The Oregon Trail: Pathway to the West
Starting in the 1840s, thousands of hardy American pioneers headed West in hopes of finding a better life. It was not easy; danger and hardship were certainties—but so was adventure and opportunity. The Oregon Country had been opened to settlers following the War of 1812.
This led to “The Great Migration of 1843” and the Oregon Trail was the route they followed. An estimated 700-1,000 people made the journey that year. During peak years, from 1843 to the early 1850s, about 250,000 people followed its rutted trail. In fact, so many Americans came to the Oregon Country using the Trail that their overwhelming numbers eventually forced Great Britain to relinquish its claim to the area.
Article continues after newspaper image from June 17, 1906, issue of the Morning Olympian (Olympia, Washington)
The first emigrants to go to Oregon in a covered wagon did so in 1836. The first organized wagon train made the journey in 1841. The Trail’s main starting point was Independence, Missouri. From there it traveled through what is now Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and into Oregon. The Trail followed many major rivers, including Nebraska’s Platte River and the Snake River in Idaho, before finally reaching the Columbia River in Oregon.
The timing of the journey was crucial; leave too early in the spring and the Trail could be impassable. Leave too late and travelers could be caught in the mountains as winter approached. The journey took four to six months and covered a distance of 2,170 miles.
Pioneers traveled in wagons called “prairie schooners” because of their white cotton covers. The wagons, pulled by oxen, were four by twelve feet and carried about a thousand pounds of supplies. Everything needed to survive was in those wagons and there was little room for extras. Early sections of the Trail were littered with items thrown away in attempts to lighten the load.
Travel was monotonous and uncomfortable. The wagons covered about one to two miles an hour, about one hundred miles a week, though speed varied due to weather and trail conditions. Because of the wagons’ heavy loads many people walked the entire journey. The most common cause of death on the Trail was disease, with cholera being the number one killer. Pioneers were also killed by Indian attacks, accidents and exposure to weather.
As for the Native Americans, their reaction to this massive migration was mixed. Certainly there were attacks, but of the estimated 10,000 deaths that occurred on the Trail from 1835 to 1855, only 4 percent came from Indian attacks. Some of those attacks were the result of misunderstandings. One such misunderstanding did result in the massacre of Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, missionaries who had been working peacefully with the Cayuse tribe. Twelve settlers were also killed in the attack and 53 women and children taken captive. However, many pioneers were met with hospitality from Native Americans, especially in the early years.
As they neared their destination the Trail became more mountainous and difficult. Winter was coming, speed was crucial and the food supply became scarce. Many pioneers died almost within sight of their goal.
As more people ventured west the Oregon Trail became a well-used corridor, until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 provided an easier way to travel. However, the Trail continued to be used well into the 1890s, and even today many highways and railroads follow sections of the Trail.
In 1906, 76-year-old Ezra Meeker, an 1852 pioneer of the Oregon Trail, retraced the route from west to east to raise public awareness of the Trail’s history and heritage. The Oregon Trail was designated a national landmark by Congress in 1978. In certain places the deep ruts made by those long-ago wagons can still be seen carved into the ground.
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