The Oregon Trail went from western Missouri across the Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains to Oregon City, Oregon. It was most heavily used in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. It was the longest historic overland migration trail in North America. The length of the wagon trail from the Missouri River to Willamette Valley was about 2,000 miles (3,200 km). It normally took four to six months to traverse the length of the Oregon Trail with wagons pulled by oxen. About 80,000 pioneers used it to reach Oregon, and about 20,000 to Washington before the transcontinental railroad in 1869.
Footpath to wagon road. The route of the Oregon Trail was first discovered by fur trappers about 1811. Several expeditions of government men explored and mapped parts of the trail in 1832, 1834, 1846, and 1848. It was originally a footpath or mule pack train trail. In 1830 the first fur trade rendezvous wagons reached the Green River in Wyoming. By 1836 when the first pioneer wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, the wagon trail went as far as Fort Hall. By 1843 the wagon road reached the Dalles (Oregon) where pioneers could raft down the Columbia River. In 1846 the Barlow Road around Mt. Hood finally reached Oregon City.
Oregon boundary dispute. Washington State and British Columbia were at first disputed and jointly occupied by Britain (Canada) and the United States. The British and their Hudson's Bay Company controlled Washington northwest of the Columbia River. But pressure was being exerted against Canada. In 1836 American pioneer groups began migrating over the Oregon Trail into Oregon. Thousands came over the next decade, far more than from Canada. Slogans of the 1844 American presidential campaign clamored for war to take Washington and British Columbia by force. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave Washington to the United States and British Columbia to Canada.
Reasons for migrating. Mountain men fur trappers were the earliest to use the Oregon Trail. A few early missionaries came in the 1830s. Larger groups of American settlers began arriving in 1843. The California Trail, Mormon Trail, and Bozeman Trail overlapped much of the Oregon Trail and branched off it starting in 1846. The California Gold Rush of 1849 contributed significantly to west coast migration. Western gold and silver strikes, free farm land, lumber, and ranching all increased traffic on the Oregon Trail. An estimated 80,000 pioneers used the Oregon Trail by 1869, and about 320,000 more followed part of the Oregon trail to take one of its three main branches.
Preparations. Most emigrants were farmers who already had their own wagons and most of their own supplies. Other travelers usually purchased supplies at "jumping off" points in Missouri, Iowa, or Kansas. Supplies cost as much as $200 per person including a covered wagon, teams of oxen, 150 pounds of food per person, tobacco, cooking gear, extra shoes, two sets of clothes, 25 pounds of soap, washboard and wash tub, tent, a canvas or rubber groundcloth with blankets for sleeping, tools, guns and ammunition. Some also bought a trail guide book.
Trail life. Non-essentials were often abandoned on the trail to lighten the load. Forts and trading posts (Ft. Kearny, Ft. Laramie, Ft. Fetterman, Ft. Bridger, Ft. Hall, Ft. Boise, Ft. Nez Percés, and Ft. Vancouver) along the way usually provided supplies, fresh animal teams, repairs, spare parts, and news of trail conditions. Hunting (including bison), fishing, and trading were also common along the route. Emigrants usually formed into wagon trains for security. Almost everyone preferred to walk rather than ride in dusty, bumpy wagons. They had to average 11 miles (18 km) to 17 miles (27 km) per day to reach Oregon City in four to six months. To leave too early risked muddy trails and too little grass for livestock. To arrive late risked traveling in winter weather. Thunderstorms and fierce winds were common. In good weather they often slept under the stars. On the prairie buffalo chips were gathered for use as cooking fuel. Wash day was about every two weeks. Many travelers enjoyed side trips climbing over trail landmarks like Chimney Rock, Scott's Bluff, and Independence Rock. Some entrepreneurs drove herds of cattle over the trail to sell and help pay for the trip.
Deaths. About five percent of pioneers died on the Oregon-California-Mormon trails. The most common killer was cholera along the Platte River in Nebraska. This disease killed as much as three percent between 1849 and 1855 (6,000 to 12,500 individuals). About 3,000 to 4,500 deaths happened because of Indian attacks especially in Idaho and Nevada after U.S. Army troops were withdrawn in 1860 in the run up to the Civil War. Other causes of death included freezing, scurvy, being run over, drownings (especially in the 1850s before many ferries), and accidental shootings.
Decline of trail use. In 1855 the Oregon Trail (and California Trail) traffic declined dramatically for at least two reasons. First, Oregon's free land incentive ended in 1855. From 1850 to 1854 pioneers could claim 300 acres of land for free. From 1855 to 1862 Oregon pioneers were required to pay for government land. The next free-land opportunities were not created in Oregon until the 1862 Homestead Act was passed. Second, the Panama Railroad was completed with steamship links that made transportation from the east coast to the west coast of America more practical than using an overland wagon trail.
Another factor that later diminished the use of the Oregon Trail was American railroads. The transcontinental Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads completed in 1869 to Sacramento, California made that route faster, safer, and less expensive than traveling the Oregon Trail. Railroads to Oregon were developed in the 1870s. Nevertheless, a few emigrants continued to use the Oregon Trail as late as the 1890s.
The Oregon Trail was miles wide with many variations. Emigrants started on their journey from many sundry "jumping off points" in three states. Some took a variety of shortcuts, and others traveled on different sides of the rivers from other emigrants. Travelers often completed their journey in Idaho, Washington or places other than Oregon City. The Oregon Trail was the trunk trail for several other branch trails. The California Trail starting 1846, the Mormon Trail in 1847, and the Bozeman Trail beginning 1863 branched off from the main Oregon Trail.
Two of the most popular outfitting or "jumping off points" were Independence and St. Joseph in western Missouri. Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Kansas City, Lawrence, and Topeka in Kansas were also used. From their starting point emigrants often followed the Missouri River up to the Platte River. Another option was to follow the Kansas River and then the Little Blue River toward the Platte River.
Livestock needed watering so the Oregon Trail followed rivers across the dry prairies. The Oregon Trail usually followed the south side of the North Platte River west through Nebraska to Fort Fetterman (near Douglas, Wyoming). At Fort Fetterman the Bozeman Trail branched off northwest toward Montana. Oregon Trail emigrants followed the Sweetwater River farther west. A good goal was to reach Independence Rock on the Sweetwater River by Independence Day. The trail went over South Pass then worked its way through the mountains. One shortcut went from South Pass due west toward Fort Hall. The main trail from South Pass headed southwest to cross the Green River at Lombard Ferry, headed for Fort Bridger. At Fort Bridger the Mormon Trail branched southwest toward Salt Lake City. The main Oregon Trail went northwest from Bridger to Fort Hall, Idaho. From Fort Hall most California Trail emigrants forked southwest toward Nevada, while Oregon Trail followers continued along the Snake River to Fort Boise and the Oregon border. Once in Oregon emigrants made their way through the Blue Mountains either to Fort Nez Percé (Walla Walla, Washington) on the Columbia River, or to The Dalles on the same river. At first a risky raft trip down the Columbia River was the normal route. But the opening of the Barlow Road in 1846 allowed wagons to get around Mount Hood to the Willamette Valley and Oregon City. Some pioneers continued on to destinations like Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington.
The exact route of the Oregon Trail varied over the years. Most often it passed through:
The Oregon-California Trails Association provides a Virtual Trail map with images, and brief histories of points along the trail.
Connecting migration routes. The Oregon Trail linked to other migration routes at each end, and at junctions in the middle. The migration pathways connected near the east end included:
- Mississippi River
- Missouri River
- Santa Fe Trail 1821-1880 from western Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico
- Oregon_Trail 1820s from western Missouri to the Willamette Valley of Oregon
- California Trail 1841 from western Missouri to central California overlapped the Oregon Trail most of the way to Fort Hall, Idaho
- Mormon Trail 1846-1847 from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah overlapped the Oregon Trail from the North Platte River, Nebraska to Ft. Bridger, Wyoming
- Union Pacific Railroad 1865 from Omaha, Nebraska and extending its way slowly west to Ogden, Utah in 1869
- Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway 1872 eventually from Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California
The migration pathways connected near the west end of the Oregon Trail included:
- Columbia River
- Oregon_Trail 1820s from western Missouri to the Willamette Valley of Oregon
- York Factory Express 1824 from Fort Vancouver, Washington to York Factory, Manitoba, Canada
- Siskiyou Trail 1829 from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, California
- Applegate Trail 1846 from the Willamette Valley in Oregon to the California Trail at the Humboldt River in Nevada
- Thomas and Ruckle Road 1864-1886 over the Blue Mountains from Walla Walla to Idaho
- Southern Pacific Railroad 1883 Los Angeles to New Orleans, including Oregon
- Great Northern Railway (U.S.) 1893 Chicago to Seattle, including Oregon
- Union Pacific Railroad 1925 Granger, Wyoming via Boise to Portland
Several migration pathways had junctions at various places along the middle of the Oregon Trail:
- Bozeman Trail 1863 branched from the Oregon Trail at Ft. Fetterman, near Douglas, Wyoming heading to Bozeman, and Virginia City, Montana
- Cherokee Trail (aka Trapper's Trail) 1849 to early 1890s from Salina, Oklahoma merged with the Oregon Trail near Ft. Bridger, Wyoming
- Mormon Trail 1847 from Omaha, Nebraska branched off the Oregon Trail at Ft. Bridger, Wyoming going to Salt Lake City, Utah
- California Trail 1841 from western Missouri usually split off the Oregon Trail at Fort Hall, Idaho toward northern California
- Meek Cutoff 1845 branched from the Oregon Trail at Vale, Oregon going northwest to The Dalles, Oregon
Modern parallels. The modern roads that roughly match the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon are listed in an online edition of a National Park Service publication about the Oregon Trail:
Settlers and Records
Pioneers who used the Oregon Trail were mostly Americans from the Midwest or Mid-South. Most settled in Oregon, especially in the Willamette Valley, but about 20 percent moved on to Washington (state) before 1870. Others went to California.
No complete list of pioneer settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail is known to exist. However, a variety of sources exist which can be used to identify most of them. Some of these sources may reveal their place of origin.
- "The Oregon Territory and Its Pioneers" [Internet site] at http://www.oregonpioneers.com/ortrail.htm (accessed 15 July 2011). Includes year-by-year lists of pioneers pre-1839 to 1855.
- "Oregon Pioneers - Search List" in Oregon Genealogical Society at http://www.oregongenealogicalsociety.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=section&layout=blog&id=17&Itemid=65 (accessed 15 July 2011). Includes 668 entries with spouse, arrival date, and place settled prior to 1872.
- Oregon Pioneer List (OPL) Project master index at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~orpionpr/master.html (accessed 15 July 2011). A few hundred names of pioneers prior to 1901, many with biographical and submitter information.
Oregon Land Records. From 1850 to 1854 pioneers could claim up to 300 acres of free land in Oregon (Donation Land Claims). Deeds and other land records from any time period are clues to when a pioneer arrived.
- "Land Records" in Oregon States Archives at http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/land.html (accessed 15 July 2011). County-by-county list of land records at the State Archives.
- "Oregon Donation Land Claim Index" in Genealogical Forum of Oregon at http://www.gfo.org/donation/ (accessed 15 July 2011). Lists surname, given name, volume, office, and claim number.
Censuses also can be used to identify pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail:
- Oregon took territorial and state censuses in years between federal censuses. These censuses often have different questions than federal censuses and additional family information. Pioneer censuses included:
|State and Territorial Censuses of Oregon Prior to 1871|
|1870||State census Umatilla county |
|1865||State census Benton, Columbia, Marion and Umatilla counties |
|1859||Territorial census Clatsop, Umpqua (now Douglas) counties |
|1858||Territorial census Benton, Clatsop, Coos, Curry, Umpqua (now Douglas) counties |
|1857||Territorial census Benton, Clackamas, Coos, Curry, Douglas, Jackson, Tillamook, Umpqua (now Douglas), Washington counties |
|1856||Territorial census Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Curry, Polk, and Washington counties |
|1855||Territorial census Coos and Jackson counties |
|1854||Territorial census Benton, Clatsop, and Jackson counties |
|1853||Territorial census Benton, Marion, Polk, Umpqua (now Douglas), Washington and counties |
|1849||Apportionment Census of Males over 21 --Benton, Champoeg, Clackamas, Clatsop, Lewis (Washington State), Linn, Polk, Tualatin, Vancouver (Washington State), and Yamhill counties |
|1845-46||Tualaty county (now Washington State) |
|1845||Champoeg (now Marion), Clackamas, Clatsop, and Yamhill |
|1842||Elijah White Census (persons living south of the Columbia River) |
Local and county histories and biographies in Oregon also may help identify additional pioneers. For example:
- Vera Martin Lynch, Free land for free men : a story of Clackamas County ((Portland, Oreg. : Printed by Artline Print), 1973). WorldCat entry. FHL Book 979.541 H2L.
- Elma Rust, Pioneers of Lake Creek Valley, and a few later ones (Photocopy of original published: Blachly, Ore. : E. Rust, 1984). WorldCat entry. FHL Film 2055468 Item 8; Book 979.531 H2r.
- "Oregon Trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_Trail (accessed 15 July 2011). History and relatively detailed list of sites along the trail with some images.
- National Park Service, Oregon Pioneer National Historic Trail at http://www.nps.gov/oreg/index.htm (accessed 15 July 2011). History, culture, photos, map.
- "Oregon - California Trails Association" in Calcite Rocky Mountain College (Internet site) at http://www.octa-trails.org/ (accessed 8 July 2011). Includes Oregon trail maps, photos, site descriptions, and diary quotations. For an index of overland trail documents see www.paper-trail.org/search.asp.
- "The Oregon Trail" at http://www.isu.edu/~trinmich/Allabout.html (accessed 15 July 2011). Historic sites, fantastic facts, archives, discoverers and explorers, "jumping off," route west, power, hardships, camping, buffalo, and Native Americans.
- "Oregon pioneer history" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_pioneer_history (accessed 15 July 2011). Includes background, territory, government, economy, and transportation.
- Wikipedia contributors, "Oregon Trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_Trail (accessed 12 July 2012).
- Wikipedia contributors, "Oregon boundary dispute" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oregon_boundary_dispute (accessed 12 July 2012).
- John D. Unruh, The Plains Across: the Overland Immigrants and Trans-Mississippi West 1840–1860 (University of Illinois Press, 1979), 119–20.
- Ann S. Lainhart, State Census Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1992), 97-98. WorldCat entry. FHL Book 973 X2Lai.
- Connie Miller Lenzen, Research in Oregon Research in Oregon] (Arlington, Virginia: National Genealogical Association, 2007), 16-17. WorldCat entry. FHL Book 979.5 D27L 1992.
- Ronald Vern Jackson, Scott D. Rosenkilde, W. David Samuelsen, Oregon Census Records 1851-1859 (North Salt Lake, Utah: Accelerated Systems, 1984) WorldCat entry. FHL Book 979.5 X22o 1851-1859.