The Oregon Trail (1959)





Director:    Gene Fowler, Jr.

Starring:    Fred MacMurray (Neal Harris), William Bishop (Capt. George Wayne), Nina Shipman (Prudence Cooper), Gloria Talbott (Shona Hastings), Henry Hull (George Seton), John Carradine (Zachariah Garrison), John Dierkes (Gabe Hastings), Roxene Wells (Flossie Shoemaker), Elizabeth Patterson (Maria Cooper), Gene N. Fowler (Richard Cooper), James Bell (Jeremiah Cooper), John Slosser (Johnny), Ralph Sanford (John Decker), Sherry Spalding (Lucy), Tex Terry (Brizzard).

eexperiences of a wagon train on the Oregon Trail


Spoiler Warning:    below is a full summary of the film.


The West, 1846. Indians killed the owners of several wagons and burned the wagons.

New York, 1846. A secretary tells Mr. Harris: "James Gordon Bennett founded the New York Herald on May 6, 1835. He was inspired to try his fortunes in the new world by the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin." Mr. Harris says obviously the secretary is new here. He needs to see Bennett immediately because Bennett sent him a message that he was to come over immediately to see him. He then tells the secretary that he has just returned from a three week stint in Washington, D.C. for Bennett.

The secretary gives in and knocks on Bennett's door. When Bennett realizes that it's Harris, he calls him into his office. He asks Harris if he got to see President Polk? Harris says Polk refused to see him. Bennett says Polk doesn't seem willing to discuss the question of the Oregon Territory yet.

The owner now gives Harris a copy of the book The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman. Bennett wants Harris to read the book, which has inspired thousands of people to pick up stakes and head out on the Oregon Trail where many of them have been killed.

Bennett now tells Harris that Polk has been sending army soldiers disguised as settlers into Oregon. The editor says he wants Harris to go out to Oregon on the trail and verify this information.

Washington, D.C., 1846. President Polk is dictating a letter to his secretary. Arrangements have been made for Captain Wayne to go on a civilian wagon train led by army scout George Seton, who will be leaving from West Port. Upon arriving at Fort Laramie, he will report to Major Dexter for further orders. The overall mission of this secret expedition is to prepare for the eventuality of war and to protect the 6,000 settlers already in Oregon. The secretary himself will deliver this message to Wayne who is in the army hospital in Washington, DC recovering from a wound.

The regular route of the Oregon Trail starts in Independence, Missouri and heads to Court House Rock, NE; Chimney Rock, NE; Fort Laramie, WY; Independence Rock, WY; Fort Bridger, WY; Soda Springs, ID; Fort Hall, ID; Fort Boise, ID; the Whitman Mission, WA; the Dalles, OR; and ends at Oregon City, nw OR.

The British Ambassador, Sir Richard Wallingham, comes to speak with Polk. Polk tells him that he can see the day when the American flag has as many as 32 stars. The country is headed all the way out to the Pacific coast. He adds he doesn't think that Her Majesty would fight for territory that is largely inhabited by "red skin barbarians" as Sir Richard just said. Harris is now in Independence, Missouri. He sees a wagon being irresponsibly driven down the main street of town. The wagon clips another wagon parked by the stores in town. The reckless driver comes with a whip in his hand to ball out the owner of the wagon that the driver just clipped. He blames the other man saying he parked his wagon too far into the street. And now he is going to whip the man.

Harris intervenes to stop the man and the man now turns on Harris. The lousy driver chases after Harris who manages to escape the whip, except for a small cut on the left side of his face. Harris has to grab a chair to protect himself. He finally throws the chair at the whip man Brizzard and then knocks him down with his fist and then knocks him down again. Now Harris jumps on top of the man to keep hitting him, so he doesn't get up again.

George Wayne, the wagon train leader, comes riding down main street and tells Brizzard to stop fighting. Harris says that Wayne seems to be in charge of this crazy man, so he should pay the damages to the wagon of the man standing over there. Wayne tells the wagon order that his men will fix the wheel for him and he's sorry for their inconvenience. He leaves.

The pretty daughter of the wagon owner, Prudence Cooper, thanks Harris for saving her father from a nasty whipping by that Brizzard fellow.

Harris goes over to a store. There he meets townsman Zachariah Garrison, as well as the owner of the store, Mr. Bowers. Garrison tries to steal some things from the store and gets caught, but Harris pays for the goods. Now Garrison says he will drive Harris out to meet with George Seton. Harris buys some supplies and then goes with Garrison.

Garrison introduces Harris to Seton, who tells Harris that he will sleep under one of the wagons. He will try to get Harris a horse in the morning. He also says that Harris may have to work his way out to Oregon.

Prudence Cooper invites Harris to dinner with her and her family. Already there is George Wayne.

The next morning the wagon train moves out from Westport (now a section of Kansas City, Missour). Seton sees a smoke signal ahead of them. He says those are the Arapahoe.

The wagon train stops when they come upon the ruins of burned wagons and human skeletons. Amid the ruins is a partly burned copy of the book The Oregon Trail.

At night six Arapahoe come to look over the wagon train. Seton goes out to speak to them in sign language. A couple of the settlers tried to take a shot at the Arapahoe, but Seton stopped them.

Wayne and Prudence seem to have a close relationship. That's bad news for Harris. Grandmother Cooper, says Prudence, is going to die soon.

President Polk and Sir Richard discuss a British proposal about the Oregon Territory. Polk says the proposal is completely unacceptable. He goes on to say that the Americans want the border established at latitude 54 degrees and 40 minutes. So, it's 54-40 or fight!

The wagon train comes to a stream, but find it all dried up. The next stream is five or six days ahead of them. Seton says they will gather all the water together and ration it from his wagon which is the front wagon.

Wayne tells Prudence there is a doctor at Fort Laramie, but that's about two weeks from where they are now.

Brizzard sees Garrison watering his apple trees that he will plant in Oregon Territory. He picks up his whip and goes toward Garrison. With the whip Brizzard starts snapping the apple trees stems in half. Garrison tells Brizzard that the water came from his own water rations, but Brizzard is not the type to listen to others. So, once again, it's up to Harris to knock Brizzard down again. The fight takes longer this time.

It starts raining, making the people rush to take the lids off their water barrels and find other containers to catch the rain. Garrison stops the fight when he strikes Brizzard on his fanny with a strong stick. Harris says they will have to finish this fight later because right now he has an appointment with a good drink of water. Brizzard says he's going to kill that Harris.

Grandmother Cooper dies. A funeral in the rain is held for grandmother. Garrison has planted an apple tree near it.

The wagon train is about to reach Fort Laramie. One of the undercover soldiers shows the kids how to load a gun and how to shoot it. In the audience is Harris. Wayne comes over and tells the soldier, named Ellis, he knows he isn't supposed to be doing that. Ellis says "yes, sir" and leaves. Harris tells Wayne that there was a B imprinted on the revolver. He's sure that means its government property. Wayne tells Ellis that out here in the West too many question can get a person killed.

The group comes upon an Indian sign. It's a warning from the Arapahoe. Harris asks what do they want? Seton says: "They want me." As soon as Seton says this, he is hit in the mid-section with an arrow. Seton's friend Jesse goes out to find the killer of Seton. He finds him and shoots him in the back. Jesse returns just before Seton dies.

Now Captain Wayne takes control of the wagon. He says he's putting Harris in the back of the train. And he will have Brizzard there to make certain Harris stays there. Harris, of course, resents this and he tells Wayne tht he knows he is Captain Wayne of the US Army. He will write a dispatch to his editor to tell him that. Wayne says he will just take the dispatch from Harris. Harris says he can always write another dispatch.

Wayne finds Brizzard asleep under his wagon. He kicks his boots and Brizzard gets up. Wayne tells him that Harris took Brizzard's knife, pistol and horse and left the encampment. So Brizzard is going to have to go after him tonight. Waynes tells Brizzard that if he has to, go ahead and shoot Harris. Brizzard loves those words.

Fort Laramie. The cavalry pours out of Fort Laramie. A white man brings the daughter of his wife into Fort Laramie. He tells her she better not run away or he will beat her worse than he beat her squaw mother.

Harris rides into Fort Laramie. He starts up a conversation with the Indian woman, named Shona. She doesn't say anything to him until she says in good English: "Thank you, Mr. Harris." She goes into the general store, followed by Harris. The store keeper holds a gun on the wife beater, telling him to take his furs and get out of here. The wife beater says he's going to beat the shop keeper unless he gives him $100 dollars for his furs.

Harris says he has a better solution. He will give the wife beater $100 dollars for the firs and another $100 dollars if he will get his dispatch sent to his publisher in New York. Moreover, the shop keeper can keep the furs. So everyone seems happy.

The wagon train reaches Fort Laramie. Harris asks if there is another way out of the fort? The wife beater says he will hide him with the Indians if Harris will give him another $100 dollars. Harris accepts the deal.

Wayne comes into the general store and asks if there is a letter for him. There is. The letter says: "A state of war exists between the U.S. and the government of Mexico. You are to proceed to Buena Vista and place yourself and your men under the command of General Zachary Taylor."

The Coopers come into the store and Wayne tells Prudence he wants to speak with her outside. Wayne tells her that he has to head out south headed for Mexico. The United States is at war with Mexico. She says she will wait for him.

Once Harris is in the Indian village the Indians jump him and the wife beater takes all his money. Already tied to the ground is Brizzard. Now Harris is tied to the ground. Wife Beater justifies this by saying the white man has been killing off the buffalo, causing starvation among the Indians.

It sounds like the Indians are going on the warpath. And it seems that Shona is going to release Harris. She kills the Indian on guard duty. She then cuts the ropes holding Harris down. They rush to tell Captain Wayne that the Indians are headed for the fort.

Now Brizzard comes driving a wagon into the fort. In the wagon is Wife Beater and some Indians. Once the wagon is inside the fort, the Indians attack from the outside. When Brizzard stops the wagon he jumps out and says it's a trap. The Indians jump out and the civilians and soldiers fire at them. The door is still open and the Indians pour into the fort.

Now a second wave of attack comes. Garrison is shot. Wife beater receives a knife to his mid-section. The whites explode a wagon full of gun powder, which scares some of the Indians away. They start a general retreat.

Shona looks around at all the dead bodies. She tells Harris that it's because of this that she renounces her people. Harris puts his arm around her and they start walking away together. Prudent kisses Capt. Wayne.

Now Capt. Wayne leads his detachment south towards Mexico. Harris takes Shona and the Garrison wagon and heads back to West Port. Those civilians still alive get back on the Oregon Trail headed for Oregon City.


The film is okay.  Nothing all that special about it.  You see some of the problems faced by the pioneers on the Oregon Trail, but certainly the number is no where near the actual number.  It was funny seeing the painted background instead of actual footage of a prairie while the wagons were on the trail.  Fred MacMurray (as Neal Harris) does a good job. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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