Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

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Oregon Trail carried hundreds of thousands into new lives


The Oregon Trail, starting near Kansas City, Missouri, and ending in the Oregon Territory, carried literally hundreds of thousands of people of every sort into new lands in the West, into new lives.

Throughout much of the westward pioneer period, the trail was actually little more than well-worn, widened ruts that people set out to conquer, sometimes in great prairie schooners or on horseback or mule — and many times pushing handcarts and simply determining that they were prepared to walk some 2,000 miles to find land or wealth or glory or other answers to their personal and family dreams!

According to “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Old West,” the Bidwell-Bartleson party made history as the first large-scale group of emigrants to head west in a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon Territory in the spring of 1841. (Don’t let the title of that book mislead you. It’s an excellent source of fun trivia and quick facts about life in the Old West.) From that informal start in 1841, and up to 1866 (or roughly the end of
the Civil War), as many as 650,000 people went West. Not all of them took the Oregon Trail and, since no official records were compiled at the time, the figure may have been as low as 250,000 or even higher than that 650,000.

The most used path of the Oregon Trail went something like this: From Independence, Missouri, north and west to Fort Kearny on the southern bend of the Platte River; taking the south bank of the North Platte to Fort Laramie; travel from Fort Laramie along the North Platte northward to the mouth of the Sweetwater; climb with the Sweetwater to its source at South Pass; then follow the Green River Valley southwest to Fort Bridger; turn northwest to Fort Hall on the Snake River and take the Snake to Fort Boise; cross the Grande Ronde Valley and go over the Blue Mountains — which brings you to the Whitmans’ mission on the Columbia River. That route totaled 1,835 miles.

The California Trail branched off of the Oregon Trail just west of South Pass, heading toward the Great Salt Lake, across Utah Territory and over the Sierra Nevada to Sacramento and on to San Francisco Bay. (Also heading west out of Independence, Missouri, was the major southern route to the West, the Santa Fe Trail.)

Fictional accounts, from books to movies to television, have painted quite a romantic picture of journeying in the West along the Oregon Trail. In real life, the trail was fraught with disease, hunger, wild animals, attacks from “wild Indians” as well as white bandits and bad guys. There were horrible accidents as people, equipment, and animals simply gave out from the stress and hardships of the journey. Indeed, epidemics of cholera and typhoid swept through many of the wagon trains. Disease and accidents accounted for many times more deaths than skirmishes with Indians or any of the gangs and outlaws who preyed on travelers.

Other hardships included loss of property and cases of starvation. Due to the rugged nature of the trail and the terrain travelers had to struggle through as they followed the wagon ruts, many families were forced to abandon their furniture and home furnishings, valuable cutlery and heirloom dishes, sometimes everything they owned. River crossings, deep canyons, and forest and desert thickets were sad testimony to abandoned possessions strewn across the landscape.

Still, on foot on horseback, loaded into wagons of every sort, people took the trail hoping to start a new life in Oregon or California. Many emigrants (they were thought of as “emigrants” because you’ll recall they were actually leaving the United States to go into territories and foreign-claimed land) ended up taking 6-8 months on the trail for their journey. Some descended out of the mountains just in time to escape the horrors of sub-zero temperature, blizzards and worse. Some lost their way and never made it, never to be seen or heard from again.

Many of not most of these pioneers spent their first winter after voyaging across most of the continent just scratching out a start at a new life, clearing home sites and building log cabins. (At least those who made it to Oregon had ample timber for wood; those who settled the Great Plains often had to build homes of sod and brush.) Their simple cabins were usually made of notched and stacked logs, with mud and small sticks plastering up the cracks in the walls. They topped them with rafters covered with bark shingles.

Between 1841 and 1866, because brave and foolish alike decided to go west on the Oregon Trail and related routes, European-Americans spread their culture and their claims from coast to coast. These paths, little more than rugged wheel ruts through the wilderness, shaped America into the land we know today.

Will there ever be a new Oregon Trail? A new round of migration or vision of westward expansion like that generated 100+ years ago by the original Oregon Trail? Not likely. Though modern demographers trace population shifts toward southern and western states in the U.S. as population ages and retirees head for warmer climes, that’s nothing like the culture changing and geographical shifts generated by this network of westward passages. That heritage will live forever.