UNIVERSITY OF THE THIRD AGE
The Oregon Trail
Roger Shaw was our guest speaker for this month. He has lived and worked in the USA for a number of years and has travelled extensively to the part of America he came to talk about. The Oregon Trail has been written into history and he spoke authoritatively on his subject. He shared some fascinating facts about this famous trail that took hundreds of thousands of migrants from the east coast of America to the west coast.
This video explains about the Oregon Trail and the risks the migrants took to try and achieve a better life for themselves. Those that made it through were granted land to start their homesteads on the west side of the USA.
(Note: we've borrowed this video from youtube, so be aware you may have an advert pop up at some point. Just click on the little x in the corner of the ad to make it go away!)
Roger is in the centre of this photograph, with some of our members.
We had another splendid turn out for Roger's talk. The photographs were taken of our members both during and after the meeting.
Further down the page we've added photographs in a Gallery. Most of the pictures were used in Roger's talk.
Clicking on any picture will enlarge it; and you can use the arrow keys to scroll through the pictures.
The links open up in a separate tab or window and give more information about the mission.
On the left is a link to a FlipBook that contains various links and an excellent explanation of the Oregon Trail.
We have taken this from Britannica (copyright) and hope it allows members to read all about this amazing story in book form.
If you prefer you can read it as a Portable Document File (pdf) by using the link below.
There is more on this fascinating story below, and nine interesting facts that may broaden your knowledge.
The Oregon Trail
In the spring of 1843, the first ripple of a coming tide of would-be settlers piled everything they owned into canvas-covered wagons, handcarts and any other vehicle that could move, and set out along a dim trace called ‘the Emigrant Road.’ They went by way of a route that was a broad ribbon of threads, sometimes intertwining, sometimes splitting off into frayed digressions. It ran beside waterways, stretched across tall-grass and short-grass prairies, wound through mountain passes, and then spanned the Pacific Slope to the promised lands of Oregon and California. One in 17 never made it. This road to the Far West soon became known by another name–the Oregon Trail.
Even today, ruts from the wagon wheels remain etched indelibly in the fragile topsoil of the Western landscape. The Oregon Trail opened at a time when the westward settlement and development of the trans-Mississippi West had stalled at the Missouri River; Mexico still claimed all of California, and Alaska remained 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 pointed the way for the United States to expand westward to achieve what politicians of the day called its ‘Manifest Destiny’ to reach ‘from sea to shining sea.’
In 1843, the trickle of emigrants into Independence, Mo., began to swell. They came from all directions, by steamboat and over primitive roads that a day or two of heavy rain turned into quagmires. For the most part they were farmers–family men, with wives and children–who had a common goal of seeking a promised land of milk and honey in far-off Oregon, about which they knew as little as they did about how to get there. They did know that the back country of Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas had not proved to be a shining paradise. The doldrums that followed the depression of 1837 shrivelled the value of land and the price of crops, and malaria ravaged the bottomlands that once had promised so much.
9 Interesting Facts About The Oregon Trail
In the mid-19th century, the Oregon Trail was the main pathway for American emigrants searching for new lands and opportunity on the frontier. From its main departure points in Missouri, the grueling overland route stretched 2,000 miles over the Great Plains and the Continental Divide, finally ending in the fertile Willamette Valley or the gold fields of California. More than 400,000 pioneers traveled its trails in the boom years between 1840 and 1860, braving everything from disease outbreaks and wagon accidents to arid deserts and rushing river crossings. Below, check out nine surprising facts about the route that once served as the gateway to the American West.
While most Oregon-bound emigrants traveled a route that passed by landmarks in Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon, there was never just one set of wagon ruts leading west. Pioneers often spread out for several miles across the plains to hunt, find grazing patches for their animals and avoid the choking dust clouds kicked up by other wagon trains. As the years passed, enterprising settlers also blazed dozens of new trails, or cutoffs, that allowed travelers to bypass stopping points and reach their destination quicker. These shortcuts were especially popular in Wyoming, where the network of alternative pathways meandered more than a hundred miles north and south.
A pair of Protestant missionaries made one of the trail’s first wagon crossings
Frontier explorers and fur trappers blazed the rough outlines of the Oregon Trail in the early 19th century, but the route was initially considered too demanding for women, children or covered wagons to navigate. That changed in 1836, when newlywed missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman took a small party of wagons from St. Louis to the Walla Walla Valley to minister to Cayuse Indians. 28-year-old Narcissa became the first white woman to traverse the Rocky Mountains, and her colorful letters home were later published in Eastern newspapers, convincing many would-be pioneers that it was possible for their families to survive the journey west. Still, it wasn’t until 1843 that the pioneer dam finally burst. That year, Marcus helped lead the first major wagon train of around 1,000 settlers along the Oregon Trail, an exodus now known as the “Great Migration.” Traffic soon skyrocketed, and by the late-1840s and early 1850s, upwards of 50,000 people were using the trail each year.
The iconic Conestoga wagon was rarely used on the Oregon Trail
Popular depictions of the Oregon Trail often include trains of boat-shaped Conestoga wagons bouncing along the prairie. But while the Conestoga was an indispensable part of trade and travel in the East, it was far too large and unwieldy to survive the rugged terrain of the frontier. Most pioneers instead tackled the trail in more diminutive wagons that become known as “prairie schooners” for the way their canvas covers resembled a ship’s sail. These vehicles typically included a wooden bed about four feet wide and ten feet long. When pulled by teams of oxen or mules, they could creak their way toward Oregon Country at a pace of around 15 to 20 miles a day.
They could even be caulked with tar and floated across un-fordable rivers and streams.
Prairie schooners were capable of carrying over a ton of cargo and passengers, but their small beds and lack of a suspension made for a notoriously bumpy ride. With this in mind, settlers typically preferred to ride horses or walk alongside their wagons on foot.
(You can see a larger image of the Prairie Schooner in our gallery below this article.)
The trail was littered with discarded supplies
As traffic on the Oregon Trail increased, a bustling industry of frontier trading posts sprang up to supply food and equipment for the five-month haul. In popular jumping-off points like Independence, Missouri, unscrupulous merchants made a killing by conning frightened pioneer families into buying more provisions than they actually needed. The overloading meant that many sections of trail became junk heaps filled with discarded food barrels and wagon parts. Broken down prairie schooners and dead draft animals also littered the roads, and it wasn’t unusual to see personal items like books, clothes and even furniture. Fort Laramie in Wyoming eventually became known as “Camp Sacrifice” for its reputation as an Oregon Trail dumping ground. During the Gold Rush of 1849, pioneers reportedly abandoned a whopping 20,000 pounds of bacon outside its walls.
Indian attacks were relatively rare on the Oregon Trail
Contrary to the depictions of dime novels and Hollywood Westerns, attacks by the Plains Indians were not the greatest hazard faced by westbound settlers. While pioneer trains did circle their wagons at night, it was mostly to keep their draft animals from wandering off, notprotect against an ambush. Indians were more likely to be allies and trading partners than adversaries, and many early wagon trains made use of Pawnee and Shoshone trail guides. Hostile encounters increased in the years after the beginning of the Civil War, but statistics show only around 400 settlers were killed by natives between 1840 and 1860. The more pressing threats were cholera and other diseases, which were responsible for the vast majority of the estimated 20,000 deaths that occurred along the Oregon Trail.
Pioneers left behind graffiti on “register rocks” along the trail.
Along with painting messages and mottos on their wagon canvasses, pioneers also developed a tradition of carving their names, hometowns and dates of passage on some of the stone landmarks they encountered during their journey west. One of the most notable prairie guest books was Independence Rock, a 128-foot-tall granite outcropping in Wyoming dubbed “The Register of the Desert.” Thousands of travelers left their mark on the rock while camping along the nearby Sweetwater River. Those in a hurry sometimes even paid stonecutters a few dollars to carve their messages for them. In addition to Independence Rock, pioneers also left behind signatures on Register Cliff and Names Hill, two other sites in Wyoming.
Most Oregon Trail pioneers didn’t settle in Oregon
Only around 80,000 of the estimated 400,000 Oregon Trail emigrants actually ended their journey in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Of the rest, the vast majority splintered off from the main route in either Wyoming or Idaho and took separate trails leading to California and Utah. The California Trail was eventually traveled by some 250,000 settlers, most of them prospectors seeking to strike it rich in the gold fields. The Utah route, meanwhile, shuttled roughly 70,000 Mormon pilgrims to the lands surrounding Salt Lake City.
One of the trail’s most famous pioneers made the crossing by wagon, train, automobile and airplane
One trip on the Oregon Trail was more than enough for most pioneers, but Ohio native Ezra Meeker eventually made the trek a half-dozen times using nearly every available means of conveyance. The unusual odyssey began in 1906, when the 76-year-old jumped behind the reigns of a covered wagon and retraced the steps of his original pioneer journey from 54 years before. Meeker was concerned that the legacy of the Oregon Trail was being forgotten, so he made frequent stops to give lectures on its history and install homemade “Meeker Markers” at pioneer landmarks. The trip made him a national celebrity. Crowds gathered to mark his arrival in major cities, and he eventually piloted his wagon all the way to Washington, D.C. for a meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt. Meeker went on to journey the Oregon Trail several more times by wagon, train and automobile. His final crossing came at age 94, when he made the trip in a biplane flown by famed pilot Oakley Kelly.
Wheel ruts from Oregon Trail wagons are still visible today
By the time the last wagon trains crossed in the 1880s, mass migration on the Oregon Trail had left an indelible mark on the American frontier. Decades of prairie schooner traffic carved up certain sections of the trail, leaving imprints in stone and wearing down grasslands so much that nothing grows on them to this day. These pioneer wagon ruts can still be seen in all six of the states that once encompassed the trail.
Clicking on the photos will enlarge them. You can navigate using the arrows either side of the pictures, in any direction.