Conquering the West was a man's job. Civilizing it was a woman's.
And the men got more help with their work, historians told a group of about 700 assembled in Salt Lake City for the 12th annual convention of the Oregon-California Trails Association.French trappers were traveling parts of the trail as early as 1739, following paths made by antelope, buffalo and American Indians. Mountain men guided the first wagon trains west in 1840.
"By 1843, literally thousands of people had traversed this continent on what would become known as the Oregon Trail," said Brigham Young University professor Fred Gowans.
The Oregon trail head was in Independence, Mo. Mormon pioneers left the Midwest farther north at Nauvoo, Ill., and then paralleled the trail on the opposite side of the North Platte River through much of Nebraska until the two trails merged at Fort Laramie.
Gowans said explorers built on - and borrowed - each other's discoveries and refined maps as the trail developed. "Many people made maps during the same time. I found 34 that gave a significant contribution between '39 and '43," Gowans said in a narrative that opened the conference Tuesday.
Letters that circulated among contemporaries and journals preserved to the present day tell the story of trail development during the westward expansion. But only one in 100 travelers kept a journal. "What a wonderful account we would have if all of the people would have kept records," he said.
And while men passed along mapping information about the Western wilderness, it was the women on the trail who described what it was really like, said Barbara Sullivan, an English professor at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo. "Women noted descriptions about the landscape while men noted mile markers," she said.
Exploration accounts were predominantly made by men and seldom included the kind of detail that would help women prepare for the overland trek.
"There were few details on clothing, especially for women." Some women made parts of the journey without shoes because they either brought the wrong kind or because they wanted to save their last pair to wear once they settled and started their new life in the West.
Most of the news that returned to the East about women on the trails was bad - including tales of capture by Indians and a reluctance by travelers to pay a five-pony ransom for a captured woman's freedom because of what condition she might be in "after being had by half of the tribe," she said.
"No women initiated the idea of going West, and only one-fourth agreed to go," Sullivan said.
Expectations of the day were that men would tame the land and women tamed the men, maintaining a cultural protocol and establishing churches and schools in developing Western communities, she said.
Participants in the conference spent Thursday exploring Mormon and California trail crossings near Salt Lake City. The conference agenda Friday focused on the role of Mormon pioneers in the westward expansion.