Today’s day thought experiment: The Oregon Trail


A friend sent this:

I never played Oregon Trail, but I watched enough Westerns and studied enough history that I get the gist.

Today’s day thought experiment:

The wagon train is headed west. After crossing the Mississippi, things seem to go well through the plains – but then as things start to rise toward the Rockies, the going gets tougher. There are some Native attacks, the path gets more difficult. The wagon train is still largely together, but it’s showing signs of imminent trouble.

The leadership calls a brief halt to discuss what’s going wrong and how best to address the situation. Among the concerns are the wagons themselves. There have been several broken wheels, which take time to repair, and riding in them on the rougher terrain is not quite the same as when the road was clear and flat. Someone speaks up and notes that most of the plains natives use travois, without wheels. Someone else speaks up and says, “Hey, I remember, back in New England we often used sleighs to travel around. I think I have a painting here somewhere to prove it.” The leadership votes and decides that, from this point on, the wagon train is only going to use non-wheeled means of transportation.

One guy, let’s call him Marcel the Craftsman, thinks this is silly. He decides that he’s going to keep the wheels on his wagon. The leadership and many of the other folks expel him from the wagon train, so he and a few followers go off on their own, but keep heading in the same direction, smaller, but determined.

The wagon train takes off all the wheels and starts slogging west. The tough going gets even tougher – but the leadership focuses on the good things: they haven’t had to stop in days to repair a broken wheel! It’s amazing! It’s like a new springtime has broken out!

Some people complain about the lost wheels, and the convoy gets noticeably smaller – some folks head off on their own, some folks just decide to stay where they’re at, figuring that even without moving in that direction, they’ll all eventually get to Oregon anyway. Some folks begin doubting whether there really is an Oregon, or whether it’s just some myth concocted to keep them in line. All the experts agree, though, that getting rid of the wheels was the best thing that ever happened to the wagon train, and no one is allowed to talk about how much more smoothly the journey was back when there were wheels.

But eventually, after some complaints, the leadership allows some limited use of wheels. Only on Sundays in the late afternoon. Only to appease those silly folks that just can’t get over their nostalgia for back when there were wheels. The painting of the sled in New England is copied so that everyone can see that this is how the early wagon train used to travel, and so it’s obviously better than those nasty wheels.

The road gets worse and worse. More uphill – it’s like there a whole world ranged against our little wagon train. Even without wheels, there are starting to be major problems with the wagons. They’re wearing out, looking really dated and worse for the wear. Not too many young people ride in them anymore. Some walk alongside. Most wander off, aimless, wondering whether maybe this is Oregon here and now? Many of them are picked off by bears.

At last, one of the leaders says, “Okay. I’m going to allow those who want to put wheels back on their wagons to do so, at their own discretion, but we’re going to have to all stay in the same wagon train, helping each other. Maybe there can even be some mutual enrichment. The wheels might work better in some places, and the travois better in others. We’re not at cross purposes here. We’re all trying to get to Oregon, after all.”

For awhile, thing seem to go pretty well. The wheeled carts make some significant progress, although a few of them get a little vociferous about how much better the wheeled wagons are than the travois. A new leader hears the complaints from the folks who insist on sticking with the non-wheeled wagons. He decides enough is enough! He orders most of the wheeled wagons to either take their wheels off again, or at least move over to another path, so as not to offend the travois people. He reminds them that, back when the leadership addressed the problems, in the distant foothills of the Rockies, they agreed to take the wheels off. “Travois are the only expression of the lex procedendi of this wagon train!” he exclaims.

And now the wagon train is deep in the Rockies. The road is tough. There are bears and wolves lurking, seeing weakness. There are hostile tribes ready to attack. The weather has taken a turn for the worse. It would be tough for the wagon train to navigate in the best of condition, but rather than face these problems with a united front, the members of the wagon train are engaged in backbiting and mutual criticism. Many begin to even wonder if the leadership knows where Oregon is?


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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in HONORED GUESTS, SUMMORUM PONTIFICUM, The Drill, Traditionis custodes, Vatican II and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Pingback: Today’s day thought experiment: The Oregon Trail – Via Nova Media

  2. Philmont237 says:

    Then this would randomly happen while playing the game:

  3. Fr. Kelly says:

    Thank you Fr. Z!

    If I could give you a Gold star for that one, I would.

    “Marcel the Craftsman” … ;-)

  4. Danteewoo says:

    Maybe the wagon master is working for the Indians.

  5. michele421 says:

    One obvious answer would be that both sides should be allowed to attend the Mass that they wish. But I’m afraid that a lot of trads have lost that chance by trying, through knock-on effects and other means, to make the Church itself more traditionalist. Please forgive me, but under the very progressive pope we have now that was never going to happen. That would mean admitting that Cardinals were wrong in the propositions and implementation of Vatican II. And as both sides well know, bishops are deathly allergic to admitting that either they or even their predecessors are capable of such large mistakes. It may yet happen, but it will have to wait until the younger, more traditionalist priests are of an age to become bishops, perhaps thirty or forty years. Trads overplayed their hand and lost.

  6. hilltop says:

    Saint Mary’s Kansas is hard on the Oregon Trail. Populous, thriving, traditional adherents to the thought, action and worship of Marcel the Craftsman….They are a fully-wheeled “society”!

  7. TonyO says:

    Ooooh, great allegory. It has room for so many additional details to be added! Don’t forget those who argue that it’s irrelevant whether the leaders know where Oregon is: the journey IS the purpose. “Oregon” only ever meant “a journey of dialogue.” (Almost typed diablogue. Can we make that a word?) And then there’s the Oregon Trail catholic Reporter, aka “fishwrap”, which is pretty useless 1000 miles from any fish.

  8. Gabriel Syme says:

    What an excellent analogy! I thoroughly enjoyed reading that Father!

    Don’t forget the bits when the leadership seems to flirt with abandoning Oregon altogether, seemingly more interested in the strange practices of the natives instead.

    And, of course, the great pretence that the wagon train has lots in common with other groups of settlers who – although they sometimes talk about Oregon – never do much concretely in the way of getting there. And who often seem to find reasons or excuses to move in the other direction. Lots of time and energy is wasted in meeting with / talking to such people, for no obvious purpose.

  9. This analogy is genius, just utterly genius!! I especially love the detail of the old English painting and natives to prove the use of sleds. That’s exactly what happened in the creation of the new Mass… they justified the “communal meal” approach with “the early Church”; “how it was originally done by the first Christians”. Referencing the natives and English toboggans portrays that with perfection!

  10. The Mad Sicilian Geek says:

    When leadership fails, it is often the case that those with no leadership experience attempt to fill the void – often resulting in no better results.

    … and we haven’t even begun to talk about “food” yet…

    The jokes almost write themselves.

  11. Chad the Great says:

    “Trads overplayed their hand and lost.”
    We lost nothing, actually. It’s the Novus Ordo People who have lost, and keep losing. Literally losing parish after parish.

    Pope Francis won’t live forever, nor will the other “elders,” whose responsibility it is to hand down tradition, and no one expects anything good from them. They are the most rotten and narcissistic generation since the days of Noah.

    For the near future, it’s just going to be more of the same.
    No one over 60, is going to solve any problem. We just have to wait, like you said, but we’ve always known this. The Novus Ordo and modernism are so nefarious, that they will simply have to die a natural death. There are too many self-worshippers in all areas, for Restoration to happen anytime soon.

    The first and main thing we have to do is survive. The second is have children. The third is not give into despair. That generation’s worship of self won’t be able to survive the difficulties that come. I sometimes hope that they will live long enough to suffer in the mess they made of the world, but it will do no good. Their millenial children are psychologically damaged failures, also. Really, it’s our children, the most based, who will restore this civilization, and end the chaos.

    The future in the long-term actually looks great. We just have to weather the storm.
    We have to keep our brothers and sisters from leaving the Church, which is a hundred times more likely than them going to the fake Novus Ordo.

  12. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    The Mad Sicilian Geek observes “we haven’t even begun to talk about ‘food’ yet…”

    It sounds like we’re headed for a Donner Party…

    And then there’s Francis Parkman’s observations in The Oregon Trail (1847-49), such as “A dog-feast is the greatest compliment a Dakota can offer to his guest; and knowing that to refuse eating would be an affront, we attacked the little dog and devoured him before the eyes of his unconscious parent” (chapter 9). How soon will culinary inculturation be mandatory, and exclusively so?

  13. KateD says:

    It has been an exceedingly mild winter thus far. Miraculously so, really.
    Nonetheless, anyone who took the wheels off their cart is going to freeze to death…and there will probably be some cannabalism involved. Unfortunately, they are not likely to make it to Oregon.

    It is what it is, sadly.

    It is an arduous road for the folks that pushed ahead with the wheels on their carts. It would have been better if they still had the number they started with. There would be more resources to share, more muscle to push the wagons over the rough spots, or pull them out of the mud when they get stuck. More people to fight off the enemy they encounter along the way.

    They wonder what happened to the rest of the train. There were a lot of good people, dear friends and family, that decided to take the wheels off their wagons (can you blame them? The pressure was intense!)…and so they pray that they make it through alright. And hope to see them in Oregon. In the mean time, their focus is on ensuring the safe arrival of their children, their little family, to the intended destination.

    If the wagons with wheels made it to Oregon and those without froze to death en route, despite the mildness of the winter, that wagon master who ordered the wheels off the wagons is going to go down in history for that decision. But the wagon master who took over after him, who made the decsion go carry on in that error, he will go down in infamy as the one responsible for all those lost during his tenure. History will not be kind to his memory.

    I think it was wise to leave the wheels on…and I dont believe its an act of humility to deny that fact, nor is it hubric to acknowledge it.

  14. KateD says:

    I wasnt even born when the decision to take the wheels off the wagons happened, and my husband was just a baby, but when we saw a train come through our desolate windswept High Plains town with wheels heading for Oregon, we sat and talked with them while they watered their horses. They explained why the wheel was better and informed us of the history, our history, that we had never heard before. We saw how they did it and made a quick decision to slap some wheels on our wagon. We begged our parents to come with us, exhausting every argument in an attempt to persuade them. But, they explained, they remebered the old waggons with the wheels. Thats all they ever knew growing up. My dad was even an apprentice wheel wright! That was news! He reminisced about having been tipped $50 for apprenticing wheels for a funneral waggon. And they remebered when the wheels were taken off the first wagon on their train. It was weird, and obviously didnt work right.
    And there was so much upheaval over the change that they swore off ever having anything to do with wagons again. Wagons caused problems. All the worlds problems could be boiled down to a wagon issue. We made a hasty tearful good bye to our loved ones, loaded our little ones into our wagon and got in on their train.

    Praise be to God for those good people who went before us and had the courage to recognise that the wagon master was wrong…and God bless the people in our train for kindly welcoming us and allowing us to join their party.

    Though we had heard stories about the wheels of the old days, we werent raised with them. I cant tell you how pleased we are to have use of them today! For the life of me, I cant understand why the wheels were ever taken off in the first place. Oh well. Its in the past now.
    ….And we are headed west.

  15. Semper Gumby says:

    “What in tarnation is going on with this here wagon train?! Dagnabbit, we need a Frenchman!”

    Indeed they do.

    The Frenchman being Lamy of Santa Fe. He tamed the Santa Fe Trail, he can read a map and he can get that wagon train to Oregon.

    Born in France in 1814, Jean-Baptiste Lamy was ordained in 1838 and soon after sailed for the New World as a missionary to Ohio. Eventually Pope Pius IX consecrated Fr. Lamy a bishop and dispatched him to Santa Fe. Paul Horgan wrote his biography “Lamy of Santa Fe” (and an impressive Western novel “A Distant Trumpet”).

    VSL mentioned above Francis Parkman’s worthwhile 19th century travelogue “The Oregon Trail” (though Parkman never made it through to Oregon). Parkman’s experiences likely aided him as he later wrote his seven-volume “France and England in North America.” I’ve read two of the volumes and it’s a wild ride. Parkman praises and criticizes literally everyone: Catholics, Protestants, Indians, Old World nobility, soldiers and sailors. Turn a Parkman page and you never know what you’re going to get: one day somebody’s burning a fort or a village or a log cabin, the next month those same folks are building a chapel. One day someone is going loco in the howling wilderness like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, the next month they’re ordering from the Old World a trunk full of books and fine linens.

    All this mayhem probably explains why the inventor of the pre-modern bulletproof vest (layers of material such as silk, apparently someone in Japan also had the same idea) was Fr. Casimir Zeglen of Chicago (in the 1890s after the mayor was assassinated):

    During the 1960s DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar, but it was a former Marine, Richard Davis of Detroit, who invented the Kevlar vest after getting into a gunfight with three hooligans as he tried to deliver a pizza.

    Back to cowboys and priests. Here is a cowboy-priest of today, Fr. Bryce Lungren of Wyoming:

    See also Wyoming Catholic Cowboys blog.

    Here’s an interesting tale of another French priest in the Wild West, Fr. Peter Levy:

    “Boys, you have the drop on me now. I’ll do as you say. But remember this, I’ll be back and I’ll make you line up together and recite the Lord’s Prayer.”

    In the Great Saloon in the Sky I’d like to sit around a table with Fr. Levy, Bishop Lamy, Fr. Capodanno and Chesty Puller and talk trash (adhering to Thomism, of course) about renegades, varmints and desperados over a few bottles of whiskey (ok, wine).

  16. Semper Gumby says:

    Five Medals of Honor were awarded to American military chaplains during WW II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. All five chaplains were Catholic priests.

    The only American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal and the National Security Medal is Catholic William Donovan, a WW I Army officer and father of the CIA.

    Donovan’s chaplain in WW I was his friend Ontario-born Fr. Francis Duffy. Fr. Duffy, though not awarded the Medal of Honor, is the most decorated U.S. military chaplain: the Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Legion d’Honneur, and Croix de Guerre.

    As Catholics and Americans this is our heritage, these men and other men and women are our inspiration. These days there are problems in the U.S. military and intelligence community, and there are problems in the Vatican and in many seminaries. Given human nature there always will be. Yet we persist. Pagans and socialists did not found the Catholic Church or the United States. God put us here at this place and at this time to do something- faithfully, intelligently, methodically, at times forcefully but without panic, stupidity or revenge- about the present situation. Our actions need not be dramatic or highly publicized or involve shrapnel- though there are times that call for all those, along with spirited debate and stern rebuke. Our actions, while acknowledging individual abilities and our missteps which require time to recover from, should be for the glory of God and the benefit of our fellow citizens.

    In 2019 Fr. Z wrote from Rome:

    “In the Via della Conciliazione I ran into two gals who are distributing for free special copies of the superb book about the Traditional Latin Mass, Treasure and Tradition. St. Augustine Academy Press made translations into Spanish and Portuguese and a special flexible cover for the Canonization of Newman. They had 7000 printed here and they’ve been giving them out: 3500 on canonization day alone. They want to get them into the hands of seminarians in Rome.”

    Rome and the world were not burnt in a day, they will not be rebuilt in a day. Brick by brick.

    The exemplar of Christian leadership is Jesus Christ: Greater love than this hath no man, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do the things that I command you.

    Bishop Fulton Sheen: Patriotism is a Virtue.

    President Teddy Roosevelt: Get Action.

  17. Semper Gumby says:

    Fr. Duffy and Maj. Donovan (and poet Joyce Kilmer) were in a regiment of the New York National Guard known as the “Fighting 69th,” which was part of the Civil War Irish Brigade.

    I’m told their Manhattan armory is unique in the U.S military: part of the armory is still in use as a battalion headquarters, and part of the armory is an Irish pub.

    There’s a statue of Fr. Duffy in Times Square, engraved on the back is “A Life of Service for God and Country.”

  18. KateD says:

    Semper Gumby,

    I had a horse who was being difficult and wouldn’t trailer, so I turned to the internet for ideas and found inspiration at about 4:25 on this video:

    He makes it look easy.

  19. acardnal says:

    Semper Gumby, Thanks for that comment. Good stuff!

  20. Semper Gumby says:

    KateD and acardnal: Here’s the story of Servant of God Sr. Blandina, born in Italy 1850, her family emigrated to Ohio, died 1941:

    “Her work included starting hospitals in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Her work in these territories is well documented in the publication of letters to her sister, also a Sister of Charity, called “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail”.”

    “Her compassion converted hundreds and Sr. Blandina even had numerous encounters with the famous “Billy the Kid” and his band of outlaws.”

    “In 1966 this story of bravery was told in a CBS series Death Valley Days episode “The Fastest Nun in the West” where she faced down the barrels of guns to find justice.”

    Catholics travelled the Oregon Trail which eventually led to this:

    From the Oregon state archives, “Resolution to Expel Catholic Missionaries 1849”

    “Roman Catholic missionaries were more successful with Indians in Oregon than Protestant missionaries were. Some Americans suspected that priests were trying to incite the Indians to attack them. The Whitman massacre in 1847 increased this suspicion of Catholic missionaries.”

    Well, one reason Catholic missionaries were more successful was that they were already present in Canada, in other words, some Catholics reached Oregon via a shortcut.

    Fr. Modeste Demers, out and about doing the Lord’s work:

    “In July 1838, Fr. Demers departed his Red River (Manitoba) post with the newly appointed Vicar General Francois Norbert Blanchet on the annual Hudson’s Bay Company brigade, arriving the following November at Fort Vancouver. Together, Blanchet and Demers established the first Catholic missions in the Pacific Northwest.”

    “Fr. Demers’ skill as a linguist allowed him to quickly master Chinook Jargon, a trade language understood by most of the region’s Native tribes, and several other Native languages. Within six weeks after arriving in Oregon, Fr. Demers could lead religious services in Jargon, and within the first year he produced a dictionary and missionary handbook, consisting of prayers, hymns, and a catechism. All of the region’s Catholic missionaries used these essential tools to communicate with the Indigenous population.”

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