Trails West

views updated

Trails West

Between 1800 and 1870, nearly half a million Americans set out across the frontier on the many trails that led west from settled America. Whether they took the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon-California Trail, the Mormon Trail, or one of many others, these trappers, traders, farmers, and families set out on a journey of discovery. Lured by promises—of gold, of lucrative trade, or of fertile farmland—these pioneers endured weeks and even months of arduous travel across vast plains and arid deserts and over high mountain passes to reach their destination and build the communities that defined the American West. The trails they blazed helped pave the way for the civilizing of the West.

The first expeditions

Until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (see Chapter 1), the western boundary of the United States was the Mississippi River. Mere political boundaries had never stopped trappers and traders from traveling beyond the Mississippi, but before 1803 there were no organized settlements west of the great river. With the Louisiana Purchase, however, the vast lands to the west of the Mississippi were suddenly opened to organized exploration and settlement. The first of several expeditions to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory was led by Captains Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838). Leading a group known as the Corps of Discovery, Lewis and Clark traveled northwest along the Missouri River, journeying nearly as far north as the present-day Canadian border before heading due west across the present-day states of Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, finally reaching the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast (see Chapter 2). Though the expedition (1804–1806) failed to locate the coveted Northwest Passage (a mythical water route linking the Atlantic to the Pacific), they were the first party of whites to cross the continental United States, they brought back a wealth of information about western geography, and they established claims to the Pacific Northwest that would aid the young country as it negotiated with British, Russian, and Spanish interests. Most important, the expedition enabled Americans to see the commercial advantages of moving west—especially for fur trapping—and stimulated the idea of western expansion.

First Lieutenant Zebulon Pike (1779–1813) started out on his own journey in 1806, the same year Lewis and Clark returned. His smaller expedition intended to survey the southwest corner of the Louisiana Territory, which butted up against Spanish territory. The Spaniards kept tight control over their border, for they wanted to dominate trade within their colonies and feared that the spirit that had sparked the American Revolution (1776–1783) might well creep into their distant Mexican colonies. When Pike's expedition accidentally strayed across the border, they were captured and imprisoned. While detained in Santa Fe (in what is now New Mexico), Pike observed that the Spanish kept the residents of the colony under tight control and that the prices of goods were unusually high because they had to be obtained from far-off Spanish outposts. After their release in 1807, Pike and his men returned home with stories of potential trade that stirred the hearts of Yankee merchants.

Trade with the colonies of New Spain would not come easily. In 1812 an expedition led by James Baird and Robert McKnight set out to open trade with Santa Fe. But Spanish officials captured the traders, auctioned their goods, and threw the ten men in jail, where they languished until 1820. Other traders met with similar though less dramatic fates. In the end it was no mere party of merchants that opened trade with the Southwest. Rather, in 1821 Mexico broke away from Spain and became an independent nation. In September of that year Mexico opened its borders with the United States. It would not be long before enterprising traders worked their way southwest—legally.

The father of the Santa Fe Trail

Like the traders who preceded him, William Becknell (c. 1796–1865) headed for Santa Fe in the summer of 1821 hoping to make a small fortune selling goods there. With a few companions and a string of pack mules, Becknell set out from Franklin, Missouri, which was at that point a major jumping-off point for the West. But Becknell's timing was better than that of his predecessors, for by the time he reached Santa Fe, the new governor, Facundo Melgares, welcomed the traders with open arms. Mexican men and women crowded into Santa Fe's central plaza to bid for Becknell's goods. The canny merchant realized that he could sell all that he could carry and soon laid plans to start regular expeditions from Missouri to Santa Fe. In this way the first of the trails west was formed as a commercial route.

Becknell's first journey led him out of Missouri and across the territory that would eventually become the state of Kansas. The trees of Missouri soon gave way to waving grass and then, as the travelers reached the Arkansas River in southwest Kansas, to an area that had become known as the Great American Desert. These rolling short-grass prairies, with their scarcity of water, intimidated many early travelers and encouraged Becknell to follow the Arkansas River into present-day Colorado and on toward the Rocky Mountains. Prodding his mules over the tortuous Raton Pass, Becknell then led them down through the high sandy plains of northern New Mexico and into Santa Fe. It was a fine route for mules, but Becknell wanted to bring wagons loaded with trade goods on his next journey. He would have to try another route.

Susan Shelby Magoffin: A Woman on the Santa Fe Trail

Historians have long asserted that the frontier shaped the American character, making Americans tougher, more practical, and more independent than Europeans, who lived in relative luxury. The diary kept by Susan Shelby Magoffin, Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846–1847, certainly reinforces this assertion. Magoffin left Missouri a distinguished southern belle, delicate and refined, and traveled over the Santa Fe Trail with her husband in 1846. One thousand miles and several months later, she was a trail-hardened pioneer woman, afraid of nothing.

Eighteen years old and pregnant, Susan joined her new husband, forty-five-year-old trader Samuel Magoffin, on their honeymoon journey in a party that included sixteen wagons, two hundred oxen, her dog Ring, and her personal attendant, Jane. Early in the trip she wrote of the pleasure of picking wildflowers and berries and listening to birdsong. "Oh, this is a life I would not exchange for a great deal!" she wrote. "There is such independence, so much free uncontaminated air, which impregnates the mind, the feelings, nay every thought with purity."

The party soon faced difficulties. The Magoffins' carriage tipped over, smashing it and injuring the couple. They were forced to ration water and saw ominous signs of Indian parties in the area. When they reached Bent's Fort in present-day Colorado, Susan had a miscarriage and then observed sadly how well an Indian woman had fared in her own childbirth. "No doubt many ladies are ruined by too careful treatments during childbirth," she mused, wondering if the less pampered "custom of the [Indians]" was not better for woman and child. The Magoffins arrived in Santa Fe shortly after American troops took the city in the war with Mexico. Susan was by now a hardened veteran of the trail, capable of joining in the defense of the wagon train when they feared attack from Mexican troops.

Susan Magoffin was not the first woman to travel on the Santa Fe Trail, as was long believed, but she is representative of many of the women who left the East as refined and protected ladies and became over the course of their travel tough-minded survivors who were more than capable of carrying their load. Though the frontier was dominated by men, women proved themselves again and again on the trails leading west.

Near death on the Cimarron Cutoff

Traveling west in 1822 with a party of thirty men and three wagons, Becknell was determined to find a route that avoided the high mountains and headed directly to Santa Fe. Shortly after reaching the Arkansas River, Becknell led his band southwest toward the Cimarron River and then across the sandy desert to meet the original trail due east of Santa Fe. The route nearly cost the entire party their lives. Once they had filled their water barrels at the Cimarron, the travelers had to venture fifty miles without another source of water. If they had been lucky, they would have made it in four days. But on this journey Becknell was not lucky, and soon he and his men faced the real danger of death by dehydration (the loss of water in the body). Ravaged by thirst, Becknell's men were reduced to killing their dogs and cutting off the ears of their mules to drink their blood. Finally, they managed to kill a buffalo that had recently drunk water and survived by drinking its stomach fluids. Was cutting off 100 miles and a difficult mountain pass worth this ordeal? Evidently many travelers thought so, for the Cimarron Cutoff, as it was known, became a much used part of the Santa Fe Trail.

A bustling trade

"By 1824," writes historian Arthur King Peters in Seven Trails West, "Becknell had prospered enough to mount a full-scale caravan of twenty-four vehicles carrying a heavy and diversified cargo worth about $30,000, and armed with a small cannon to impress the Indians." Becknell's company returned that fall with "$180,000 in gold and silver and $10,000 worth of furs—a gross profit of 600 percent on their wagonloads of basic hardware, cutlery, and dry goods." Clearly there was money to be made on the Santa Fe Trail, and by the mid-1820s many were joining Becknell and the other early travelers in bringing their wares to Santa Fe. By the 1830s many traders had ventured even farther, taking the trail known as the Camino Real south through present-day New Mexico and on to the Mexican city of Chihuahua (pronounced chi-WA-wa). It is estimated that by 1846 the trade using the Santa Fe Trail had reached $1 million from a traffic flow of 363 wagons and 750 men; by 1860 trade topped $3.5 million. Such trade was conducted not only by American merchants but also by enterprising Mexican adventurers.

Travelers on the Santa Fe Trail faced several dangers. The most pressing, if they took the Cimarron Cutoff, was thirst. Many travelers told harrowing tales of the horrors they encountered as they faced death in a land without water. Equally daunting were the prairie fires. Whether started by lightning or a carelessly tended campfire, a prairie fire could sweep across the land with devastating speed, consuming all in its path. "The [perils of] these prairie conflagrations ... when the grass is tall and dry ... [can be] sufficient to daunt the stoutest heart," Santa Fe Trail traveler Josiah Gregg said (as quoted in Trails West).

Danger on the trail

The danger most associated with wagon travel, of course, was Indian attacks. Though the risk has been exaggerated by movies and television shows, it was very real, especially as greater numbers of whites ventured across the Native American lands that the Santa Fe Trail traversed. The tribes that lived in the lands crossed by the eastern half of the trail—the Osage and the Kansas, or Kaw—generally left the travelers alone or negotiated treaties. But the Comanche, Kiowa, Pawnee, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Apache warriors who patrolled the western reaches of the trail were widely feared for their fierce attacks. A soldier named Henry Inman, quoted in Trails West, remembered that a landmark known as Pawnee Rock provided cover for Native Americans who would "dash down upon the Santa Fe traders like hawks, to carry off their plunder and their scalps." The ground around Pawnee Rock, he recalled, was littered with the graves of victims of the Indians' attacks. Travelers were well armed and often towed a cannon behind their wagons to announce their readiness to fight, but the small bands were often at the mercy of the Indians.

Late in the 1830s military patrols began accompanying the travelers to offer them protection. Moreover, traders began to establish outposts and forts along the trail to offer shelter. Bent's Fort, on the northern section of the trail, became an important post after its founding in 1833. Later the military constructed a number of forts along the trail, including Fort Mann (1847), Fort Atkinson (1850), Fort Union (1851), Fort Larned (1859), and Fort Lyon (1860). Tensions between the Mexicans and the Americans heightened after Texas's 1836 revolution and its annexation by the United States in 1845 (see Chapter 4). In 1846, during the Mexican-American War (1846–48), General Stephen Watts Kearny led his army down the trail and into battle with the Mexicans. The increased military presence on the trail helped ward off Indian attacks.

After the United States claimed the present-day states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, and California from Mexico in 1848, trade along the Santa Fe Trail changed. The trail became, according to Trails West contributor Marc Simmons, "one of the principal highways binding America's East to the infant West. The volume of trade steadily increased. By the early 1850s, new mail and stagecoach service contributed to the growing traffic." The trail continued to be an important link between east and west through the 1850s and 1860s. In 1862 one of the pivotal western battles of the Civil War (1861–65) was fought at Glorieta Pass, New Mexico. Confederate troops, having conquered Albuquerque and Santa Fe, moved northward along the Santa Fe Trail, intent on capturing Fort Union and securing the Colorado goldfields for the Southern forces. But Union forces met the Confederate soldiers at the pass, burned their supply train, and drove them southward, securing a decisive victory for the North.

The Santa Fe Trail, like all the trails that led west, fell victim to the rise of the railroad. By 1872 the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad had reached Dodge City, Kansas, and by 1878 it reached the foot of Raton Pass. Finally, in 1880, the railroad stretched all the way to Santa Fe. The local paper carried the headline "The Old Santa Fe Trail Passes into Oblivion." More than a hundred years later, however, one can still find traces of the trail and of the forts along the way in parks scattered across Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Colorado.

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was the most famous, the most traveled, and the longest of the trails that stretched across the American West. Between 1843, the year of the first Great Migration (the mass movement of settlers west), and 1869, when the transcontinental railway was finished, the Oregon Trail and its spur to California carried an estimated 350,000 pioneers across 2000 miles of difficult terrain. The pioneers who traveled west on this trail dreamed that they would find a better life, richer farmland, and more independence in the West. Many reached their goals; sadly, others died along the way. Even after trains made transcontinental travel easier and cheaper, some pioneers continued to use the trails to cross the country as late as 1895. During its peak years, the Oregon-California Trail was an essential link connecting east to west.

Blazing the trail

The most famous of the western trails had humble beginnings. The first white man to follow the route that became the Oregon Trail actually began on the West Coast. In 1811, fur magnate John Jacob Astor (1763–1848) had sent men to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon Country (as it was known), where he hoped he could compete with the British for control of the region's fur trade. But no sooner had the men built a small trading post than they came under attack by local Indians. A tragic mistake ignited the store of gunpowder aboard their ship, sinking the ship and killing those who remained aboard. (See Chapter 2 for more about the trading post, Fort Astoria.) The inhabitants of Astoria, as the post was called, were stranded. They had no choice but to send a party of men east to find help and supplies. The man they chose to lead the way was Robert Stuart, a twenty-seven-year-old Scotsman.

Stuart and a group of seven men departed on the arduous journey on June 29, 1812. The party first followed rivers eastward, but with the help of some friendly Shoshone Indians they decided to take a more direct land route. Their progress was nearly stopped shortly thereafter, when a band of Crow Indians stole the men's horses. From that point on, Stuart's party would travel on foot. In late October 1812, Stuart located a broad pass through the mountains. From South Pass, the men moved steadily downhill for a thousand miles, following the Sweetwater and North Platte Rivers until they reached the broad Missouri River. On March 30, 1813—ten months after they began—the party reached the small town of St. Louis. Luckily, Stuart kept a detailed journal documenting his route; his The Return from the Mouth of the Columbia toMissouri helped guide the many travelers who would eventually travel the same region.

Early travelers

Stuart's journey did not spark a rush of pioneers moving westward. Indeed, for the next thirty years the only white men to venture out into the Louisiana Territory and Oregon Country were fur trappers, who rarely followed set routes but instead ranged widely across the land. In 1830 a group of these fur traders led a train of ten wagons on the Oregon Trail to their annual Rendezvous (a regular social gathering for trappers and traders; see Chapter 2). These were the first wagons on the Oregon Trail, and the men—Jedediah Smith, David E. Jackson, and William Sublette—believed that wagons could make it all the way to the coast.

A party of missionaries undertook a similar venture in 1836. Hoping that they could convert Indians to Christianity, Presbyterian ministers Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding joined a group of fur traders heading west. In September of the same year they arrived at a fur-trading outpost near present-day Walla Walla, Washington. Their journey was notable because the two missionaries brought along their wives; Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman became the first white women to cross the Oregon Trail, proving that families could make the journey. The couples established separate missions. The Whitmans' mission ended in tragedy in 1847 when Indians attacked and killed most of the inhabitants (see Chapter 10). But until that time the mission stood as a welcoming point on a trail that grew increasingly crowded in the 1840s.

The Great Migration

For years, cautious observers in the East had warned against selling one's belongings, packing a wagon, and heading west. Newspaper editor Horace Greeley (1811–1872) called westward travel "palpable suicide," and statesman Daniel Webster (1782–1852) warned that the Far West was a "region of savages and wild beasts," according to Arthur King Peters in Seven Trails West. But that mood began to change in the 1840s, thanks to a number of factors. A long economic downturn that lasted from 1837 to 1842 encouraged many to seek their fortune in the West; Congress hinted that it would give land to Oregon settlers; Britain ceded the present-day states of Oregon and Washington to the United States in 1846; and the California gold rush of 1849 to 1850 beckoned many who were hungry for instant riches (see Chapter 6). The Great Migration, the name given to the first major exodus of emigrants westward, drew one thousand settlers onto the Oregon Trail in 1843, and more came every year after that. The small trail soon became a highway stretching to the promised land. Many Americans felt that it was their "manifest destiny" to secure these western lands (see Chapter 4). Manifest destiny was the belief that Americans had the God-given right to acquire and populate the territories stretching west to the Pacific.

For the first several years after 1843, the vast majority of western settlers ended up in Oregon Country, but by 1846 the trend began to change. Once word of gold in California reached the East, the number of travelers going south to California was four times that of those venturing north into Oregon. Those going to Oregon had promises of vast acres of fertile farmland, but California had gold—and a warmer climate.

The routes west

For most, the Oregon-California Trail began in Independence, Missouri, the western outpost of a young nation sprawling across the continent. Others left from St. Joseph or Westport, Missouri, and others still from Council Bluffs in present-day Iowa. These towns were booming with the business of outfitting wagon trains. Merchants sold wagons, guns, tools, livestock, food, and other supplies. Saloons, gambling halls, and brothels entertained the men during the evening. Emigration societies organized their members months in advance, and they met in the early spring to prepare for their departure. As soon as the ground thawed and the spring rains ceased, usually in April or early May, the parties would venture westward together, in groups small and large.

The pioneers' first stopping point was at Fort Kearny along the south bank of the Platte River in present-day Nebraska. Wide and shallow, the Platte was also their first major obstacle. Described by an observer quoted in Seven Trails West as "two to three miles wide and fully knee deep," the river mired the wagons in mud, and pits of quicksand threatened to swallow livestock alive. Past the Platte the land began to dry out, its colors changing from greens to dusty browns. Bison, prairie dogs, and antelope dotted the horizon; they were sometimes joined by bands of Indians who watched the travelers from a distance, rarely bothering to attack. Studying their trail guides, the pioneers looked for milestones like Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff at the far end of present-day Nebraska.

Fort Laramie, in present-day Wyoming (see map on p. 87), provided the travelers with a "civilized" rest stop on their journey. Originally opened by the American Fur Company, the fort was purchased by the U.S. Army in 1849. There the travelers could fix their wagons, rest their stock, and trade news. Until Fort Laramie, the trail was ill defined and allowed the wagons to drive four abreast or more. After Laramie the wagons progressed in single file for hundreds of miles. Over the years the wagons wore deep ruts in the soft sandstone over which they traveled. In some places those ruts can still be seen today.

Slowly gaining elevation, the travelers hoped to reach Independence Rock by Independence Day, July 4. This meant they had a good chance of getting to their destination before winter set in. On Independence Rock the pioneers carved their names in the soft rock, a tradition begun years before by mountain men. The carvings were a form of communication with those who followed, and they still speak to those who see them today. Reaching South Pass (see map on p. 87), from which point all waters flowed westward to the Pacific Ocean, might have seemed a letdown, for the pass was no high mountain outlook but rather a high, flat plain toward which the travelers had been ascending gradually for hundreds of miles. Just west of South Pass the travelers had to make a decision: would they continue north and west to Oregon or journey southward to the Great Salt Lake and onward to California? Some had decided ahead of time, but many travelers made the decision that would shape their destiny on the spot.

On to Oregon

Those choosing Oregon took Sublette's Cutoff, headed toward Soda Springs—where they bathed in the rejuvenating waters—and stopped for a rest at Fort Hall. They had come two-thirds of the way. Soon the wagon trains located the Snake River, named for its twisting course, and followed it for 250 miles. Crossing the Snake was one of the most perilous parts of the journey. Travelers often chained their wagons together in order to cross 600 feet of rapidly moving river or sent their belongings on separate rafts. More mountains remained—100 miles of the Blue Mountains—but once those were crossed the pioneers journeyed downward to the Columbia River, where they passed the Whitman Mission before reaching Fort Walla Walla. A short trip down the Columbia took them to their final destination—the broad, fertile Willamette Valley (pronounced wil-LAM-it).

The California branch

Beyond South Pass, many travelers chose to leave the Oregon Trail and venture southward on the California Trail. It was a more difficult journey, with higher mountains and more arid deserts, but the lure of gold proved sufficiently strong. Many took the Mormon Trail toward Salt Lake City to restock before moving on. From Salt Lake City, some took the Old Spanish Trail that led toward Los Angeles, a route that promised refuge from snow. But most kept on the Oregon Trail to the north of the Great Salt Lake, looking for the California Trail that would take them down through present-day Nevada and across the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California.

By late summer or early fall, the emigrants found themselves following Nevada's Humboldt River, a sluggish stream that ends in a barren valley known as the Humboldt Basin. The travelers next had to traverse the dreaded Forty-Mile Desert. With scorching heat, no food or water to be found, and sand so deep that it threatened to swallow up oxen and wagons, the Forty-Mile Desert was an excruciating ordeal. Venturing through a bone-dry desert littered with the carcasses of dead livestock, traveler Margaret Frink is quoted in Gold Fever!: "The dead animals ... lay so thick on the ground that the carcasses, if placed together, would have reached across many miles of that desert. The stench arising was continuous and terrible." Upon reaching the end of the desert, traveler J. H. Beadle wrote: "At last we got into the hind end o' creation—seventy miles 'thout [without] a drop o' water or a spear o' grass." And still the journey was not over, for the high and rocky Sierra Nevada Mountains lay ahead. The weary travelers had to cross them before the snow started to fall.

The mountains were hot and dry by day and freezing cold by night. On some mornings the gold seekers woke to find ice skirting the streams they followed into the mountains. And in the Sierra Nevadas the Indians were a real threat. Emigrant William Swain, quoted in The World Rushed In, wrote to his wife that the Diggers, as the Indians were called, "are thieves, nothing conciliates them and no amount short of all will satisfy them.... Passed several wagons that had lost their stock by the Indians and were unable to pursue their journey." Swain's fellow travelers were so worn down from the journey that some of them looked like "living caricatures of the human species, some of them mounted on poor, dusty looking mules, others on miserable looking worn down horses, all dressed in dusty, ragged clothes, as most of us are." Finally, however, the travelers crossed the last mountain pass and began to travel down into the Sacramento Valley. Some found gold and became rich. Some, like the Donner Party, were not so lucky (see box).

Stocking a wagon

A successful trip west took strength, endurance, luck—and a well-stocked wagon. Outfitters developed special wagons strong enough to endure the beating given by 2000 miles of rough trails, light enough to be pulled by a team of oxen or mules, and big enough to carry all of a family's belongings. These wagons, (known as prairie schooners because their billowing canvas covers looked like a ship's sails from a distance) were about ten feet long, four feet wide, and two feet deep. Their sides were bowed out so that the contents got shifted toward the center, and the cracks between the wood were sealed to keep water out during river crossings. The wagons were usually pulled by a team of four oxen or six mules. Extra livestock were often brought along to let the animals work in shifts. In the end, most pioneers preferred the cheaper, stronger, hardier oxen to the mules.

The wagons could carry from 1,600 to 2,500 pounds of household goods, and families filled them to the brim. Food, of course, was essential. The early guidebooks recommended that each emigrant bring 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. (In addition to the food they carried, pioneers supplemented their diet with wild game, berries, and—if they had brought along a cow—fresh milk.) Cooking supplies allowed pioneer wives or the party cook to prepare meals, but the cook had to be flexible and learn to cook over a campfire. Many families brought along furniture, mirrors, and heirlooms, though they often regretted the extra weight when the trail got rough. Barrels of water, rope, and wagon-wheel grease also added weight. Spare parts—including spokes, axles, and canvas roofs—could be carried under the wagon bed.

The Donner Party

In the spring of 1846 a party of eighty-one men, women, and children set off from Independence, Missouri, on the Oregon Trail, bound for California. Leading the party was James Frazier Reed; he was joined by his family, by the families of Jacob and George Donner, and by several other families. They are known to history as the Donner Party, and their story is one of the most gruesome and tragic tales to emerge from the decades-long exodus of pioneers westward.

Their journey was ill-fated from the start. Heavy rains delayed their crossing of the Platte River, and a bad decision about which route to take beyond South Pass meant that they had to spend precious days carving a trail through thick underbrush. Then, according to Arthur King Peters in Seven Trails West, as they crossed the salt desert of present-day Utah, "oxen gave out and wagons had to be abandoned; Indians made off with much of the stock; thirst, hunger, and cold exacted their toll." By the time they had crossed the desert, the members of the party were deeply divided, arguing among themselves. Matters worsened when Reed stabbed one of the ox drivers to death, supposedly in self-defense. The party still had to cross the mountain pass, but it was getting quite late in the season.

As they approached the pass, snow began to fall. Unable to progress, the party camped at Truckee Lake (now called Donner Lake). Some of the party had fallen behind and camped a few miles away at Alder Creek. The parties took shelter in an abandoned trapper's cabin and built two more cabins and rough lean-tos. The snow continued to fall, piling up around their campsites and frustrating their attempts to leave. Finally, in December, a party of seventeen (including two Native American guides) set out to get help. Running out of food, they resorted to eating the flesh of several party members who had died. The Indian guides were killed and eaten as well. The survivors of the rescue party secured help for some members of the original Donner Party, but others remained stranded.

The last rescue party, which arrived at Truckee Lake in April 1847, made a gruesome discovery. All of those who had remained were dead but one. Lewis Keseberg, an educated German, was found nearly starving, sitting amid the remains of human corpses, brewing a pot of stew made from human organs. According to Peters, one member of the rescue party recalled seeing, "bodies terribly mutilated, legs, arms, and skulls scattered in every direction." Facing starvation, the members of the Donner Party had again resorted to cannibalism.

It is not known exactly how many members of the Donner Party ate human flesh in order to survive. But the cannibalism helped make the Donner Party notorious. Thirty-nine members of the Donner Party died on their terrible journey, either on the trail, at Truckee Lake, or in trying to reach the California settlements. Theirs was the most tragic and horrific of all westward journeys.

A typical day on the trail began at six in the morning, when the pilots (as the party guides were known) rousted the pioneers from their sleep to get started before the day got hot. A midday break, called "nooning," gave the oxen a rest and allowed them time to graze. As soon as this break was over, the parties were back on the trail until about five in the afternoon. On an average day a party of pioneers could expect to travel about 15 miles; on some days they traveled more and on others much less. Sometimes entire days would be spent just crossing a river. At the end of the day the wagons were pulled into a circle to provide a corral for the animals and to act as a defense against Indian attacks (which were rare). The evening campfire provided the members of the wagon train with the rare opportunity to relax; the adults talked as the sky darkened, and the children played nearby. Campfires were made from whatever wood could be found or from buffalo chips (the polite name for dried buffalo dung). As the fires died, the emigrants drifted off to their makeshift sleeping arrangements. Some slept inside the wagon, but most stretched out with a blanket on the ground. After a long day of travel, even the hard earth must have been a comfort. A few sentries stayed awake to ward off wild animals and look out for Indian thieves.

Indians on the trail

Though legend has it that wagon trains crossing the prairie were under constant attack from marauding bands of Indians, in truth Native Americans posed little danger to the emigrants. Much of the contact between whites and Indians was peaceful, as Indians provided directions to emigrants passing through their lands, or as the emigrants traded their guns for Indian horses. Some of the tribes demanded that travelers pay a toll to cross their land. But not all relations between Indian and whites were peaceful. Indians sometimes slipped into camps at night and stole horses and other goods. The Pawnee tribe gained a reputation for thievery. Other tribes, such as the Crow and the Blackfoot, disliked the emigrants crossing their tribal lands and raided the camps or caught and killed stragglers. In the end, though, few whites were killed by Indians on the Oregon-California Trail. Of the 250,000 settlers who traveled the trails in the 1840s and 1850s, it is estimated that only 362 died at the hands of Indians.

Death on the trail

While Indians did not pose a grave danger to emigrants, life on the trail was certainly dangerous. Long days of traveling under a burning sun were difficult in themselves, and these difficulties were compounded by the sometimes backbreaking labor of fording streams and climbing steep mountain trails. Accidents cost many lives, especially for children. It was not uncommon for a child to fall off a wagon and be crushed beneath the heavy wheels. Pregnant women also suffered under the strain of the journey. Many a grave marker along the trail lamented the passing of a wife or child.

The most pressing danger was disease. Pneumonia, whooping cough, measles, smallpox, and other sicknesses took many lives, but the biggest killer was cholera. An acute intestinal infection, cholera causes violent vomiting, fever, chills, and diarrhea. As the sickness swept through the camps, it killed quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours. Those who survived were severely weakened. The disease raged on the trail, especially in the 1840s. One emigrant described the road from Independence to Fort Laramie as a graveyard. Though accurate death rates are not available, it is estimated that at least 20,000 of the 350,000 people who ventured forth on the Oregon-California Trail died on the way. That means that one in seventeen of the emigrants did not reach his or her destination and that there were an average of ten graves per mile of the trail. On the Oregon-California Trail, dreams came at a cost.

Other dreams, other trails

Though the Santa Fe and the Oregon-California Trails were the most famous and the most-traveled, they were certainly not the only trails that settlers, traders, and soldiers used as they worked their way west across the continent. Indeed, countless trails, named and unnamed, reached out from civilization into the rapidly receding frontier. Many of these trails have been commemorated by the stories told by travelers or by the parks built years after; others have simply been forgotten. (For information on the Mormon Trail, see Chapter 10.)

The Gila Trail

The Gila (HEE-lah) Trail was one of the most desolate and difficult of all the trails to cross the American West. Linking Santa Fe, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, with California, the trail stretched across the deserts of present-day southern New Mexico, Arizona, and California before branching to reach the coastal cities of San Diego and Los Angeles. Archaeologists have discovered evidence that the trail was used by Indians as long as twenty thousand years ago, and some of the first Spanish explorers, including Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (c. 1510–1554), used the trail in the 1540s as they searched for the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola. Once this area came under Spanish control, missionaries regularly traveled along the banks of the Gila River. It wasn't until 1825, however, that a white man, James Ohio Pattie, left Santa Fe and traveled into present-day Arizona on what would become the Gila Trail. His trail blazing set the stage for the more intense use of the trail that began in the 1840s.

Early travelers on the Gila Trail were astounded by its difficulty. According to Trails West contributor Don Dedera, early traveler Dr. John S. Griffin called the land "utterly worthless ... the cactus is the only thing that grows.... Every bush in this country is full of thorns ... every rock you turn over has a tarantula or centipede...." Further, according to Dedera, a "U.S. senator dismissed the region as 'just like hell. All it lacks is water and good society.'" Not only was the desert a formidable obstacle, but Indian attacks were a greater danger on this trail than on nearly any other. Yavapai, Apache, and Navajo Indians all resented white intrusions onto their native lands. Apache warrior Cochise (c. 1812–1874) was widely feared along the trail in the 1860s for his daring raids on travelers and on early settlers in present-day Arizona.

Despite the difficulties, more and more white travelers used the Gila Trail beginning in the 1840s. The annexation of Texas in 1845 and the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848 removed a major obstacle to American travel across the Southwest. The California gold rush of 1849 drew hundreds and then thousands of gold prospectors across the desert. Soon cattle drivers began herding cattle from Texas to California, where their livestock drew a high price in the inflated markets. By the mid-1850s perhaps one hundred thousand travelers had used the Gila Trail. One of the more prominent users of the Gila Trail was John Butterfield's Overland Mail service. Using more than 250 coaches; several hundred wagons; and employees, horses, and mules numbering in the thousands, the Overland Mail began to make twice-weekly trips between St. Louis, Missouri, and California in the late 1850s, carrying news of goldfield riches and the coming Civil War.

The Gila Trail, like all the others, eventually succumbed to the railroad. But it brought many thousands of travelers across the southern reaches of the present-day United States, including the settlers who would establish the first towns in present-day Arizona.

The Bozeman Trail

Mile for mile, the Bozeman Trail may have been the bloodiest of the western trails. Like many western trails, the Bozeman Trail was blazed to lead travelers first to gold and second to promises of fertile land. The father of the Bozeman Trail was John Bozeman (1835–1867), who pioneered the trail in 1863 after learning of a gold strike in present-day southwestern Montana. Crow Indian raiders took everything but Bozeman's life on his first trip, but he was undaunted. By July 1863 he had recruited a party to leave the Oregon Trail near the northernmost reaches of the North Platte River and travel northwest into the High Plains country, an area that was home to many Native Americans. The trail this party followed carried travelers for only a few years, until 1868, but it made a crucial contribution to the settling of Montana and to the eventual defeat of the many Native American tribes that claimed the vast and empty lands of present-day Wyoming and Montana as their own.

Though whites viewed northeastern Wyoming and eastern Montana as a wasteland, the Crow and other Native Americans who lived there loved their land deeply. Driven westward by the relentless pressure of the expanding United States, other Indian tribes—notably the Sioux and the Cheyenne—joined the Crow on this land beginning in the 1850s. By the early 1860s these tribes had recognized that the only way to defend their territory was to halt any white attempts to settle on their land, for once whites built homes and farms, the army was never far behind. As determined as Bozeman was to settle southwestern Montana, the Indians were determined to keep white men out.

According to Trails West contributor Louis de la Haba, after 1864 "emigrant and freight trains used the trail with increasing regularity. Just as regularly, Indians attacked the travelers, running off livestock, stealing horses, ambushing stragglers, and scalping their victims." Travelers who left records noted an extraordinary number of sites where Indian warriors had attacked and killed previous travelers. By 1866, after hearing frequent complaints about Indian harassment, the federal government began to establish a military presence along the Bozeman Trail. Colonel Henry B. Carrington tried to negotiate a treaty with the Indians but was famously rebuffed by the Sioux chief Red Cloud. "You are the white eagle who has come to steal the road," Red Cloud told Carrington. "The Great Father [the president] sends us presents and wants us to sell him the road, but the white chief comes with soldiers to steal it before the Indian says yes or no. I will talk with you no more." Red Cloud recognized that the claims to this land would have to be settled in battle.

The Sioux scored one of the great Indian victories over white forces late in 1866. One of Carrington's officers, Captain William J. Fetterman, ventured out to scare off the Indians who had been attacking wood-gathering parties. Warned not to venture beyond the nearby Lodge Trail Ridge, the arrogant Fetterman led a group of seventy-eight soldiers over the ridge and into the waiting arms of some three thousand Sioux. All of the soldiers were killed, and many were horribly mutilated. Fetterman and his second in command, Captain Frederick H. Brown, seem to have done each other the favor of a bullet shot to the head, thus avoiding torture at the hands of the Indian warriors. It was a tremendous victory for the Indians, but it only heightened the desire of white forces to rid the land of the Indian menace.

The Bozeman Trail was largely abandoned after 1868. The railroad had made the trail obsolete, and few white travelers cared to brave the perils of crossing a land that remained in the control of hostile Indian forces. The Indians quickly destroyed the forts built along the trail and reclaimed control of much of the territory. It would be more than a decade before white forces would again attempt to drive the Indians from this land.

Trails' end

The many trails that led traders, gold seekers, farmers, and other emigrants west in the middle decades of the nineteenth century left their mark on the landscape and on the American memory. Physical traces of the trails remain to this day: deep wagon-wheel ruts are still visible in deserted stretches of the mountainous West, and many forts attract tourists eager to understand this romantic part of the near past. The impression on the American memory is even deeper, for the pioneers seemed to embody the very spirit of America. Brave, persistent, and tough, the pioneers who crossed the country on these trails endured many hardships while pushing onward toward their goal: a new life in the West.

For More Information


Billington, Ray Allen. Westward to the Pacific: An Overview of America's Westward Expansion. St. Louis, MO: Jefferson National Expansion Historical Association, 1979.

Catrow, David. The Story of the Oregon Trail. Chicago: Children's Press, 1984.

Faragher, John Mack. Women and Men on the Overland Trail. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

Fisher, Leonard Everett. The Oregon Trail. New York: Holiday House, 1990.

Hill, William E. The Santa Fe Trail, Yesterday and Today. Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1992.

Magoffin, Susan Shelby. Down the Santa Fe Trail and into Mexico: The Diary of Susan Shelby Magoffin, 1846–1847. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.

McNeese, Tim. Western Wagon Trains. New York: Crestwood House, 1993.

Murphy, Dan. Santa Fe Trail: Voyage of Discovery. Las Vegas NV: KC Publications, 1994.

Murray, Robert A. The Bozeman Trail: Highway of History. Boulder, CO: Pruett Pub. Co., 1988.

Penner, Lucille Recht. Westward Ho!: The Story of the Pioneers. New York: Random House, 1997.

Sanford, William R. The Santa Fe Trail in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2000.

Santrey, Laurence. The Oregon Trail. Mahwah, NJ: Troll, 1985.

Simmons, Marc. Following the Santa Fe Trail: A Guide for Modern Travelers. 2d ed. Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1986.

Stewart, George R. Ordeal by Hunger: The Classic Story of the Donner Party. 1936. Reprinted, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960.

Web sites

DiPasquale, Connie, and Susan Stafford. Orphan Trains of Kansas. [Online] (accessed April 12, 2000).

The End of the Oregon Trail [Online] (accessed April 12, 2000).

OCTA: Oregon-California Trails Association. [Online] (accessed April 12, 2000).


Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Peters, Arthur King. Seven Trails West. New York: Abbeville Press, 1996.

Place, Marian T. Westward on the Oregon Trail. New York: American Heritage, 1962.

Roscoe, Gerald, and David Larkin. Westward: The Epic Crossing of the American Landscape. New York: The Monacelli Press, 1995.

Schanzer, Rosalyn. Gold Fever! Tales from the California Gold Rush. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 1999.

Trails West. Washington, DC: Special Publications Division, National Geographic Society, 1979.