Author Archive

Women on the Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

“It strikes me as I think of it now — of course, I was a girl, too young then to know much about it — but I think now the mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else. The men had a great deal of anxiety…but still, the mothers had the families.” – Martha Morrison Minto

Any discussion of the role of women on the Oregon Trail is, at its heart, a discussion of the role of mothers in frontier families. Though there were quite a few single men on the Oregon Trail, there were very few unattached women of marrying age, as what are now thought of as traditional (perhaps quaintly so) gender roles were very much mainstream in the United States of the mid-1800s: men were the breadwinners, while women were encouraged to marry a good provider and keep the house in order. On the frontier, the division between the sexes was perhaps best symbolized by the men working the fields and the women tending the dooryard garden. The men were responsible for deciding what to plant in the fields that generated the family’s income, while the women controlled the garden that the family depended on for greens, vegetables, and often medicinal plants needed to prepare folk remedies. Women also included ornamental flowers in their dooryard gardens — believe it or not, in the mid-1800s dandelions were welcome additions to most lawns and gardens, as they reliably provided some of the first edible greens and colorful flowers every spring.

Whitman Mission Route

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

The Whitman Mission Route served as the main stem of the Oregon Trail during the earliest years of the mass overland migrations. The Oregon Trail’s route led emigrants out of the Blue Mountains and north to the Whitman Mission, where hungry and road-weary emigrant groups could buy provisions, make repairs, and obtain medical services if needed. The Whitman Mission was an important way-station for Oregon Trail emigrants.

Between 1841 and 1847, the Oregon Trail’s main route stretched from the Blue Mountains’ western summit at Deadman Pass, crossed the Umatilla River and continued northward to the Whitman Mission, where Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa operated a Presbyterian Mission and supplied travelers with much needed services and supplies. Hudson’s Bay trappers, mountain men, explorers, and emigrants traveled to and from Whitmans’ mission. This route remained open until the Whitman Massacre of 1847 when emigrants began crossing through the Umatilla Valley near present Pendleton (bypassing the Walla Walla area, Fort Nez Perces, and the Upper Columbia River Route) on their way to the vast Columbia Plateau.

Where Did the Trail Go?

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History


Across the street from Barton Store in Clackamas County is a triangular sign bearing the National Park Service’s Oregon Trail wagon logo and the words “Route of the Oregon Trail.” It is on the closest well-maintained road to the actual route of the pioneer emigrants. There are about 300 identical signs across the state of Oregon, showing where modern tourists can parallel the Trail’s route.

There are two other similar signs, as well. One in Oregon City at Abernethy Green points to the “End of the Oregon Trail,” and another (a gift from Oregon City) in Independence, Missouri, reads “Beginning of the Oregon Trail.”

Where did the Oregon Trail really go? The answer is not simple, as there was no single route, just a destination: Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

Wagons – Prairie Schooners

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History


The most common wagons used for hauling freight back East were the Conestogas, developed in Pennsylvania by descendants of German colonists. Conestoga wagons were large, heavy, and had beds shaped somewhat like boats, with angled ends and a floor that sloped to the middle so barrels wouldn’t roll out when the wagon was climbing or descending a hill. Like the covered wagons of the western pioneers, it had a watertight canvas bonnet to shelter the cargo.

Conestogas were pulled by teams of six or eight horses and could haul up to five tons.

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.

Outfitting for the Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

on_the_trailIt is believed that over 200 steam-powered riverboats sank in the Missouri River during the mid-Nineteenth Century. Two of them were excavated in 1988. One, the Bertrand, was brought to light 120 years after sinking in what is now part of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Omaha. The other, the Arabia, was dug out of a soybean field near Independence more than 130 years after it went down.

The Arabia was supplying the covered wagon trade of Independence and Westport. Its cargo, right down to an unfortunate horse tethered to the deck, was brought up intact, preserved by the suffocating mud of the Missouri. The Bertrand was heading to Council Bluffs with a load of supplies and tools to outfit gold miners following the latest rush to Montana. Salvage crews back in 1868 removed a small treasure of gold bound for the banks in Council Bluffs, but they left its cargo of picks, shovels, bottles, clothing, medicines, and similarly mundane supplies for Twentieth Century treasure hunters.

Outfitting the western travelers was big business for merchants along the banks of the Missouri River from St. Louis to Omaha. The Oregon-bound emigrants were generally poor families who had sold everything they owned (or at least what the bank had not yet repossessed) and booked passage out of town on the same steamboats that were bringing in supplies for their local general stores. While outfitting for the journey, early pioneers were told they needed to purchase everything necessary to sustain them along the Trail for up to six months, as well as farming and building supplies for when they arrived in Oregon — in other words, everything they would need for the rest of their lives.

Introduction to Oregon’s Historic Trails

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Oregon’s history is deeply tied to its trails. The routes followed by American explorers stretched across the Oregon Country a full 50 years before the Oregon Trail migrations of the mid-1800s.

Until the late 1700s, the western regions of the continent were populated exclusively by a wide variety of tribal groups with distinct cultures and traditions. Although an occasional hunter of trapper may have moved through the country, experiences with whites were few and far between.

During the age of exploration, American and English sailing ships skirted the west coast of North American. Captain Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, giving the United States first claim to the title of the territory by right of discovery. Several ships entered the mouth of the Columbia following Gray’s expedition and traveled far enough upriver to see Mount Hood in the distance. Lewis and Clark followed the Columbia River from the east to their winter camp on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, having crossed overland from St. Louis to Oregon in 1804-05. The explorers and traders who traveled into Oregon following the Lewis and Clark Trail helped shape Oregon today.

Oregon Trail Chronology

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History


For twenty five years, as many as 650,000 people may have pulled up stakes and headed for the farms and gold fields of the West. No accurate records exist of traffic on the great overland trails of that era, and some believe the figure may have been as low as 250,000 people. However, estimates have been slowly creeping upwards over the years, and it now seems that something like half a million people headed west from the 1840s through the Civil War. It is generally agreed that Oregon was the destination for about a third of the emigrants, California for another third, and the remainder were bound for Utah, Colorado, and Montana. This was the last of the so-called Great Migrations. It lasted until the coming of the railroads.

Oregon Trail Mileposts

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Three days’ travel out of Independence, the untried, greenhorn Oregon Trail pioneers came upon a hill rising from the flat grassland around it. Blue Mound seemed strangely out of place in the midst of the prairie. Eager emigrants climbed it to get a look at what lay ahead. Officers and guides urging the parties to move on allowed the curious only a quick glance.

As the wagon trains crossed Kansas and Nebraska, the mileposts were obstacles in the form of rivers that had to be crossed: the Blue, Wakarusa, Kansas, Vermilion, Big Blue, and Little Blue. Steep banks and high water during May were common problems. Some rivers could be forded, but for rivers deeper than four feet or so, a pair of canoes would be lashed together, a wagon rolled on crossways, and the resulting ferry poled across. Some smaller creeks had toll bridges built by entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the emigrant traffic.

Oregon Fever

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Secretary of State James Buchanan received a letter in 1849 describing San Francisco and Monterey. It said that three-fourths of the houses were deserted or selling for the price of the building lot. Every blacksmith, carpenter, and lawyer had left. Brickyards, sawmills, and ranches were abandoned. Volunteer soldiers had deserted and sailors were jumping ship. Both newspapers had been discontinued. Even the judges had left.

Californians had word of the discovery of gold all to themselves for the first six months of 1848, but eventually the news spread to Oregon. In July, Captain Newell docked his brig Honolulu at Fort Vancouver. He bought all the mining supplies he could under the pretense of supplying coal miners, but this pretense quickly wore thin. Once the word was out, two-thirds of all adult males in Oregon headed south. Wagon trains of up to 150 men and fifty oxen-pulled wagons traversed the Applegate Trail and Fremont’s route to Sacramento.