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by Bob Brooke

Each of the overland trails crossing America from the Missouri River to the mountains had a story. It's a story written deep in the lives of men and women. It's a story written in broad furrows across the prairies. Along these trails journeyed thousands of men, women, and children with ox teams, carts, wheelbarrows, and on foot, to settle the frontier. Over them marched the soldiers who built forts to protect the settlers. Then the long freight trains loaded with food, tools, and clothing passed that way. Soon there came to be great beaten thoroughfares one or two hundred feet wide, deeply cut into the earth by the wheels of wagons and the feet of the emigrants. Such is the drama of the Oregon Trail, the trail of the greatest mass migration in human history.

The Oregon Trail traversed 1,932 miles of prairie and wilderness across North America. Cut-offs were developed over the years that shortened the distance by up to 75 miles. From Courthouse Square in Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City on the Willamette River, it passed through the present-day states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

A common misconception is the route, itself. It's often believed to be one road that never changed. More likely it's believed to be a vague route over which a solitary wagon or perhaps a small wagon train traveled alone, breaking new ground and never knowing where they were. This is Hollywood's version. In reality the Trail meandered across the plains like a braided band frayed at both ends, changing each year.

At some places, such as Robidoux's Pass near Scott's Bluff, Nebraska, wagons converged into a single lane. At others, they spread out over a half mile or more in parallel lanes. No one journeyed out onto the plains alone. They joined their relatives, friends, and neighbors to form wagon companies for mutual safety and protection. During peak years, other companies were hours or at most a day away.

The trip took six months to complete. Emigrant wagon trains would leave Missouri each spring, as soon as there was enough new grass to feed their animals. They also had to cross the western mountains before early snowfalls closed the passes.

With heroic effort and optimum conditions, emigrants might have made 40 miles in one day, but most of the time they made only 15, reaching Oregon in four and a half months. Contrary to the Hollywood image, most people walked because their wagons were full of supplies and furnishings needed to establish their new homes in Oregon. Some didn't have wagons at all and rode horseback. Some reported seeing others riding on cows for a part of the journey. Mules and oxen were better suited for the Trail, as horses needed feed.

Historically, the Conestoga wagon, originating in eastern Pennsylvania, has always been associated with the great migration. Artists have pictured it as used by the emigrants, but of all the wagons gathered at Independence, there were none. They were far too heavy for overland travel on the Trail. The typical "prairie schooner" was nothing more than a flat-bed Murphy farm wagon masquerading under a tilt of waterproof Osnaburg sheeting.

Who Traveled the Trail
A cross-section of mid-nineteenth century American society traveled the Trail. Businessmen, professionals, politicians, journalists, adventurers, missionaries, gamblers, miners, freighters, and especially farmers, endured the hardships together. Few were men of means and fewer still were fitted by their previous occupation --clerks, shopkeepers, mechanics--for the rigors of the Trail.

Journalists of the time called this migration "the greatest crowd of adventurers since the invasion of Rome by the Goths." It was a grand spectacle in the style of Cecil B. DeMille, worthy of an epic motion picture.

The plains were rough back then. Emigrants saw nothing but miles and miles of prairie grass. Millions of buffalo roamed the wide landscape. When the emigrants arrived at Ash Hollow, near Lewellen, Nebraska, it was as if they had come to an oasis in the desert. But before they could taste the sweet spring water and sit in the shade of the ash trees, they had to descend Windlass Hill, an almost perpendicular grade.

Originally all streams and rivers had to be forded. But within a few years, bridges and ferries were established along the way. Often emigrants, after building a raft for themselves, would ferry other wagons across a river for a fee. The average fee was three dollars per wagon. From this two enterprising entrepreneurs made $65,000 in 1852.

Historians estimate one-in-ten to one-in-seventeen died along the way, although accurate records don't exist. Disease was the main killer. Asian cholera, of epidemic proportions in the United States in the mid-1860s, followed the emigrants along the Trail. To combat the disease, they ingested a solution of cornmeal and raw whiskey. Many downed great quantities of medicine at the first sign of illness-- the larger the dose the quicker the recovery. As a result, many died of overdoses. Accidents involving livestock, wagons, firearms and river crossings were the second major cause of death. Indians, contrary to myth, weren't a problem.

In fact, Hollywood usually shows the typical wagon train gathering in a circle as protection against Indian attack. While this may have occurred during the 1880s after the great migration and during the Indian wars, wagon trains originally gathered to create a corral for their livestock. Most occupants slept outside the circle in tents or on the ground under the star-lit sky.

Indians on their pinto ponies, some dragging laden travois, frequently rode by, gazing curiously at the ox-drawn wagons. Often they stopped to swap robes, buckskin, Indian-made moccasins, fringed shirts and leggings, for whatever the pioneers had to offer.

The Emigrant Road
Originally called "The Emigrant Road," the route became known as "The Oregon Trail" following the publication of Francis Parkman's best-selling novel of the same name in 1848.

Residents of the eastern United States during the early nineteenth century were less informed and more naive about what lay west of the Mississippi River than were scientists of the mid-twentieth century about what lay on the Moon.

The Missouri Gazette of St. Louis of May 15, 1823, said," appears that a journey across the continent of North America, might be performed by wagon, there being no obstruction in the whole route that any person would dare to call a mountain."

More than two decades were to pass before the first wagon passed over the Oregon Trail all the way from the Mississippi Valley to the Columbia River, and three decades before the first wagon traveled all the way to the great central valley of California.

There were five periods in the story of the Oregon Trail. The first was the period of finding the way and breaking the trail ending in 1832. The second period was that of the early Oregon migration and extends to 1849 and the discovery of gold in California. The third period was that of the Gold Rush climaxing in 1860. During this period, the Trail became the greatest traveled highway in the world, wider and more beaten than a city street, as over 350,000 pioneers passed over it. The fourth period saw its decline and the fifth its eventual effacement.

Westward Expansion
The Oregon Trail opened at a time in history when the westward expansion of the United States has stalled at the Missouri River. Mexico still claimed all of California, and Alaska was a Russian territory. Everything from California to Alaska and between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean was a British-held territory called Oregon. The Trail allowed the United States to expand west through Oregon and achieve its national "manifest destiny" to reach from "sea to shining sea" by sheer force of population.

The best description of the Oregon Trail is that of Father De Smet, a Jesuit priest who set out to establish missions among the Indians. He tells of its appearance when first seen by him and his party of Indians from the Upper Missouri in 1851:

"Our Indian companions, who had never seen but the narrow hunting paths by which they transport themselves and their lodges, were filled with admiration on seeing this noble highway, which is smooth as a barn floor swept by the winds, not a blade of grass can shoot up on it on account of the continual passing...They styled the route the 'Great Medicine Road of the Whites.'"

But Father De Smet was not the only one to describe the Trail. It's believed that one in two hundred emigrants kept a diary. In these personal accounts, they told of torrential downpours, hailstorms, flooding of streams, muddy roads, snakes and mosquitoes, breakdowns, oxen with bad feet, the heat of day and the cold of night, as well as buffalo stampedes.

It's through these diaries that the Oregon Trail remains alive today. The realities of mid-nineteenth century travel are made all too evident through demonstrations and living history programs at most of the interpretive sites along the way. Physical evidence--deep wagon ruts, graffiti, and gravesites--of the Oregon Trail is most visible in Wyoming.

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