The Oregon Trail was a roughly 2,000-mile route from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon, which was used by hundreds of thousands of American pioneers in the mid-1800s to emigrate west. The trail was arduous and snaked through Missouri and present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and finally into Oregon. Without the Oregon Trail and the passing of the Oregon Donation Land Act in 1850, which encouraged settlement in the Oregon Territory, American pioneers would have been slower to settle the American West in the 19th century.
Missionaries Blaze the Oregon Trail
By the 1840s, the Manifest Destiny had Americans in the East eager to expand their horizons. While Lewis and Clark had made their way west from 1804 to 1806, merchants, traders and trappers were also among the first people to forge a path across the Continental Divide.
Determined to spread Christianity to American Indians on the frontier, doctor and Protestant missionary Marcus Whitman set out on horseback from the Northeast in 1835 to prove that the westward trail to Oregon could be traversed safely and further than ever before.
Whitman’s first attempt took him as far the Green River Rendezvous, a meeting place for fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mountains near present-day Daniel, Wyoming. Upon returning home, Whitman married and set out again, this time with his young wife Narcissa and another Protestant missionary couple.
The party made it to the Green River Rendezvous, then faced a grueling journey along Native American trails across the Rockies using Hudson Bay Company trappers as guides. They finally reached Fort Vancouver, Washington, and built missionary posts nearby—Whitman’s post was at Waiilatpu amid the Cayuse Indians.
Whitman’s small party had proved both men and women could travel west, although not easily. Narcissa’s accounts of the journey were published in the East and slowly more missionaries and settlers followed their path which became known as the Whitman Mission Route.
In 1842, the Whitman mission was closed by the American Missionary Board, and Whitman went back to the East on horseback where he lobbied for continued funding of his mission work. In the meantime, missionary Elijah White led over 100 pioneers across the Oregon Trail.
Great Emigration of 1843
When Whitman headed west yet again, he met up with a huge wagon train destined for Oregon. The group included 120 wagons, about 1,000 people and thousands of livestock. Their trek began on May 22 and lasted five months.
It effectively opened the floodgates of pioneer migration along the Oregon Trail and became known as the Great Emigration of 1843.
Upon Whitman’s return to his mission, his main goal shifted from converting American Indians to assisting white settlers. As more settlers arrived, the Cayuse became resentful and hostile.
After a measles epidemic broke out in 1847, the Cayuse population was decimated, despite Whitman using his medical knowledge to help them.
In the ongoing conflict, Whitman, his wife and some of the mission staff were killed; many more were taken hostage for over a month. The incident sparked a seven-year war between the Cayuse and the federal government.
Life on the Oregon Trail
Planning a five- to six-month trip across rugged terrain was no easy task and could take up to a year. Emigrants had to sell their homes, businesses and any possessions they couldn’t take with them. They also had to purchase hundreds of pounds of supplies including:
- rifles and ammunition
By far, the most important item for successful life on the trail was the covered wagon. It had to be sturdy enough to withstand the elements yet small and light enough for a team of oxen or mules to pull day after day.
Most wagons were about six feet wide and twelve feet long. They were usually made of seasoned hardwood and covered with a large, oiled canvas stretched over wood frames. In addition to food supplies, the wagons were laden with water barrels, tar buckets and extra wheels and axles.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the wagons that journeyed the Oregon Trail were prairie schooners and not larger, heavier Conestoga wagons.
Oregon Trail Route
It was critical for travelers to leave in April or May if they hoped to reach Oregon before the winter snows began. Leaving in late spring also ensured there’d be ample grass along the way to feed livestock.
As the Oregon Trail gained popularity, it wasn’t unusual for thousands of pioneers to be on the path at the same time, especially during the California Gold Rush. Depending on the terrain, wagons traveled side by side or single file.
There were slightly different paths for reaching Oregon but, for the most part, settlers crossed the Great Plains until they reached their first trading post at Fort Kearney, averaging between ten and fifteen miles per day.
From Fort Kearney, they followed the Platte River over 600 miles to Fort Laramie and then ascended the Rocky Mountains where they faced hot days and cold nights. Summer thunderstorms were common and made traveling slow and treacherous.
The settlers gave a sigh of relief if they reached Independence Rock—a huge granite rock that marked the halfway point of their journey—by July 4 because it meant they were on schedule. So many people added their name to the rock it became known as the “Great Register of the Desert.”
After leaving Independence Rock, settlers climbed the Rocky Mountains to the South Pass. Then they crossed the desert to Fort Hall, the second trading post.
From there they navigated Snake River Canyon and a steep, dangerous climb over the Blue Mountains before moving along the Colombian River to the settlement of Dalles and finally to Oregon City. Some people continued south into California.
Dangers on the Oregon Trail
Some settlers looked at the Oregon Trail with an idealistic eye, but it was anything but romantic. According to the Oregon California Trails Association, almost one in ten who embarked on the trail didn’t survive.
Most people died of diseases such as dysentery, cholera, smallpox or flu, or in accidents caused by inexperience, exhaustion and carelessness. It was not uncommon for people to be crushed beneath wagon wheels or accidentally shot to death, and many people drowned during perilous river crossings.
Travelers often left warning messages to those journeying behind them if there was an outbreak of disease, bad water or hostile American Indian tribes nearby. As more and more settlers headed west, the Oregon Trail became a well-beaten path and an abandoned junkyard of surrendered possessions. It also became a graveyard for tens of thousands of pioneer men, women and children and countless livestock.
Over time, conditions along the Oregon Trail improved. Bridges and ferries were built to make water crossings safer. Settlements and additional supply posts appeared along the way which gave weary travelers a place to rest and regroup.
Trail guides wrote guidebooks, so settlers no longer had to bring an escort with them on their journey. Unfortunately, however, not all the books were accurate and left some settlers lost and in danger of running out of provisions.
The End of the Oregon Trail
Still, as towns were established along the Oregon Trail, the route continued to serve thousands of emigrants with “gold fever” on their way to California. It was also a main thoroughfare for massive cattle drives between 1866 and 1888.
By 1890, the railroads had all but eliminated the need to journey thousands of miles in a covered wagon. Settlers from the east were more than happy to hop a train and arrive in the West in one week instead of six months.
Although modern progress ended the need for the Oregon Trail, its historical significance could not be ignored. The National Park Service named it a National Historic Trail in 1981 and continues to educate the public on its importance.
First Emigrants on the Michigan Trail. Oregon California Trails Association.
Life and Death on the Oregon Trail: Provisions for Births and Lethal Circumstances. Oregon California Trails Association.
Marcus Whitman (1802-1847) Narcissa Whitman (1808-1847). PBS New Perspectives on the West.
Oregon Donation Land Act. The Oregon Encyclopedia.
Oregon or Bust. Arizona Geographic Alliance.
Oregon Trail. The Oregon Encyclopedia.
Trail Basics: The Starting Point. National Oregon California Trail Center.
Trail Basics: The Wagon. National Oregon California Trail Center.
Where did the Oregon Trail Go? Reaching Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Oregon California Trails Association.
Whitman Mission: Traveling Home with the Great Migration. National Park Service.
Whitman Mission Route, 1841-1847. Oregon Historic Trails Fund.