Warnings about Oregon Trail’s ‘Horrors’
Many newspapers in the 1840s printed glowing reports about the rich and abundant land awaiting pioneers at the end of the Oregon Trail. Part of the reason for encouraging this migration was to fulfill America’s “manifest destiny” and kick the British out of the Oregon Country. Not all the accounts of the Oregon Trail were positive, however; occasionally a paper presented a far darker side to the story.
Thomas J. Farnham wrote one of the more alarming accounts: a warning, really. He was the leader of the ill-fated “Peoria Party,” a group of 16 armed adventurers who set out for the Oregon Country in 1839 intending to organize the American settlers there and drive out the British. The journey west was so harsh that the nearly-starving men began quarreling, and the expedition fell apart. Nine did eventually make it to Oregon in small groups; Farnham himself arrived, but not with any of his colleagues.
His bitter experience on the Oregon Trail influenced a letter he wrote on Dec. 19, 1843, to the New York Tribune. It was reprinted by the Albany Evening Journal (Albany, New York) on Dec. 26, 1843:
The Oregon Emigrants
Messrs. Greeley and McElrath—
I saw in your paper of yesterday morning in a communication from the City of Washington, a notice of the misfortunes which have already befallen the company of emigrants to the Oregon Territory. It appears that eight persons, women and children, died of thirst, starvation or fatigue before reaching Fort Hall on the Saptin [River]—that their cattle and other animals were very much emaciated, and their hopes of getting to Lower Oregon were surrounded with such gloomy forebodings that some of the company had returned to the States.
This is sad news to me, not because I have relatives among that daring band, or ties or interest connected with them, other than those which would follow any individuals similarly circumstanced. I am made sorrowful by deriving from a recollection of my own suffering in those terrible regions, a clear idea of the lingering agony which those mothers and children must have endured, from the time want began to creep upon them, or weariness to waste away their lives, till the last pang was swallowed up in death.
I do not believe that one who has never crossed the Rocky Mountains, that awful barrier of snows, and herbless sands, and naked rocks, can have a fair conception of the horrors which hang around every day and hour of that journey. Perpetual journeyings themselves, if attending with the comforts of eating, drinking and sleeping, as found along the high ways of civilized countries, would be quite trying to health and mental quiet. Ladies with families in charge would sink under the hardships, and the physical powers of children would be materially depreciated.
But in progressing over the Plains on this side of the Rocky Mountains, as well as among those mountains themselves, there is no roof under which to sleep; the deep heavens gemmed with stars—or covered with the pall of the tempest—is the wayfarer’s only shelter. He has not even a tree to cast its branches over him except at a dozen encampments, from the frontier of the States to Fort Hall.
He has no road on which to travel. On the trail along the banks of the flat Platte the traveler is beset with tall grass, so harsh as soon to wear the fore parts of his animal’s hoofs to the quick unless they be protected with iron shoes, or bound up with raw hide taken from the neck of the buffalo bull. When he passes the grassy district and approaches the mountains, he finds himself among endless fields of different species of cacti or prickly pear, which fill his animal’s legs with thorns; or among vast fields of loose sand, small sharp rocks, the wild wormwood, or tracts of scoria; all of which continually maim and weary his riding and pack-bearing animals to such a degree as to compel him, if he would advance on his journey, to submit his own limbs to be lacerated in a similar manner.
He has nothing but meat for food. A little meal flour and Indian corn is taken out to sustain life until the adventurer meets the buffalo. These animals are usually found in the latter part of May (the time when parties who intend crossing the mountains leave the States), about 300 miles from the frontier. From this point onward, wild meat is usually relied on as the only diet, until they reach Lower Oregon, a distance of 3,000 miles [correction: 2,000—ed.].
The suffering of women and children on such a journey, made on horses and mules, with such sustenance and lodging, must often end in death. It is indeed remarkable to me that more of the Oregon emigrants did not die before reaching Fort Hall.
I will hereafter furnish your paper a description of the part of the journey still before them, from which some idea may be gleaned, of the sufferings which still await them.
—Thomas J. Farnham
New York, Dec. 19, 1843
Click here for more articles about America’s “Wild West.”