Western Wednesday: The Oregon Trail – Part One

Okay, so you’re a young man and you want to heed Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west and grow up with the country”.  Awesome.  So how exactly do you go about doing that?  Chances are that if you were heading out there between about 1840 and 1869 you would take the Oregon Trail.

Yes, the Oregon Trail is more than just a fantastic computer game.  It was one of the primary routes to the lands of opportunity that made up the American Frontier.  It began in Independence, Missouri and wound its way through the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, ending in Fort Vancouver in what is now the state of Washington.  Over time more and more people settled in towns and on the prairie along the trail and its branches.

But, you may ask yourself, how did they know where to put the Oregon Trail and why would anyone want to go to Fort Vancouver anyhow?  What was so special about Oregon?

The answer lies partially in men’s fashion of the early 19th century.  Yeah, you heard me.  It was all about beaver-skin hats.

Civilization on the American continent in the year 1800 was located on the East Coast.  Everything else, especially everything west of the Mississippi River was a resource rich wilderness as far as the Colonials were concerned.  For decades fur trappers and traders had been making inroads into this wilderness, exploring, meeting Native American tribes with varying degrees of understanding or debacle, and gathering furs.  They would take these furs back east and make a tidy profit off of them.  These weren’t men who were interested in settling … yet.  They were more concerned about making money and living the life of a rugged explorer.

Fort Vancouver in 1845

The fur trappers established several trading posts and settlements along the routes they traveled.  Several of these, including Fort Vancouver, were established in what became Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in the 1820s.  These trading posts may have been thousands of miles away from the cities and towns of the east, but they were close to the Pacific.  Easy overland routes to the Pacific coast might not have existed yet, but ships could still sail there to pick up furs and deliver supplies.Okay, we’ve established that people wanted to buy furs and there were furs aplenty out there in the west.  But still, why Oregon?  And why on earth would anyone other than mountain men and daring entrepreneurs want to move there?  What do they have besides bad weather and hipsters?

At the dawn of the 19th century the continent of North America was owned by several entities.  The brand new United States took up most of the area east of the Mississippi.  The British still controlled everything north of the Great Lakes.  France still claimed a great big huge chunk of everything in the middle of the country and all of the rivers that fed into the Mississippi.  And Spain owned all of California and the southwest into Texas (which declared independence from Mexico in 1836).

Then came the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  The U.S. bought out France and doubled its size.  President Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark out on their famous expedition to map the area.  What were they looking for?  An easy overland route to the trading ports of the Pacific Northwest.  So they set out from Camp Dubois in what is now Illinois and headed north along the Missouri River into what is now North Dakota and Montana.  They explored some rivers and mountains, ran encountered several Native American tribes, and ended up founding Fort Clatsop near what is now Astoria, Washington.  They mapped the area and took extensive notes on whether it would be a good route to take to the Oregon Territory.

Alright, that’s all well and good, but why didn’t they go across land further south where the weather was nicer?  Because that land still belonged to Spain.  They could only travel across land that belonged to them, the land of the Louisiana Purchase.

Which brings up a good question.  Who exactly owned the Oregon Territory?  That’s not an easy question to answer.  The casual answer is that it was jointly claimed by the U.S. and Britain.  Because the U.S. wasn’t the only nation sending explorers and settlers west to find an overland route to the Pacific Northwest.  And Britain didn’t magically vanish from North America after the Revolutionary War either.

Fur traders and trappers from the remaining North American British colony, later to be known as Canada, were also interested in traveling west into the newly opened territory.  In fact, the endpoint of the Oregon Trail, Fort Vancouver, was built by the Hudson’s Bay Company, a British fur trading operation.  And it was British ships that sailed all the way around Cape Horn and up to the fur trading ports to purchase furs and provide supplies.  Yep, the British were just as involved in settling the Oregon Territory as the Americans were.

So why did so much of the Oregon Territory end up becoming part of the United States instead of Canada?

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The British traders of the Hudson’s Bay Company may have established settlements first, but it was the Americans that shipped honest-to-goodness settlers to the area faster and in greater numbers.  They did this by advertising back east about the life and opportunity waiting for intrepid settlers willing to forge the trail.  Enough brave souls took up the challenge that within a few years the number of American settlers in the area outweighed the British trappers and traders.

And then something happened that changed everything.  Beaver-skin hats went out of style.  Yes, something as fickle as men’s fashion decided the fate of two nations … and their borders.  Suddenly there was no longer any money in the fur trade.  All those trappers and traders had to find something else to do.  The men who had gone west as entrepreneurs had lost their purpose, whereas the settlers who had gone to build a new life and a new home had a purpose that was stronger than ever.

So the traders stuck around and helped to build new settlements while the trappers who knew the various paths through the west took jobs as guide and leaders for the men and women who wanted to go west to start a new life.

Next week we’ll take a look at who those people were and what their journey was like.

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3 thoughts on “Western Wednesday: The Oregon Trail – Part One

  1. Merry, this is FASCINATING. Will you please go back in time and rewrite my high school history textbooks? I would SO pay attention then. Cant wait for the next installment!

    • Thanks Anne! History is so doggone fascinating, but you’re right, it’s taught TOTALLY wrong in school. I was blessed with an amazing history teacher my senior year. She, along with two summers as an actor at the Pennsylvania Rennaisance Faire, really drove home the point that today’s history was yesterday’s front page news, dinner conversation, and tabloid gossip. I actually went to college intending to become a high school history teacher. I even have half an Ed. degree. But life took me in a different direction. Maybe someday I’ll go back to it…. =D

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