Jedediah Smith Route

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Although Jedediah Smith is overshadowed by Lewis and Clark in the exploration of the American West, his influences and impacts on the American West are perhaps no less significant. During his eight years in the West, Smith made the effective discovery of South Pass and was the first American to travel overland to California, the first to cross the Sierra Nevadas and the Great Basin, and the first to reach Oregon by a journey up the California coast. These accomplishments were coupled with involvement in the three greatest disasters in the fur trade. He survived the Arikara defeat of 1823, the Mojave massacre of 1827, and the Umpqua massacre of 1828 — battles which cost the lives of 40 trappers.

Jedediah Smith is regarded as one of America’s trailblazers, yet his expedition to Oregon and its disastrous end is not commonly known to Oregonians.

Jason Lee’s Mission to Oregon

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

jasonleeWhen the first wave of American settlers arrived in the Oregon Country, it was ironic that they were greeted by two Canadians: one a sympathetic rival who was under orders to discourage them, and the other probably the single person most responsible for establishing white settlements, organizing schools, and creating a government. The first was John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The second was Jason Lee, Methodist missionary to Oregon.

With the exception of a handful of explorers, traders, and mountain men, the first Americans to arrive in the Oregon Territory were Protestant Missionaries sent by the Methodist-Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Congregational churches. They failed in their primary task of converting the Indians, but they were successful in providing a foundation of order for white settlement in Oregon during a critical and potentially chaotic time of transition. In the course of trying to bring Christianity to the Indians, they founded the first permanent schools in Oregon. Their presence was also reassuring to people contemplating the trip to Oregon, as the missions, like the trading posts and forts that dotted the Trail, were seen as islands of civilization in the wilderness.

How They Traveled

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History


The pioneers with their Prairie Schooners weren’t the only ones on the Oregon Trail. They shared it with stagecoaches, freight wagons, mail wagons, fur trade caravans, Army troops and supply trains, dispatch and Pony Express riders, pack horses and mules, Mormon handcarts, and even the occasional herd of horses headed for the States from California. Some of the less common trail vehicles included horsedrawn carriages for the affluent and buggies of the 1849 Pioneer Line. Oddities included the 1859 Wind Wagon powered by sails, a steam wagon fiasco out of Nebraska City, and William Kiel’s funeral cortege from Missouri to Oregon, complete with hearse, for his departed son, whose body was pickled in a vat of whiskey for the journey. The Donner-Reed party was slowed by the Reed family’s oversized wagon, later described by Virginia Reed as a “Pioneer Palace Car,” with a side entrance, a stove, sprung seats, and “a large and roomy second story” for the family’s beds. The Reeds were forced to abandon the Palace Car in the Bonneville Salt Flats, where it was discovered and excavated in 1996.

Gold – the 49ers and Other Argonauts

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

The year 1848 started out looking like it would be fairly quiet. The United States was recovering from a depression. A war with Mexico had been fought and won. The fur trade and its once-great empire was well into its decline. The Oregon Question, briefly threatening a third war between the United States and Great Britain, had been settled diplomatically. Mormons were en route to Utah. Farmers were en route to Oregon. The pace of national life had slowed down.

Enter Johann Augustus Sutter, a Swiss immigrant to Mexican California. In 1839, he had convinced the Spanish governor that he was a minor European nobleman and so conned his way into ownership of a rancho in the Sacramento valley. He had become a successful farmer and herder, and he aspired to making his fortune as master of an agricultural empire. To this end, he hired James Marshall, an emigrant from New Jersey by way of Oregon, to oversee the construction of a sawmill. On January 24th, 1848, Marshall was inspecting a ditch when he noticed flecks of gold in the mud.

Free Emigrant Road

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

The Free Emigrant Road, a branch of the Oregon Trail, successfully opened a middle route across Oregon for emigrant travel from the Malheur River (Vale) to the southern Willamette Valley (Eugene).

Three different wagon trains made the attempt to cross by a middle route. The first, led by Stephen Meek in 1845, ended in disaster when the wagon train foundered in the desert before turning north for rescue at The Dalles. The second, led by Elijah Elliott in 1853, succeeded in crossing the desert, but became stranded in the Cascade Mountains for lack of a cleared wagon road and were rescued by a relief party from the settlements. The third attempt, led by William Macy in 1854, was finally successful in both crossing the desert and getting over the Cascades using the newly completed Free Emigrant Road.

Together, the three wagon trains that blazed the middle route brought some 2500 emigrants into Oregon. The routes they blazed, sometimes collectively called the Meek-Elliott-Macy Trail, were later used by gold seekers, freighters, the military, and settlers moving to central and eastern Oregon.

Final Leg of the Trail

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

Looking down on the Columbia River Gorge from high up on Rowena Loop, one sees where the river cuts through the Cascade Mountains. For three years this was the end of the Oregon Trail as an overland route. It was here, just past The Dalles, that the wagons were loaded on rafts or bateaux and floated down to Fort Vancouver and Oregon City.

The west end of the gorge was wretchedly unsuitable for a wagon road: the river was hemmed in by steep slopes and cliffs of hard, volcanic rock, the climate was cold, wet, and windy, and the only areas that were reliably flat enough to permit wagons to pass were soggy bottomlands that were subject to seasonal flooding. Before 1843, no wagon had made it much past Fort Hall intact. From 1843 until 1845, wagons could reach The Dalles, but from there the emigrants had little choice but to make a raft of pine logs, buy a raft from enterprising Indians, or rent a bateaux from the Hudson’s Bay Company for around $80. Many lives were lost on the rapids of the Columbia River, the relentless winds overturned many a raft, and there was a stretch of impassable rapids that had to be portaged. Worse still, families were often divided as cattle were driven over Lolo Pass, on the northwest shoulder of Mount Hood, to Eagle Creek and Oregon City. Despite these hardships, almost one in every four emigrants chose the river route after the Barlow Road was opened.

Feeding the Fad for Furs

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

The development of the Oregon Country started with the demand for furs. The fur trade in Oregon was started in 1778 by Captain Cook trading for sea otter. The Spanish traded from California. The Russians traded the Pacific coast under the auspices of the Russian-American Company. Americans, called Bostons by the natives, entered the fur trade in 1790. Up to 18,000 skins a year were taken from Oregon as part of a ’round the world trading route called the China Circuit. 

Then came the land-based fur trappers and traders known as mountain men. Operating as independent entrepreneurs, they would roam the mountains for years at a time collecting furs to trade at prearranged rendezvous with their suppliers. The mountain men traded mostly for simple supplies such as whiskey and gunpowder and for miscellaneous trade goods they could use to bargain with Indians, while their suppliers took the furs back St. Louis, where they could be sold for serious money. 

Exclusion Laws

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

In June, 1844, the Provisional Government of Oregon enacted its first laws regarding the status of slaves, and therefore blacks, in the Oregon Country. Slavery was declared to be illegal, and settlers who currently owned slaves were required to free them within three years. Any free blacks age 18 or older had to leave the area, men within two years and women within three. Black children were permitted to stay in the Oregon Country until they reached age 18.
The original exclusion law was the infamous “Lash Law” which subjected blacks found guilty of violating the law to whippings — no less than 20 and no more than 39 strokes of the lash — every six months “until he or she shall quit the territory.” It was soon recognized that this punishment was far too severe, and the law was modified before it went into effect.

Ewing Young Route

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

When Ewing Young arrived from California with his large herd of horses and settled in the Chehalem Valley in 1834, his rancho became the most western of all American farmsteads. When Young successfully led the 1837 Willamette Cattle Company expedition with 630 cattle into the Willamette settlements, it made American settlers more independent of the Hudson’s Bay Company and permanently opened the livestock trade from California.

Ewing Young was a master trapper and a great entrepreneur. He was a pioneer in the opening of the Santa Fe Trail, a central figure in the fur trade of the southwest, and opened the trails between New Mexico and California. In Oregon, he was the first American to ranch, farm, and build a mill in the Willamette valley. He raised horses and cattle, grew wheat, operated a sawmill and a gristmill, and his farm became a trading post, general store, and bank for his neighbors. He employed a labor force and supplied housing for them. He even uncovered the bones of prehistoric animals on his ranch, the earliest find in the field of paleontology to be reported from the Pacific Northwest. When he died intestate in 1841, the problem of settling his estate ultimately led to the creation of Oregon’s provisional government in 1843.

Early Towns and Cities

Written by Bethany Nemec on . Posted in Oregon Trail History

From Robin’s Nest to Stumptown

For about a decade, Oregon City was Oregon’s capital and largest city. Oregon City had three things going for it that secured its place in history: it had a prime location at Willamette Falls that provided reliable power for its mills, it had the first courthouse and land office west of the Rockies, and (in large part because of these two factors) it became the end of the Oregon Trail. The residents of Oregon City worked hard to enhance these advantages, but the town’s glory years soon faded as settlers spread out and founded other metropoles with their own competitive advantages. Portland, still affectionately known to locals by its old, perhaps somewhat less than affectionate nickname of “Stumptown,” was a mere upstart in its infancy, one of many towns competing to become the premiere city in Oregon.

Steamboats have plied the Willamette since 1850, and they were the primary means of transporting people and goods over long distances before the coming of the railroads. However, with the notable exception of the unfortunate steamer Claire, which was swept over Willamette Falls in the flood of 1860, there was no easy way to get a boat past the waterfalls at Oregon City. The town of Canemah, now a district of Oregon City, was founded in 1845 as the upper terminal of the portage around the falls, and a wooden-railed portage railroad was built in 1861 from Canemah to Oregon City.