“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

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Below is Part Five to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon “Manifest Destiny”, the second episode of the 2005 television miniseries, “INTO THE WEST”:

 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

I. Introduction

Steven Spielberg had served as executive producer for a miniseries about the history of the Old West, during a period that spanned from the mid-1820s to 1890-91. If this premise sounds familiar, it should. It bears a strong resemblance to the main plot for “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. Only the story for “INTO THE WEST” centered on two families – a family of wheelwrights from western Virginia and a family from the Lakota nation.

“INTO THE WEST” aired as a six-part miniseries during the summer of 2005. The second episode, “Manifest Destiny”, focused on wagon journey from Independence, Missouri to California in 1841. The first episode, “Wheel to the Stars”, introduced some of the saga’s main characters – such as Jacob Wheeler, the son and grandson of Virginia wheelwrights; Thunder Heart Woman, the Lakota woman with whom he will fall in love and marry; his younger brother Jethro Wheeler, who was too frightened to follow Jacob on the latter’s first journey to the West; and Thunder Heart Woman’s three brothers, Loved By the Buffalo, Dog Star and Running Fox. This episode ended with Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s marriage at her family’s village.

“Manifest Destiny” picked up seven to eight years later with Jacob’s return to Wheelerton, Virginia, with a pregnant Thunder Heart Woman and their four year-old daughter, Margaret Light Shines in two. With the exception of Jethro, the rest of the Wheeler family – including Jacob’s three cousins, Naomi, Rachel and Leah – greet Thunder Heart Woman and Margaret with a chilly intolerance. After the birth of Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s new son, Abraham High Wolf, Jacob learns of the death of the famous explorer and trapper Jedediah Smith.

Jacob realizes that Wheelerton is no longer home to him and decides to return to the West. This time, Jethro, Naomi, Rachel and Leah decide to accompany him and Thunder Heart Woman. The Wheelers spend at least three years traveling west, until they reach Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840. The family decides to travel to California and is forced to wait until the following spring of 1841 to start their journey. The Wheelers join a wagon party led by one Stephen Moxie. The Wheelers, along with their fellow emigrants experience bad weather, accidents, Native Americans, romance and tragedy during their journey to California.

 

II. History vs. Hollywood

With television miniseries like “CENTENNIAL” and “THE CHISHOLMS” as examples, one would think that Hollywood had finally learned to inject as much historical accuracy in its period dramas as possible. But “INTO THE WEST” – at least as far as “Manifest Destiny” is concerned – seemed to be an exception to the rule. Screenwriters William Mastrosimone and Cyrus Nowrasteh managed to toss historical facts to the wind, when they wrote this episode.

Mind you, Mastrosimone and Nowrasteh managed to begin the journey on the right note. The first known wagon party to attempt the journey to California (the Bartleson-Bidwell Party) did leave Westport, Missouri in 1841, the same year as the Wheelers’ departure. “Manifest Destiny” did an excellent job in conveying the day-to-day chores performed by the emigrants. The wagons used by the Wheelers and other members of the Moxie wagon party were, thankfully, not the lumbering Conestogas seen in old Hollywood films. The episode also included the use of buffalo meat, dangers of cholera on the trail, river crossings and an accident caused by difficult terrain like the Windlass Hill around Ash Hollow. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode’s portrayal of wagon train migration proved to have very little historical accuracy.

“Manifest Destiny” marked a return of an inaccurate portrayal of emigrant life that had not been seen for a while. Although none of the wagons featured in the episode are not Conestogas, all of them are being pulled by horses, instead of mules or oxen. I found it a miracle that none of the horses had dropped dead by the end of the episode. I also noticed that the emigrants in Moxie’s party had to pay at least $80.00 or provide some valuable service (in Jacob and Jethro’s case, provide wheelwright service) in order to join. However, I cannot say whether this is accurate or not. I have never come across such a thing during my studies of overland wagon travel. On the other hand, such transactions may have occurred.

One glance of the terrain featured in “Manifest Destiny” immediately alerted me to the fact that the episode had not been filmed anywhere near the locations from the actual Oregon and California trails. In fact, no famous landmarks from the two trails were shown in this episode. Not even a single fort. I discovered that the miniseries was either filmed in the Alberta Province of Canada and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. This does not surprised me. The actors in this episode spent a good deal of time wearing coats or cloaks. Since the wagon journey from Missouri to California usually spanned between mid-spring and early fall, I found the presence of outer wear unrealistic.

The Lakota characters featured in the six-part miniseries proved to be just as complex as the white characters. This is not surprising. After all, some of Jacob Wheeler’s in-laws were among the main characters – especially his three brothers-in-law. However, when it came to the Hoxie wagon party’s encounter with members of the Cheyenne nation, historical accuracy was once again tossed into the wind.

Among the travelers that joined the Moxie wagon party was a family of free blacks from Illinois named Jones. When Mrs. Jones died from cholera, they were forced to remain behind, until they could be certain that no one else in their party had contracted the disease. The Wheelers – with the exception of Naomi, who was traveling with her new husband – were forced to remain with the Jones, due to being the closest with the family. Soon, Jethro came down with cholera. But he managed to overcome his illness. After his recovery, Jacob rode ahead to find the wagon party. He discovered that the entire wagon train – except for Naomi, who was taken – had been killed by Native Americans. Jacob returned to the Wheeler and Jones wagons, which found themselves under attack by Cheyenne dog soldiers, the very party that wiped out the Moxie wagon train. In other words, the viewers were expected to believe that a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers were able to wipe out a fairly-sized and well-armed wagon party. Yet, the only damage they were able to inflict upon the Wheeler and Jones families was a lance through Jacob Wheeler’s shoulder. Ri-i-ii-i-ight! This was one the most ludicrous piece of historical inaccuracy I had ever encountered in a period drama.

There were other minor historical inaccuracies, which had nothing to do with the Moxie wagon party that I found in “Manifest Destiny”. One, Jedediah Smith did not die around 1836-37. He was killed in 1831. And according to Jacob, there were no battles or any real violence in California during the Mexican-American War. Wrong! A few months after the Americans had taken over the province, the Californios took up arms against their new rulers, resulting in a few battles mainly fought in Southern California.

It seems ironic that “Manifest Destiny” turned out to be the least historically accurate episode of “INTO THE WEST”. I say that it is ironic, because this episode happens to be my favorite from the entire miniseries. “Manifest Destiny” gave a fairly accurate picture of the daily activities of emigrants on the overland trails. But it turned out to be like many films from the past – more Hollywood than history.

 

III. Conclusion

This marks the end of my look at Hollywood’s depiction of emigrant wagon trains. The two movies and three miniseries were not the only productions to feature this setting. And if these articles have increased your interest in this subject, you might want to consider other movie and television productions about it.

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“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

 

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962) Review

This 1962 movie was among the last of the old-fashioned “epic” films that was released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Filmed using the Cinerama widescreen process, it featured an all-star cast directed by at least three directors. 

After making the decision to use the Cinerama wide-screen process, MGM decided to produce a cinematic adaptation ofLIFE magazine’s 1959 series of articles about the history of the American West. Screenwriters James R. Webb and John Gay (uncredited) achieved this by focusing the film on two to three generations of family that migrated westward from western New York, to Southern Ohio, to California and finally to the deserts of Arizona. The story stretched out in a period of fifty (50) years from the late 1830s to the late 1880s. According to Wikipedia, the movie was set between 1839 and 1889. Yet, Webb and Gay’s script never indicated this. The movie consisted of five segments that were directed by three directors, Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall.

“The Rivers”, which was directed by Henry Hathaway, focused on the Prescott family’s journey from western New York to Southern Ohio, in an attempt to reach the Illinois country via the Erie Canal and the Ohio River. During their journey, they meet a mountain man named Linus Rawlins, who falls in love with eldest daughter, Eve; encounter murderous river pirates; and are caught in some dangerous rapids during their trip down the Ohio River. The last part of their journey ends in Southern Ohio, when the patriarch and matriarch of the Prescotts are drowned and Eve decides to remain there. She eventually marries Linus and her younger sister, Lilith decides to head to St. Louis.

In “The Plains”, Lilith Prescott is a dance hall entertainer in St. Louis, when she receives news of an inheritance – a California gold mine – from a former patron. In order to join a California-bound wagon train, Lilith becomes the traveling companion of a middle-aged woman named Agatha Clegg. She also becomes the romantic object of two men – the hard-nosed wagonmaster Roger Morgan (who has a ranch in California) and a professional gambler named Cleve Van Valen. Lilith eventually forms an attachment to Cleve. But when her inheritance turns out to be a bust upon their arrival in California, Cleve abandons her. He eventually reconciles with her on a Sacramento River steamboat and the two marry. Hathaway also directed.

John Ford directed “The Civil War”, a short segment about the experiences of Zeb Rawlins’ (Eve and Linus’ elder son) at the Battle of Shiloh during the Civil War. Although Zeb survives, his father was killed during the battle, and his mother died before his return to the family’s Ohio farm. Zeb decides to remain in the Army after the war.

“The Railroad” was about Zeb’s experiences as an Army officer during the construction of the railroad during the late 1860s. He tries and fails to keep the peace between the construction crew led by a man named Mike King and the local Arapaho tribe. The Arapho incites a buffalo stampede through the railroad camp after King breaks another promise. And Zeb resigns from the Army. George Marshall directed.

Hathaway directed the final segment, “The Outlaws”, which featured Zeb’s last days as a law officer, as he tries to prevent a group of outlaws led by a man named Charlie Gant from stealing a shipment of gold. After he is successful, Zeb and his family join his widowed aunt Lilith on a trip to her new Arizona ranch.

“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won three won – Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It is also considered a favorite of director Ron Howard. I might as well be honest. I have always liked “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. If I had not, I would have never purchased the DVD set. But I cannot see how it was ever nominated for Best Picture, let alone won the Best Screenplay Oscar. It was NOT that great. To me, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” was a mediocre epic that featured a small handful of excellent performances, great photography and a superb score.

The fifty year period that spanned “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” struck me as more suitable for a television miniseries, instead of a movie – even if it had a running time of 162 minutes. There was too much going on in this film and its time span of fifty years was simply too long. The 2005 miniseries, “INTO THE WEST” had a similar premise, but it had the good luck to be aired in a six-part miniseries that ran for 552 minutes. And because of the lack of balance between the story’s premise/time span and its running time, the story about the Prescott-Rawlins family seemed half-empty . . . and rushed.

The best of the five segments are the first two directed by Henry Hathaway – “The River” and “The Plains”, which featured the Prescotts treks from New York, to Ohio. Although not perfect, thanks to some plot inconsistency and historical inaccuracy. What makes these two segments superior to the other three is that are longer and if I must be frank, more substantial. I could not decide between the two segments on which was my favorite. I enjoyed viewing the family’s journey down the Ohio River and the exciting battle with the river pirates. On the other hand, both Debbie Reynolds and Gregory Peck’s performances made “The Plains” very enjoyable for me.

But the worst of the three segments is the third one directed by John Ford – namely “The Civil War”. I hate to say this, but John Wayne did not make an effective William T. Sherman. The recently deceased Henry Morgan did a slightly better job as Ulysses S. Grant – frankly, by saying as little as possible. As for the segment, the screenwriters and Ford did not even bother to feature any plausible battle scenes of Shiloh. Instead, the audience was subjected to a quick montage of Civil War scenes from other MGM movies – probably 1957’s “RAINTREE COUNTRY”. The only good thing about this segment was the beginning scene, when Zeb said good-bye to his mother and younger brother . . . and the last scene, when he said good-bye and handed over his share of the family farm to his brother.

I enjoyed the work of the cinematography team led by the legendary William H. Daniels very much. I noticed that a great deal of the movie was shot on location in many of the national parks in the United States. However, the Cinerama process took away some of the grandeur with the curved lens, which made it impossible for Daniels and the others to film any effective close ups. And has anyone ever notice that whenever two of the actors seemed to facing each other, their lines of sight seemed to be slightly off? It must have been hell for the actors to face off each other in a scene, while being unnaturally positioned for the camera.

There were certain aspects of “HOW THE WEST WAS WON” that made it enjoyable for me. Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Gregory Peck, Thelma Ritter, Henry Fonda, Lee J.Cobb and Eli Wallach gave the best performances, as far as I am concerned. Spencer Tracy did a top-notch job as the film’s narrator. But I especially have to commend Reynolds, Baker and Peppard for damn near carrying this film. Without them, this movie would have folded like a sheet of paper. There were some performances that did not ring true to me. According to one scene that featured Linus Rawlings’ grave, Eve’s husband and Zeb’s father was born in 1810. I hate to say this, but James Stewart was too old – at the age of 53 or 54 – to be portraying a 29 year-old man. He gave an entertaining performance, but he was too damn old. Karl Malden, who portrayed Eve and Lilith’s father, struck me as a bit too hammy for my tastes. So were Robert Preston, who portrayed the gauche wagonmaster Roger Morgan; and Richard Widmark, who portrayed the railroad boss Mike King. Everyone else was . . . okay.

What was the best thing about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? The music. Period. It . . . was . . . superb. Every time I hear the first notes of Alfred Newman’s score at the beginning of the movie, I feel goosebumps. I love it that much. As much as I enjoyed John Addison’s score for “TOM JONES”, I find it mind boggling that it beat out Newman’s score for“HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I just cannot conceive this. Newman also provided 19th century music from the era for the movie and it was used beautifully . . . especially in “The Plains” segment. With Reynolds portraying a dance hall performer, she provided moviegoers with entertaining renditions of songs like “What Was Your Name in the East?”“Raise a Ruckus” and the movie’s theme song, “Home in the Meadows”.

What else can I say about “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”? It is an entertaining movie. I cannot deny this. It featured first rate performances by the leads Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker and George Peppard. It featured beautiful photography shot by a team of cinematographers led by William Daniels. And it featured some gorgeous music, which included a superb score written by Alfred Newman. But it is a flawed movie tainted by historical inaccuracy and a story that would have been served best in a television miniseries. I am still astounded that it managed to earn a Best Picture Academy Award.

“WESTWARD HO”: Introduction

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Below is the introduction to an article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in the United States – especially during the 1840s: 

 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Introduction 

I. History vs. Hollywood

Between 2001 and 2004, the A&E Channel used to air a series called “HISTORY vs. HOLLYWOOD”. Each episode featured experts that were interviewed about the historical accuracy of a film or television special that was based on a historical event. These experts or historians would examine a newly released film – usually a period drama – and comment on the historical accuracy featured in the story. Not surprisingly, most productions would receive a verdict of “both Hollywood fiction and historical fact”.

A rising demand for more historical accuracy seemed to have become very prevalent in recent years. I cannot explain this demand. And if I must be honest, I do not know if I would always agree. If such accuracy ever got in the way of a whopping good story, I believe it should be tossed in favor of the story. Many of William Shakespeare’s dramas have proven to be historically inaccurate. I can think of a good number of well-regarded productions that I would never consider to be completely accurate as far as history is concerned – “GONE WITH THE WIND” (1939)“GLORY” (1989)“ENIGMA” (2001) and “THE TUDORS” (2007-2010).

All of this brings me to this article’s main topic – namely the depiction of the 19th century western migration in various movies and television productions. I thought it would be interesting to examine five productions and see how they compare to historical accuracy. I will focus upon two movies and three television miniseries:

*“HOW THE WEST WAS WON” (1962)

*“THE WAY WEST” (1967)

*“CENTENNIAL: The Wagon and the Elephant” [Episode 3] (1978-79)

*“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

*“INTO THE WEST: Manifest Destiny” [Episode 2] (2005)

II. The Essentials of Western Travel

Before I start making comparisons, I might as well focus on the correct essentials needed by westbound emigrants during their trek to either Oregon, California or other destinations. The essentials are the following:

1. Farm wagon/Prairie schooner vs. Conestoga wagon – The Conestoga wagon is well-known among those who study American history during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was a heavy, broad-wheeled covered wagon used extensively during that period in the United States east of the Mississippi River and Canada to transport goods up to 8 tons. It was designed to resemble a boat in order to help it cross rivers and streams.

However, the Conestoga wagon was considered too large and bulky for the 2,000 miles journey between Western Missouri and the West Coast – especially for the teams of stock pulling the wagon. It was highly recommended for emigrants to use regular farm wagons. The farm wagon was primarily used to transport goods. However, small children, the elderly, and the sick/or injured rode in them. But since the wagons had no suspension and the roads were rough, many people preferred to walk, unless they had horses to ride. The wagon – depending on luck – was sturdy enough for the 2,000 to 3,000 westbound trek. More importantly, the wagon would not wear down the team of animals pulling it.

2. Draft animals – The westbound emigrants depended upon draft animals to haul their wagons for the long trek. Horses were out of the questions. A single rider could travel to Oregon or California astride a horse. But horses were not sturdy enough for the 2,000 miles trek and would die before reaching the end of the journey. It was recommended that emigrants use oxen or mules to pull their wagons.

Both oxen and mules were considered sturdy enough for the long trek. However, most would recommend oxen to haul a wagon, for they were cheaper and could survive slightly better on the grazing found along the trails. Mules could do the same, but at a lesser rate. But they were more expensive than oxen. They had a tendency to be temperamental. And they were more inclined to attract the attention of Native Americans.

3. Supplies and Goods – It was very essential for emigrants to haul supplies and goods during their long, westward trek. Upon leaving Independence, Missouri; there were very little opportunities to purchase food and supplies. The only locations that offered such opportunities to purchase more goods were a small number of trading and military outposts along the western trails. However, many emigrants attempted to bring along furniture, family heirlooms and other valuable possessions. They realized it was wiser to rid said possessions in order to lighten their wagon loads. And this would explain why these discarded possessions practically littered the major emigrant trails during the second half of the 19th century.

4. Western Outposts – As I had stated earlier, westbound emigrants encountered very little opportunities to re-stock on supplies during their journey west. Only a series of trading or military outposts on the western plains offered emigrants opportunities for more supplies. Emigrants encountered Fort Laramie (present day eastern Wyoming), Fort Hall (present day Idaho) and Fort Laramie after 1848 (present day Nebraska) along the Oregon/California Trails. Along the Santa Fe Trail, they would eventually encounter Fort Leavenworth (present day northeastern Kansas). Fort Bent (present day southeastern Colorado) and eventually Santa Fe in the New Mexico Territory.

5. Native American Encounters – The portrayal of emigrants’ encounters with Native Americans during the western trek could either be chalked up to Hollywood exaggeration, American racism or a mixture of both. But many movie and television productions about the western migration tend to feature large scale attacks upon wagon trains by Native American warriors. One, such attacks never happened – at least as far as I know. The various nations and tribes possessed too much sense to attack a wagon train that was likely to be well-armed. And the number of Native Americans portrayed in these cinematic attacks tend to be ridiculously large. A small band of warriors might be inclined to steal some horses or stock in the middle of the night, or attack a lone wagon traveling on the plains for the same reason. However, westbound emigrants either socialized or traded with the Native Americans they encountered. Or perhaps some trigger-happy emigrant or more might be inclined to take pot shots at a lone rider or two. But large scale attacks by Native Americans ended up being figments of a filmmaker’s imagination.

In the following article, I will focus upon the history accuracy or lack thereof featured in 1962’s “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”.

“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

 

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“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

Many people would usually consider the topic of Self Awareness when discussing New Age religions or Eastern mysticism. Characters from a TV Western miniseries seems like the last thing anyone would think of when discussing the meaning of Self. Yet, a major character led me to consider this very topic, while re-watching Steven Spielberg’s 2005 miniseries about two families – Lakota and western Virginia – called “INTO THE WEST”

“Self” has been described as the essential self or the core of an individual. A person who has learned to live one’s life with a strong sense of Self is considered as someone who has achieved or come close to a level of self-actualization – namely, achieving personal growth through accepting the true core of oneself. If there is one character in “INTO THE WEST” who seemed to personify self-actualization, it was Thunder Heart Woman (Tonazin Carmelo and later Sheila Tousey), the Lakota woman who had married into the Wheeler family. I am not saying that Thunder Heart Woman was a person with no insecurities, personal demons or anything of the sort. But of all the major characters, she seemed to be more in tune of what and more importantly, who she was.

In the miniseries’ second episode titled, “Manifest Destiny”, Thunder Heart Woman had seemed impervious to her white in-laws’ attitude toward her, during her immediate family’s short stay with her in-laws in Virginia. Even when faced with the disapproval of a German minister and fellow wagon immigrant called Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), she remained impervious to his bigotry. At least according to her husband’s narrative. But this essay is not about Thunder Heart Woman. It is about one of the men in her life – the one love in her life, who managed to catch my attention. Namely one Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle and later John Terry).

The third of four brothers from a Virginia wheelwright family, Jacob Wheeler seemed very similar to his Lakota wife – the type of person that seemed to know his own mind. The miniseries’ first episode, ”Wheel to the Stars” revealed that Jacob’s Virginia family seemed to view him as a non-conformist . . . or oddball. He, in turn, regarded his hometown of Wheelerton, Virginia; his family and its profession with mild contempt. In short, this young Virginian was a fish out of water in 1825 America and he knew it. This would explain Jacob’s longing to see the world beyond his hometown and the eastern United States. He did not hesitate to express his enthusiasm for the West. After meeting mountain man James Fletcher (Will Patton), he immediately set out to achieve his desire to leave Wheelerton.

Possessing a talent for persuasion, Jacob managed to convince two of his brothers – Nathan (Alan Tudyk) and Jethro (Skeet Ulrich) – into joining his trek to the West. Jethro turned back at the last minute and Nathan ended up accompanying him. After Jacob and Nathan parted ways in St. Louis, the former caught up with Fletcher and famed mountain man, Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin) and convinced the latter to allow him to accompany Smith’s expedition to California. I could probably list a number of examples of Jacob’s talent for persuasion, along with his exuberant and non-conformist nature. What I had failed to mention was that he possessed a strong and stubborn will to achieve what he desired. A perfect example of this was his determination to return to California after he, Smith and their fellow mountain men had been kicked out of the province by Mexican authorities. Not only did Jacob manage to achieve this goal, he did so at a great price. And yet . . . one of the interesting aspects of the Jacob Wheeler character is that despite possessing a strong will and extroverted nature, he also had certain vulnerable characteristics and insecurities. Especially insecurities. In both ”Wheel to the Stars” and ”Manifest Destiny”, Jacob’s relationships with his Wheelerton family and Thunder Heart Woman revealed just how insecure he could be.

Jacob seemed to have a rather peculiar relationship with his Virginia family. Despite regarding them with contempt for their provincial attitudes, he had also allowed their attitudes to bring out his own insecurities. His grandfather Abraham (Ken Pogue), his father Enoch (Serge Houde) and his three brothers – Nathan, Ezra (Joshua Kalef) and Jethro – either derided or teased him about his lack of interest in the family’s wheelwright business. And all of them viewed Jacob as a daydreamer with no sense of family duty or any common sense. The Wheelers have never hesitated to express their low opinion of Jacob’s desire to experience life beyond Wheelerton. I cannot help but wonder if the Wheelers’ contempt toward Jacob’s non-conformist ways had bred a sense of insecurity within him. Or if this insecurity was one of the reasons behind his desire to escape Wheelerton for the west.

It is possible that I may have stumbled across one result from Jacob’s less-than-ideal relationship with his Virginia family. I do not know if anyone else had noticed, but it seemed to me that whenever any of the other Wheelers teased, ranted or expressed contempt toward Jacob or his views on the West, he rarely bothered to defend himself. Jacob did not defend himself whenever his brothers mocked him at the dinner table.; when Jethro made the ”tail tucked between your legs”comment, following Jacob’s return to Wheelerton in ”Manifest Destiny”; and when Enoch accused him of luring both Nathan and later, Jacob to the West. Instead of defending himself, Jacob merely remained silent in an effort to ignore the hurtful comments.

However, there have also been moments when he did defend himself. Jacob made a snarky comment about his grandfather Abraham’s penchant for rambling on about his past as Revolutionary War veteran and the family’s business. And the elderly man reacted in such a vitriolic manner that I found myself wondering if Jacob had ended up with a new hole in his backside. When Nathan raged against him for helping an escaped slave named Ben Franklin (Sean Blakemore) in Tennessee, Jacob insisted they had done the right thing considering that Ben had earlier released Nathan after holding him hostage with a knife. And when Nathan lost his temper over Jacob’s refusal to follow him to Texas, the younger brother merely insisted upon continuing his intention to join Jedidiah Smith’s expedition.

One could only wonder why Jacob had rarely bothered to defend himself against his family’s scorn. Did he share Thunder Heart Woman’s talent for imperviously ignoring the scorn and prejudices of others? I rather doubt it. Whereas Thunder Heart Woman had seemed unconcerned by others, Jacob’s face tends to express his pain or embarrassment caused by his family’s attitudes. I suspect that deep down, Jacob longed for not only his family’s respect, but their acceptance of his true self. But unlike many people, he was not willing to change his nature for the Wheelers or anyone else’s acceptance.

Why did Jacob decide to return to Wheelerton with his pregnant wife and daughter after eleven years in the West? In his narration, Jacob claimed that he wanted Thunder Heart Woman and his daughter Margaret Light Shines (Elizabeth Sage, later Irene Bedard) to meet his Virginia family. Perhaps he was telling the truth. Yet, a part of me found that hard to believe. The moment Jacob began to enjoy his Lakota in-laws’ hospitality, he felt certain that his own family extend the same kind of warmth to his wife. And yet . . . he had insisted upon returning to Virginia. Why? Had Jethro hinted the truth in his ”tail tuckered between his legs” comment – that Jacob encountered nothing but failure in the West and returned back to Virginia for a livelihood? Or was it something deeper? Perhaps a last chance for Jacob to seek final acceptance from his family? Who knows.

Whatever Jacob had sought in 1836 Virginia, he did not find it. His father Enoch revealed that the family’s wheelwright business had suffered a setback, due to the economic depression that struck the United States in the mid and late 1830s. And the Wheelers seemed no more closer in accepting Jacob for himself or his Western family. His cousin, Naomi Wheeler (Keri Russell) viewed Indians as non-human. His brother Ezra regarded Thunder Heart Woman as a mere ”squaw”. Naomi’s sister, Rachel (Jessica Capshaw), viewed young Margaret’s hand as a piece of dung. And Enoch seemed to act as if his new daughter-in-law and grandchildren did not exist. No wonder Jacob ended up complaining about the Wheelers’ treatment of his Lakota family.

Eventually, Jacob decided to take his wife and children and return to the West permanently – preferably Californa. It seemed the Wheelers’ continuing disregard toward them – along with news of his idol Jedediah Smith’s death – led to this decision. He almost seemed cold and distant toward his parents and Ezra. But he did not count on Jethro and his three female cousins’ decision to accompany him to California. Apparently, not all of the Wheelers viewed him as an oddball for his preference for the West. Jacob seemed heartened by Jethro’s decision to join him. And although Naomi, Rachel and Leah’s (Emily Holmes) decision to join the trek West took him by surprise, Jacob readily accepted their company. In the following narration, he came to this conclusion:

”I hope that I would prove equal to the responsibility I had undertaken.”

I found this comment rather odd. Jethro and the three cousins had been determined to follow Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman on the trek to California, regardless of anything he would have done or said. Even Jethro had later pointed this out.

The next three years (1837-1840) must have been the best Jacob had ever experienced with any of the Virginia Wheelers. The three cousins – Naomi, Rachel and Leah – finally began to view Thunder Heart Woman as a member of the family and cherished her and Jacob’s three children (Abraham had been born in Wheelerton in 1836 and Jacob Jr. was born in Missouri sometime in late 1840). Jacob’s close relationship with Jethro seemed like a far cry from the conflicts with Nathan that marred his trip to the west back in the 1820s. One would begin to think that Jacob no longer suffered from any insecurity by this point. And yet . . . they only remained buried inside him, waiting for the right moment to manifest.

In the end, it took the wagon train journey to California (dubbed ”the Wagon Train of Doom” by me) featured in ”Manifest Destiny” for Jacob’s insecurities to get the best of him. Upon their arrival in Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840, the Wheeler family remained there during the winter before joining a California-bound wagon train led by one Stephen Hoxie (Beau Bridges) in the spring of 1841. Surprisingly, only Thunder Heart Woman seemed reluctant to leave Missouri. I suspect she had enough of being constantly on the move for the past several years. But the rest of the Wheelers, especially Jacob, seemed determined to head for California.

Once the Hoxie wagon company began their westward trek, everything seemed to be faring well. The weather seemed beautiful. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits – including the black family from Illinois named Jones that managed to join the wagon train without any opposition. Both Naomi and Rachel attracted the romantic attention of the train’s two scouts – ‘Skate’ Guthrie and James ‘Jim’ Ebbets (Ryan Robbins and Christopher Heyerdahl). This contentment finally ended when Thunder Heart Woman spotted wolves feeding off the corpse of a buffalo and when the train later crossed what I believe was the Big Blue River. The incident proved to be the first of two disagreements between the couple. Thunder Heart Woman viewed the wolves as a sign that the wagon train would come to a bad end. She insisted that the Wheeler family return to Missouri. Jacob dismissed her worries as superstition on her part. But the expression on his face clearly indicated his doubts on the wisdom of the trip.

Then the first disaster struck. One of the emigrants, a German-born minister named Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), lost control of his wagon during the crossing. Distracted by the Hobbes family’s situation, Jethro nearly lost control of his wagon. Leah fell out of the wagon and drowned in the river’s fast flowing water. Although Hobbes received an angry response for his carelessness from Captain Hoxie, the Wheeler women’s anger seemed to be directed at Jacob for leading them to this western trek. The expression of guilt seemed very palpable on Jacob’s face, as Naomi demanded that he take the family back to Missouri. Leah’s death proved to be just the beginning.

The further west the wagon train traveled, more disasters followed. The emigrants were forced to deal with a severe thunderstorm and a cattle stampede that left the only son of a black emigrant named Absalom Jones (Neville Edwards) dead. Not long after the storm and the stampede, both Naomi and Rachel married two of the wagon train’s scouts, Skate and Jim. But that brief period of happiness failed to last when the wagon train attempted to travel through a pass. While traversing a pass, a wagon broke free, knocked Rachel down and ran over her leg, causing a severe compound fracture. The leg eventually became infected. Hobbes, the closest thing to a doctor available, tried to amputate Rachel’s leg; but his efforts turned out to be clumsy and Rachel died before he could finish. Although no family member angrily demanded that return to Missouri, the expression on Jacob’s face obviously conveyed his feelings of guilt.

The final blow to Jacob’s disastrous return to the west occurred when Mrs. Jones died from cholera. Since the Wheelers’ wagons had been traveling with the Jones’ wagon at the back of the train, they had been exposed to the disease. Hoxie and the scouts forced the Wheelers and the remaining members of the Jones family (Mr. Jones and Sally Jones) to remain behind under quarantine while the main body of the wagon train carries on. Only Naomi was able to continue with the train, since she had been with her new husband. Jethro became afflicted with symptoms of cholera but recovered. Both Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman drifted into a serious quarrel, when he suggested that she take their children and attempt to find her Lakota family. Needless to say, Thunder Heart Woman took the suggestion badly and reminded Jacob that he should have listened to her warnings about the journey.

No new outbreaks occurred after Jacob ordered that all drinking water be boiled. The Wheelers and the Jones rushed to catch up with the wagon train, but discovered that it had been attacked by Cheyenne warriors. All of the emigrants had been wiped out, aside from Naomi, who first became a captive and later, a wife of a Cheyenne chief Prairie Fire (Jay Tavare). The Wheelers and the Jones families were also attacked by Cheyenne warriors. They managed to repulse the attack, but Jacob ended up seriously wounded by an arrow in his chest. The surviving emigrants tried to move on with a wounded Jacob, but the juts and bumps of the trail made it impossible for him to endure the pain. Instead, he insisted that Thunder Heart Woman, Jethro, Mr. Jones and the children continue west to California without him, since he would only prevent them from crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains before winter. They left him behind with great reluctance.

The period that Jacob spent east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains allowed him to wallow in loneliness and grief over the separation from his family. But he remained determined to find them. And it took him another four to five years before he finally did. Becoming a member of John Charles Frémont’s California Volunteer Militia during the Mexican-American War allowed Jacob to scour the region for signs or news of his remaining family. Five years passed before he finally came upon the ranch that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had settled. Jacob also discovered that in the intervening years, his brother and wife had considered him dead, began a relationship and had a child – a little girl named Cornflower. Devastated by this turn of events, Jacob decided not to reveal himself to his family. At least not openly. Instead, he left the wooden medicine wheel necklace that Thunder Heart Woman had given him when they first met to his youngest child, Jacob High Cloud. Another five years passed before Jacob finally reconciled with his family, due to the efforts of his daughter, Margaret Light Shines.

Ever since I first saw ”INTO THE WEST” and especially the above mentioned scene from ”Manifest Destiny”, I have found myself wondering about Jacob’s actions. I understood why he decided not to intrude upon the family that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had formed upon their arrival in California. But why did he leave the medicine wheel necklace to young Jacob? Surely, he knew that his family would be aware that he was alive . . . and knew about their situation? Looking back on his action, it struck me as a very passive-aggressive on his part. He lacked the courage to face Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman. And yet, he seemed determined to thwart the happiness they had created . . . as if he was punishing them for continuing their lives without him. Or perhaps Jacob felt a great deal of envy toward Jethro because the latter turned out to be the one who successfully led the family to California, and not him.

Perhaps Jacob had always a passively-aggressive personality from the beginning. His relationship with his Virginia family struck me as being marked by a great deal of passive-aggressive behavior from the start. Jacob seemed determined to be his own man, whether in his enthusiasm for the West, his decision to leave Wheeler or join Jedediah Smith’s expedition over following his brother Nathan to Texas. And yet . . . he never defended himself in the face of their criticism. Instead, he resorted to resentful silence. Why did he constantly fail to defend himself? Was he merely trying to keep the peace? Or did some small part of him fear that his family may have been right about him? It seemed strange than many fans and critics of “INTO THE WEST” seemed to adore Jacob for his seemingly self-assurance and outgoing personality. At the same time, they derided Jethro for being an insecure loser in their eyes. I got the feeling that they were so busy either scorning Jethro or adulating Jacob that they failed to detect the latter’s personal insecurities and darker traits. And Jacob certainly had them by the bucketful.

Did Jacob ever overcome his insecurities? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I wonder if many are aware of this, but it usually takes an individual to overcome his or her faults during an entire lifetime. A good number of people never succeed in overcoming all of their faults. And since “INTO THE WEST” focused more on his and Thunder Heart Woman’s children in the last three episodes, audiences never discovered if he had overcome all of his faults and insecurities. Jacob certainly seemed more at peace in his old age than he did during his first forty years. Perhaps those years of solitude near the Sierra Mountains foothills helped him finally achieve some inner peace.