Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Oregon Trail


We're off on The Oregon Trail following a very entertaining talk given locally.  I realise I'm not really qualified to write this for all you US readers, I'm sure you'll have so much more detail to share and I hope you'll put me right if I've got it all wrong.

In 1804 President Thomas Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on a mission to find an overland route to the Pacific North West.
The purchase of Louisiana from France had doubled U.S. territory and Jefferson was keen to search for opportunities for commerce for the fur trade in the North West and stake a claim for America.

Between 1804-06, 33 men and one woman acting as interpreter together with horses and canoes set off from Independence, Missouri to map the area to the Willamette Valley in Oregon, mainly following the Missouri River, over the Continental Divide at the Lemhi Pass. On their return, maps were drawn up and the success of the mission was recognised.

With the trail only viable on horseback between 1811-32, the fur traders made use of it but when the South Pass in Wyoming over the Continental Divide was found in 1812 and became more widely known, this provided an  easier ascent and descent of the 8,000 ft mountains.  It wasn't until 1832 that the first wagons were able to cross.

Around the 1830s and 1840s, in the East, poverty and the threat of civil war as well as the massive European immigration made people consider the 2,000 plus mile trek to Oregon or 3,000 miles to California. In fact, half the US banks had closed, there were problems with religious persecution and some were keen to look for gold and lead or buffalo, all good reasons to venture to the West.

There were two ways of travelling to the West, a six month 3,000 mile walk or a year by sea. Miles and miles of dusty plains, flattened by 20-30 million buffalo, only 10,000 today, with many rivers and the Rocky Mountains to cross was The Oregon Trail option.

On the walk, 70-80% were farmers. Families needed a good solid wagon, the best made by Studebaker, roughly 18x11ftx4ft to carry all their supplies for the trip including food and water, they were pulled by oxen whilst the people walked along by the side, mostly barefoot with bandages round their feet. By 1843, the 'Big Emigration' began, with from 10 to 100 wagons leaving together but one big wagon train had 1,600 wagons, 10,000 oxen, 30,000 cattle, 60,000 sheep and was 300 miles long.  Trees and scrub were scarce and they had to save their resources and look after their animals so were unable to catch the numerous buffalo, however they used their dung to make fires and cook. The native Indians were initially friendly and supplied buffalo meat to them.

Many pioneers took too many of their household goods with them like pianos, mirrors, etc. which they had to jettison en route, only to be picked up by unscrupulous entrepreneurs following on behind.

Mainly following the River Missouri, they passed through Fort Kearney, which was burnt in 1868 by the native Indians which was the start of the troubles between them. Fort Laramie had 700 friendly Sioux.

Following the maps of Lewis and Clerk, they were able to see the landmarks like Chimney Rock and Independence Rock where they carved their names. Hundreds drowned crossing the rivers, some built rafts, they had to work together to help each other.

The Black Hills of Dakota, so called because of the colour of the tree bark, led to Deadwood with its lead mines, on the drovers route from Texas where 10 million cattle were transported.  Wild Bill Hickok, a scout, lawman, gunfighter amongst other things, was shot in Black Jake's Saloon in Deadwood and is buried there. Calamity Jane paid the gravedigger to place her grave next to his when she died, which he duly did.

Other trails led off the Oregon Trail like the Mormon Trail, which went south to Utah, the California Trail led to the gold mines. During 1849-53, $600,000 million was mined in California, along Route 49.

The different indigenous tribes along the trail were mainly tolerant of the pioneers to start with especially on the eastern side of the mountains. However they did fight each other and were unable to withstand the effects of the pioneers' whisky. On the Whitman mission, half of the Cayuse tribe were wiped out by the measles and although they were looked after, they were not immune to the disease. As the white people recovered, those from the Cayuse tribe thought they had been killed on purpose and attacked the mission.

Many of the pioneers died due to poor sanitation or the cholera, accidents or drowning.

In 1860 the Pony Express was set up to send messages to those back East, a perilous journey for all those involved. It lasted 18 months when they had covered 600,000 miles and delivered 35,000 pieces of mail. The service was killed by the introduction of the telegraph when the railways were constructed. The railroad offered a faster and safer journey to the West so the wagon trails ceased in 1869.

I really enjoyed learning about the life and times of those connected with the trail, the speaker brought to life the trials and tribulations of those brave pioneers.  I can't imagine embarking on such a long distance with small children but I'm sure they did it to give them a better life. I hope the above encourages you to look up more about it.



  1. This is a subject I use to teach to my 3rd graders, they found it fascinating. I have friends who have driven the Oregon Trail, I'd like to do that some day.

    1. My account is just the bare bones but it must be fascinating to be there soaking up the atmosphere.

  2. I loved reading your post today as I grew up in Idaho and Washington. A few years ago I visited the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretative Center in Baker, Oregon and it was so fascinating. I'd love to visit it again. My best to you, Pat

    1. So glad you enjoyed in Pat. Maybe I might get there one day but I've a much better idea of that area now. Have a great weekend.