Today, I’m welcoming author Theresa Hupp to the blog. Theresa and I have connected on many occasions and share a love of historical fiction, of course! Theresa has written two novels set in the American West in the late 1840s, Lead Me Home, and its sequel, the newly published Now I’m Found and I asked her to talk about her research into Oregon and California history for her novels.
Setting the setting: Researching Place and Time in the American West by Theresa Hupp
Wagon train migrations headed west on the Oregon Trail every year from the late 1830s until 1869 when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. Some emigrants still made the journey by wagon even after the railroad was in place.
Readers have asked me why I set my first historical novel, Lead Me Home, in 1847. Part of the answer dates back to my childhood, and another part dates back many generations to my ancestors and to famous missionaries in the Oregon Territory.
I grew up in Eastern Washington State, about an hour away from the Whitman Mission site founded by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1836. My family took several day trips to the Mission, and the first diorama I ever saw (around age 8) was at the Mission and told the story of the Whitman Massacre by the Cayuse. That’s when I first became intrigued by the Oregon Trail and the people who emigrated to the West. What propelled men and women to leave their homes and trek two-thousand miles to an unsettled wilderness?
By the time I was a young adult, I knew I would someday write a novel about a couple traveling the Oregon Trail. In my daydreams over the years, I developed the characters of Mac McDougall and Jenny Calhoun, the protagonists in both Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found.
Also in my young adulthood, I learned I had a great-great-great-grandfather who brought his family to Oregon by covered wagon in 1848. The family settled in Polk County, Oregon, and remained there through my maternal grandfather’s generation. Because of my family history, I first considered having Mac and Jenny travel to Oregon in 1848.
But I really wanted Mac and Jenny and their wagon company to meet the Whitmans. So when I realized the Whitman Massacre happened in November 1847, I knew I had to set Lead Me Home in 1847. My fictional characters pass through the Mission in September 1847, and a crucial turning point for Mac and Jenny takes place at the Mission.
One of the resources I used in my research for Lead Me Home was a book titled, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon, by Clifford M. Drury (available on the National Park Service Whitman Mission website). From Drury’s book, I learned Marcus Whitman was not present at the Mission in September 1847. Therefore, Mac and Jenny only met Narcissa.
Another Oregon Trail resource I used was the maps Charles Preuss created after the John Frémont expeditions in 1842-1844. I compared those maps to Google Maps to locate the present-day locations and topography of campsites for my fictional wagon company. Of course, where rivers have been dammed and cities now cover stopping points, my research required more imagination. For example, Celilo Falls, where Native American tribes fished on the Columbia River, was dammed in 1954, a few years before I was born. But I remember my father describing weirs and scaffolds the Native Americans built to spear fish from the churning cascades. Their way of life was something I wanted to include in Lead Me Home.
Those are examples of how I conducted my research into the West. Diaries, letters, weather reports, and early newspapers also provided primary source information to improve the veracity of my story.
I may have had a reason for setting Lead Me Home in 1847, but that decision perfectly prepared the way for the sequel, Now I’m Found, which takes place in 1848-1850. Mac decides to leave Oregon in early 1848, and he starts back East on a ship bound first for California. He arrives in San Francisco in March 1848—just as the local newspapers report the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. Mac is swept into the gold fever of the era. After a year of prospecting, Mac uses his training as a lawyer to obtain a role at the California Constitutional Convention in 1849.
If the route to Oregon was the primary plot device in Lead Me Home, the rapid development of California during the early Gold Rush years was the device I used to move my story along in Now I’m Found. I relied heavily on newspapers published in California and Oregon and on prospector diaries to write Now I’m Found. Almost every anecdote in the novel had its basis in first-hand accounts from the times. Such stories include the California posse avenging killings of prospectors at Murderer’s Bar, the hanging of a prostitute for stabbing her rapist, and the vitriolic debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention.
And each of these historical incidents inspires Mac to act—for better or for worse—until he realizes what he most yearns for in life.
Wagon trains, massacres, the California gold rush, debates over slavery – you’ve been living in a, exciting and volatile time and place, Theresa. Many thanks for telling us about it and best wishes with your latest novel.
Now I’m Found by Theresa Hupp – After reaching Oregon by wagon with Jenny Calhoun, Caleb (Mac) McDougall must choose—return to the East or remain on the frontier. Mac’s passion for Jenny has grown, but abuse in her past numbs her to his feelings.
Mac starts east, then learns of the California gold strike and joins hordes of prospectors seeking wealth, independence, and adventure. Alone in Oregon, Jenny forges a new life but fears losing her home if neighbors learn she is not Mac’s wife.
Separately, Mac and Jenny confront violence, temptation, and heartache in a savage and abundant land. Their quests for happiness travel paths more tortuous than the Oregon Trail they conquered together.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.