The Oregon Trail was a 2,000-mile route running overland across the North American continent from the Missouri River in the East to the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. It was used primarily from the 1840s through the 1870s for migration by wagon, horse, or foot to Oregon Territory, which comprised present-day Oregon , Idaho , Washington , and parts of Montana and Wyoming . Travelers going to California could take the Oregon Trail to Idaho, where a connecting trail would take them into California. Most of the early travelers along the route sought a new home and better opportunities in the West.
The Oregon Trail originated in the routes established by extensive Native American trade networks that had existed for centuries. Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) were the first U.S. explorers to use the Indian trails to find their way across the continent to the Pacific Coast in 1803. The route established by the Lewis and Clark expedition , though, was too rough to be traveled by wagon. It was primarily fur trappers and frontiersmen on horseback and on foot who forged the Oregon Trail from the earlier routes.
The first people to travel the Oregon Trail in covered wagons were missionaries. Presbyterian missionaries Marcus Whitman (1802–1847) and Narcissa Whitman (1808–1847) made the trip with three other missionaries in 1836, settling among the Cayuse Indians in the Walla Walla River valley in present-day Washington State. The Methodist Church sent missionaries to Oregon in 1837 and 1840. Though the missionaries had little effect on the religious beliefs of the Native Americans, their success in getting to Oregon via the overland route made a large impact on friends and family back home.
In 1841, a few small wagon trains set off from Independence, Missouri , on the Oregon Trail. They were heading for California, then a sparsely populated region of Mexico. Only about 35 people finished the long, difficult journey. The next year, 125 people in wagons made the trip to Oregon, which the United States and Britain jointly occupied. These overland successes launched the spirit of westward fever. Suddenly in 1843, the Oregon Trail was crowded with travelers. That year 1,000 people in 120 wagons set out on the Oregon Trail. In 1844, 1,500 people made the trip, arriving in either Oregon or California. The numbers continued to dramatically increase. In 1846, there were so many U.S.settlers in Oregon that England knew it could not defend its claim there and, after lengthy negotiations, ceded the territory to the United States.
Prior to 1849, most of the travelers on the Oregon Trail were heading for Oregon. This changed after 1848, following the California gold rush and after the Mexican-American War (1846–48) had resulted in Mexico ceding California and New Mexico to the United States. Thousands poured into California—most by sea, but many using the Oregon Trail and the California connecting route.
Most people planning to migrate west on the Oregon Trail were people of middle income—many of them families. The migration usually started in early spring with the sale of their house or farm. With the proceeds, they outfitted their wagon with hundreds of pounds of food—enough to last them through the difficult six-month journey. They also needed oxen to pull the wagon, and possibly other livestock for food. They loaded their wagons with tools, equipment, and a few family treasures, and, leaving behind everything they had ever known for an unknown land, set off for the closest port on the Missouri River.
When they reached a port, the travelers boarded their wagon on a steamship and sailed to a “jumping-off point”—usually Independence, St. Joseph, or Westport in Missouri or Omaha or Council Bluffs in Nebraska . Each spring, thousands of wagons would gather in these towns. Arriving travelers arranged to join a wagon train, an organized caravan of wagons with a guide to lead the way across the continent. After enough members of a new wagon train had assembled at the jumping-off point, they would meet to elect officers, adopt rules of conduct, and select their guide. On an agreed-upon day, the wagon train began its journey. The route would become so crowded with wagons that the first several days were often spent simply getting all the wagons on the road.
From Independence, Missouri, the wagon trains traveled northwest to Fort Kearny, Nebraska. From there, they followed the Platte and North Platte Rivers west and northwest to Fort Laramie in southeast Wyoming . Continuing westward along the North Platte, travelers arrived at South Pass, located on the southeastern end of the Rocky Mountains’ Wind River Range. The Oregon Trail then ran southwest to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. There the Mormon Trail diverged to the southwest into Utah . (See also Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints .) Travelers bound for the Pacific Northwest continued along the Oregon Trail, following the Snake River through Idaho. The route turned northwest to Fort Boise, Idaho. From there, settlers made the difficult crossing through the Blue Mountains to Walla Walla, Washington. The last leg of the journey followed the Columbia River west to Fort Vancouver and into the Willamette Valley of Oregon.
Life on the trail
The 2,000-mile journey on the Oregon Trail was exhausting and dangerous. The covered wagons were uncomfortable and crowded. People slept in the wagons or in tents next to them. They got up early and were traveling by 7:00 am. Except for the drivers, most people walked, and the wagon trains plodded along at walking pace, covering 15 to 25 miles on a good day. In the evening, the wagons in the train formed a large circle, with the livestock inside, to keep them from wandering off or being stolen by Native Americans. River crossings presented dangerous and difficult breaks in the daily routine.
As long as a caravan was simply passing through, Indian attacks were rare, but the danger of accidents—particularly drownings and wagon accidents—and disease, especially cholera, caused by infected drinking water, was very high. One out of ten settlers who started out for Oregon did not reach their destination, most because they had died en route.
From the first days of Oregon Trail migration, several forts offered emigrants advice, provisions, and links to home. Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger in present-day Wyoming, Fort Hall and Fort Boise in present-day Idaho, and Fort Walla Walla in present-day Washington were places to get new livestock and resupply wagons, leave messages that might be taken east, and talk with people who knew the trail.
The rise of the railroad
It is impossible to estimate how many settlers used the Oregon Trail over the years. By 1860, about fifty-three thousand had traveled overland to Oregon—ten thousand of them in 1852 alone. Gold strikes in Idaho and the beginnings of settlement in central and eastern Oregon kept the trail busy in the 1860s. Then in 1869, the transcontinental railroad system was completed, linking eastern railroads with California for the first time. As more people traveled across country by train, the importance of the Oregon Trail greatly diminished. By the end of the nineteenth century, parts of the road had vanished from disuse.
OREGON TRAIL, one of several routes traveled in the mid-nineteenth century by pioneers seeking to settle in the western territories. Over a period of about thirty years, roughly 1830 to 1860, some 300,000 Americans crowded these overland trails. The Oregon Trail was first traveled in the early 1840s. Only some 5,000 or so had made it to Oregon Territory by 1845, with another 3,000 making their way to California three years later. This trickle would turn into a flood in the following decade.
The Oregon Trail totaled some 2,000 miles. The Oregon and California Trails followed the same path for almost half of this journey, so over landers headed to either destination faced many of the same natural obstacles. Departing from the small towns of Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri, or Council Bluffs, Iowa, miles of open plains initially greeted the travelers. The trail followed first the Missouri and then the Platte River. The water of the Platte was too dirty to drink, not deep enough to float a barge, and so broad that it left great mud flats and quicksand in the way of the unsuspecting settler. As the Rocky Mountains neared, the overlanders shifted to the north side of the Platte, and then maneuvered to cross the Continental Divide at the South Pass, low enough, broad
enough, and safe enough for wagon transit. At this halfway point, the Oregon and California Trails diverged, the former heading north. Settlers bound for Oregon Country shadowed the Snake River and faced one last mountain obstacle, the Blue Mountains. The Willamette Valley awaited those sturdy enough to complete this passage and some finished their travels on a reasonably safe boat ride down the Columbia River.
It took six to seven months to travel the complete length of the Oregon Trail. Ideally, those making this journey departed in May to arrive before November and the first heavy snowfalls. However, those leaving too early risked getting mired in mud, and those leaving too late confronted snow at the end of their travels, a dangerous and foreboding prospect. The overlanders traveled in wagon trains, in groups ranging from ten to one hundred wagons. As the trails became better known and well-traveled, most wagoneers preferred smaller trains. Smaller wagon trains moved more quickly and were delayed less often due to internal arguments. When disputes did arise they might be settled by vote or, especially in larger wagon trains, according to a written constitution. On the trail, hardships and dangers proved numerous and discouraging. Accidents, such as drowning, ax wounds, shootings, or being run over by wagons or trampled by livestock, claimed many victims. Sickness, especially cholera from poor drinking water, weakened countless travelers, eventually killing some. Despite the obstacles, people made the journey for economic reasons. The depression of 1837, the most severe of its day, pushed those contemplating a move west to do so sooner rather than later. California's gold rush, starting in 1848, did much to fuel travel west via the overland trails. Fertile land and the potential for wealth from trapping drew people to the Northwest.
Migrants to the West were farmers as well as storekeepers, clerks, saloonkeepers, former soldiers, and other adventurers. They came from all over the United States, including the Upper South, the Midwest, and the Northeast. Because of the difficulty of the journey, most fell between the ages of ten and forty.
Much folklore grew up around the overlanders and their journey. Perhaps the biggest legend of all concerns the danger posed to the migrants by Native Americans. In fact, Native Americans aided, directed, and even accompanied the overlanders. Deaths at the hands of Plains Indians probably numbered only in the hundreds, almost certainly not reaching the several thousands reported in legend. Most Indians sought to profit from the wagoneers by imposing either a toll to cross a river, a fee for guidance down an uncertain road, or by offering an exchange of goods for renewed provisions. Horses often acted as currency.
With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the wagon era came to a close. Yet a change in mode of transportation did little to detract from the accomplishment of those who toughed it out on the Oregon Trail and other trails. These pioneers had opened a land and settled it all in one motion.
Billington, Ray Allen. The Far Western Frontier, 1830–1860. London: Harper and Row, 1956.
Unruh, John D., Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1979.
The Oregon Trail was a route used primarily from the late 1840s through the 1870s to reach Oregon Territory—lands that were ceded to the United States by the British in 1846. (The territory comprised present-day Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.) Measuring 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers), the trail was one of the great overland routes used in westward expansion. Wagon trains began at Independence, Missouri (today an eastern suburb of Kansas City, Missouri), and traveled northwest to Fort Kearny (near present-day Kearney), Nebraska. From there wagons followed the Platte and North Platte rivers west and northwest to Fort Laramie in southeast Wyoming. Continuing westward along the North Platte, travelers arrived at South Pass, located on the southeastern end of the Rocky Mountains' Wind River Range. Nearby South Pass City became a boom-town during the 1800s. The Oregon Trail then ran southwest to Fort Bridger, Wyoming—where the Mormon Trail diverged to the southwest (into Utah). Travelers bound for the Pacific Northwest continued along the Oregon Trail, following the Snake River through Idaho. The route turned northwest to Fort Boise, Idaho. From there settlers made the difficult crossing through the Blue Mountains to Walla Walla (then the site of a mission) in Washington. The last leg of the journey followed the Columbia River west to Fort Vancouver and into the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The road could be traversed in six months' time, but it was a rigorous journey that took travelers across prairie, through desert, over mountains, and across flooded rivers.
Explorers and fur traders are credited with first forging the route. The western portion of the trail was covered by explorers Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838) in their 1804–1806 expedition to the Pacific. But it did not become heavily used by wagons until about 1842, the same year that military officer and future politician John C. Fremont (1813–1890) surveyed a portion of the route for the U.S. Army. After the Territory of Oregon was set up by the U.S. government in 1848, an increasing number of settlers made their way westward across the winding Oregon Trail. The route was heavily used through the 1860s. However, at the completion of transcontinental railroads its importance diminished by the end of the century.
See also: John Fremont, Idaho, Lewis and Clark Expedition, Montana, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Santa Fe Trail, Transcontinental Railroad, Utah, Washington, Wyoming