America’s Long Journey: The Oregon Trail

Before the transcontinental railroad, before the Civil War, before the Mexican War, Americans were moving toward the Pacific. How we came to acquire our share of the Oregon territory is a story we will tell below, but for now we’ll just talk about the days when the only overland route between the Missouri River (and points east) and the fertile lands of Oregon was a 2,000-mile wagon route through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho. Today, I- 80 follows the trail for a good way, and many of the towns it passes through grew up with the trail.

The first wagon train to take to the trail (which at that time extended to Fort Hall, Idaho) was organized in Independence, Missouri, in 1836, while the Texans were winning independence from Mexico. Year by year, more wagon trains came, starting variously in Missouri or Iowa or Nebraska and linking up with the trail somewhere along the lower Platte River Valley in Nebraska. And, year by year, the trails were cleared farther west, until they reached all the way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In time, the trail grew branches: the California Trail, the Bozeman Trail, and the Mormon Trail.

From first to last, between the 1830s and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, about 400,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail — settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen, and their families. Notice that last word. Unlike the stampede to California, which was mostly young single men, Oregon’s was a migration of families.

Why Oregon? Because early explorers, having seen few trees and little surface water on the great plains, had termed it the Great American Desert, and it didn’t seem a promising place to settle. Besides, until after the Civil War the plains were reserved for the Indians, and settlement there was illegal. In Oregon, land was fertile, free for the taking, and it came with tremendous natural resources, a climate free of the yellow fever and malaria then prevalent in lower latitudes, and only a few (nominally but certainly not rabidly) British settlers.

The first three wagons to reach the Columbia River by land, two families traveling together, arrived in September, 1840. In 1841 an emigrant group set out for California, but about half the party went instead to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, the first members of an organized wagon train to do so. The following year, another organized wagon train brought more than 100 pioneers. And then, in 1843, an estimated thousand emigrants set out for Oregon. A man named Marcus Whitman volunteered to lead them to Oregon, wagons and all. He believed the wagon trains were large enough that they could build whatever road improvements they needed. They made it as far as Mount Hood, then disassembled the wagons and floated them down the Columbia River and herded the animals over a rough trail. They nearly all arrived in the Willamette Valley by early October. The settlers organized land claims within the Oregon Country, allowing unmarried settlers to claim up to 320 acres and married couples up to 640 acres (one square mile, which was called a section). This was merely provisional, but the claims were eventually honored by the United States in the Donation Land Act of 1850.

In 1846, a road was completed around Mount Hood, thus completing a 2,000-mile wagon trail from the Missouri river. Over the years ferries were established on many rivers to help get the wagons across. These ferries increased the cost of traveling the trail by roughly $30 per wagon but could reduce transit times by a month, as well as preventing death by drowning at river crossings.

The Oregon Trail led to the development of the prairie schooner. Half the size of the larger Conestoga wagon the prairie schooner weighed about 1,300 pounds empty with about 2,500 pounds capacity and about 88 cubic feet of storage space in a box 11 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 2 feet high, and could easily be pulled by four to six oxen or six to ten mules.

The wagons cost between $85 and $170 new. One wagon could carry enough food for six months’ travel for four or five travelers as well as a short list of household and luxury items including clothing and ammunition. More than two thirds of the wagons were pulled by oxen, and most of the rest by mule teams. Although an ox team was about 10 percent slower than a mule or horse-pulled wagon (about 2 to 3 miles per hour) they were cheaper to buy ($25 to $85 per yoke versus up to $600 or more for six horses), easier to train, could pull more, survived better on the sparse grass often found along the trail, did not require oats or grain, and were often tamer and easier to handle after they were trained. (Novices could usually learn to handle a trained ox team in about a week.) They could be turned loose at night and easily rounded up in the mornings. Indians were usually less interested in stealing them. Ox drivers walked alongside the left side of their oxen team and used the voice commands “gee” (right) and “haw” (left) and a whip to guide them, snapping them in the air to get the animal’s attention.

The cost of traveling over the Oregon Trail and its extensions varied from nothing (if you hired on to help drive the wagons or herds) to a few hundred dollars. About 60 to 80 percent of the travelers were farmers and as such already owned a wagon, livestock team, and many of the necessary supplies. This lowered the cost of the trip to about $50 per person for food and other items. Families planned the trip months in advance and made many of the extra clothing and other items needed. If you had capital, you could buy livestock in the Midwest and drive it to California or Oregon for profit.

The number of deaths on the trail is not known with any precision. Estimating is difficult because of the common practice of burying people in unmarked graves that were intentionally disguised to avoid them being dug up by animals or Indians. Graves were often put in the middle of a trail and then run over by the livestock to make them difficult to find. Disease was the main killer of trail travelers; cholera killed up to 3 percent of all travelers in the epidemic years from 1849 to 1855. Indian attacks increased significantly after 1860 when most of the army troops were withdrawn and miners and ranchers began fanning out all over the country, often encroaching on Indian territory. Other common causes of death included hypothermia, drowning in river crossings, getting run over by wagons (believe it or not), and accidental gun deaths. Significant numbers suffered from scurvy, because of their typical diet of flour and salted pork/bacon. Some believe that scurvy deaths may have rivaled cholera as a killer, with most deaths occurring after the victim reached California.

For details of life on the trail, Google the Oregon Trial.



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