Pioneers of the Westward Expansion

August 17, 2015  - by 

By 1870, hundreds of thousands had traveled west on the Oregon-California trials. Was your ancestor one of them?

Recently, a post in honor of Utah’s Pioneer Day focused on helping family historians find their Mormon-pioneer ancestors. Now it’s time to find our other intrepid progenitors of various cultural and religious backgrounds that traveled west seeking land and a new life.

Originating as fur trapper foot paths, the Oregon and California trails were about 2000 miles long stretching west from the Missouri river. These trails were no official interstate. Instead they were miles wide with many variations and jumping off points, generally taking 4-6 months to cross if traveling with oxen and wagons. For a more detailed history of the routes that you may not remember from grade school, see the Oregon Trail and California Trail wiki articles. These articles also contain useful tips for research.

Because official record keeping was sparse and death rates high during this time of westward expansion, it can be difficult to find and follow pioneer ancestors. Here are some of the helps that can be found on FamilySearch:

  • Use United States census records to track your ancestors across the years. This will give you a good idea of the movement of the family. Key census years will be 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880. (1890 isn’t included in this list since it was almost completely lost to flood and fire.) When searching these census records it’s important to look back at their history to understand how to use them. Prior to 1850, the census records only listed the heads of households rather than every family member. After that, even though all household members are listed, the information on the census may be slightly incorrect based on who was giving the census taker the information, what the census taker heard and recorded, and who was living away from home at the time. Although these early censuses don’t have perfect national coverage, they still remain a valuable source of genealogical information. The links above will take you to a wiki article with more help on using the records and a direct link to the collection’s digital index.
  • Also try searching the California 1852 State Census. This unique state census was created specifically because there was so much migration to the new state following the national 1850 census.
  • Another helpful source is the California Great Registers which is a collection of California county voting records. Since these registers were created every other year, it may be a good clue in determining the time period that you ancestor migrated west depending on the year that they show up on the voting records.
  • For a couple Utah specific collections, check out the George Edward Anderson Photo Collection which is housed in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU. This is a collection of historic Utah photographs from 1860-1928. The photographs have to be viewed at the library but you can search online for the names on the photograph and a description. Also easily available is the Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah Collection. The photos and biographical sketches were originally compiled in a book by Frank Esshom documenting the years 1847-1868. The collection has now been digitized and is searchable online.

Outside of FamilySearch there are a number of wonderful websites to help in your research. Here are a few useful ones we’ve found:

  • The Native Daughters of the Golden West offer a roster of California pioneers. This roster is a collaborative effort and the information you find, while not a primary source, should provide you some great information and clues. Search The Index for your ancestor’s name and follow the Instructions for Obtaining Copies of the individual roster submissions.
  • The Oregon Territory and Its Pioneers website created by Stephenie Flora is another great resource. When you get to the website, scroll down for important links. There are 4 sections devoted to research on this page. 1- The Settling of Oregon, containing the history of the Oregon territory. 2- The Journey, containing the history of trail preparation and logistics. 3- Emigrant Lists, containing lists of Oregon trail pioneers from a variety of sources. 4- Researching The Pioneers, containing links to research and history sites. Remember that the information you find may not be 100% accurate. Always seek out primary documents.

Don’t forget to explore the FamilySearch Catalog for more resources that may not be available online. The catalog will include sources only available on computer or microfilm at a family history library. These sources are can be easily overlooked but often contain key information. Along with names you will be able to find histories and biographies that will give you a more complete picture of life along the trail and the work of western state settlement.

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  1. I am a mcclements from Pittsburgh pa. My grandfather father was the famous florist of Pittsburgh. John mcclements born 1883 in newtown ardscounty down. Ireland. His father was hugh mcclements born 1835 married Margaret Burns mcclements. They both passed in 1921 in pittsburgh. They had 8 children. If you have any information please contact me at my email thank you. Jill