Trail FAQs

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

 

What is the Oregon Trail?

In its earliest days, the Oregon Trail was a 2000 mile long string of rivers and natural landmarks that could be followed from Missouri to Oregon. It was easy to get lost without a guide who knew the way. In later years, after thousands of pioneers had followed the Oregon Trail to settle in the Oregon Country, there were well-worn paths to follow. On the other hand, there were also local roads, military roads, and even shortcuts, so while it was harder to get really lost, it was still easy to take a wrong turn.

Where did the Oregon Trail begin and end?

Well, that depends on how you look at it. Officially, according to an act of Congress, it begins in Independence, Missouri, and ends in Oregon City, Oregon. To the settlers, though, the trail to the Oregon Country was a five-month trip from their old home in the East to their new home in the West. It was different for every family. Some people got ready to leave the East, or “jump off” as they called it, in towns like St. Joseph or Council Bluffs, and others jumped off from their old homes in Illinois or Missouri and picked up the Oregon Trail in the countryside. Along the way, they could choose to take shortcuts or stick to the main trunk of the Trail, and the end of their journey didn’t really come until they settled a claim somewhere in the vast Oregon Country.

What’s this “Oregon Country” you keep mentioning?

The State of Oregon was established in 1859 with its present boundaries. In 1848, the Oregon Territory was declared, making the region — the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, along with part of western Montana — part of the United States. Before 1848, it was called the Oregon Country because it was not claimed by the USA. The Oregon Country was even bigger than the Oregon Territory, since it stretched north all the way to Alaska. It was also claimed by the British Empire, but so many American settlers arrived in the 1840s that the British only held on to control over the northern part of the Oregon Country. That part of the old Oregon Country is now western Canada.

Why did people want to go there?

Lots of reasons. There were some families that just had the habit of moving west every five or ten years to follow the frontier. They liked the extra freedom of life on the frontier, but civilization kept catching up to them. It seemed to them like emigrating to Oregon would be the last move they would ever have to make. Others were in search of opportunity — there were hard times back East, but in the 1840s married settlers could claim a square mile of the Oregon Country, 640 acres, at no cost. Oregon had a reputation not only for having good farmland and vast forests of huge, ancient trees, but also for being free of disease. This made the Oregon Country even more attractive, since epidemics were common in the East and little was known about the causes of disease and infection. The idea of allowing such valuable land to fall into the hands of the British inspired patriotic Americans to head for Oregon, and gold strikes in southern and eastern Oregon during the 1850s inspired other sorts of Americans.

Didn’t that make the Indians angry?

Some of them, yes — very angry. The Pacific Northwest had its share of theft, violence, and massacres as Europeans and Americans arrived and took control of the land from the Indians. However, most of the Indians in the Oregon Country welcomed the white settlers. Their experience with British and American traders led them to see the settlers as a new source of wealth, as tribes which traded with whites became rich and powerful compared with their neighbors. When American settlers began arriving, Indians often guided them through the mountains or let them stake a claim on tribal lands in exchange for gunpowder, food, clothes, or horses. Unfortunately, the traders and settlers also brought new diseases to the Indians, diseases like smallpox and measles which killed whole tribes. A single sick sailor on a trading ship killed almost the entire 800-member Multnomah tribe, and by the mid-1840s the Willamette Valley had been largely cleared of Indians not by fighting, but by plagues.

Yikes! Why didn’t the Indians try to kick the settlers out?

A lot of the credit for keeping the peace goes to Dr. John McLoughlin of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose word was law for twenty years until Americans began arriving in great numbers. McLoughlin was a wise man and often generous to those in need, even penniless American settlers. Lewis and Clark — not to mention Sacajawea — also deserve credit for their skill and good luck in dealing with the Indians. The good relations begun in 1805 between whites and the Nez Perce tribe when the Lewis and Clark expedition passed through their lands lasted for 70 years. The Nez Perce did well during a time when their neighbors were decimated by disease, alcoholism, and skirmishes with the settlers, and by the 1870s they were the last major tribe left intact in the region. Sadly, that ended when the government decided that the Nez Perce would be better off on a reservation after gold was discovered on their land.

So Lewis and Clark paved the way for the settlers?

Hmm… yes and no. Remember that Lewis and Clark made their trip about 35 years before the Oregon Trail came into use, and they took a completely different route through the Rocky Mountains — South Pass, where the Oregon Trail crossed the Continental Divide, was named “South Pass” because it’s south of the pass used by Lewis and Clark. Really, Lewis and Clark paved the way for the fur trappers who explored the West, the trappers paved the way for missionaries who tried to convert the Indians to Christianity, and the missionaries paved the way for the settlers who broke the British claim to the Pacific Northwest.

What were the British doing there, anyway?

Mostly, they were trapping beavers. Fur was worth big money to the British because of a fad among the wealthy for beaver top hats, and through the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company, the British fielded a small army of French Canadian and half-Indian trappers. There were so many skilled trappers that they could quickly “trap out” entire valleys, forcing them to push farther and farther afield to find the furs they needed to make a living. After conflicts over territory turned violent in the 1810s, the British government restored the peace in 1821 by allowing the Hudson’s Bay Company to take over the North West Company. The NWC had arrived in the Oregon Country as far back as 1807, so the Hudson’s Bay Company inherited its forts there in 1821. By the 1840s, when the Oregon Trail came into use, the beaver were mostly trapped out and the HBC was shifting its goals to settling the prairies in the Willamette Valley and around Puget Sound. Most of the British settlers were former trappers who had married Indian women and decided to settle down in Oregon, and they were soon outnumbered by Americans. For a short time, the British Empire thought about going to war against the United States over the question of who ruled the Oregon Country. They even sent spies into Oregon to scout the land for the army and find out if the settlers would raise a militia. The spies reported that the terrain would make for hard marching and the American settlers were not only patriotic enough to resist a British invasion, but they had enough guns to put up a real fight, as well. That was the end of any talk about another war.

So the British were trappers and the Americans were farmers?

Yeah, that’s about the size of it. The British saw the Oregon Country as just another territory in their empire, a land to be exploited for whatever resources were worth the most money. In India, it was tea; in Oregon, it happened to be fur. The Americans, on the other hand, were in it for the long haul: Oregon wasn’t a colony to them, it was going to become part of the United States (there were some people who wanted to make Oregon an independent country, but most of the settlers considered themselves Americans and were proud of it — even some of the Brits who had to apply for citizenship after Oregon was declared a federal Territory in 1848 became flag-waving, fireworks-shooting Americans). Of course, California beat them to it, but only because of the Gold Rush.

Now that you mention it, isn’t there a California Trail, too?

There are lots of trails out here in the West. Offhand, there’s the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Bozeman Trail, the Southern Route (or Applegate Trail), the Free Emigrant Road, the Cherokee Trail, the Pony Express Trail(s), the Nez Perce Trail, and too many shortcuts and military roads to even try to list here. Still, the California Trail is one of the big ones: it followed the Oregon Trail across the Great Plains and over the Continental Divide, and then cut off from the Oregon Trail near Fort Hall to follow two or three major routes to the gold fields. Tens of thousands of prospectors, miners, and carpetbaggers followed the California Trail west after gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. However, this Web site belongs to Clackamas Heritage Partners.

It followed the Oregon Trail…so the Oregon Trail came first?

Actually, as an emigrant road, the Oregon Trail is exactly as old as the California Trail. A party of about a hundred families was headed for California in 1841, but they split at Fort Hall when half of them decided to settle in Oregon, instead. Before gold was discovered in California, most settlers were Oregon bound, so the entire length of the trail is generally called the Oregon Trail, not just the leg that led to Oregon. On the other hand, the route across the plains, which followed the Platte River for most of its length, was used by thousands of Mormons headed for Utah as well as overlanders headed for Oregon and California, so it’s sometimes called “the Great Platte River Road” to avoid any confusion about who was following it.

How long did it take to get to Oregon?

At least four months. Emigrants who finished the trip in five months were thought to have made good time. Stragglers who needed six or seven months to reach Oregon risked running into winter weather in the mountains — and after the 1846 ordeal of the Donner-Reed Party, the thought of being that slow was enough to frighten anyone into action.

What was the trip like?

Exhausting, boring, dangerous, frightening, and exciting — probably in about that order. It was exhausting because the emigrants had to walk almost the entire way, though a few of them rode horses. They didn’t ride in their wagons because they wanted to spare the oxen pulling the wagons, but sometimes the women and children would pile into the wagons when the weather was foul. Even without the extra weight of people in the wagons, the trip was so long that even the sturdiest ox could die from exhaustion or go mad from thirst. Boredom came from the daily routine of breaking camp, walking, making camp again in the evening, and eating the same thing day after day, all in the midst of a cloud of dust and grit thrown up by the wagons and animals. Every once in a while, the boredom was broken by a dangerous river crossing or a steep hill. Historians estimate that one in every ten people on the Oregon Trail died on the way to Oregon. Most of them were killed accidentally: guns went off because someone wasn’t paying attention to what they were doing, children fell and were crushed by wagon wheels, people were hurt trying to round up frightened or injured livestock, and so on. At least one person is known to have been struck by lightning. Disease was the single biggest killer on the Trail, especially during a cholera epidemic around 1850. The nightmare most feared by the overlanders — being attacked by Indians — was usually the last thing they had to worry about. Still, it wasn’t all bad: there were marriages, births, and holidays (especially the Fourth of July) to celebrate along the way, and it was always a big day when a major landmark like Chimney Rock came into view for the first time.

How many people came west on the Oregon Trail?

At least 80,000 emigrants followed the Oregon Trail to settle in the present-day states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. That estimate has been creeping upwards over the years, and as many as 200,000 people may have traveled the Trail by wagon.

When was the Oregon Trail in use?

The Trail was in regular use from 1843 until the 1870s. When the Union Pacific completed the first railroad link to the West Coast in 1869, the preferred route became by train to San Francisco, then north to Oregon by ship, but wagon trains could still be seen on the Oregon Trail as late as the 1880s. The last wagon widely known to have traveled the length of the Trail was driven in 1906 by Ezra Meeker, an aging Oregon Trail emigrant who was conducting a one-man publicity campaign to remind people of the historic significance of the Oregon Trail. However, we’ve had visitors at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center who recalled that because their family couldn’t afford the train fare, they traveled the Trail by wagon as late as 1912.

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