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)
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.
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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