Between 1840 and 1860, the Oregon Trail was the main route for settlers who wanted to travel across the Great Plains of the United States and the Continental Divide to the Willamette Valley of Oregon or the gold fields in California. Wagon trains left from Missouri. More than 400,000 people traveled the trail during these twenty years. The Oregon Trail wasn't exactly one specific route. Over the years, settlers learned new shortcuts or wanted to strike out on their own for a different destination. The shortcuts were used very often in Wyoming.
Originally the trail was used by fur trappers and explorers and was considered too rough for women and children. However, in 1836, a small group of pioneers in wagons set out to minister to the Cayuse Indians in the Walla Walla Valley. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman led this wagon train. Narcissa's name became well-known and many other women eventually decided to try the trip. In 1843, Marcus Whitman led about 1,000 pioneers along the Oregon Trail.
Most settlers chose to travel in a covered wagon called a prairie schooner. Supposedly the canvas covering looked like the sail of a ship. They weighed about 1300 lbs. and were made to hold no more than 2000 lbs., including possessions. They were four feet wide and ten feet long. The wagons usually moved ahead at about 2 miles per hour and traveled 15-20 miles each day. Oxen and mules were preferred to pull the wagons. Because there were no springs, and the ground was very bumpy, many people walked alongside the wagon instead of riding inside.
Many trading posts or general stores were started in Missouri where the wagon trains were put together. The store owners convinced the travelers to buy more than they needed. Therefore, along the five-month journey, many supplies and broken possessions were left by the trail. Fort Laramie in Wyoming became famous for having an excessive amount of material dumped outside the gates.
Although books and movies portray many Indian attacks on wagon trains the Indians were friendly and some became guides. Only about 400 people were killed by Indians during those twenty years. 20,000 settlers died from cholera and other diseases. Indian attacks did increase after the start of the Civil War.
Many travelers left their names carved in large stones along the way. A giant granite stone called the Register of the Desert in Wyoming held signatures of thousands of passers-by. It was called Independence Rock. Only about 80,000 of the 400,000 who traveled on the Oregon Trail arrived in Oregon. 250,000 took other trails to California for the gold fields. 70,000 Mormons broke off into Utah.
In 1906, Ezra Meeker chose to recreate his trip on the Oregon Trail which he had first made in 1852. He drove a covered wagon. Meeker feared that the Oregon Trail was disappearing from history, so he stopped along the trail to talk about it. He also left Meeker markers along the way. He became famous and even met the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, in Washington, D. C. He followed the Oregon Trail several more times, by automobile, wagon and train. His last trip was at the age of 94 in a biplane.
The last wagon trains crossed the trail in the 1880's. However, the wagons left permanent rut marks in stone which can be seen today in all six of the states through which the trail passed. Some of the grassland over which the trains traveled still cannot produce much growth.
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