The Oregon Trail
from Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon
In 1830, Hall J. Kelly founded "The American Society for Encouraging the Settlement of the Oregon Territory" and in 1832 Nathaniel Wyeth, the Yankee ice king, hatched a plan to establish an American colony on the Columbia River. By 1834 Wyeth had constructed Ft. Hall in Idaho near the present city of Pocatello to make it the first permanent American outpost beyond the Continental Divide.
Early European explorers had sailed to the Pacific Northwest looking for an inland passage that could serve as an alternative to the long journey around the horn of South America and in 1792 Robert Gray sailed into the Columbia River.
In 1803, after purchasing the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to explore the west and report on its resources. Great Britain had claimed the territory, but after the War of 1812, they agreed, with the "Oregon Joint Occupation Treaty," to allow Americans to enter and explore.
During the 1820's and 1830's, the Hudson's Bay Company held a virtual monopoly on the fur trade in the Pacific Northwest but American trappers, explorers, and missionairies were becoming more common. American trappers took over trade with regions neglected by the British, and American missionairies were developing relationships with several Indian tribes. The United States government was taking notice of the Northwest, but it was still a distant and dangerous wilderness.
In 1835 Colonel Dodge led a party of U.S. Dragoons along the Platte River to the Rocky Mountains to scout a trail for potential settlers. By the following year, the United States and Europe faced an economic depression and America's European lenders were calling in loans to cover their own economic problems.
In 1836 the Whitmans crossed the continental divide and established the Waiilatpu Mission north of the Columbia. They proved that settlement of the Oregon Territory was possible for the common citizen and became an inspiration for many future settlers. In the same year, Mexican forces defeated the defenders of the Alamo and the wheat crop failed in the United States. By 1837, banks begin to fail and the depression deepened in the United States and Europe. The West may have seemed like a chance to start over to many American farmers left destitute by economic depression.
During 1838-39 another great migration West was taking place but it wasn't by choice. The U.S. government decided it was in its best interest to banish the Cherokee from thier homelands, and relocated tens-of-thousands of them from Florida, Georgia, North & South Carolina, and Tennessee, to Oklahoma. The movement became know as the Trail of Tears and still ranks as one of the most heinous acts ever by any government, anywhere.
The migration gained momentum and trading posts like Ft. Hall were well positioned to take advantage of the traffic. In 1841 the famous Bartleson-Bidwell company of settlers traveled the Oregon Trail, and then South on the California Trail. In 1842 John Fremont led his first expedition through the West and in 1844 Asa Whitney proposed building a railroad to the Pacific.
Many early pioneers were inspired to go West with the publication in 1845 of Lansford Hastings' now infamous Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California. It was later discredited, proving hucksterism is not a recent phenomena.
In 1845 the Barlow road opened in Oregon as an alternative to rafting down the Columbia River. In 1846 Jessie Applegate scouted a trail between southern Oregon and northern California and also in 1846 misfortune befell the Donner Party while traveling over the Sierras into California.
After the murder of Joseph Smith, Bringham Young decided to seek freedom from religious persecusion in the new West. In February of 1846, over 20,000 people left Nauvoo, Illinois, crossed the frozen Mississippi River, and headed west. He led the Mormons to their own land he called Deseret, now Utah.
Several explorers blazed trails or published guides for the growing population of settlers. The principal assembly point was St. Joseph, Missouri but others left from Independence, Missouri and Council Bluffs, Iowa. They formed the famous Wagon Trains and followed the wheel ruts of those that had gone before, ending in Oregon or California.
Some families destined for California took the Southwest "cut-off" after crossing the Green River in Southwest Wyoming. They traveled through Utah and Nevada to reach their promised land. Other future Californians continued on The Oregon Trail until after they had passed through Ft. Hall in Idaho, and made the "cut-off" on the California Trail from there.
The United States gained territory from both Great Britain and Mexico in the late 1840's. Mexico lost control of California, Nevada, Utah, and most of Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Colorado. The United States soon annexed Texas, California, and New Mexico. Oregon became a territory in 1848.
The discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, California, in 1848 started a new wave of fortune seeking pioneers traveling overland. Mormons continued to emigrate to Deseret (Utah), some coming from Europe and other countries. It was a busy time on the Oregon Trail. In 1850 Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act and in 1853 Washington Territory was demarcated from the Oregon Territory.
In 1856 two hundred died in the Mormon Handcart Brigade during a winter storm and in 1859 Oregon became the 33rd state. The American Civil War began in 1861 and family travel West greatly diminished. Men who wanted no part in the war -- or just plain deserters -- took the trail but they traveled in small groups and mostly on horseback. The war ended in 1865 but the trail never regained its pre-war level of activity.
Post-war traffic on the Oregon Trail was only a fraction of what it was in the 1840's and early 1850's. After four years of war, the country united larger than before. Several new states joined the union, and new territories were carved from the West. In 1869 The transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, and railroads connected the country from coast to coast.
The Tale of One Migrant
In 1852, Ezra Meeker and his family came west by wagon over the Oregon Trail, eventually settling in the Puyallup Valley of Washington near Tacoma. As the years passed and cross-country travel became easier, Meeker worried that people wouldn't understand the hardships of the early settlers. Beginning at the age of 75, he made several trips across the Oregon Trail and urged its preservation. He supported his project by selling his books and photos.
There was nothing particularly out of the ordinary about Ezra Meeker's wagon trip to Oregon in 1852. What was unusual was Meeker's decision to make a return trip -- over 50 years later.
At 76 years of age, Meeker loaded up his wagon, picked two good oxen, and headed east. If Horace Greeley had been alive, he might have coined a new phrase: "Go east, old man."
Meeker's friends were against the idea; they thought he would never make it alive. Although his ox died, the difficult trip didn't kill Meeker. Along the way, he gave speeches encouraging preservation of the Trail, and many turned out to listen. He wrote a book, convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to set aside money for trail preservation, and became a national celebrity.
The whole expedition was so successful, Meeker did it again a few years later in 1910. He was more than 80 then, but still as energetic as ever. In later years, Meeker switched to newer forms of transportation, making cross-country journeys by car, train and even plane. Meeker was still busy promoting the Oregon Trail when he died in 1928 at age 98.
What the Pioneers Needed
According to a cookbook called A Taste of Oregon by the Jr. League of Eugene, p175 (c.1980), the following comprised the possible expenses for a family to move to the Oregon Territory in the 1850's.
Remember, your wagon is all you have to carry your provisions for 2,000 miles. . . and you have to walk 'cause there's no room in the wagon! So what do you need to make the trek west?
The Jr. League of Eugene did an excellent job with the cookbook list of necessary equipment and supplies but they left off a few essential items. Did you spot them yet?
Its unthinkable that men would have embarked on such a journey, especially with their families, without firearms and ammunition . . . and, there's no mention of soap. In those years, home-made soap was normal, but to render strong soap the travelers would have needed lye.
The additional items would have left the total below $600.00, still a very substantial sum for the times. Its a wonder so many families found the means to take on the challenge -- and, an even greater wonder that so many families found the courage.
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