The first wagon trains headed westward along the overland trails — the most famous was the Oregon Trail — from Missouri in 1841, and a major motivation for those making the long, often tortuous journey was economic: Following the Panic of 1837 (a fearsome Depression by even today’s standards), wages throughout America had fallen by 30-50 percent. There were no unemployment figures kept at the time, of course, but had there been, they would have been horrific. Major public demonstrations by out of work residents of Philadelphia and New York City brought out hundreds of thousands of people in 1839 and 1840.
So people looked to the West, specifically California Territory and Oregon Territory, as though it were a biblical Promised Land. Even the farmers of relatively unharmed Midwestern and Plains regions felt the wanderlust and started selling out or abandoning their homes and farms to get in on the westward journey.
One source says the first recognizable wagon train started westward from Missouri on May 19, 1841, carrying some 70 men, women, and children in a dozen covered wagons headed for the Pacific Coast. They were spurred on by various “Oregon Societies” which had formed in the 1830s to help folks prepare and make the arduous journey. Many of them probably based their plans and dreams for the future on half-truths and downright lies rampant throughout the East and Midwest designed to draw people to the Territories. (One 1834 traveler to the Oregon Territory described it in extremely glowing terms: “The soil … is rich beyond comparison. The epidemic of the [Midwest] country, fever and auge, is scarcely known here … the willamet valley is a terrestrial paradise.”)
There were approximately 350,000 people who made this westward migration between 1841 and 1866. Most of them took along in wagons, and abandoned along the trail, the majority of their worldly goods. It was a risk they were willing to take, based on desperate times in the East and Midwest and unfounded hopes about Oregon and California.
One of the best known accounts of part of this westward migration is “The Oregon Trail,” by Francis Parkman. Parkman writes of his 1846 “adventure” traveling along parts of that famous route. His account was originally published as a magazine serial in 1847-49 then published as a book in 1849. Parkman’s account has been studied and republished in numerous editions since the 1849 original. It’s important to note, however, that it is NOT a detailed account of anything resembling a typical journey on the Oregon Trail because he never took the most hazardous, most mountainous parts of the trip.
But the book is well worth reading and owning, simply as a first-person account of wagon trains and travel westward during this early migration period.
Wagon train migration had a major impact on the shape and nature of the Old West — and it’s important to note that many of these pioneers were responding to economic crises, hoping for a new life and prosperity in the new land.