The Oregon Trail

byTodd Underwood

The Oregon Trail migration, more correctly known as the Oregon-California Trail migration, is one of the most important events in American History. The Oregon-California trail was a 2,170 mile route from Missouri to Oregon and California that enabled the migrating of the early pioneers to the western United States. The first emigrants to make the trip were Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who made the trip in 1836. However, the first mass migration did not occur until 1843 when approximately 1000 pioneers made the journey at one time.

This trail was the only feasible land route for settlers to get to the West Coast. From 1843 until 1869 when the first transcontinental railroad was completed, there were over 500,000 people who made the trip in covered wagons pulled by mule and oxen. Some went all the way to Oregon to farm and others went to California to search for gold. The trip usually took 4-6 months by wagon traveling 15 miles a day whereas the only other route to the west, by sea, took a full year.

In the early Spring, emigrant campers would infiltrate Independence, Missouri and set up camp, waiting for the grass to grow along the Oregon Trail. While waiting, the emigrants would stock up on supplies, try to locate friends, and make other preparations for their journey. If they left too early, there would be no grass for their animals to eat which could be a fatal mistake. If they left too late, they would get caught by the winter snows.

Most settlers traveled in farm wagons, four feet by ten feet, with a thousand pounds of food. These wagons had cotton covers treated with linseed oil to keep the rain out. Many were equipped with tool boxes, water containers, and spare axles as breaking an axle without a spare meant abandoning the wagon.

When the time finally came to leave, the settlers would all try to leave at once creating a massive traffic jam further hindered by the inexperience of some of the green east coast teams. As their traveling progressed, most realized they had overpacked and were forced to lighten their loads by throwing things overboard. Because of the heavy loads, many were forced to walk the 2,170 mile journey instead of ride in the wagon.

There were many accidents along the way including being run over by the wagons which meant certain death. Another common accident was accidental gun shots from people fooling around with guns or from half-cocked pistols in the wagons. Another problem for the travelers was Cholera. Some wagon trains lost two-thirds of their people to this quick killing disease. Bodies were usually left on the side of the road or buried in shallow graves which allowed animals to dig them up and scatter their bones along the trail. This proved to be very unnerving for many of the pioneers.

One common misconception about the travelers journey is that the biggest danger was the Indians or Native Americans. Many movies show the pioneers circling their wagons each night to protect themselves from the threat of the Native Americans. In reality, the wagons were circled to provide a convenient corral for livestock. The Native Americans were actually friendly more often than not. Encounters most often involved simple trades and there were very few of the pioneers that actually died at the hands of the Native Americans in the so-called massacres.

The most notable of the massacres was the Gratten Massacre. A cow wandered from an emigrant wagon train and a nearby Sioux village found it and ate it. Twenty-eight men lead by Lt. Gratten set out to make the Sioux Indians pay for their mistake. When the troops got to the Sioux village, the Indians realized their mistake and offered a horse in return. Gratten ordered his men to fire on the tribe. The Indians were ordered by their chief not to fight back, but Gratten turned and shot the chief. This lead to an all out war with the Sioux Indians than went on for decades.

Another major danger to the settlers was weather. Traveling in the summer meant dealing with thunder storms, lightening and hail. Many were killed by lightning or hail the size of baseballs. All in all, one in ten did not survive the journey.

About one third of the way through the trip, the settlers would pass the landmarks of Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. This signified they were making progress. The next major milestone was Fort Laramie, which is now in the state of Wyoming. Here they would rest and restock supplies before setting out on the last leg. From Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger, the Mormon trail and the Oregon Trail were one in the same. Upon reaching Fort Bridger, the Mormons headed south for Salt Lake and those bound for California and Oregon continued Northwest.

The final third of the trail was the most difficult and had to be done with expediency. Winter snows would close the mountain passes and travel was a race with time. In the early years, before the Barlow road was opened, travelers would have to abandon their wagons for boats and float down the Columbia river. Many lost their lives in the rapids and rough parts just miles from their destination. After 1846, and upon paying a toll, the pioneers could finish their journey by crossing the Cascades on the Barlow road.

Once in Oregon and California, settlers would start a new life and build farms or set off to the gold mines. Whether crossing the county in this way was worth the trouble or not, only the early pioneers would know. Today, in many places, the wagons ruts can still be seen. The Oregon National Historic Tail was designated by Congress in 1978 and is administered by the National Park Service in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, state and local governments and many private individuals whose property the trail crosses. Today, one can drive a similar route from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon and visit 125 historic sites and see over 300 miles of existing wagon ruts.

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