon train begins early. Fire builders and cooks awaken the rest of camp with the music of banging pans and cast-iron skillets. The tempting aromas of strong coffee and steaming hot chocolate tease bleary-eyed campers from their tents.
Hearty breakfasts of flapjacks, sausage or bacon, scrambled eggs and oatmeal are cooked over open pit fires. Afterward, camping gear is packed and stowed for the day's journey.
After the trail boss signals the train to "Move 'em out!" in Ward Bond fashion, wagons, riders and walkers string out in a long line. Conversations become intense and animated. Laughter is boisterous. And the miles begin to melt away.
The train averages 3-4 m.p.h. with breaks in the morning, at noon with a cold lunch of sandwiches and fruit fixed at the chuck wagon, and again in mid-afternoon.
The wagons are circled at the evening campsite, horses and mules unhitched and cared for while camp is set up, and supper preparations begun. It's a welcome time to stretch out and rest weary feet. Activities involving arts and crafts and nature lore spring up, many designed for the children. Indian beading is a particularly popular craft with the youngsters.
Evening Food, Entertainment
The chuck wagon becomes active as the evening meal is prepared. Cooks attend bubbling pots of such favorites as fried bread and real buffalo stew, stirring up savory aromas that entice hungry trail riders into the prairie kitchen. When dinner is ready, the ringing of a triangle calls the rest of camp to a quickly formed chow line. Appetites are healthy after a long day on the trail, and food is never skimpy.
The day ends with entertainment around a crackling campfire, where pioneers share original skits, songs of yesteryear, games, practical jokes and some very tall tales. All participants are encouraged to bring musical instruments and creative ideas to share.
In 1983 a couple who met on a previous wagon train trip were married on the prairie and the event was nationally televised. In 1985 a buffalo burial ground afforded the opportunity for a dig yielding 100-year-old buffalo bones as souvenirs.
One of the most pleasant aspects of the trip, especially to urban participants, is the snail's-pace crossing of open prairie land. The ringing of the telephone is replaced with the meadowlark's song, city smells with the gentle fragrance of the prairie rose, North Dakota's flower. The pace affords time for the youngest and oldest of the pioneers to dream, think and wonder.