|Chapter 4 Social Studies: The Oregon Trail|
The Oregon Trail is the name given to the route that historians believe more than 300,000 emigrants traveled to cross the western United States to the fertile Willamette Valley in Oregon. We know that the trail began in Missouri and ended in Oregon. We also know that these people endured much hardship along the way. But what do we know about the equipment and provisions that were necessary to survive this more than 5-month trek over 2,000 miles of land?
Today, we would get in our car and easily travel across the country on one of many interstate highways. One hundred fifty years ago we would have followed an exceptionally difficult trail. Statistics indicate that one in ten persons died along the Oregon Trail. Although many people believe that these travelers died because of attacks by Native Americans, they died because of cholera, poor sanitation, and accidental gunshot wounds.
One of the first wagon trains that arrived in the Oregon Country in 1836 brought missionaries. The Whitmans were in this first group, and Narcissa Whitman was one of the first women to come overland to the Oregon territory. Joel Walker is credited as the first settler to make the complete trip with a family. Walker's trip took place in 1840. In 1843, the largest group of emigrants started west. A wagon train of over 800 people with 120 wagons and 5,000 cattle made the 5-month journey. Many emigrants headed to Oregon's Willamette Valley in search of farmland; others headed for California. Wherever these travelers went, they increased the population of the West.
Wagons were small, some being less than 45 square feet. In this small area, a family put all the belongings necessary for beginning a new life in Oregon. The emigrants never took the Conestoga wagon, which was hard to maneuver. Most travelers loaded farm wagons to haul the supplies necessary for the trip.
A family of four needed more than 1,000 pounds of food during the trip. Each person needed at least 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. All this plus farm equipment and furniture were loaded into the tiny wagon. The cotton cover on the wagon was coated with linseed oil to help make it rain resistant, and the cover protected cargo from the weather and the constant dust on the trail. Both ends of the cover usually were tied shut.
Clothing worn on the trail was traditionally made in the home from affordable fabrics, that is, wool, calico, or flannel. Each family member had only a few items of clothing and often continued wearing these items when they were dirty.
Oxen were the animals chosen for pulling the wagons. They grazed the prairie grasses and sage found along the trail and needed little water. Their main drawback was that they were slow, sometimes making only 2 miles in an hour.
Most wagon trains started west in early spring from Independence, Missouri. Starting in spring afforded the best chance of arriving in the Oregon Territory before the heavy snowfalls. By beginning in the spring, the travelers were less likely to find watering holes overgrazed or fouled by disease. Cholera, one of the main causes of death on the trail, was caused by drinking contaminated water.
Days were drearily similar for the travelers. They would awaken before the sun rose and ready their oxen teams for the day. After breakfast, they would begin their trek. They walked until lunchtime when they would pause for about an hour. The travelers stopped for the night at about 6 p.m. When they stopped in the evening, they would collect the wagons into a circle to make a corral for the livestock.
Before dinner could be prepared, they collected wood and started their fires. By nine it was bedtime. Although some families had tents, most families made their beds on the ground.
As travelers moved west over the years, wood became harder and harder to find on the trail. Eventually, fires were made with buffalo dung.
Meals consisted of bread and cooked meat, when fresh meat was available. If fresh meat was not available, the families cooked bacon or ate it raw.
Guidebooks had been written for those who wished to set off on their own. The "trail" was not an actual trail at all. In some places, narrow ruts in the earth defined it. In places where the dust was thick, the trail might be hundreds of yards wide so that travelers could avoid each other's dust. When modern road builders began constructing a transcontinental highway, they found that following the visible ruts was the best and easiest route across the western part of the United States.
During travel over the first part of the trail, emigrants adjusted to the daily routine, and they learned what was necessary to survive. They learned to get along with their fellow travelers. They decided on rules to follow along the trail. They learned to take turns being first in line.
Forts along the trail offered a place for the travelers to rest, repair their wagons, and replenish their stock of food and other supplies. One of the greatest supply depots and resting places was Fort Laramie (Colorado). Fort Laramie was an appropriate place to rest before beginning the climb over the Continental Divide, the first great challenge. Before beginning the climb, many emigrants had to decide whether to take along their cherished family heirlooms or only the tools and food that were vital for the trip. The decision was hard, but many treasured pieces of furniture were left alongside the trail as the families started up the eastern side of the Rockies.
Probably the hardest part of the trip was the final trek into present day Oregon. Man and beast were exhausted. Time was against them as they struggled to reach the Willamette Valley before the first snowfall.
Before Barlow Toll Road was built across the Cascades, emigrants transported their belongings over the last part of the trail by raft or left their wagons in The Dalles and built boats. Here the Columbia was filled with rapids and treacherous currents, and many emigrants lost their lives on the river. Once in the Willamette Valley, the emigrants built homes and started the farms that helped to establish the state of Oregon. Eventually more people settled north of the Columbia River, and the population of Washington grew.