Oregon Trail migration, more correctly known as the Oregon-California
Trail migration, is one of the most important events in
American History. The Oregon-California trail was a 2,170
mile route from Missouri to Oregon and California that enabled
the migrating of the early pioneers to the western United
States. The first emigrants to make the trip were Marcus
and Narcissa Whitman who made the trip in 1836. However,
the first mass migration did not occur until 1843 when approximately
1000 pioneers made the journey at one time.
trail was the only feasible land route for settlers to get
to the West Coast. From 1843 until 1869 when the first transcontinental
railroad was completed, there were over 500,000 people who
made the trip in covered wagons pulled by mule and oxen.
Some went all the way to Oregon to farm and others went
to California to search for gold. The trip usually took
4-6 months by wagon traveling 15 miles a day whereas the
only other route to the west, by sea, took a full year.
the early Spring, emigrant campers would infiltrate Independence,
Missouri and set up camp, waiting for the grass to grow
along the Oregon Trail. While waiting, the emigrants would
stock up on supplies, try to locate friends, and make other
preparations for their journey. If they left too early,
there would be no grass for their animals to eat which could
be a fatal mistake. If they left too late, they would get
caught by the winter snows.
settlers traveled in farm wagons, four feet by ten feet,
with a thousand pounds of food. These wagons had cotton
covers treated with linseed oil to keep the rain out. Many
were equipped with tool boxes, water containers, and spare
axles as breaking an axle without a spare meant abandoning
the time finally came to leave, the settlers would all try
to leave at once creating a massive traffic jam further
hindered by the inexperience of some of the green east coast
teams. As their traveling progressed, most realized they
had overpacked and were forced to lighten their loads by
throwing things overboard. Because of the heavy loads, many
were forced to walk the 2,170 mile journey instead of ride
in the wagon.
There were many accidents along the way including being
run over by the wagons which meant certain death. Another
common accident was accidental gun shots from people fooling
around with guns or from half-cocked pistols in the wagons.
Another problem for the travelers was Cholera. Some wagon
trains lost two-thirds of their people to this quick killing
disease. Bodies were usually left on the side of the road
or buried in shallow graves which allowed animals to dig
them up and scatter their bones along the trail. This proved
to be very unnerving for many of the pioneers.
common misconception about the travelers journey is that
the biggest danger was the Indians or Native Americans.
Many movies show the pioneers circling their wagons each
night to protect themselves from the threat of the Native
Americans. In reality, the wagons were circled to provide
a convenient corral for livestock. The Native Americans
were actually friendly more often than not. Encounters most
often involved simple trades and there were very few of
the pioneers that actually died at the hands of the Native
Americans in the so-called massacres.
most notable of the massacres was the Gratten Massacre.
A cow wandered from an emigrant wagon train and a nearby
Sioux village found it and ate it. Twenty-eight men lead
by Lt. Gratten set out to make the Sioux Indians pay for
their mistake. When the troops got to the Sioux village,
the Indians realized their mistake and offered a horse in
return. Gratten ordered his men to fire on the tribe. The
Indians were ordered by their chief not to fight back, but
Gratten turned and shot the chief. This lead to an all out
war with the Sioux Indians than went on for decades.
major danger to the settlers was weather. Traveling in the
summer meant dealing with thunder storms, lightening and
hail. Many were killed by lightning or hail the size of
baseballs. All in all, one in ten did not survive the journey.
one third of the way through the trip, the settlers would
pass the landmarks of Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. This
signified they were making progress. The next major milestone
was Fort Laramie, which is now in the state of Wyoming.
Here they would rest and restock supplies before setting
out on the last leg. From Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger,
the Mormon trail and the Oregon Trail were one in the same.
Upon reaching Fort Bridger, the Mormons headed south for
Salt Lake and those bound for California and Oregon continued
final third of the trail was the most difficult and had
to be done with expediency. Winter snows would close the
mountain passes and travel was a race with time. In the
early years, before the Barlow road was opened, travelers
would have to abandon their wagons for boats and float down
the Columbia river. Many lost their lives in the rapids
and rough parts just miles from their destination. After
1846, and upon paying a toll, the pioneers could finish
their journey by crossing the Cascades on the Barlow road.
in Oregon and California, settlers would start a new life
and build farms or set off to the gold mines. Whether crossing
the county in this way was worth the trouble or not, only
the early pioneers would know. Today, in many places, the
wagons ruts can still be seen. The Oregon National Historic
Tail was designated by Congress in 1978 and is administered
by the National Park Service in partnership with the Bureau
of Land Management, the Forest Service, state and local
governments and many private individuals whose property
the trail crosses. Today, one can drive a similar route
from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon and visit
125 historic sites and see over 300 miles of existing wagon