After stocking up on supplies, some settlers striking out from Independence, Missouri, may have been relieved to leave the bustling city. Many were rural pioneer folk — farmers, loggers, miners, and ranchers — ready to risk everything for Manifest Destiny, their chance to lay claim to a slice of the new American frontier west of the Continental Divide. They were simply passing through to find a new life in the unknown of the Northwest Territories. Their relief at leaving civilization was tempered with trepidation as they began an often harrowing journey.
The Oregon Trail proper was nearly 2,000 miles of rugged, barely charted terrain that took settlers on an arduous route from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. From its first heavy use in the mid-1800s, the trail served hundreds of thousands of pioneers emigrating westward. Winding its way from Missouri through present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and — finally — into Oregon, the trail pushed pioneers, their horses, oxen, mules, and cattle through extremes of broiling summer on the plains to frigid high-mountain winters.
The National Frontier Trails Museum is devoted to the history of the three major routes of westward expansion used by early settlers: the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails. Especially gripping are narratives and diary excerpts from pioneers about life on the trail. However much fortitude it took to make the trek, the case can be made that without the Oregon Trail, and the Oregon Donation Land Act in 1850 — which encouraged settlement in the Oregon Territory — American pioneers may have been far slower to settle the American West.
Striking out for the New Frontier
Depending on the size of the party, weather conditions they encountered, and delays for broken down wagons, the cross-continent trek could take anywhere from five months up to a year. Having left their old lives behind, most settlers piled everything they needed for the trip into covered wagons, loading up on supplies including staples like flour, sugar, bacon, coffee, and salt. Rifles and ammunition were packed along for hunting and protection from wild animals and skirmishes with Native American tribes. The wagons were also weighed down with extra wheels and axles for repairs along the route.
Early obstacles and endurance
The best-planned trips had settlers departing Missouri in April or May in order to try and reach Oregon before snow started to fly in winter. That timing also meant there would be ample grass for grazing livestock along the way. Whether headed to Oregon or California, travelers shared the same initial trail as they crossed the Great Plains. Averaging 10 to 15 miles per day, they eventually reached Fort Kearney, Kansas, where their paths diverged. Those with “gold fever” headed to the Gold Rush in California to the south, while others headed northwest into Oregon.
The final push: into Oregon at last
Originally laid out by trappers and fur traders starting around 1811, the early incarnation of the Oregon Trail was only wide enough for foot and horse traffic. However, by the time the first wagons rolled out of Missouri, around 1836, a wagon-friendly thoroughfare had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. Continually extended and improved with bridges, cutoff routes, and ferries, the wagon trail eventually reached the verdant Willamette Valley in Oregon, delivering settlers to the rich farm and timberland of the Pacific Northwest.
Towns sprung up along the route, making re-supply possible along the way and the trip much faster and less dangerous. About the time things got dialed in, though, the first transcontinental railroad was completed, in 1869, making wagon travel obsolete. The trail remained a main route for cattle drives and other uses for many years, and although train technology cut short the trail’s use by settlers, its high historical importance is recognized and commemorated by the National Park Service, which declared the Oregon Trail a National Historic Trail in 1978.