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U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR

BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT

National Historic Oregon
Trail Interpretive Center

History Bits

During eight decades in the 1800s the Oregon Trail served as a natural corridor as the United States grew from the eastern half of the continent toward the west coast. The Oregon Trail ran approximately 2,000 miles west from Missouri toward the Rocky Mountains and ended in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The California Trail branched off in southern Idaho and brought miners to the gold fields of Sierra Nevada. The Mormon Trail paralleled much of the Oregon Trail, connecting Council Bluffs to Salt Lake City.

Beginnings

The Oregon Trail began as an unconnected series of trails used by Native Americans. Fur Traders expanded the route to transport pelts to trading posts and rendezvous. In the 1830s missionaries followed the still-faint trail along the Platte and Snake Rivers to establish church connections in the Northwest. A combination of economic and political events in the 1840s converged to start a large scale migration west on what was then known as "The Oregon Road."

Joel Walker is credited as the first settler to make the complete trip with a family, in 1840. Large scale migration started in 1843, when a wagon train of over 800 people with 120 wagons and 5,000 cattle made the five month journey. In 1847 Mormons escaping persecution headed toward Salt Lake, and the discovery of gold in California in 1848 sent a wave of fortune-seekers west. Military posts, trading posts, shortcuts, and spur roads sprang off the Oregon Trail over the next three decades.

Native American Trade Fairs

Great intertribal meetings took place at The Dalles on the Columbia River which were important events in the lives of the Plateau Indians. In the spring, before the salmon run, the Nez Perce often journeyed down the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the rapids at Celilo Falls and The Dalles.

This was the home territory of the Wishrams, Wascos and other native peoples, and was the most important point of contact between the Coast and Plateau cultures. It was the cosmopolitan center of Northwest Indian life and the site of great month-long trade fairs.

Trading, dancing, games, gambling, ceremonial displays, and even marriages took place at these fairs. Often several thousand visiting Native Americans came to trade dried salmon meal, bison robes, and slaves from the interior for canoes, marine shells and shell beads, and fish oil from the Pacific coast. These trade goods have been found as far away as Alaska, southern California and Missouri.

Wagons

Many movies and paintings depict large, boat-shaped, covered wagons crossing the Oregon Trail. However, many of those images are actually showing a type of wagon called a Conestoga wagon, which was not the type of wagon used on the Oregon Trail.

The Conestoga wagons were used mostly as a freighting and supply wagons on established roads. A team of up to 12 horses or oxen pulled these wagons, which were equipped to haul close to 8,000 pounds. These wagons made for great imagery for paintings, but were far too large and cumbersome for the long trip across the American west.

The Prairie Schooner that is mentioned so often was the more preferred means of transporting an emigrant's household goods and supplies on the trail. They were lighter and more durable than something as large as a Conestoga wagon. These wagons were often slightly modified farm wagons that used two teams of oxen to transport about 2,500 pounds of supplies.

There was another option when it came to carrying supplies out west. The Latter Day Saints (Mormons) commonly used a hand cart, which is like a large, two-wheeled wheelbarrow, and pushed or pulled their belongings without horses or oxen.

Another common misconception of the Oregon Trail is that the emigrants rode in the wagons. The truth is they only rode inside the wagon if they were sick or infirm. 2,000 pounds of supplies left very little room for occupants. When someone came across the trail, they walked.

Death on the Trail

The emigrants on the Oregon Trail suffered tremendous hardships, and death was an ever-present companion. It is estimated that as many as 1 in 10 emigrants died on the trail; that's between 20,000 and 30,000 people!

The vast majority of deaths occurred because of diseases caused by poor sanitation. Cholera and typhoid fever were by far the biggest killers on the trail. Another major cause of death was from falling off of a wagon and getting run over. This is not just the case for children; many adults also died from this type of accident.

The idea of crossing "the great American desert" and the perceived dangers caused many people who were not hunters or soldiers to purchase firearms that they were not used to handling. Many emigrants died by firearm accidents from their own guns.

Other deaths on the trail are recorded in diaries as: stampeding livestock, attacks by emigrants on other emigrants, lightning, gunpowder explosion, and suicide. A conservative estimate of 20,000 fatalities on the trail means that for every mile of trail there are an average of 10 graves.

The Oregon Trail was not only hard on the people on the trail, but the livestock they brought with them suffered greatly as well. The bleached bones from years of dead livestock seemed to pave the road from Missouri to Oregon.

Emigrants became accustom to being in the presence of death. The wagon train became a mobile community that suffered each loss together, and together they pressed on in hopes of a better life ahead. It is hard to imagine today what the people on the trail went through on the journey west. Fortunately, several hundred journals kept by pioneers survived the journey and arrival in Oregon, and have been transcribed and distributed so that we can better understand their hardships.

Communication

With more than 11,000 emigrants crossing on the Oregon Trail before the Gold Rush, traveling could be quite congested. Along the way, pioneers—like present day Americans—had the desire to communicate and developed their own information highway.

Called the "Bone Express," a system of communication was created by posting messages along the trail route by writing on cloth, wood, and especially bones. With this method, westbound emigrants and "go-backs" (those who were eastbound) could leave messages, advertisements, directions and warnings to fellow pioneers. In one instance, the desire to communicate was inspired by love along the trail. John Johnson and Jane Jones, two young pioneers who were attracted to one another but separated by their disapproving parents, developed a system of writing to each other on buffalo skulls with the code name "Laurie." While some emigrants tampered with existing messages to insert their own opinions or humor, most remained untouched. One woman traveling in 1852 came across penciled messages from 1849.

Attacks on Wagon Trains

Most Native Americans tolerated wagon trains passing though their territories. In fact, many pioneers would not have made it if it had not have been for trading with the tribes along the trail. It is true that there were conflicts between Native Americans and settlers along the trail. But, when compared to the number of people traveling the Oregon Trail, deaths by Indian attacks were very rare.

It is estimated that between 1840 and 1860, Native Americans killed 362 emigrants, but emigrants killed 426 Indians. Most of these fatalities occurred west of South Pass.

The Oregon Escort

Medorem Crawford is mentioned in several of the quotes in the Interpretive Center exhibits, most from his journal of 1842 when he made the journey with Elijah White's wagon train to Oregon. Then a young man of 23, Crawford became one of Oregon's most prominent early citizens. While visiting the east coast in 1861, Crawford was given command of the "Oregon Escort"—a military convoy which was to accompany wagon trains across the Oregon Trail in 1862. Starting from Omaha on June 16, the company included 12 wagons each drawn by six mules, one ambulance drawn by four mules, and fifty mounted and armed men. Officers rode horses; the troops rode mules. Their ranks included a physician, as one of their duties was to provide medical assistance to emigrants, as well as providing food, mending wagons, moving baggage, and settling arguments. Upon arriving in Oregon City, the company disbanded and the equipment and animals were sold at public auction.

Medorem Crawford wrote an official report, and recommended patrols in subsequent years, to aid with maintaining the trail and locating grass and water for wagon parties. The following two years, volunteer state units again offered patrols along the Oregon Trail, while regular army units were involved in Civil War operations.

Captain Medorem Crawford lived in Dayton, Oregon until his death in 1891. In addition to his military work, he had been a provisional and state legislator, a farmer, a state revenue collector, and a customs appraiser.

The End of an Era

The Central Pacific Railroad connected California to the continent in 1869; overland travel became cheaper and much quicker by rail, thus ending the era of the Oregon Trail. The trail became a route for eastward cattle drives, but by the twentieth century, the Oregon Trail was considered part of a historic past, and the image of covered wagons and pioneers became an American icon.

Preserving the Oregon Trail

Ezra Meeker, a pioneer of 1852, took steps to preserve and commemorate the Oregon Trail by staging several west-to-east trips over the trail, beginning in 1906. He organized communities to place markers along the trail route. His efforts led to further recognition of the historic significance of this national travel corridor by community, state, and national organizations.

In 1978, Congress designated it the Oregon National Historic Trail. Through the years, many remnants of the trail disappeared under construction of towns, highways, and agricultural development, but over 300 miles of ruts still exist. The National Historic Trail is administered by the National Park Service in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, state and local governments, citizen organizations, and private individuals who own or manage property crossed by the trail route.

Through their efforts of preservation and education, it is still possible to follow the route of the Oregon Trail by auto and hiking, and to visit over 125 historic sites associated with the Oregon Trail.