Why Did People Move West on the Oregon Trail?

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While settlers traveled west along the Oregon Trail for a variety of reasons, most were motivated either by land or gold. Various land acts in Oregon provided free land to pioneers, while the start of the California Gold Rush in 1848 lured thousands more. Less famous but equally exciting at the time were other reports of gold being found in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado and other western states.

Emigrants moved in part due to the widespread economic depression of the 1830s and ’40s, while others were fleeing the political turmoil of the Civil War. Missionaries were a common sight. As more and more people settled in the west, travelers set out to join their families. Great Britain also had claims in the Northwest and Mexico in the Southwest; the Bureau of Land Management hypothesizes that some settlers may have been motivated by patriotism to claim land for America.

Though the first emigrants to use the Oregon Trail arrived in 1836, the first large-scale mass migration did not occur until 1843 when an estimated 1,000 pioneers set out together. The Oregon Trail was the only land route for settlers seeking to move west and took approximately four to six months, in contrast to the sea route which could take up to a full year.