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The Ox Team or the Old Oregon Trail 1852-1906 by Ezra Meeker

The Oregon Trail was one of the main overland migration routes on the North American continent, leading from locations on the Missouri Rivermarker to the Oregon Country. The eastern half of the trail was also used by travelers on the California Trail, Bozeman Trail, and Mormon Trail which used much of the same trail before turning off to their separate destinations. To complete the journey in one traveling season most travelers left in April to May—as soon as grass was growing enough to support their teams and the trails dried out. To meet the constant needs for water, grass, and fuel for campfires the trail followed various rivers and streams across the continent. The network of trails required a minimum of road work to be made passable for wagons. People using the trail traveled in wagons, pack trains, on horseback, on foot, by raft, and by boat to establish new farms, lives, and businesses in the Oregon Country. This territory in the early 19th century was subject to competing claims by the United Statesmarker and Britainmarker, who had come to an arrangement usually described as "joint occupancy"; Britain's name for the region was the Columbia District, referring to the local regional department of the Hudson's Bay Company.

The four to six month journey spanned over half the continent as the wagon trail proceeded about west through territories and land that later became six U.S. states: Missourimarker, Kansasmarker, Nebraskamarker, Wyomingmarker, Idahomarker, and Oregonmarker. Extensions of the Oregon Trail were the main arteries that fed settlers into six more states: Coloradomarker, Utahmarker, Nevadamarker, Californiamarker, Washingtonmarker, and Montanamarker. Between 1841 and 1869 the Oregon Trail was used by settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and business men migrating to the Pacific Northwest. Once the first transcontinental railroad by the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific was completed in 1869, the use of this trail by long distance travelers rapidly diminished as the railroad traffic replaced most need for it. By 1883 the Northern Pacific Railroad had reached Portland, Oregonmarker, and most of the reason for the trail disappeared. Roads were built over or near most of the trail as local travelers traveled to cities originally established along the Oregon Trail.


Oregon Trail reenactment at Scotts Bluff

Lewis and Clark Expedition

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson issued the following instructions to Meriwether Lewis "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, & such principal stream of it, as, by it's course & communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or and other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce." Although Lewis and William Clark found a path to the Pacific Oceanmarker, it was not until 1859 that a direct and practicable route, the Mullan Roadmarker, connected the Missouri Rivermarker to the Columbia River.

The first land route across what is now the United States was partially mapped by the Lewis and Clark Expedition between 1804 and 1806. Lewis and Clark believed they had found a practical overland route to the west coast; however the two passes they found going through the Rocky Mountains, Lemhi Passmarker and Lolo Passmarker, turned out to be much too difficult for wagons to pass through without considerable road work. On the return trip in 1806 they traveled from the Columbia River to the Snake River to the Clearwater River over Lolo pass again and then overland up the Blackfoot Rivermarker and crossed the Continental Divide at Lewis and Clark Pass and on to the head of the Missouri Rivermarker. This was ultimately a shorter and faster route than the one they followed west. However, this route had the disadvantage of being much too rough for wagons and controlled by the Blackfoot Indians who wanted no trespassers crossing their territory that could trade Iron Age goods or firearms to their enemies . Even though Lewis and Clark had only traveled a narrow portion of the upper Missouri River drainage and part of the Columbia River drainage, these were considered the two major rivers draining most of the Rocky Mountains, and the expedition confirmed that there was no "easy" route through the northern Rocky Mountains as Jefferson had hoped.


In 1810, fur trader, entrepreneur, and one of the wealthiest men in the U.S., John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company outfitted an expedition (known popularly as the Astor Expedition or Astorians) under Wilson Price Hunt to find a possible overland supply route and trapping territory for fur trading posts. Fearing attack by the Blackfoot Indians, the overland expedition veered south of Lewis and Clark's route into what is now Wyoming and in the process passed across Union Passmarker and into Jackson Holemarker. From there they went over the Teton Rangemarker via Teton Passmarker and then down to the Snake River in Idahomarker. Upon arriving at the Snake River, they abandoned their horses, made dugout canoes and attempted to use the river for transport. After a few days travel they soon discovered that the steep canyons, waterfalls and impassable rapids made travel by river impossible. Too far from their horses to retrieve them, they had to cache most of their goods and walk the rest of the way to the Columbia River where they made new boats and traveled to their newly established Fort Astoriamarker. The expedition demonstrated that much of the route along the Snake River plain and across to the Columbia was passable by pack train or wagons with minimal improvements.

In early 1811, the supply ship Tonquin, left supplies and men to establish Fort Astoria, then went on to Puget Soundmarker for a trading expedition. There it was attacked and overwhelmed by Indians before being blown up—killing all the crew and many Indians. American Fur Company partner Robert Stuart then led a small group of men back east to report to Astor. The group planned to retrace the path followed by the overland expedition up the Columbia and Snake rivers. Fear of Indian attack near Union Pass in Wyoming forced the group further south where they discovered South Passmarker, a wide and easy pass over the Continental Divide. The party continued east via the Sweetwater River, North Platte River (where they spent the winter of 1812–1813) and Platte River to the Missouri River finally arriving in St. Louis in the spring of 1813. The route they had used appeared to potentially be a practical wagon route, requiring minimal improvements, scouted from west to east, and Stuart's journals provided a meticulous account of most of the route. But because of the War of 1812 and the lack of U.S. fur trading posts in the Oregon Country, most of the route was forgotten for more than 10 years.

The North West Company and Hudson's Bay Company

In August 1811, three months after Fort Astor was established, David Thompson and his team of British North West Company explorers came floating down the Columbia to Fort Astoria. He had just completed an epic journey through much of western Canadamarker and most of the Columbia River drainage system. He was mapping the country for possible fur trading posts. Along the way he camped at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers and posted a notice claiming the land for Britain and stating the intention of the North West Company to build a fort on the site (Fort Nez Percesmarker was later established there). In 1812 the North West Company, with pressure from the War of 1812, 'bought' Astor's forts, supplies and furs on the Columbia and Snake River and started establishing more of their own.

By 1821, when armed hostilities broke out with their Hudson Bay rivals, the North West Company was forced (by the British government) to merge with the Hudson's Bay Company. The Hudson's Bay Company had nearly a complete monopoly on trading (and most governing issues) in the Columbia District, or Oregon Country as it was referred to by the Americans, and also in Rupert's Land (western Canada). That year British parliament passed a statute applying the laws of Upper Canada to the district and giving the Hudson's Bay Company power to enforce those laws.

From 1812 to 1840 the British had nearly complete control of the Pacific Northwest and the western half of the Oregon Trail. In theory, the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 restored the U.S. back to its possessions in Oregon territory. "Joint occupation" of the region was formally established by the Anglo-American Convention of 1818. In actuality, the British tried to discourage any U.S. trappers and traders from doing any significant trapping or trading in the Pacific Northwest. American fur trappers, traders, missionaries, and later settlers, all worked to break this monopoly. They were eventually successful.

The York Factory Express, establishing another route to the Oregon territory, evolved from an earlier express brigade used by the North West Company between Fort Astoria and Fort Williammarker on Lake Superiormarker. By 1825 Hudson's Bay Company started using two brigades, each setting out from opposite ends of the express route—one from Fort Vancouvermarker on the Columbia River and the other from York Factorymarker on Hudson Baymarker—in spring and passing each other in the middle of the continent. This established a 'quick' (about 100 days for ) way to resupply their forts and fur trading centers as well as collecting the furs the posts had bought and transmitting messages between Fort Vancouver and York Factory on Hudson Bay.
HBC's York Factory Express trade route, 1820s to 1840s.
Modern political boundaries shown.

The Hudson's Bay Company built a new much larger Fort Vancouvermarker in 1824 slightly upstream of Fort Astoria on the Washington side of the Columbia River (they were hoping the Columbia would be the likely Canada – U.S. border). The fort quickly became the center of activity in the Pacific Northwest. Every year ships would come from Londonmarker (via the Pacific) to drop off supplies and trade goods in exchange for the furs. It was the nexus for the fur trade on the Pacific Coast; its influence reached from the Rocky Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands, and from Russian Alaska into Mexican-controlled California. At its pinnacle in about 1840, Fort Vancouver and its Factor (manager) watched over 34 outposts, 24 ports, 6 ships, and about 600 employees.

When emigration over the Oregon Trail began in earnest in about 1836, for many settlers the fort became the last stop on the Oregon Trail where they could get supplies, aid and help before starting their homestead. Fort Vancouver was the main re-supply point for nearly all Oregon trail travelers until U.S. towns could be established. Fort Colvillemarker was established in 1825 on the Columbia river near Kettle Fallsmarker as a good site to collect furs and control the upper Columbia River fur trade. Fort Nisquallymarker was built near the present town of DuPont, Washingtonmarker and was the first Hudson's Bay Company fort on Puget Sound. Fort Victoriamarker was erected in 1843 and became the headquarters of operations in British Columbia, eventually growing into modern day Victoriamarker, the capital city of British Columbia.

By 1840 The Hudson's Bay Company had three forts: Fort Hallmarker (purchased from Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth in 1837), Fort Boise and old Fort Walla Wallamarker (also call Fort Nez Perce) on the western end of the Oregon Trail route as well as Fort Vancouver near its terminus in the Willamette Valley. With minor exceptions they all gave substantial and often desperately needed aid to the early Oregon Trail pioneers.

When the fur trade slowed in 1840 because of fashion changes in men's hats, the value of the Pacific Northwest to the British was seriously diminished. Canada had very few potential settlers who were willing to move over 2,500 miles to the Pacific Northwest, although several hundred ex-trappers, British and American, and their families did start settling in Oregon, Washington and California. They also used most of the York Express route through northern Canada. In 1841 James Sinclair, on orders from Sir George Simpson, guided nearly 200 settlers from the Red River Settlement (located at the junction of the Assiniboine River and Red Rivermarker near present Winnipegmarker, Canada) [7874] into the Oregon territory. This attempt at settlement mostly failed when most of the families joined the settlers in the Willamette Valley, with their promise of free land and HBC-free government.

The Oregon Country/Columbia District
stretched from 42N to 54 40'N.The most heavily disputed portion is highlighted
In 1846 the Oregon Treaty ending the Oregon boundary dispute was signed with Britain. The British lost the land north of the Columbia River they had so long controlled. The new Canada – United States border was established much further north at the 49th parallel. The treaty did grant Hudson's Bay Company navigation rights on the Columbia River for supplying their fur posts, clear titles to their trading post properties allowing them to be sold later if they wanted, and left the British with good anchorages at Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbiamarker. It gave the United States what it mostly wanted, a 'reasonable' boundary and a good anchorage on the West Coast in Puget Sound. While there were almost no United States settlers in the future state of Washington in 1846, the United States had already demonstrated it could induce thousands of settlers to go to the Oregon Territory; and it would be only a short time before they would vastly outnumber the few hundred Hudson's Bay Company employees and retirees living in Washington.

By overland travel, American missionaries and early settlers (initially mostly ex-trappers) started showing up in Oregon around 1824. Although officially the Hudson's Bay Company discouraged settlement because it interfered with their lucrative fur trade, their Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, Dr. John McLoughlin, gave very substantial help including employment until they could get established. By 1843, when 700–1,000 settlers arrived, the American settlers greatly outnumbered the nominally British settlers in Oregon. McLoughlin, despite working for the British-based Hudson's Bay Company, gave extensive help in the form of loans, medical care, shelter, clothing, food, supplies and seed even to United States emigrants. These new emigrants often arrived in Oregon tired, worn out, nearly penniless, with insufficient food or supplies just as winter was coming on. McLoughlin would later be hailed as the Father of Oregonmarker.

Great American Desert

Reports from expeditions in 1806 by Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and in 1819 by Major Stephen Long described the Great Plainsmarker as "unfit for human habitation" and as "The Great American Desert". These descriptions were mainly based on the relative lack of timber and surface water. The images of sandy wastelands conjured up by terms like "desert" were tempered by the many reports of vast herds of millions of Plains Bison that somehow managed to live in this "desert". In the 1840s, the Great Plains appeared to be unattractive for settlement and were illegal for homesteading until well after 1846—initially it was set aside by the U.S. government for Indian settlements. The next available land for general settlement, Oregon, appeared to be free for the taking and had fertile lands, disease free climate (yellow fever and malaria were prevalent in much of the Missouri and Mississippi River drainage then) extensive uncut, unclaimed forests, big rivers, and potential seaports and only a few nominally British settlers.

Fur traders, trappers and explorers

The route of the Oregon Trail began to be worked out as early as 1805 by explorers, trappers and fur traders. Fur trappers, often working for fur traders, followed nearly all possible streams looking for beaver in the 25+ years (1812–1840) the fur trade was active. Fur traders like Manuel Lisa, Robert Stuart, William Henry Ashley, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Andrew Henry, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Peter Skene Ogden, David Thompson, James Douglas, Donald Mackenzie, Alexander Ross, James Sinclair and other mountain men. Besides discovering and naming many of the rivers and mountains in the Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest they often kept diaries of their travels and were available as guides and consultants when the trail started to become open for general travel. The fur trade business ended just as the Oregon trail business seriously began around 1840.

The exploration of the West by Jedediah Smith
In fall of 1823, Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick led their trapping crew south from the Yellowstone River to the Sweetwater River. They were looking for a safe location to spend the winter. Smith reasoned since the Sweetwater flowed east it must eventually run into the Missouri River. Trying to transport their extensive fur collection down the Sweetwater, they found after a near disastrous canoe crash that it was too swift and rough for water passage. On July 4, 1824, they cached their furs under a dome of rock they named Independence Rockmarker and started their long trek to the Missouri River. Upon arriving back in a settled area they bought pack horses (on credit) and retrieved their furs. They had re-discovered the route that Robert Stuart had taken in 1813—eleven years before. Thomas Fitzpatrick was often hired as a guide when the fur trade dwindled in 1840.

Map of the Green River watershed
The trail began to be regularly used by fur traders, missionaries, and a few general travelers starting in 1825. In 1825, the first fur trader rendezvous occurred on the Henry's Fork of the Green River. The supplies were brought in by a large party using pack trains which were then used to haul out the fur bales they had traded for. They normally used the north side of the Platte River—the same route used 20 years later by the Mormon Trail. For the next 15 years the rendezvous was an annual event moving to different locations. It allowed the fur traders to supply the needs of the trappers and their Indian allies without having the expense of building or maintaining a fort or wintering over in the cold Rockies. In 1830, William Sublette brought the first wagons carrying his trading goods up the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater rivers before crossing over South Passmarker to a fur trade rendezvous on the Green River near the future town of Big Piney, Wyomingmarker. He had a crew that dug out the gullies and cleared the brush where needed; thus establishing that the eastern part of most of the Oregon Trail was passable by wagons.

Fur traders tried to use the Platte River, the main route of the eastern Oregon Trail, for transport but soon gave up in frustration as its muddy waters were too shallow, crooked and unpredictable to use for water transport. The Platte proved to be unnavigable. The Platte River valley, however became an easy roadway for wagons, with its nearly flat plain heading almost due west.

There were several U.S. government sponsored explorers who explored part of the Oregon Trail and wrote extensively about their explorations. Captain Benjamin Bonneville on his expedition of 1832 explored much of the Oregon trail and brought wagons up the Platte, North Platte, Sweetwater route across South Pass to the Green River in Wyoming. In addition he explored most of Idaho and the Oregon Trail to the Columbia. He had the account of his explorations in the west published by Washington Irving in 1838.). John C. Fremont and his guide Kit Carson led three expeditions from 1842 to 1846 on parts of the Oregon Trail. His explorations were written by him and his wife Jessie Benton Fremont and were widely published. Most of these explorations were over routes that were already known by a few mountain men; but their government sponsored exploration and subsequent writings made the routes much more widely known.


In 1834, the Dalles Methodist Mission was founded by Reverend Jason Lee just east of Mount Hoodmarker on the Columbia River. In 1836, Henry H. Spalding and Marcus Whitman traveled west to establish the Whitman Missionmarker near modern day Walla Walla, Washingtonmarker. The party included the wives of the two men, Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, who became the first European-American women to cross the Rocky Mountains. En route, the party accompanied American fur traders going to the 1836 rendezvous on the Green River in Wyoming and then joined Hudson's Bay Company fur traders traveling west to Fort Walla Walla. The group was the first to travel in wagons all the way to Fort Hall, Idahomarker, where the wagons were abandoned at the urging of their guides. They used pack animals for the rest of the trip to Fort Walla Walla and then floated by boat to Fort Vancouver to get supplies before returning to start their missions. Other missionaries, mostly husband and wife teams using wagon and pack trains, established missions in the Willamette Valley, as well as various locations in the future states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The missionaries' example as well as their reports and speeches back home in the United States made the possibilities of the Oregon country much more widely known.

Oregon Country

In 1843, settlers of the Willamette Valley drafted Organic Laws of Oregon organizing land claims within the Oregon Country. Married couples were granted at no cost (except for the requirement to work and improve the land) up to , and unmarried settlers could claim . As the group was a provisional government with no authority, these claims were not valid under United States or British law, but they were eventually honored by the United States in the Donation Land Act in 1850. The Donation Land Act provided for married settlers to be granted and unmarried settlers . Following the expiration of the act in 1854 the land was no longer free but cost $1.25 per acre ($3.09/hectare) with a limit of —the same as most other unimproved government land.

Early emigrants

On May 1, 1839, a group of eighteen men from Peoria, Illinoismarker, set out with the intention to colonize the Oregon country on behalf of the United States of America and drive out the Hudson's Bay Company operating there. The men of the Peoria Party were among the first pioneers to traverse most of the Oregon Trail. The men were initially led by Thomas J. Farnham and called themselves the Oregon Dragoons. They carried a large flag emblazoned with their motto "OREGON OR THE GRAVE". Although the group split up near Bents Fort on the South Platte and Farnham was deposed as a leader, nine of their members eventually did reach Oregon.

In September 1840, Robert Newell, Joseph L. Meek, and their families reached Fort Walla Walla with three wagons that they had driven from Fort Hall. Their wagons were the first to reach the Columbia River over land, and they opened the final leg of Oregon Trail to wagon traffic.

In 1841 the Bartleson-Bidwell Party was the first emigrant group credited with using the Oregon Trail to emigrate west. The group set out for California, but about half the party left the original group at Soda Springs, Idahomarker, and proceeded to the Willamette Valley in Oregon—leaving their wagons at Fort Hall.

On May 16, 1842, the second organized wagon train set out from Elm Grove, Missouri, with more than 100 pioneers. The party was led by Elijah White. The group broke up after passing Fort Hall with most of the single men hurrying ahead and the families following later.

Great Migration of 1843

In what was dubbed "The Great Migration of 1843" or the "Wagon Train of 1843", an estimated 700 to 1,000 emigrants left for Oregon. They were led initially by John Gantt, a former U.S. Army Captain and fur trader who was contracted to guide the train to Fort Hall for $1 per person. The winter before, Marcus Whitman had made a brutal mid-winter trip from Oregon to St. Louis to appeal a decision by his Mission backers to abandon several of the Oregon missions. He joined the wagon train at the Platte River for the return trip. When the pioneers were told at Fort Hall by agents from the Hudson's Bay Company that they should abandon their wagons there and use pack animals the rest of the way, Whitman disagreed and volunteered to lead the wagons the rest of the way to Oregon. He believed the trains were large enough they could build whatever road improvements they needed to make the trip with their wagons. The biggest obstacle they faced was in the Blue Mountainsmarker of Oregon where they had to cut and clear a trail through heavy timber. Nearly all of the settlers in the 1843 wagon trains arrived in the Willamette Valley by early October. A passable wagon trail now existed from the Missouri River to The Dalles, Oregonmarker. In 1846, the Barlow Roadmarker was completed around Mount Hoodmarker providing a completely passable wagon trail from the Missouri river to the Willamette Valley—about 2,000 miles.

Mormon emigration

Following persecution and mob action in Missourimarker, Illinoismarker, and other states, and the martyrdom of their prophet Joseph Smith in 1844, Mormon leader Brigham Young was chosen by the leaders of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church to lead the LDS settlers west. He chose to lead his people to the Salt Lake Valley in present day Utah. In 1847 Young led a small, especially picked fast-moving group of men and women from their Winter Quarters encampments near Omaha, Nebraskamarker, and their approximately 50 temporary settlements on the Missouri Rivermarker in Iowamarker including Council Bluffsmarker, Iowa, (then called Kanesville). About 2,200 LDS pioneers went that first year as they filtered in from Mississippimarker, Colorado, California, and several other states. The initial pioneers were charged with establishing farms, growing crops, building fences and herds, and establishing preliminary settlements to feed and support the many thousands of immigrants expected in the coming years. The Mormons after ferrying across the Missouri River and establishing wagon trains near what became Omaha, Nebraskamarker, followed the northern bank of the Platte River in Nebraskamarker to Fort Laramiemarker in present day Wyoming. Initially they started out in 1848 with trains of several thousand emigrants which were rapidly split into smaller groups to be more easily accommodated at the limited springs and good camping places on the trail. Organized as a complete evacuation from their previous homes, farms, and cities in Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa, this group consisted of entire families with nobody left behind. The much larger presence of women and children meant the wagon trains did not try to cover as much ground in a single day as Oregon and California bound emigrants did—typically taking about 100 days to cover the trip to Salt Lake City. The Oregon and California emigrants typically averaged about per day. In Wyoming they followed the main Oregon/California/Mormon Trail through Wyoming to Fort Bridgermarker, where they split from the main trail and followed and improved the crude path established by the ill-fated Donner-Reed partymarker of 1846 into Utah and the Salt Lake Valley.

Between 1847 and 1860 over 43,000 LDS settlers and tens of thousands of travelers on the California Trail and Oregon Trail followed Young to Utah. After 1848, the travelers headed to California or Oregon resupplied at the Salt Lake Valley, then went back over the Salt Lake Cutoff rejoining the trail near the future Idaho-Utah border at the City of Rocksmarker Idaho.

To enable many poor Mormons to get to Utah, starting in 1855 many of the LDS travelers made the trek with hand built handcart and many fewer wagons. Guided by experienced guides, handcarts—pulled and pushed by two to four people—were as fast as the oxen-pulled wagons and allowed the handcart pioneers to bring their individual 100 to 75 pounds allotment of possessions plus some food, bedding, and tents to Utah. Accompanying wagons carried most of the additional food and supplies needed. Arriving in Utah the handcart pioneers were given or found jobs and accommodations by individual LDS families for the winter till they could get established. About 3,000 out of over 60,000 Mormon pioneers came across with handcarts.

Along the Mormon Trail, the Mormon pioneers established a number of ferries and made trail improvements to help later travelers and earn much needed money. One of the better known ferries was the Mormon Ferry across the North Platte near the future site of Fort Casparmarker in Wyoming which operated between 1848 and 1852 and the Green Rivermarker ferry near Fort Bridgermarker which operated from 1847 to 1856. The ferries were free for Mormon settlers while all others were charged a toll of from $3.00 to $8.00—just as all other ferries did.

California Gold Rush

In January 1848, gold was discovered in California precipitating the California Gold Rush. It is estimated that about two-thirds of the male population in Oregon went to California in 1848 to cash in on the early gold discoveries. To get there, they helped build the Lassen Branch of the Applegate-Lassen Trail by cutting a wagon road through extensive forests. Many returned with significant gold which helped jump-start the Oregon economy. Over the next decade, gold seekers from the Midwestern United States and East Coast|East Coast of the United States]] started rushing overland and dramatically increased traffic on the Oregon and California Trails. The "forty-niners" often chose speed over safety and opted to use shortcuts such as the Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff in Wyoming which reduced travel time by almost seven days but spanned nearly of desert without water, grass, or material for fires. 1849 was also the first year of large scale cholera epidemics in the United States and the rest of the world, and thousands are thought to have died along the trail on their way to California—most buried in unmarked graves in Kansas and Nebraska. The 1850 census showed this rush was overwhelmingly male: the ratio of women to men in California over 16 years was about 1:18. After 1849 the rush continued for several years as the California miners continued to find about $50,000,000 worth of gold per year at $21 per ounce.

Later emigration and uses of the trail

Overall it is estimated that over 400,000 pioneers used the Oregon Trail and its three primary off-shoots, the California, Bozeman, and Mormon Trails. The trail was still in use during the Civil War, but traffic declined after 1855 when the Panama Railroadmarker across the Isthmus of Panama was completed. Paddle wheel steamships and sailing ships, often heavily subsidized to carry the mail, provided rapid transport to and from the east coast and New Orleans, Louisianamarker, to and from Panamamarker to ports in California and Oregon.

Over the years many ferries were established to help get across the many rivers on the path of the Oregon Trail. Multiple ferries were established on the: Missouri Rivermarker, Kansas Rivermarker, Little Blue River, Elkhorn River, Loup River, Platte River, South Platte River, North Platte River, Laramie River, Green Rivermarker, Bear River, two crossings of the Snake River, John Day River, Deschutes River, Columbia River, as well as many other smaller streams. During peak immigration periods several ferries on any given river often competed for pioneer dollars. These ferries significantly increased speed and safety for Oregon Trail travelers. They increased the cost of traveling the trail by roughly $30.00 per wagon but increased the speed of the transit from about 160–170 days in 1843 to 120–140 days in 1860. The many drowning deaths that occurred on the early trail also went significantly down as dangerous and difficult river crossings were made much safer.

After 1858 most California travelers after traveling to Fort Bridger took the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City and then the and over two weeks shorter Central Overland Route from Salt Lake City and across central Nevadamarker to Carson City, Nevadamarker. This route was discovered, surveyed, and developed by a team of U.S. Army workers led by Captain James H. Simpson of the U. S. Corp of Topographical Engineers and went from individual streams and springs across the Great Basin desert in central Utah and Nevada. Initially the springs and trail were maintained by the army as a supply route to their Camp Floyd in Utah which was set up after the Utah War. By 1860 Camp Floyd was abandoned as the army left to fight the Civil War.

In 1860–1861 the Pony Express, employing riders traveling on horseback day and night and stations about every ten miles to supply new horses, was established from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, Californiamarker. The Pony Express built many of their eastern stations along the Oregon/California/Mormon/Bozeman trails and many of their western stations along the Central Route across Utah and Nevada. They delivered mail in roughly ten days from the midwest to California. Starting in 1860, after war closed the southern stage routes to California, several stage lines were set up carrying mail and passengers that traversed much of the route of the original Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger and from there over the Central Overland Route to California. By traveling day and night with many stations and changes of teams (and extensive mail subsidies) these stages could get passengers and mail from the midwest to California in about 25 days.

The First Transcontinental Telegraph completed in October 1861 used much of the Central Overland Route from Carson City, Nevadamarker to Salt Lake City. From Salt Lake City the telegraph line followed much of the Mormon/California/Oregon trail(s) to Omaha Nebraska. After the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the telegraph lines along the railroad tracks became the main line since the required relay stations and lines were much easier to supply and maintain along the railroad. The telegraph lines that diverged from the railroad lines were largely abandoned.

As the years passed the Oregon Trail became a well known corridor from the Missouri River to the Columbia river. Offshoots of the trail also continued to grow as gold and silver discoveries, farming, lumbering, ranching, business opportunities, etc. resulted in much more traffic to many areas. Traffic became more two directional as increasingly traffic went both ways to towns being established along or at the ends of the trail. By 1870 the population in the several states served by the Oregon Trail and its offshoots increased by about 350,000 over their 1860 census levels. With the exception of most of the 180,000 population increase in California, most of these people living away from the coast traveled over parts of the Oregon trail and its many extensions and cutoffs to get to their new residences.

Even before the famous cattle drives after the Civil War, the trail was being used to drive herds of thousands of horses, sheep, cattle, and goats. According to studies by trail historian John Unruh the livestock may have been as plentiful or more plentiful than the immigrants in many years. In 1852 there was even records of a 1,500 turkey drive from Illinois to California The main reason for this livestock traffic was the large cost discrepancy between livestock in the midwest and at the end of the trail in California, Oregon, or Montana. They could often be bought in the midwest for about 1/3 to 1/10th what they would fetch at the end of the trail. Large losses could occur and the drovers would still make significant profit. As the emigrant travel on the trail declined significant herds of livestock still used large segments of it to get to or from markets.

Trail decline

The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 providing faster, safer, and usually cheaper travel east and west (7 days about $65 (economy)), Some emigrants continued to use the trail well into the 1890s, and modern highways and railroads eventually paralleled large portions of the trail, including U.S. Highway 26, Interstate 84 in Oregon and Idaho and Interstate 80 in Nebraska. Contemporary interest in the overland trek has prompted the states and federal government to preserve landmarks on the trail including wagon ruts, buildings, and "registers" where emigrants carved their names. Throughout the 20th century there have been a number of re-enactments of the trek with participants wearing period garments and traveling by wagon.


As the trail developed it became marked by numerous cutoffs and shortcuts from Missouri to Oregon. The basic route follows river valleys as grass and water were absolutely necessary.

While the first few parties organized and departed from Elm Grove, the Oregon Trail's primary starting point was Independence, Missourimarker, or Westport, Kansasmarker, on the Missouri River. Later, several feeder trails led across Kansas, and some towns became starting points, including Weston, Missourimarker, Fort Leavenworth, Kansasmarker, Atchison, Kansasmarker, St. Joseph, Missouri, and Omaha, Nebraskamarker.

The Oregon Trail's nominal termination point was Oregon Citymarker, at the time the proposed capital of the Oregon Territorymarker. However, many settlers branched off or stopped short of this goal and settled at convenient or promising locations along the trail. Commerce with pioneers going further west greatly assisted these early settlements in getting established and launched local micro-economies critical to these settlements' prosperity.

At dangerous or difficult river crossings, ferrys or toll bridges were set up and "bad" places on the trail were either repaired or by-passed. Several toll roads were constructed. Gradually the trail became easier with the average trip (as recorded in numerous diaries) dropping from about 160 days in 1849 to 140 days 10 years later.

Numerous other trails followed the Oregon Trail for much of its length, including the Mormon Trail from Illinoismarker to Utahmarker; the California Trail to the gold fields of California; and the Bozeman Trail to Montanamarker. Because it was more a network of trails more than a single trail there were numerous variations with other trails eventually established on both sides of the Platte, North Platte, Snake, and Columbia rivers. With literally thousands of people and thousands of livestock traveling in a fairly small time slot the travelers had to spread out to find clean water, wood, good campsites, and grass. The dust kicked up by the many travelers was a constant complaint, and where the terrain would allow it there may be between 20 to 50 wagons traveling abreast.

Remnants of the trail in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the entire trail is a designated National Historic Trail (listed as the Oregon National Historic Trail).


Starting initially in Independencemarker/Kansas Citymarker in Missouri, the initial trail follows the Santa Fe Trail into Kansas south of the Wakarusa River. After crossing The Hillmarker at Lawrencemarker, it crosses the Kansas Rivermarker by ferry or boats near Topeka, Kansasmarker, and angles to Nebraskamarker paralleling the Little Blue River until reaching the south side of the Platte River.


Chimney Rock, Nebraska
Those emigrants on the eastern side of the Missouri Rivermarker used ferries and steamboats to cross over from Kansas into Nebraska. Several towns in Nebraska were used as jumping off places with Omaha, Nebraskamarker, eventually becoming a favorite after about 1855. The main branch of the trails starts at one of several towns on the Missouri River and then crosses Kansas and/or Nebraska to join up at the Platte River near new Fort Kearny (moved from the Missouri to the Platte River in 1848 by U.S. Army). The fort is about from the Missouri River, and the trail and its many offshoots nearly all converge close to Fort Kearny. The fort was the first chance on the trail to buy emergency supplies, do repairs, get medical aid, or mail a letter. Those on the north side could usually wade the shallow Platte if they really needed to visit the fort. The Platte was too shallow, crooked, muddy, and unpredictable for even a canoe to travel very far on, but its valley provided an easily passable wagon corridor going almost due west with access to water, grass, buffalo, and buffalo chips for building fires. There were trails on both sides of the muddy river, which is about wide and to deep. Up to about 1870 travelers encountered hundreds of thousands of bison migrating through Nebraska on both sides of the Platte River, and most travelers killed several for fresh meat and to build up their supplies of dried jerky for the rest of the journey. Where it was not tromped down by the buffalo or the travelers, the prairie grass in many places was several feet high with only the hat of a traveler on horseback showing as they passed through the prairie grass. In most years the Indians fired the dry grass on the prairie every fall so the only trees or bushes were on islands in the Platte river. Travelers gathered and ignited dried buffalo chips to cook their meals. These burned fast in a breeze, and it could take two or more bushels of chips to get through one meal. Those traveling south of the Platte crossed the South Platte fork at one of about three ferries (in dry years it could be forded without a ferry) before continuing up the North Platte River into present-day Wyomingmarker heading to Fort Laramiemarker. Before 1852 those on the north side of the Platte crossed the North Platte to the south side at Fort Laramie. After 1852 they used Child's Cutoff to stay on the north side to about the present day town of Casper, Wyomingmarker, where they crossed over to the south side.

Notable landmarks in Nebraska include Courthouse and Jail Rocksmarker, Chimney Rockmarker, Scotts Bluffmarker, and Ash Hollow State Historical Park


The Oregon Trail follows the North Platte River out of Nebraska into Wyoming. The next major stop was Fort Laramiemarker at the junction of the Laramie River and the North Platte River. Fort Laramie was a fur trading outpost formally named Fort John that was later purchased by the U.S. Army to protect travelers on the trails.

Fort Laramie was the end of most cholera outbreaks which killed thousands along the lower Platte from 1849 to 1855. Spread by cholera germs in fecal contaminated water, cholera caused massive diarrhea, leading to massive dehydration and death. In those days its cause and cure were unknown, and it was often fatal. It is believed that the swifter flowing rivers in Wyoming helped prevent the germs from spreading.

Independence Rock
up the North Platte and crossing many small swift flowing creeks the trail traverses over to the Sweetwater River which would have to be crossed up to nine times before the trail leeaves the Sweetwater valley and crosses over the Continental Divide at South Passmarker. From South Pass the trail follows Big Sandy Creek till it crosses the Green River—three to five ferries were in use there during peak travel periods. The swift and treacherous Green River was usually at high water in July and August, and it was a dangerous crossing. The main trail continues on in an approximate southwest direction until it encounters Blacks Fork of the Green River and Fort Bridgermarker. The Mormon Trail continues southwest to Salt Lake City, Utahmarker, while the main trail turns almost due north before turning northwest and following the Little Muddy Creek valley over the Bear River Divide to the Bear River valley.

Over time, two major heavily used cutoffs were established. The Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff was established in 1844 and cut about off the main route. It leeaves the main trail near about South Pass and heads almost due west crossing about of desert before reaching the Green River near the present town of La Bargemarker and then crossing a mountain range to connect with the main trail near Cokevillemarker in the Bear River valley. The Lander Road, formally the Fort Kearney, South Pass, and Honey Lake Wagon Road, was established and built by government contractors in 1858. It departs the main trail at Burnt Ranch, crosses the Continental Divide north of South Pass and crosses the Green River near the present town of Big Pineymarker finally passing over Thompson Pass in the Salt River Mountains and descending into Star Valley the present town of Smootmarker. The road continues through Star Valley and turns near the present town of Auburn, Wyomingmarker, and enters into Idaho proceeding to meet the main trail at Fort Hall.

Numerous landmarks are located along the trail in Wyoming including Independence Rockmarker, Ayres Natural Bridgemarker and Register Cliffmarker.


In 1847, Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers departed from the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger and followed a trail recommended by Lansford Hastings to Salt Lake City, Utahmarker. The trail was one of two that had been established the previous year by emigrants bound for California. The Mormons chose the same route as the Donner-Reed party through the Wasatch Mountains.In 1848, the Salt Lake Cutoff was established by Sam Hensley, providing a path north from Salt Lake City and rejoining the Oregon and California Trails near the City of Rocksmarker at the Utah/Idaho border. Hensley originally followed Hazen Kimball and James Pollock's wagon tracks, then veered off to the west after crossing the Malad River.Many later emigrants used Salt Lake City as an intermediate stop for fresh fruits and vegetables, supplies, fresh livestock and repairs. The overall distance to California or Oregon was approximately the same whether one "detoured" to Salt Lake City or not, although in his diary, Henry W. Bigler wrote the cutoff would save about 8 or 10 days travel.


The main Oregon and California Trail went almost due north from Fort Bridger to the Little Muddy Creek where it passed over the Bear River Mountains to the Bear River valley which it followed northwest into the Thomas Fork area where the trail crossed over the present day Wyoming line into Idaho. In the Eastern Sheep Creek Hills on the Thomas Fork valley the emigrants encountered Big Hill. Big Hill had a tough ascent often requiring doubling up of teams and a very steep and dangerous descent. In 1852 Eliza Ann McAuley found and with help developed the McAuley Cutoff which bypassed much of the difficult climb and descent of Big Hill. About on they passed present day Montpelier, Idahomarker which is now the site of a The National Oregon-California Trail Center. The trail follows the Bear River northwest to present day Soda Springs, Idahomarker. The soda springs here were a favorite attraction of the pioneers who marveled at the carbonated water and chugging steamboat springs. Many stopped and did their laundry in the hot water as there was usually plenty of good grass and water. Just west of Soda Springs the Bear River turns southwest and the main trail turns northwest to follow the Portneuf Rivermarker valley to Fort Hallmarker. Fort Hall, on the Snake River, was an old fur trading post established in 1834 and owned by the British Hudson's Bay Company. Nearly all travelers were given some aid and supplies if they were available and needed. Mosquitoes were constant pests and travelers often mention their animals covered with blood the mosquitoes. The route from Fort Bridger to Fort Hall is about taking nine to twelve days.

At Soda Springs was one branch of Lander's Road (established and built with government contractors in 1858) which had gone west from near South Pass, over the Salt River Mountains and down Star Valley before turning west near present day Auburn, Wyomingmarker and entering Idaho. From there it proceeded northwest into Idaho up Stump Creek canyon for about ten miles (16 km) before one branch turned almost 90 degrees and proceeding southwest to Soda Springs. Another branch headed almost due west past Gray’s Lake to rejoin the main trail about west of Fort Hall.

On the main trail about west of Soda Springs Hudspeth's Cutoff (est. 1849 and used mostly by California trail users) took off from the main trail heading almost due west and by-passed Fort Hall. It rejoined the California Trail at Cassia Creek near the City of Rocksmarker (now a National Reserve and Idaho State Park). Hudspeth's Cutoff had five mountain ranges to cross and took about the same amount of time as the main route to Fort Hall but many took it thinking it was shorter. Its main advantage was that it did spread out the traffic on busy years and made more grass available. (For Oregon-California trail map up to junction in Idaho see: Oregon National Historic Trail Map NPS)

West of Fort Hall the main trail traveled about on the south side of the Snake River southwest past American Falls, Massacre Rocksmarker, Register Rock and Coldwater Hill near present day Pocatello, Idahomarker. Near the junction of the Raft Rivermarker and Snake River the California Trail diverged from the Oregon Trail at another Parting of the Ways junction by leaving the Snake River and following the small and short Raft Rivermarker about southwest past present day Almo, Idahomarker. This trail then passed through the City of Rocksmarker and over Granite Pass where it went southwest along Goose Creek, Little Goose Creek, and Rock Spring Creek. It went about through Thousand Springs Valley, West Brush Creek, Willow Creek, before arriving at the Humboldt River in northeastern Nevada near present day Wells, Nevadamarker. The California Trail proceeded west down the Humboldt before reaching and crossing the Sierra Nevadas.

There were only a few places where the Snake River has not buried itself deep in a canyon. There were fewer yet where the river slowed down enough to make a crossing reasonably possible. Two of these possible fords were near Fort Hall where the travelers on the Oregon Trail North Side Alternate (established about 1852) and Goodale’s Cutoff (established 1862) crossed the Snake to travel on the north side. Nathaniel Wyeth, the original founder of Fort Hall in 1834, writes in his diary that they found a ford across the Snake River southwest of where he founded Fort Hall. Another possible crossing was a few miles upstream of Salmon Falls where some intrepid travelers floated their wagons and swam their stock across to join the north side trail. Some lost their wagons and teams over the falls. The trails on the north side joined the trail from Three Island Crossing about west of Glenns Ferry on the north side of the Snake River. (For map of North Side Alternate see:)

Goodale's Cutoff, established in 1862 on the north side of the Snake River, formed a spur of the Oregon Trail. This cutoff had been used as a pack trail by Indians and fur traders for many years, and emigrant wagons had traversed parts of the eastern section as early as 1852. After crossing the Snake River the cutoff headed north from Fort Hall toward Big Southern Butte following the Lost River part of the way. It passed near the present-day town of Arco, Idahomarker and wound through the northern part of Craters of the Moon National Monumentmarker. From there it went southwest to Camas Prairie and ended at old Fort Boise on the Boise River. This journey typically took two to three weeks and was noted for its very rough, lava restricted roads and extremely dry climate, which tended to dry the wooden wheels on the wagons, which caused the iron rims to fall off the wheels. Loss of wheels caused many abandoned wagons to lay along the route. It rejoined the main trail east of Boise. Goodale's Cutoff is visible at many points along Idaho Highway 20, Idaho Highway 26 and Idaho Highway 93 between Craters of the Moon National Monument and Carey, Idahomarker.

From the present site of Pocatellomarker the trail proceeded almost due west on the south side of the Snake River for about . On this route they passed Cauldron Linn rapids, Shoshone Fallsmarker, and two falls near the present city of Twin Falls, Idahomarker and Upper Salmon Falls on the Snake River. At Salmon Falls there were often a hundred or more Indians fishing who would often trade for their salmon—a welcome treat. The trail continued west to Three Island Crossing (near present day Glenns Ferry, Idahomarker). Here most emigrants used the divisions of the river caused by three islands to cross the difficult and swift Snake River by ferry or by driving or sometimes floating their wagons and swimming teams across. The crossings were doubly treacherous because there were often hidden holes in the river bottom which if your team dropped into the wagon may overturn and the wagon and team would end in a large snarl with the drivers in the river or sometimes fatally tangled up in the snarl. Before ferries were established there were several drownings here nearly every year.

The north side of the Snake had better water and grass than the south. The trail from Three Island Crossing to old Fort Boise was about 130 miles long before getting into the welcome relief of the usually lush Boise River valley and the next required crossing of the Snake River near old Fort Boise. This last crossing of the Snake was usually done on bull boats and swimming the stock across. Others would chain a large string of wagons and teams together with a set of teams on a long chain in front. The theory was that the front teams, usually oxen, would get out of water first and with good footing help pull the whole string of wagons and teams across. How well this worked in practice is not stated. Often young Indian boys were hired to drive and ride the stock across the river—they at least knew how to swim unlike many pioneers. Today’s Idaho Interstate 84 roughly follows the Oregon trail till it leaves the Snake River near Burley, Idahomarker From there Interstate 86 to Pocatello roughly approximates the trail. Highway 30 from there to Montpelier Idaho follows roughly the path of the Oregon Trail.

Starting in about 1848 the South Alternate of Oregon Trail (also called the Snake River Cutoff) was developed as a spur off the main trail. It by-passed the Three Island Crossing and continued traveling down the south side of the Snake River, till it rejoined the trail near present day Ontario, Oregonmarker. It hugged the southern edge of the Snake River canyon and was a much rougher trail with poorer water and grass; requiring occasional steep descents and ascents with the animals down into the Snake River canyon to get water. It did avoid two dangerous crossings of the Snake River though. Today's Idaho State Route 78 roughly follows the path of the South Alternate route of the Oregon Trail.

In about 1860 the Kelton Road was developed from roughly the City of Rocksmarker to about west of the California Trail junction. It used the main Oregon Trail from there to Boise crossing to the North side of the Snake River at Three Island Crossing or Glenn's Ferry (after it was established about 1867). It was used primarily as a freight road for carrying freight to newly discovered mining districts of the Idaho Territory from both Salt Lake City, using the Salt Lake Cutoff, and California, using the California trail in reverse. After the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 the Kelton Road was extended to the railroad and used as a freight road from the railroad (where the town of Kelton, Utahmarker was established) to Boise, Idahomarker and the northern Idaho mines. They built relay stations at about ten mile intervals on the trail from Kelton to Boise to facilitate changing their teams. Today Kelton, Utahmarker is a ghost town because the railroad was re-routed across the middle of The Great Salt Lakemarker across the Lucin Cutoffmarker.


Once across the Snake River ford near old Fort Boise the weary travelers traveled across what would become the state of Oregonmarker. The trail then went to the Malheur River and then past Farewell Bend on the Snake river, up the Burnt Rivermarker canyon and northwest to the La Grandemarker valley before coming to the Blue Mountainsmarker. In 1843 settlers cut a wagon road over these mountains making them passable for the first time to wagons. For five years the trail went to the Whitman Missionmarker near old Walla Wallamarker Washingtonmarker until 1847 when the Whitmans were killed by Native Americans. At Fort Walla Walla some built rafts or hired boats and started down the Columbia; others continued west in their wagons till they hit The Dallesmarker. After 1847 the trail bypassed the closed mission and headed almost due west to present day Pendleton, Oregonmarker, crossing the Umatilla Rivermarker, John Day River, and Deschutes River before arriving at The Dalles. Interstate 84 in Oregon roughly follows the original Oregon Trail from Idaho to The Dalles.

Arriving at the Columbia at the Dalles and stopped by the Cascade Mountains and Mount Hoodmarker, some gave up their wagons or disassembled them and put them on boats or rafts for a trip down the Columbia River. Transiting the Cascade's Columbia River Gorgemarker with its multiple rapids and treacherous winds they would have to make the portage around the famous Cascade Rapidsmarker before coming out near the Willamette River where Oregon City, Oregonmarker was located. The pioneer's livestock could be driven around Mount Hood on the narrow, crooked and rough Lolo Passmarker.

Several Oregon Trail branches and route variations over time led to the Willamette Valley. Besides boats or rafts down the Columbia River, the most popular was the Barlow Roadmarker carved though the forest around Mount Hoodmarker from The Dalles in 1846 as a toll road at $5.00 per wagon and $0.10 per head of livestock. It was rough and steep with poor grass but still cheaper and safer than floating goods, wagons and family down the dangerous Columbia River.

In Central Oregon there was the Santiam Wagon Roadmarker (established 1861) roughly paralleling Oregon Highway 20 to the Willamette Valley. The Applegate Trail (established 1846) cutting off the California Trail from the Humboldt River in Nevadamarker crossed part of Californiamarker before cutting north to the south end of the Willamette Valley. U.S. Route 99 through Oregon and Interstate 5 through Oregon roughly follow the original Applegate Trail's route.

Travel equipment


The Oregon Trail was too long and arduous for the standard Conestoga wagons commonly used at that time in the Eastern United Statesmarker and on the Santa Fe Trail. Their freight capacity was larger than needed, and the large teams (8 to 10 animals) these wagons required could not navigate the tight corners often found on the Oregon Trail.

This led to the rapid development of prairie schooners. This wagon was approximately half the size of the larger Conestoga, weighed about empty with about of capacity and about of storage space in an -long, -wide, by -high box. These wagons could be easily be pulled by 4 to 6 oxen or 6 to 10 mules. Extra animals were often recommended because animals could stray or become injured or die on the trip. Often late in the trip mixed teams that included dairy cows and riding ponies were sometimes hitched up to make a usable team. The wagons were manufactured in quantity by companies like Studebaker at a reasonable price, with new wagons costing between $85 and $170. The cotton canvas covers of the wagons were doubled and treated with linseed oil to help keep out the rain, dust and wind, though the covers tended to leak rain and dust eventually anyway. The typical wagon with diameter wheels could easily move over rough ground and rocks without high centering and even over most tree stumps if required. The wooden wheels were protected with an iron rim typically about wide. These iron tires were installed hot so they would shrink tightly onto the wood wheel when they cooled. Nevertheless it was often advisable to soak the wheel in water as the dry desert air sometimes dried the tires so much the iron tire was prone to fall off. In practice it was found that the standard farm wagon built by a company or wagon maker (wainwright) of good reputation usually worked almost as well as prairie schooners and had only to be fitted with wooden bows and a canvas cover to be ready. Wagons were generally reliable if maintained, but they sometimes broke down and had to be repaired or abandoned along the way. Broken axles and broken wagon tongues were two of the most common problems, and replacements were created out of whatever wood was available. Abandoned wagons were typically scavenged for whatever parts were needed. One wagon could carry enough food for six months' travel for four or five as well as a short list of household and luxury items. As a bonus, they also provided ready shelter and protection from bad weather, and the supplies and goods carried did not need to be unloaded at night or loaded onto draft animals each morning.

It is estimated that about seventy percent (or more) of the wagons traveling west were pulled by oxen; mule teams were a strong second choice at 20–30%, and initially there were almost no horse-pulled wagons. This was true for many reasons. An ox team was about 10% slower than a mule or horse-pulled wagon (about 2–3 miles/hour). However, they were cheaper to buy ($25 to $85 per yoke versus up to $600 or more for six horses), easier to train, could pull more, survived better on the sparse grass often found along the trail, did not require oats or grain, and were often tamer and easier to handle after they were trained. Novices could usually learn to handle a trained ox team in about a week. Oxen could usually be turned loose at night and easily rounded up in the mornings. Mules and horses typically required herding day and night and often had to be staked out on a rope or hobbled. Oxen were usually easier to find and catch, and the Indians were usually less interested in stealing them. Mules were the second choice (about as fast as a horse and could survive well on the feed found along the way) and worked well when trained. Trained mules were hard to find, and mules were a serious problem to handle until trained by an experienced mule skinner—up to a two-month project. In later years, horses were chosen more often because they were about 10% faster and the oats and grain required to keep them fit for months of continuous work could often be bought along the way.

The ox drivers walked alongside the left side of their oxen team and used voice commands "gee" (right) and "haw" (left) and a whip to guide them, and mules were often guided by riding one (typically the left hand wheel mule) that was hooked to the wagon and handling the reins from there. Whips were seldom used to actually whip the animals but were used to get the animal's attention by making them snap in the air.


The recommended amount of food to take for per adult was of flour, of corn meal, of bacon, of sugar, of coffee, of dried fruit, of salt, half a pound (0.25 kg) of saleratus (baking soda), of tea, of rice, and of beans. These provisions were usually kept in a water-tight containers or barrels to minimize spoilage. The usual meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner along the trail was bacon, beans, coffee and biscuits or bread. The typical cost of enough food for four people for six months was about $150.

The amount of food required was lessened if beef cattle, calves or sheep were taken along for a walking food supply. Prior to the 1870s there were vast herds of buffalo in Nebraska which provided fresh meat and jerky for the trip. In general, wild game could not be depended on for a regular source of food, but when found it was relished as a welcome change in a monotonous diet. Travelers could hunt antelope, buffalo, sage hen, trout, and occasionally elk, bear, duck, geese, salmon and deer along the trail. Most travelers carried a rifle or shotgun and spare powder, lead and primers for hunting game and protection against snakes and Indian attacks. When they got to the Snake River and Columbia River areas they would often trade with the Indians for salmon—a welcome change. The Indians in Oregon often traded potatoes and other vegetables they had learned to grow from the missionaries. Some families took along milk cows, goats, and chickens (penned in crates tied to the wagons). Additional food like pickles, canned butter, cheese or pickled eggs were occasionally carried, but canned goods were expensive and food preservation was primitive, so few items could be safely kept for the four- to six-month duration of the trip.

Cooking along the trail was typically done over a campfire dug into the ground and made of wood, buffalo chips, willow or sagebrush. Flint and steel were used to start fires. Some carried matches in water-tight containers to help start fires. Fire was typically borrowed from a neighbor for ease of starting. Cooking typically required simple cooking utensils such as butcher knives, large spoons, spatulas, ladles, Dutch ovens, pots and pans, grills, spits, coffee pots and an iron tripod to suspend the pans and pots over the fire. Some brought small stoves, but these were often jettisoned along the way as too heavy and unnecessary. Wooden or canvas buckets were brought for carrying water, and most travelers carried canteens and/or water bags for daily use. At least one ten gallon water barrel was brought, but it was usually kept nearly empty to minimize weight (some water in it helped prevent it from drying out and losing its water tightness); it was only filled for long waterless stretches. Some brought a new invention—an India Rubber combination mattress and water carrier.

Clothing and equipment

Tobacco was popular, both for personal use and for trading with Indians. Each person brought at least two changes of clothes and multiple pairs of boots (two to three pairs often wore out on a trip). About 25 pounds of soap was recommended for a party of four for bathing and washing clothes. A washboard and tub was also usually included to aid in washing clothes. Wash days typically occurred once or twice a month or less, depending on availability of good grass, water and fuel. Most wagons carried tents for sleeping, though in good weather most would sleep outside of the tent and wagon. A thin fold-up mattress, blankets, pillows, canvas or rubber gutta percha ground covers were used for sleeping at night. Sometimes an unfolded feather bed mattress was brought for the wagon if there were pregnant women or very young children along. The wagons had no springs, and the ride along the trail was very rough. Despite modern depictions, almost nobody actually rode in the wagons; it was too dusty, too rough and hard on the livestock.

Travelers also brought personal items such as books, Bibles, trail guides, and writing quills, ink and paper for recording a diary (about one in 200 initially kept a diary) or writing a letter.

Belts and folding knives were carried by nearly all men and boys. Awls, scissors, pins, needles and thread to repair clothes, shoes, harnesses, equipment and occasionally people were constantly in use. Spare leather used for repairs was often needed and used. Goggles to keep dust out of eyes were used by some. Storage boxes were often the same height so they could be arranged to give a flat surface inside the wagon for sleeping during bad weather.

Saddles, bridles, hobbles, ropes etc. were needed if they had a horse or riding mule, and many men did. Extra harness and wagon parts were often carried. Steel shoes for oxen, mules or horses and some spare parts for the wagons were carried by most. Tar was often carried to help repair an injured ox's hoof.

Goods, supplies and equipment were often shared by fellow travelers. Other goods that were forgotten, broken or wore out could often be found discarded by someone else, bought from a fellow traveler, post or fort along the way. New iron shoes for horses, mules and oxen were often put on by blacksmiths found along the way. Equipment repairs and other goods could often be procured from blacksmith shops established at some forts and some ferries along the way. Emergency supplies, repairs and livestock were often provided by local residents in Oregon, California and Utah for late travelers on the trail who were hurrying to beat the snow and had run out of supplies, broken down or needed fresh animals.

Along the way, non-essential items were often abandoned to lighten the load, or in case of emergency. Many travelers would salvage discarded items, picking up essentials or trading their lower quality items for better ones found along the road. Some profitted by collecting discarded items and hauling them back to jumping off places and reselling them. In the early years Mormons sent scavenging parties back along the trail to salvage as much iron and other supplies as possible and haul it to Salt Lake City where supplies of all kinds were needed. Others would use discarded wagons, wheels and furniture as firewood. During the 1849 gold rush, Fort Laramie was known as "Camp Sacrifice" because of the large amounts merchandise discarded nearby. Travelers had pushed along the relatively easy path to Fort Laramie with their luxury items but discarded them before the difficult mountain crossing ahead and after discovering that many items could be purchased at the forts or located for free along the way. Many of the smarter travelers carried their "excess" goods to Salt Lake City.

Professional tools used by blacksmith, carpenter, farmer, etc. were carried by nearly all. Shovels, crow bars, picks, hoes, mattocks, saws, hammers, axes and hatchets were used to clear or make a road through trees or brush, cut down the banks to cross a wash or steep banked stream, build a raft or bridge, or repair the wagon where necessary. In general as little road work as possible was done. Travel was often along the top of ridges to avoid the brush and washes common in many valleys.



Estimated California Oregon Mormon Trail Emigrants
Year Oregon California Utah Total
1834–39 20 20
1840 13 13
1841 24 34 58
1842 125 125
1843 875 38 913
1844 1,475 53 1,528
1845 2,500 260 2,760
1846 1,200 1,500 2,700
1847 4,000 450 2,200 6,650
1848 1,300 400 2,400 4,100
Tot to '49 11,512 2,735 4,600 18,847
1849 450 25,000 1,500 26,950
1850 6,000 44,000 2,500 52,500
1851 3,600 1,100 1,500 6,200
1852 10,000 50,000 10,000 70,000
1853 7,500 20,000 8,000 35,500
1854 6,000 12,000 3,200 21,200
1855 500 1,500 4,700 6,700
1856 1,000 8,000 2,400 11,400
1857 1,500 4,000 1,300 6,800
1858 1,500 6,000 150 7,650
1859 2,000 17,000 1,400 20,400
1860 1,500 9,000 1,600 12,100
Total 53,000 200,300 43,000 296,300
1834–60 Oregon California Utah Total
1861 3,148 5,000
1862 5,244 5,000
1863 4,760 10,000
1864 2,626 10,000
1865 690 20,000
1866 3,299 25,000
1867 700 25,000
1868 4,285 25,000
Total 80,000 250,000 70,000 400,000
1834–67 Oregon California Utah Total

Some of the trail statistics for the early years were recorded by the U.S. Army at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, from about 1849 to 1855. None of these original statistical records have been found—the Army lost them or destroyed them. There are only some diary references to these records and some partial written copies of the Army records as recorded in several diaries. Emigration to California spiked considerably with the 1849 gold rush. Following the discovery of gold, California remained the destination of choice for most emigrants on the trail up to 1860, with almost 200,000 people traveling there between 1849 and 1860.

Travel after 1860 is even less well known as the Civil War caused considerable disruptions on the trail. Many of the people on the trail in 1861–1863 were fleeing the war and its attendant drafts in both the south and the north. Trail historian Merrill J. Mattes has estimated the number of emigrants for 1861–1867 given in the total column of the above table. But these estimates may well be low since they only amount to an extra 125,000 people, and the 1870 census shows that over 200,000 additional people (ignoring most of California's population increase which had an excellent sea and rail connections across Panama by then) showed up in all the states served by the California/Oregon/Mormon/Bozeman Trail(s) and its offshoots. Mormon emigration records after 1860 are reasonably well known as newspaper and other accounts in Salt Lake City give most of the names of emigrants arriving each year from 1847 to 1868. Gold and silver strikes in Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Montana also caused a considerable increase in people using the trails often in directions different than the original trail users.

Though the numbers are significant in the context of the times, far more people chose to remain at home in the 31 states. Between 1840 and 1860, the population of the Unitd States rose by 14 million, yet only about 300,000 decided to make the trip. Between 1860 and 1870 the U.S. population increased by seven million, with about 350,000 of this increase being in the Western states. Many were discouraged by the cost, effort and danger of the trip. Western scout Kit Carson reputedly said, "The cowards never started and the weak died on the way." According to several sources 3–10% of the emigrants are estimated to have perished on the way west.

Western Census Data

Census Population of western States
State 1870 1860 Difference
California 560,247 379,994 180,253
Nevada 42,491 6,857 35,634
Oregon 90,923 52,465 38,458
Colorado* 39,684 34,277 5,407
Idaho* 14,990 14,990
Montana* 20,595 20,595
Utah* 86,789 40,273 46,516
Washington* 23,955 11,594 12,361
Wyoming* 9,118 9,118
Totals 888,792 525,460 363,332

These census numbers show a 363,000 population increase in the western states and territories between 1860 and 1870. Some of this increase is because of a high birth rate in the western states and territories but most is from emigrants moving from the east to the west and new immigration from Europe. Much of the increase in California and Oregon is from emigration by ship as there were fast and reasonable "low" cost transportation via east and west coast steam ships and the Panama Railroadmarker after 1855. The census numbers imply at least 200,000 emigrants (or more) used some variation of the California/Oregon/Mormon/Bozeman trails to get to their new homes in the 1860–1870 decade.


The cost of traveling over the Oregon Trail and its extensions varied from nothing to a few hundred dollars per person. Women seldom went alone outside of family groups. The cheapest way was to hire on to help drive the wagons or herds, allowing one to make the trip for nearly nothing or even make a small profit. Those with capital could often buy livestock in the midwest and drive the stock to California or Oregon for profit. About 60–80% of the travelers were farmers and as such already owned a wagon, livestock team and many of the necessary supplies. This lowered the cost of the trip to about $50 per person for food and other items. Families often planned for a trip months in advance and made many of the extra clothing and other items needed. Individuals buying most of the needed items would end up spending between $150–$200 per person. As the trail matured, additional costs for ferries and toll roads were thought to have been about $30 per wagon.


Oregon-California-Mormon Trail Deaths
Cause Estimated deaths
Disease 6,000–12,500
Indian attacks 500–1,000
Freezing 300–500
Run overs 200–500
Drownings 200–500
Shootings 200–500
Miscellaneous 200–500
Scurvy 300–500
Totals 8,000–16,500

The route west was arduous and filled with many dangers, but the number of deaths on the trail is not known with any precision and there are only wildly varying estimates. The estimates are made even harder by the common practice then of burying people in unmarked graves that were intentionally disguised to avoid them being dug up by animals or Indians. Graves were often put in the middle of a trail and then run over by their livestock to make them difficult to find. Diseases like cholera were the main killer of trail travelers with up to 3% of all travelers dying of cholera in the cholera years of 1849 to 1855.

Indian attacks increased significantly after 1860 when most of the army troops were withdrawn and miners and ranchers began fanning out all over the country often encroaching on Indian territory. Increased attacks along the Humboldt led to most travelers taking the Central Nevada Route across Nevada. The Goodall cutoff was developed in Idaho in 1862 which kept Oregon bound travelers away from much of the Indian trouble nearer the Snake River. Other trails were developed that traveled further along the South Platte to avoid local Indian hot spots.

Other common causes of death included: hypothermia, drowning in river crossings, getting run over by wagons, and accidental gun deaths. Drownings probably peaked in 1849 and 1850 when young impatient and pushy men were the predominant population on the trail. Later more family groups started traveling as well as many more ferries and bridges were being put in, and fording a dangerous river became much less common and dangerous. Surprisingly few people were taught to swim in this era. Run overs were a major cause of death, despite the wagons only averaging 2–3 miles per hour. The wagons could not easily be stopped, and people, particularly children, were often trying to get on and off the wagons while they were moving—not always successfully. Another hazard a dress getting caught in the wheels and pulling the person under it. Accidental shootings declined significantly after Fort Laramie as people became more familiar with their weapons and often just left them in their wagons. Carrying around a ten pound rifle all day soon became tedious and usually unnecessary as the perceived Indian threat faded and hunting opportunities receded.

A significant number of travelers were suffering from scurvy by the end of their trips. Their typical flour and salted pork/bacon diet had very little vitamin C in it. The diet in the mining camps was also typically very poor in fresh vegetables and fruit, which indirectly led to early deaths of many of the Argonauts. Some believe that scurvy deaths from poor nutrition may have rivaled cholera as a killer with most deaths occurring after they reached California. Many understood the importance of a diet that included fresh vegetables and fruit and how to prevent scurvy was common knowledge in some circles but far from universally known or taught. The Chinese Argonauts with their insistence on many vegetables in their diet fared much better.

Miscellaneous deaths included deaths by: homicides, lightning strikes, childbirths, stampedes, snake bites, flash floods, falling trees, kicks by animals, etc. According to an evaluation by John Unruh, a 4% death rate or 16,000 out of 400,000 total pioneers on all trails may have died on the trail.


One of the main enduring legacies of the Oregon Trail is the expansion of the United States territory to the West Coast. Without the many thousands of United States settlers in Oregon and California and thousands more on their way each year, it is highly unlikely that this would have occurred. The western expansion and the Oregon Trail in particular inspired many songs that told of the settlers' experiences. "Uncle Sam's Farm" encouraged east-coast dwellers to "Come right away. Our lands they are broad enough, so don't be alarmed. Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm." In "Western Country," the singer exhorts that "if I had no horse at all, I'd still be a hauling, far across those Rocky Mountains, goin' away to Oregon."

Video games

The story of the Oregon Trail inspired a popular educational computer game of the same name, The Oregon Trail. The game became widely popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Several sequels to the game were also released, such as The Oregon Trail II, The Yukon Trail, and The Amazon Trail.The game resurfaced in 2008 when Gameloft created an updated version for cell phones.

TV show

The Oregon Trail was briefly made into a television series that ran from September 21, 1977 – October 26, 1977, on NBC. The show starred Tony Becker, Darleen Carr, Charles Napier, Rod Taylor and Ken Swofford. Although it was canceled after 6 episodes, the remaining episodes were still aired on BBC 2 in the U.K.

See also


Further reading

External links

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