The story of pioneers setting out on the Oregon Trail to make their fortunes in the West is commonly conceived as the epitome of American individualism. Buck challenges this popular view, arguing that voyages along the trail were in fact a community enterprise. Dangerous river crossings, mountain passes, and sandy bluffs like California Hill (in Nebraska) required the cooperation of groups of settlers, sometimes including dozens of wagons.

At its peak of popularity (around 1850), the trial became so crowded that cholera outbreaks were common, killing as many as 2,500 migrants per year. These diseases also impacted Native American tribes, who had not previously encountered them and therefore had no natural immunity.

The wagon itself was perhaps the most important technological innovation that made this migration possible. Several well-known corporations such as John Deere and Sears-Roebuck got their start manufacturing wagons. The modular design of the “Prarie Schooner” meant that broken parts could be swapped out quickly. In the trails latter days, it became so common to order replacement parts via telegraph that a shorthand arose, compounding the original compression of Morse code.