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Oregon Trail

Pioneers traveled across the Oregon Trail, one of the main overland migration routes on the North American continent, in wagons in order to settle new parts of the United States of America during the 19th century. The Oregon Trail helped the United States implement its cultural goal of Manifest Destiny, that is, to expand the nation from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The five to six month journey spanned over half the continent as the wagon trail proceeded 2,170 miles (3,500 kilometers) west through territories and land later to become six U.S. states: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Between 1841 and 1869, the Oregon Trail was used by settlers migrating to the Pacific Northwest of what is now the United States. Once the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the use of this trail by long distance travelers diminished as the railroad slowly replaced it.



The first land route across what is now the United States that was well-mapped was that taken by Lewis and Clark from 1804 to 1805. They believed they had found a practical route to the west coast. However, the pass through the Rocky Mountains they took, Lolo Pass, turned out to be too difficult for wagons to pass. In 1810, John Jacob Astor outfitted an expedition (known popularly as the Astor Expedition or Astorians) to find an overland supply route for establishing a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River at Fort Astoria. Most of Astor's partners and all of his staff were former employees of the North West Company, known as Nor'Westers.

Fearing attack by the Blackfoot, the expedition veered south of the Lewis and Clark route in what is now South Dakota and in the process passed through what is now Wyoming and then down the Snake River to the Columbia River.

Members of the party, including Robert Stuart, one of the Nor'wester partners, returned back east after the American Fur Company staff there sold the fort to British North West Company staff, who took over the outpost in the War of 1812 via the Snake River. The party stumbled upon South Pass: a wide, low pass through the Rockies in Wyoming. The party continued via the Platte River. This turned out to be a practical wagon route, and Stuart's journals were a meticulous account of it.

Fort Astoria was returned to nominal United States control at the end of the war, although the North West Company's operation at the fort, which they had renamed Fort George, continued uninterrupted. The North West Company became the dominant force in the fur trade in the region, a status which was consolidated after its merger with the Hudson's Bay Company in 1821 and an expansion of the network of fur posts.

Great American Desert

Westward expansion did not begin immediately, however. Reports from expeditions in 1806 by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and in 1819 by Major Stephen Long described the Great Plains as "unfit for human habitation" and as "The Great American Desert". These descriptions were mainly based on the relative lack of timber and surface water. The images of sandy wastelands conjured up by terms like "desert" were tempered by the many reports of vast herds of bison. It was not until later that the Ogallala Aquifer would be discovered and used for irrigation, and railroads would allow farm products to be transported to distant markets and lumber imported. In the meantime, the Great Plains remained unattractive for general settlement, especially when compared to the fertile lands, big rivers, and seaports of Oregon.

The route of the Oregon Trail began to be scouted out as early as 1823 by fur traders and explorers. The portion of the trail west of the continental divide was established by British fur trapping and trading expeditions sent from the Columbia River up the Snake River beginning in 1817 under the North West Company. After 1821 the Hudson's Bay Company sent large annual parties from into the Snake country and into Wyoming. The trail west of the Rocky Mountains remained in control of Hudson's Bay Company into the 1840s. The trail began to be regularly used by fur traders, missionaries, and military expeditions during the 1830s. At the same time, small groups of individuals and the occasional family attempted to follow the trail, and some succeeded in arriving at Fort Vancouver.

The Peoria Party

On May 1, 1839 a group of men from Peoria, Illinois set out with the intention to colonize the Oregon Country on behalf of the United States of America and drive out the English fur trading companies operating there. The men of the Peoria Party were among the first pioneers to blaze the Oregon Trail. The men were led by Thomas J. Farnham and called themselves the Oregon Dragoons. They carried a large flag emblazoned with their motto "OREGON OR THE GRAVE". Although the group split up on the trail, several of their members did reach Oregon and were among the prominent early pioneers of that region

Elm Grove Expedition

On May 16, 1842, the first organized wagon train on the Oregon Trail set out from Elm Grove, Missouri, with more than 100 pioneers (members of the party later disagreed over the size of the party, one stating 160 adults and children were in the party, while another counted only 105). The party was led by Elijah White, appointed Indian Sub-Agent to Oregon, the first U.S. official in the region (never confirmed by Congress). Despite company policy to discourage U.S. emigration, John McLoughlin, Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, offered the American settlers food and farming equipment on credit, being unwilling to watch able-bodied people starve.

Free land

The biggest driving force for settlement was the offer of free land.

In 1843, the settlers of the Willamette Valley by a vote of 52 to 50 drafted a constitution that organized the land claim process in the state. Married couples were allowed to claim up to 640 acres (a "section" which is a square mile, or 260 hectares) at no cost and singles could claim 320 acres (130 ha).

In 1848, the United States formally declared what was left of the Oregon Country a U.S. territory, after it effectively partitioned it in 1846. The Donation Land Act of 1850 superseded the earlier laws, but it did recognize the earlier claims. Settlers after 1850 could be granted half a section (320 acres) if married and a quarter section if single. A four-year residence and cultivation was required. In 1854, the land was no longer free (although still cheap—initially $1.25/acre, or $0.51/ha).

Opening of the trail

In what was dubbed "The Great Migration of 1843" or the "Wagon Train of 1843", an estimated 1000 immigrants, led by Marcus Whitman, arrived in the Willamette Valley. Hundreds of thousands more followed, especially after gold was discovered in California in 1848. The trail was still in use during the Civil War, but traffic declined after 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed. The trail continued to be used into the 1890s, and modern highways eventually paralleled large portions of the trail, including U.S. Highway 26 which follows the trail for much of its length.

Other migration paths for early settlers prior to the establishment of the transcontinental railroads involved taking passage on a ship rounding the Cape Horn of South America or to the Isthmus (now Panama) between North and South America. There, an arduous mule trek through hazardous swamps and rain forests awaited the traveler. A ship was then typically taken to San Francisco, California.


The trail is marked by numerous cutoffs and shortcuts from Missouri to Oregon. The basic route follows river valleys. Starting initially in Independence/Kansas City, the trail followed the Santa Fe Trail south of the Wakarusa River. After crossing The Hill at Lawrence, Kansas, it crossed the Kansas River near Topeka, Kansas, and angled to Nebraska paralleling the Little Blue River until reaching the south side of the Platte River, where it traveled along the Great Platte River Road. It followed the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater Rivers to South Pass in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming. From South Pass the trail approximately parallels the Snake River to the Columbia River at The Dalles, Oregon. From there, several branches and route variations over time led to the Willamette Valley, including boats down the Columbia River, the Santiam Wagon Road, the Applegate Trail and—the most popular route—the Barlow Road.

While the first few parties organized and departed from Elm Grove, the Oregon Trail's generally designated starting point was Independence or Westport on the Missouri River. Several towns along the Missouri River had feeder trails and make claims to being the starting point including Weston, Missouri; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Atchison, Kansas; and St. Joseph, Missouri.

The Oregon Trail's termination point was Oregon City, at the time the proposed capital of the Oregon Territory. However, many settlers branched off or stopped short of this goal and settled at convenient or promising locations along the trail. Commerce with pioneers going further west greatly assisted these early settlements in getting established and launched local micro-economies critical to these settlements' prosperity.

At many places along the trail, alternate routes called "cutoffs" were established either to shorten the trail or to get around difficult terrain. The Lander and Sublette cutoffs provided shorter routes through the mountains than the main route, bypassing Fort Bridger. In later years, the Salt Lake cutoff provided a route to Salt Lake City.

Numerous other trails followed the Oregon Trail for part of its length. These include the Mormon Trail from Illinois to Utah, and the California Trail to the gold fields of California.

Remnants of the trail in Idaho, Kansas, Oregon, and Wyoming, have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the entire trail is a designated National Historic Trail (listed as the Oregon National Historic Trail).


Many rock formations became famous landmarks that the Oregon Trail pioneers used to navigate as well as leave messages for pioneers following behind them. The first landmarks that the pioneers encountered were in western Nebraska, such as Courthouse and Jail Rocks, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff. In Wyoming, names of pioneers can be seen carved into a landmark bluff called Register Cliff, and in Independence Rock. One Wyoming landmark along the trail, Ayres Natural Bridge, is now a state park of the same name.

Travel equipment

The Oregon Trail was too long and arduous for the standard Conestoga wagons used in the Eastern United States at that time for most freight transport. These big wagons had a reputation for killing their oxen teams approximately two thirds along the trail and leaving their unfortunate owners stranded in desolate, isolated territory. The only solution was to abandon all belongings and traipse onward with the supplies and tools that could be carried or dragged. In one case in 1846 on the California Trail, the Donner Party, en route to California, was stranded in the Sierra Nevada in November and some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism to survive.

This led to the rapid development of the prairie schooners. The wagon was approximately half the size of the big Conestogas but was also manufactured in quantity. It was designed for the Oregon Trail's conditions and was a marvel of engineering in its time. The covers of the wagons were treated with linseed oil to keep out the rain. However, the covers eventually leaked anyway.

The recommended amount of food to take for an adult was 150 pounds (70 kg) of flour, 20 pounds (9 kg) of corn meal, 50 pounds (25 kg) of bacon, 40 pounds (20 kg) of sugar, 10 pounds (5 kg) of coffee, 15 pounds (7 kg) of dried fruit, 5 pounds (2 kg) of salt, half a pound (0.25 kg) of saleratus (baking soda), 2 pounds (1 kg) of tea, 5 pounds (2 kg) of rice, and 15 pounds (7 kg) of beans.


Immigration to Oregon Territory increased vastly between 1840 and 1852, the year of greatest migration. According to Oregon Trail Statistics by William E. Hill, the figures rocketed from 13 in 1840 to 1,475 four years later, nearly doubled the following year, and hit 4,000 in 1847. Emigration declined considerably prior to 1850, when 6,000 people trekked to Oregon. In 1851 the number dropped again (3,600) but sustained a huge comeback with 10,000 in 1852. (That same year some 60,000 people emigrated to Utah and California, a stand-alone record.) Another 13,500 people moved to Oregon in 1853-54, with 5,000 more making the trip as of 1859, the year of statehood.

In the 20 years from 1840-1859 some 52,000 emigrants moved to Oregon, but nearly five times that number opted for California or Utah.

Though the numbers appear significant—and they were, especially in context of the times—vastly more people chose to remain at home in the 31 states. Part of the explanation is attributed to scout Kit Carson who reputedly said, "The cowards never started and the weak died on the way." According to some sources, one tenth of the emigrants perished on the way west.


The western expansion and the Oregon Trail in particular inspired many songs that told of the settlers' experiences. "Uncle Sam's Farm," encouraged east-coast dwellers to "Come right away. Our lands they are broad enough, so don't be alarmed. Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm." In "Western Country," the singer exhorts that "if I had no horse at all, I'd still be a hauling, far across those Rocky Mountains, goin' away to Oregon."

When purchasing a new vehicle from 1995-1998, Oregonians could purchase special commemorative Oregon Trail license plates for their cars for an added fee.

Video games

The story of the Oregon Trail inspired a popular educational computer game of the same name, The Oregon Trail. The game became widely popular in the 1980's and early 1990's and although it was originally made to be educational, children played it as a recreational game as well. Several sequels to the game were also released, such as The Oregon Trail II, The Yukon Trail and The Amazon Trail.

The game resurfaced in 2008 when Gameloft created an updated version for cell phones.

TV show

The Oregon Trail was briefly made into a television series that ran from September 21, 1977 - October 26, 1977 on NBC. The show starred Tony Becker, Darleen Carr, Charles Napier, Rod Taylor and Ken Swofford. Although it was canceled after 6 episodes, the remaining episodes were still aired on BBC 2 in the U.K.

See also


Further reading

External links

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