The Oregon Trail
Americans have long been thought of as a restless group of people. They seem to have always been on the move, searching for a better place to live. From America's first colonies small groups of people uprooted themselves, migrating westward to look for better farmland. They built pioneer roads, or trails, such as the Cumberland Road that led into the Ohio Valley, and the Genesee Road that led across New York to the shores of Lake Erie. Many of these roads and trails have disappeared. Others can still be traced, revealing artifacts along the way that help us to recreate their story. The Oregon Trail is one of these trails. Even today you can retrace its path, walking beside wagon ruts that were gouged almost a century and a half ago. The Oregon Trail was different from the earlier trails and roads that had crossed the Appalachian Mountains in the East. It was longer and more difficult than most pioneers had experienced. Unlike the eastern trails, the Oregon Trail crossed nearly 2,000 miles of unfamiliar prairie, desert, and mountainous regions. There were no settlements along the way that could offer friendly hospitality, and emigrants couldn't scout out their new homeland before they moved there. Oregon Country was so far away, it took from four to six months to get there. When people moved there, they moved to stay. The story of the Oregon Trail and the people who used it begins when the trail was an ancient Indian footpath used by explorers and fur traders. Independence, Missouri, was the frontier town that served as the starting place. The trail wound westward, following the banks of the Platte, North Platte, and Snake Rivers. It crossed the Rockies through the South Pass, crossed the Blue Mountains further north, and ended in Oregon Country at a place called The Dalles. From The Dalles, anyone continuing on to the Williamette Valley floated down the Columbia River. Up until the mid-1830s, no wagon had ever made the trip. It is difficult for us to imagine Oregon Country as it was a century and a half ago. A vast wilderness that stretched from the crest of the Rockies to the Pacific coast, it included the present states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The area was inhabited by several tribes of Indians, including the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Nez Perce. There were some trappers and traders in the region, but to most, the area was too far away and too strange for them to consider settling there. President Thomas Jefferson was the first to actively encourage exploration of Oregon Country. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark into the area to seek a trade route to the Pacific. Jefferson knew that their explorations would help the United States strengthen its claim to the Pacific Northwest. It is important to remember that for the first half of the nineteenth century both Great Britain and the United States occupied the Pacific Northwest. Great Britain already had a strong claim to the land that was to become Canada, and the Hudson's Bay Company had many fur trading posts in the Pacific Northwest. There were American fur trading posts as well, such as the American Fur Company organized by John Jacob Astor in 1808. In 1818, Great Britain and the United States signed a treaty that allowed both countries to occupy the area, but it was not until the 1830s that Americans began moving in. Missionaries, such as Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, were among the first settlers. When people learned that the Whitmans had journeyed successfully over the Oregon Trail in 1836, they began to think differently about Oregon Country. The fact that a woman had made the journey safely, and that the Whitmans had traveled with a wagon, encouraged others to think that they could make the journey, too. In fact, when Dr. Whitman returned East in 1842 to help promote his missionary work, he found many people who were eager to travel to Oregon Country. In 1843, some 1,000 people and 2,000 animals joined Dr. Whitman and a surveyor named Jesse Applegate as they led a wagon train over the Oregon Trail. The "great migration" ? one of the greatest migrations in recorded history ? had begun. Why were so many people going to Oregon Country? Some said they had Oregon fever, a "disease" that made them restless, hungry for new land, and eager for adventure. But why were they going all the way to Oregon Country? One very important reason was that the United States government was encouraging them to do so. Since Thomas Jefferson's presidency, our government had come a long way toward believing that the United States should stretch from coast to coast. If Americans were to settle the Oregon Country in large numbers, our claim to the land would be strengthened. One man in particular wrote reports about the Oregon Country that were designed to make people want to go there. His name was John Charles Frémont (1813-90). He was a soldier, explorer and political leader who, in 1838, was asked to be the chief assistant in mapping the upper waters of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. He wrote very detailed descriptions of his explorations, and his reports were reprinted and read by many people. It was Frémont who wrote guidebooks for emigrants who were encouraged to settle in Oregon Country and help wrest it from British control. As Americans began pouring into the Williamette River valley in the 1840s, a dispute between Great Britain and the United States almost caused a war. The biggest disagreement was over the northern boundary of the Oregon Country. The British wanted the boundary to be on the north bank of the Columbia River. The Americans wanted it further north on the 54th Parallel. After careful negotiations, war was prevented when the two countries signed the Oregon Treaty of 1846. They agreed to compromise, placing the boundary on the 49th Parallel extending to Puget sound and leaving Vancouver Island as a part of Canada. The Oregon Treaty gave the United States undisputed claim to the Pacific Northwest, encouraging even more emigrants to move west. By the 1850s, the Oregon Trail had become a series of parallel wagon ruts that could be seen even in solid rock. Oregon Country officially became the Oregon Territory in 1848. In 1859, the state of Oregon was created and admitted to the Union as the 33rd state. Twenty years earlier the area had been an unknown wilderness! What was it like to travel on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 1850s? Fortunately there are many accounts that have survived, written by the people who used the trail and who wanted to preserve their experiences for later generations. The story of the Sager children was preserved by three of the Sager girls who survived. Diaries, such as the one handed down to Jean Burroughs, provide eyewitness accounts of the daily travel. When we read these accounts, we can easily imagine the hardship, the anxiety, and the excitement the emigrants must have experienced. According to several historians, at least 30,000 emigrants died on the Oregon Trail between 1843 and 1859. You might say that there is an average of one grave for every 100 yards of trail from the Missouri River to the Williamette River! Why did so many people die? Cholera, a disease that spreads when there are filthy conditions caused by garbage and sewage, claimed thousands of lives. Emigrants passed through, and sometimes camped near, the refuse left by earlier wagon trains. Other diseases caused people to die, but cholera was probably the most common. Accident was another common cause of death. Children often hurt themselves as the wagons rolled along. Doctors were not always available, and even when they were they often lacked necessary supplies. Most of the emigrants were simply not prepared for the difficult journey ahead, and they were careless. There were some problems as the emigrants passed through Indian territory. Indian attacks usually took the form of raids on the livestock, but few people were ever killed. The Indians owned much of the land on both sides of the Oregon Trail, and the emigrants were trespassing. Some tribal leaders demanded payment as the wagon trains rolled through, and, if the emigrants cooperated, there was no further trouble. In other instances, the Indians made a surprise attack, took livestock, and left the wagons unharmed. It would be several years later, in the 1860s, when the Indians would finally realize that their homelands had been lost forever. Tribal chiefs, such as Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, both of the Oglala Sioux, devoted their lives to trying to save their homelands and people. But the idea that the United States should stretch from coast to coast had already taken hold. The Oregon Trail, no longer just a footpath, had opened the way to the West.
From Cobblestone's December, 1981, issue: The Oregon Trail. © 1981, Cobblestone Publishing Inc., Peterborough, NH 03458. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
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