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Cover Story April 5th, 2007

  Untitled Document


by lyle e davis

That Thomas Jefferson fella sure was a visionary. He wasn’t content to be in Mount Vernon . . . he thought there might be a whole new world out there to discover, to conquer, and to possess.

Turns out he was right. He dispatched a couple of adventurers to scout out the land . . . take notes, drawings, collect samples, report back with facts and figures. They did. Their names were Lewis and Clark.

You may have heard of them.

That Lewis and Clark Expedition turned out to be just the beginning of a whole new movement to the west. In time, folks would head out in droves . . . heading for both Oregon and California.

Today, you can still find the Oregon National Trail. It’s a 2,000 mile monument to the human spirit. In the sixty odd years of its use, thousands of Americans headed west, first for fur, then as missionaries, and finally for land. Between 1841 and the turn of the century, over 300,000 Americans of all ages and walks of life sold most of their worldly possessions, piled what was left in a wagon and set off on an epic journey.

There are lots of trails out here in the West. Offhand,the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Santa Fe Trail, the Bozeman Trail, the Southern Route (or Applegate Trail), the Free Emigrant Road, the Cherokee Trail, the Pony Express Trail(s), the Nez Perce Trail, and too many shortcuts and military roads to even try to list here. Still, the California Trail is one of the big ones: it followed the Oregon Trail across the Great Plains and over the Continental Divide, and then cut off from the Oregon Trail near Fort Hall to follow two or three major routes to the gold fields. Tens of thousands of prospectors, miners, and carpetbaggers followed the California Trail west after gold was found at Sutter's Mill in 1848.

In its earliest days, the Oregon Trail was a 2000 mile long string of rivers and natural landmarks that could be followed from Missouri to Oregon. It was easy to get lost without a guide who knew the way. In later years, after thousands of pioneers had followed the Oregon Trail to settle in the Oregon Country, there were well-worn paths to follow. On the other hand, there were also local roads, military roads, and even shortcuts, so while it was harder to get really lost, it was still easy to take a wrong turn.

The trek was a difficult journey and took five months to travel from Independence, Missouri, by ox-drawn wagon. Today, you could make the same trip by car in four days or by jet in four hours.

Where did the Oregon Trail begin and end?

Well, that depends on how you look at it. Officially, according to an act of Congress, it begins in Independence, Missouri, and ends in Oregon City, Oregon. To the settlers, though, the trail to the Oregon Country was a five-month trip from their old home in the East to their new home in the West. It was different for every family. Some people got ready to leave the East, or "jump off" as they called it, in towns like St. Joseph or Council Bluffs, and others jumped off from their old homes in Illinois or Missouri and picked up the Oregon Trail in the countryside. Along the way, they could choose to take shortcuts or stick to the main trunk of the Trail, and the end of their journey didn't really come until they settled a claim somewhere in the vast Oregon Country.

Why did people want to go there?

Lots of reasons. There were some families that just had the habit of moving west every five or ten years to follow the frontier. They liked the extra freedom of life on the frontier, but civilization kept catching up to them. It seemed to them like emigrating to Oregon would be the last move they would ever have to make. Others were in search of opportunity -- there were hard times back East, but in the 1840s married settlers could claim a square mile of the Oregon Country, 640 acres, at no cost. Oregon had a reputation not only for having good farmland and vast forests of huge, ancient trees, but also for being free of disease. This made the Oregon Country even more attractive, since epidemics were common in the East and little was known about the causes of disease and infection.

At first the emigrant flood was a trickle. It began in 1841 as a small, lonely caravan of only 58 people in the Bidwell/Bartleson company who followed the trail. Near Soda Springs, half of the party continued to Ft. Hall and across southern Idaho to Oregon, while the smaller half followed the Bear River, crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert and over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to become the first emigrants to follow a land route to California.

This first group established what would become the Oregon and the California trails.

This was the beginning of the Great Migration. Two years later, 875 farmers went to Oregon while 38 split at Soda Springs and followed the new California Trail to California. After the Mexican War was over in 1847, another 4,000 ventured west on the trail.

What was the trip like?

Exhausting, boring, dangerous, frightening, and exciting -- probably in about that order. It was exhausting because the emigrants had to walk almost the entire way, though a few of them rode horses. They didn't ride in their wagons because they wanted to spare the oxen pulling the wagons, but sometimes the women and children would pile into the wagons when the weather was foul. Even without the extra weight of people in the wagons, the trip was so long that even the sturdiest ox could die from exhaustion or go mad from thirst. Boredom came from the daily routine of breaking camp, walking, making camp again in the evening, and eating the same thing day after day, all in the midst of a cloud of dust and grit thrown up by the wagons and animals.

Who Were the Immigrants?

drawingWho were the people that dared to leave home and hearth and venture into the wilderness? Most were farmers; a few were artisans. After selling their farms, machinery, draft animals and house-hold goods most had a sizeable amount of cash to invest in their trip and to settle on new land. They were also a religious people, most were Protestant. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 dramatically changed the character and experience of traveling the trail.

The country that lay ahead of the pioneers contained no towns or settlements. For weeks emigrants crossed vast grassland which was hot by day and cold at night. Often violent thunderstorms swept down on the hapless travelers. Eventually, they crossed the snow-capped Rocky Mountains. Beyond the mountains lay a vast wilderness of scrubby desert sagebrush, canyons and forests.

The Trail Begins

The traditional trail began at the old Independence Landing north of Independence, Missouri. Here emigrants left steamboats after a five or six day journey from St. Louis. The center of activity in the small town of Independence was the bustling square. Most of the new pioneers camped a mile or two from the square and were busily purchasing supplies needed for their four to five month trek. Those with horses or mules left first so they could feed upon the shorter grasses. The majority with powerful and durable oxen left two weeks later because cattle have a different dentition than horses.

The Wagons

Nothing contributed more to the success or failure of a Western wagon trek than the wagons that carried the pioneers across 2,000 miles of jolting wilderness. Pioneers needed wagons strong enough to haul people and supplies for five months or more. To outlast the rugged trail and months of wear, the wagon needed to be constructed of seasoned hardwood. Most pioneers used the typical farm wagon with a canvas cover stretched over hooped frames. A family of four could manage with a single wagon. It would be very tight on space since supplies would take up almost the entire space within the wagon. If they could afford it, many families took more than one wagon Most emigrants on the trail went West in their farm wagons, modified to take the punishment, while others bought rigs specifically built for the one-way journey.



Independence Missouri, as seen by an unkown artist in 1853.
The main street, with its steepled brick courthouse also had stores and shops where emigrants could purchase supplies

A wagon had to be light enough to not over tax the mules or oxen that pulled it and strong enough not to break down under loads of as much as 2,500 pounds. For these reasons wagons were constructed of such hardwoods as maple, hickory and oak. Iron was used only to reinforce parts that took the greatest beating such as tires, axles and hounds. An emigrant wagon was not comfortable to ride in, since wagons lacked springs and there was little room to sit inside the wagon because most space was taken up with cargo.
Prairie Schooners

Prairie Schooners

photoThe most common wagons used for hauling freight back East were the Conestogas, developed in Pennsylvania by descendants of German colonists. Conestoga wagons were large, heavy, and had beds shaped somewhat like boats, with angled ends and a floor that sloped to the middle so barrels wouldn't roll out when the wagon was climbing or descending a hill. Like the covered wagons of the western pioneers, it had a watertight canvas bonnet to shelter the cargo. Conestogas were pulled by teams of six or eight horses and could haul up to five tons.

Traders on the Santa Fe Trail adopted the Conestoga design for its durability and size. Teams of up to two dozen oxen or mules were used to haul the heaviest loads.

Overlanders on the Oregon Trail, in contrast, quickly learned that Conestoga wagons were too big for their needs: the huge, heavy wagons killed even the sturdiest oxen before the journey was two-thirds complete. Their answer to the problem was dubbed the "Prairie Schooner," a half-sized version of the Conestoga that typically measured 4' wide and 10' to 12' in length. Teams of 4 to 6 oxen or 6 to 10 mules were sufficientto get the sturdy little wagons to Oregon.

While Prairie Schooners were specifically built for overland travel, many emigrants instead braved the Oregon Trail in those simple farm wagons retrofitted with bonnets. Crossing the continent to settle in Oregon was not a journey for the faint of heart, and neither was it a journey for the poor. It required a minimum of about $500 to outfit for the trip, and this could easily become $1000 or more if an emigrant needed to purchase a wagon and draft animals.

Mules, Horses or Oxen?

Oxen were slow, but strong, tough and reliable

Which would be best to pull your heavy wagons? Mules are strong, can go faster, but are often tricky to handle. Mules also had tendencies to bolt and become unruly. Oxen are slower, but more reliable and tougher than mules. They will eat poor grass. Oxen were very strong and could haul fullyloaded wagons up ravines or drag them out of mudholes. A large wagon needed at least three pairs of oxen to pull it.

Scholars put the percentage of pioneer wagons pulled by oxen at one-half to three-quarters. The cost of a yoke of oxen during the last half of the 1840s varied from a low of $25 to a high of $65.


A pioneer’s typical outfit wasn’t terribly expensive; usually one or two small, sturdy farm wagons, six to 10 head of oxen, a milk cow or two. Plus all the necessary food, clothing and utensils needed for survival. Often heavy items such as furniture, stoves, pianos would be freighted to the West Coast by clipper ship around the Horn of South America. If such heavy things were packed in the wagons, they usually ended up left by the trailside along the way.

To survive the long jouney, a family of four would need 600 lbs. of flour, 120 lbs. of biscuits, 400 lbs. of bacon, 60 lbs. of coffee, 4 lbs. of tea, 100 lbs. of sugar, and 200 lbs. of lard. These would just be the basic staples. Other food stuffs could include sacks of rice and beans, plus dried peaches and apples. Bacon was often hauled in large barrels packed in bran so the hot sun would not melt the fat. Each man took a rifle or shotgun and some added a pistol. A good hunting knife was essential. Farm implements such as a plow, shovel, scythe, rake, hoe; plus carpentry tools - saw, broad axe, mallet, plane. Seeds for corn, wheat and other crops.

A.J. McCall an early traveler on the Oregon Trail made light of how some pioneers tried to "take it all." He wrote: "They laid in an over supply of bacon, flour and beans, and in addition thereto every conceivable jimcrack and useless article that the widest fancy could devise or human ingenuity could invent – pins and needles, brooms and brushes, ox shoes and horse shoes, lasts and leather, glass beads and hawks-bells, jumping jacks and jews-harps, rings and bracelets, pocket mirrors and pocket-books, calico vests and boiled shirts."

Usually, thick slabs of smoked bacon would keep as long as it was protected from the hot temperatures. Also, eggs could be protected by packing them in barrels of corn meal – as the eggs were used up, the meal was used to make bread. Coffee was another important staple. It was drunk by man and beast, adult and child and the best way to disguise the taste of bitter, alkali water.

In the early days of the trail when game was more abundant near the trail, pioneers could often kill buffalo and antelope. However, a more dependable supply of fresh meat was to bring along a small herd of cattle and trail them behind the wagon. Many also brought along a cow for milking purposes. Milk could also be churned into butter by simply hanging it in pails beneath the bumpy wagon. By the end of the day fresh butter would be ready.

Typical cargo crammed into a wagon included:

COOKING UTENSILS: Dutch oven, kettle, skillet, reflector oven, coffee grinder, teapot, butcher knife, ladle, tin tableware, water keg, matches.

CLOTHING: wool sack coats, rubber coats, cotton dresses, wool pantaloons, buckskin pants, duck trousers, cotton shirts, flannel shirts, cotton socks, brogans, boots, felt hat, palm-leaf sun hat, green goggles, sunbonnet.

FOOD: flour (600 lbs.), bacon ( 400 lbs.), coffee (60 lbs.), baking soda, corn meal, hardtack, dried beans, dried fruit, dried beef, molasses, vinegar, pepper, eggs, salt, sugar (100 lbs.), rice, tea (4 lbs.), lard (200 lbs.)

BEDDING & TENT SUPPLIES: blankets, ground cloths, pillows, tent, poles, stakes, ropes.

TOOLS & EQUIPMENT: set of augers, gimlet, ax, hammer, hoe, plow, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, chains.

LUXURIES: canned goods, plant cuttings, school books, musical instruments, dolls and toys, family albums, jewelry, china, silverware, fine linens, iron stoves, furniture.

WEAPONRY: rifle, pistol, knife, hatchet, gunpowder, lead, bullet mold, powder horn, bullet pouch, holster.

HANDY ARTICLES: surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, thread.

After several days on the trail, certain routines were followed:

4:00 am: a bugler blows a trumpet or a rifle is fired by the night guards to wake up the camp.

5:00 am: cattle are rounded up after being allowed to graze during the night (except when Indians threatened).

5:30 am: women and children are up and fixing breakfast of usually bacon, corn porridge or “Johnny Cakes” made of flour and water.

6:30 am: women rinse plates and mugs and stow bedding, while the men haul down tents and load them in the wagons.

7:00 am: after every family has gathered their teams and hitched them to wagons, a trumpeter signals a “Wagons Ho,” to start the wagons down the trail. Average distance covered in a day was usually fifteen miles, but on a good day twenty could be traveled.

7:30 am: men ride ahead on horses with shovels to clear out a path, if needed.

“Nooning Time”: animals and people stop to eat, drink and rest.

1:00 pm: back on the trail.

5:00 pm: when a good campsite with ample water and grass is found, pioneers stop to set up camp for the evening. Wagons are formed into a corral.

6:00 pm: families unpack and make supper.

7:00 pm: mothers do chores, men smoke and talk, young people dance.
8:00 pm: camp settles down for the night, guards go out on duty.

Midnight: night guards are changed.

Dangers on the Trail

Deaths and graves would too soon become commonplace, but some of the first ones showed more time and care. Susan Hale's newly-wed husband walked back to Missouri to have a tombstone made, then carried it in a wheelbarrow back past Alcove Springs to give her a proper burial. Then he continued on his way west, vanishing in the mists of history while her name lives on.

Major threats to pioneer life and limb came from accidents, exhaustion, and disease. Crossing rivers were probably the most dangerous thing pioneers did. Swollen rivers could tip over and drown both people and oxen. Such accidents could cause the loss of life and most or all of valuable supplies. Animals could panic when wading through deep, swift water, causing wagons to overturn. Animals could cause very serious injury to their owners. People could be crushed by wagons or animals, thrown by horses.

According to Peter D. Olch, being run over by wagon wheels was the most frequent cause of injury or death. Both children and adults could slip while getting out of a wagon and fall beneath the wheels. Children were especially susceptible to being run over by heavy wagons. Firearms were the second leading cause of emigrant injury and death and a surprisingly large number of pioneers were injured by accidental firearm discharges. It was usually safer to keep rifles unloaded. The third cause was stampeding livestock. Indians proved not to be any real danger to most pioneers. Other causes of injury or death included attacks by emigrants on other emigrants, lightning, hailstorms, grassfires, gunpowder explosions, snakebite and suicide.

Deaths along the trail, especially among young children and mothers in childbirth, were the most heart-rending of hardships:

"Mr. Harvey's young little boy Richard 8 years old went to git in the waggon and fel from the tung. The wheals run over him and mashed his head and Kil him Ston dead he never moved."
- Absolom Harden, 1847

Starvation often threatened emigrants, but it usually only killed their draft animals and thinned the herds they drove west:

"Counted 150 dead oxen. It is difficult to find a camping ground destitute of carcasses."
- J.G. Bruff, 1849

"Looked starvation in the face. I have seen men on passing an animal that has starved to death on the plains, stop and cut out a steak, roast and eat it and call it delicious."
- Clark Thompson, 1850

Diseases and serious illnesses caused the deaths of nine out of ten pioneers. Such diseases as cholera, small pox, flu, measles, mumps, tuberculosis could spread quickly through an entire wagon camp. Cholera was the main scourge of the trail. It could attack a perfectly healthy person after breakfast and he would be in his grave by noon. However, many would linger in misery for weeks in the bouncy wagons. When it was obvious a person wouldn’t last the day, the train would often hold up moving in order to wait for the end. Burials often were done right in the middle of the trail, where wagons could roll over and animals trample it down in order to erase the scent so wolves could not pick up the scent.

Deaths along the trail was a constant reminder that life could be taken at anytime

The number of deaths which occurred in wagon train companies traveling to California is conservatively figured as 20,000 for the entire 2,000 miles of the Oregon/California Trail, or an average of ten graves per mile.


Most Indians were tolerant of the pioneer wagon trains that drove through their lands. Some traded and swapped buffalo robes and mocasins for knives, clothes, food and other items. Some tribes were notorious for stealing from the emigrants along the road. And there were some violent altercations between Indians and pioneers, but these were very few compared with the total number of settlers who traveled in safety through Indian lands. In the early years of the trail, Indians never attacked a large wagon train, but stragglers could be in big trouble.
Historical studies indicate that between 1840-1860 that Indians killed 362 emigrants, but that emigrants killed 426 Indians. Of the emigrants killed by Indians, about 90% were killed west of South Pass, mostly along the Snake and Humboldt Rivers or on the Applegate Trail to the southern end of the Willamette Valley.

Indians of many separate tribes who spoke different languages considered the land where the Oregon/California trails ran through, their home. Sioux, Shoshone, Kiowa, Crow, Ute, Paiute, were some of the various tribes that an emigrant train might encounter. Many of the depredations done by Shoshone Indians were on the stretch between Soda Springs/Ft. Hall and Snake River where it runs through what is now southern Idaho.

Local Shoshone Chiefs

Shoshone were the dominant tribe along the trail within the area in and around The National Oregon-California Trail Center, from Thomas Fork Crossing to Soda Springs. No record or any attacks or altercations against western travelers by the Shoshone have been documented along this section of the trail.


Emigrant Wagon Family
Above, Morman Emigrant Train Family, below, large wagon train
Wagon in Marsh
Shoshone Camp
photo   photo






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