Oregon Trail

The Interstate 90, 80, 40 and other even number on todays highways provide travelers as to which direction they are driving inasmuch as the Interstate 5 95 indicate that highways are running north to south of the North America. It wasnt so easy for those emigrants who packed up every thing they owned and headed towards the west in 19th Century in the United States. It wasnt so easy for those who decided to start new opportunities and prosperity of the new land will provide in the west. Their choice was to journey through very unforgiving but beautiful, deadly but challenging on the Oregon Trail.

It crossed about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of rugged terrain, including desert and Indian Territory of the Northwest. It was the greatest emigrant routes in the history of US. However the emigrants of the 1840s were not the first to travel the Oregon Trail (Coons). In 1540 the Spanish explorer Coronado ventured as far north as present-day Kansas, but the inland routes across the plains remained the sole domain of Native Americans until 1804, when Lewis and Clark skirted the edges on their epic journey of discovery to the Pacific Northwest.

Zeb Pike explored the “Great American Desert,” as the Great Plains was then known. The historians agreed that Lewis and Clark Expedition had a direct influence on the economy of the West even before the explorers had returned to St. Louis (Hains). The US history was replete with explorers, mountain men, and soldiers, and scientists who opened up the West in early 1800s. John Jacob Astor, at the insistence of his friend Thomas Jefferson, founded the Pacific Fur Company in New York. The Americans became involved in the fur trade in 1810. Astor sent Wilson Price Hunt west in 1811.

Hunt followed the Lewis and Clark route as far as the Dakotas and then went overland across Union Pass, near Jackson Hole (Stone). The route they took was proved unsuitable, and it was after much hardship that the Hunt party arrived in Astoria (later known then as Fort Astor) finally in the spring of 1812. Initially, fur traders and missionaries used the trail, and suddenly in the 1840s the trail widespread with the wagon trains of about 12,000 emigrants to Oregon. Including an occasional stop at various forts for replenishment of supplies and livestock and for repairs, the journey took about four to six months.

During the journey, cholera was a persistent problem. Some 1,000 settlers joined the “great migration” led by Marcus Whitman 1843). Abundance of gold seekers also used the eastern portion of the trail to California in the late 1840s. The thousands of Mormons followed a route later called the Mormon Trail in 1847, which frequently coincided in Wyoming with the Oregon Trail. Of the entire overland routes west, the Oregon Trail was in use for the longest period; after railroads replaced much travel by wagon train, the trail was often used for eastward cattle and sheep drives.

The Golden Army of 1849 seekers included: rich men, poor men, beggar men, thieves, farmers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, preachers, workmen, Republicans, Whigs, Federalist, Abolitionist, Baptists, transcendentalist, Campbellites, Millerites, Presbyterians, Morons, white men, black men, yellow men, Germans, Russians, Poles, Chileans, Swiss, Spaniards, sailors, steamboat men, lumbermen, gamblers, the loose, squint-eyed, pockmarked, one-armed, the bearded, the beardless, the mustachioed, side-whiskered, and goateed, signing, cursing, weeping, and laughing in their sleep (Hulbert).

The Oregon-bound emigrants were generally poor families who had to sell 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 (Dryden). While outfitting for the journey, earlier pioneers 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 they had to pretty much prepare for the journey as well as their rest of their life.

The Midwest states were making lot of money outfitting the western travelers thus it was big business for merchants along the banks of the Missouri River from St. Louis to Omaha. After the decision to go west was finally made, after all the preparation were completed, and just on the eve of starting off on the plains, gnawing doubts about the undertaking assailed many an emigrants mind (Doetch). Later Oregon emigrants had easier decisions to make.

As time went on, the Trail and its environs were thoroughly documented and explored, and the route was improved by the passage of thousands of wagons beating the land flat, entrepreneurs operating ferries at the major river crossings, and the discovery of alternate routes that shaved days off the trip. As the road was more developed and the trip took less time, emigrants could carry heavier loads in their wagons. The need to bring seeds and tools for use on arrival in Oregon vanished, as stores in Oregon City were now supplied with goods brought around Cape Horn by ship.

However, they still needed food, gear, medical supplies, and clothing for at least four months on the road. The first item needed was, of course, a wagon and team. Some brought their old farm wagons from home, while others purchased one at their chosen jumping off point. Dozens of blacksmiths made good money fixing up and manufacturing wagons for the over Landers. The big, sloped Conestoga wagons of the freight trade were too big for the Rocky Mountains, so a smaller wagon with a 10 to 12 foot flat bed capable of carrying up to 2500 pounds was developed from the basic farm model.

A canvas bonnet stretched over 5 to 7 curved bows protected what was to be stored inside, and the sideboards were beveled outward to keep rain from coming in under the edges of the bonnet. The choice of draft animals for the journey was an important decision. Horses were not satisfactory for pulling wagons across the plains, as the forage was not good, insects drove them to distraction, and tepid waters left most draft horses ill. A team of 8 or 10 tough mules would definitely be faster, but they were hard to control, given to mayhem in storms, and reduced to walking skeletons by the hard pull.

The first choice of most emigrants was a team of 4 or 6 oxen, paired in yokes. The beasts were sure, patient, steady, and obedient. They showed adaptability to prairie grasses and were less expensive than horses. The emigrants correctly concluded that while oxen would not get them to Oregon in record time, they would, indeed, get them to Oregon. Whichever animal was chosen, shoes were required, as the journey was long enough to wear away the animals’ hooves. Teams heading to California, even oxen, required snowshoes as well.

It was desirable to buy animals already broken in on prairie grasses, accustomed to yokes, and trained to follow instructions. However, such animals were difficult to find and more expensive to purchase when they were available. Thus, most emigrants planned to spend 2 or 3 weeks in Missouri training their teams and packing their wagons before actually setting out for Oregon. The success or failure of a party depended most heavily on their choice of equipment and supplies for the journey. Every emigrant insisted on taking along some luxuries and items of sentimental value.

Chamber pots, lanterns, mirrors, Bibles, schoolbooks, clocks, and furniture were crammed into odd spaces in almost every wagon. Emigrants were advised not to overload their wagons, but many underestimated the magnitude of the trek they were setting out on and were later forced to discard nonessential cargo. Hard stretches of the Trail became littered with such castoffs as emigrants lightened the load for their weary animals. Certain accessories and tools for making emergency repairs to a wagon were necessary to bring along.

These included rope, brake chains, a wagon jack, extra axles and tongues, wheel parts, axes, saws, hammers, knives, and a sturdy shovel. Cooking utensils were also required — few overlanders were without a Dutch oven and a good iron skillet — and the trip was simply not possible without a water barrel to get the party and their animals through dry stretches of the Trail. Weapons and kits for casting bullets were essential, as well, though they were far more commonly used for hunting than for fighting Indians.

However, most of the space in the emigrants’ wagons was reserved for food. The endless walking and hard work made even the most delicate appetites ravenous. Hundreds of pounds of dried goods and cured meats were packed into the wagons, including flour, hardtack, bacon, rice, coffee, sugar, beans, and fruit. Coffee, though the emigrants had no way of knowing it, probably saved thousands of lives on the overland trails, as it required that the water be boiled, thus killing any germs (including cholera) that might sicken the emigrants.

In addition to their supplies, many emigrants had the family milk cow tied behind the wagon to provide fresh milk at mealtime, and some fixed a chicken coop to the side of the wagon, as well. The fresh milk and eggs — and later, meat — were an important source of protein and calories for the overlanders, and they made for a welcome relief from the dried and preserved food that dominated many of their meals. It was possible to obtain fresh food along the Trail, but often not desirable (Clark & Tiller).

Hunting took precious time, though not many overlanders could resist the temptation of taking off after a buffalo herd when one was encountered. Trading posts sold food and other goods, but at high prices that few overlanders could afford. For over twenty five years from 1804s through the American Civil war, some claimed as many as 650,000 people may have packed up and headed for the new life of the West. There is no accurate record of the traffic on the great overland trails of that period (Salisbury); some claimed as around 250,000 people may used the overland movement while others used the 5-6 months sea routes.

However, estimates have been slowly creeping upwards over the years, and it now seems that something like half a million people headed west using the Oregon Trail. 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 development of numerous Trans Continental and Pacific Northwest railroad network.

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