Spanning a distance of approximately 2000 miles (3,219 km), the Oregon Trail was one of the primary migration routes traveled by settlers from the east on their way to the Oregon Country. Between 1830 and 1860, at least 300,000 Americans made the journey across the great plains to the Pacific Coast.
The typical mode of transportation on this arduous cross-country journey was the covered wagon or “Prairie Schooner” as it was commonly referred to. Families would pack up all their belongings, including the necessary water and provisions needed to survive the challenging ordeal. Due to the rigors and hardships of the Oregon Trail, the average age range for migrants to the west was 10-40 years old. The size of wagon trains varied from as little as ten wagons, to upwards of a hundred.
The lure of cheap land drew people from all walks of life, including farmers, merchants, trappers, and all manner of entrepreneurs ranging from blacksmiths to proprietors of saloons. Often possessing minimal financial resources, these migrants were willing to undertake the hardships of the trail in order to partake of economic opportunities that would not otherwise be available to them in the east.
The most popular starting point for the journey across the prairies was either Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri. The early part of the Oregon Trail followed two rivers: the Missouri and the Platte. As the Rocky Mountains approached, the wagon trains would move to the North bank of the Platte, and then cross the Continental Divide at the South Pass which was shallow enough to afford safe transit for wagons.
It was at this point, approximately half way, that travelers bound for the California Territory would split off to the South. Those continuing on to Oregon would follow along the Snake River and then cross the Blue Mountains until they reached the Columbia River. Upon reaching the Columbia, many settlers opted to travel by river barge for the final leg of the trip that ended at Oregon City in the Willamette Valley.
For most people, it took six months to complete the trip. Along the way, settlers were subject to a variety of privations ranging from disease and accidents, to random violence. Even the wagons and livestock proved to be dangerous. Numerous individuals suffered mortal wounds due to being rolled over beneath wagons, while others were trampled by cattle and horses. Cholera was particularly prevalent, the result of contaminated drinking water, and though not always fatal, in those already suffering from illness or injury, it often proved fatal.
The whole migration west was encouraged by the U.S. government, as the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1840’s believed that the borders of the country should reach from shores of the Atlantic all the way to the waters of the Pacific. This expansionary philosophy known as “Manifest Destiny” drove the whole westward movement, creating a justification in the minds of Americans for the annexation of land previously in possession of the Indians.
Although many tales of the west portray the Native Americans as a serious source of danger along the Oregon Trail, studies have shown that fatalities resulting from Native American hostility, were relatively rare. Contrary to many popular beliefs, many Native Americans viewed the wagon trains not with anger and aggression, but rather, with an eye for profit. Many Native Americans served as guides for settlers traversing the Oregon Trail, while others engaged in trade with the newcomers, bartering horses and various provisions needed along the way.
By 1870, the completion of the transcontinental railroad made cross-country travel infinitely safer and more efficient, spelling the end of wagon trains and the famous Oregon Trail.