Western Wednesday – The Oregon Trail: Part Two

The year is 1843.  It’s been roughly forty years since Lewis and Clark made their expedition up the Missouri River into the unclaimed territory of the Pacific Northwest.  You’ve been hearing the rumors of rugged mountains and wild lands to the west from trappers and traders.  They’ve been there and back and tell of wide stretches of fertile land, vast natural resources, and the great Pacific ocean.

Dr. Marcus Whitman

Nine years ago The Dalles Methodist Mission was founded by the Reverend Jason Lee near Mount Hood.  A few years after that another pair of missionaries, Henry H. Spalding and Marcus Whitman traveled to the area that is now known as Walla Walla, Washington.  They brought their wives with them.  Eliza Hart Spalding and Narcissa Whitman were the first European women to cross the Rockies.  They proved that it could be done.Slowly but surely, more men and sometimes their wives blazed the trail from Missouri to the Oregon Territory.  What began as a route that was only passable on foot or with pack animals was slowly but steadily cleared, mile by adventurous mile.  By 1840 the first group of wagons reached the Columbia River, proving that wagons could be driven almost all the way to the infant settlements of Oregon.

In 1841 the Bartleson-Bidwall Party was the first wagon trail to use the entire Oregon trail to the Columbia River.  In 1842 the second group led by Elijah White made the journey.  Almost all of the settlers made it to the Willamette Valley in Oregon.  The original idea was to have as many United States citizens as possible settle the area and to drive the British Hudson’s Bay Company out of the disputed land.

But you don’t care about that.  All you see is opportunity.

Your opportunity comes with “The Great Migration of 1843”.  Lead initially by a former U.S. Army Captain and former fur trader, John Gantt, you and an estimated 700 to 1000 other brave souls set out to make the journey across the freshly cut Oregon Trail.  With you are over 100 wagons and 5,000 head of cattle.  Your party is also lucky enough to include the missionary Marcus Whitman, who is returning home to Oregon.

The early part of your journey consists of travel across the wide prairie south of the Platte River through Kansas, Nebraska, and part of Wyoming.  The going is relatively easy for wagons and cattle.  At Fort Laramie in Wyoming you cross to the North Platte River and head to the Sweetwater River.  Now things get a little tougher.  You’re heading into the mountains and the going is slower.

The South Pass

High in the mountains, an amazing sight meets you at the South Pass.  You’ve reached the Continental Divide, the spine of the Rocky Mountains.  What you find is a natural passage through those mountains, a prairie thirty-five miles wide.  This passage, which was discovered almost by accident in 1812 by a group of explorers trying to avoid Native Americans, is part of what makes the journey along the Oregon Trail possible.  Without it settlers would have to travel over much more treacherous country to reach the west coast.On the other side of the pass you pause at Fort Bridger before heading north along the Snake River to Fort Hall in what is now Idaho.  You’re surprised to find that there are so many well-established forts and settlements already along the way, even though most are little more than remote army outposts with an occasional mission attached to them.  Marcus Whitman’s own mission at Walla Walla lies further up the river at The Dalles.

At Fort Hall, the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company try to convince your party to abandon your wagons.  There is no way, they say, that you will be able to cross over the Blue Mountains with wagons.  Whitman disagrees with them.  He insists that the journey can be made all the way with the wagons.  So you set out into the wild, moving slowly and cutting and clearing timber to make the trail passable.  It’s hard work, you might not realize the importance of what you’re doing or the foresight of the man who insists you can do it.  But the trail blazes on.

At last you reach The Dalles.  But your journey isn’t over.  Your goal is the Willamette Valley, further down the Columbia River.  But you’ve reached Mount Hood, and as optimistic as Whitman is, there just isn’t a road around the mountain.  Yet.  So you disassemble your wagons and float them down the river while the cattle are herded over the Lolo Pass.

By October of 1842, almost every single member of your party that set out from Missouri reaches the Willamette Valley.  Once there, land is parceled out to settlers, 640 acres per married couple and 320 per single man.  It’s free, as long as you can work it and improve it.  There is no formal government in your new home, although you settlers draft the Organic Laws of Oregon to live by.  In a few years the United States will recognize your claims in the Donation Land Act of 1850.  Your success as a pioneer is assured.  You’ve traveled 2,000 miles to your new home.

By 1846 the Barlow Road was cut around Mount Hood, making it possible for settlers to travel the entire route by land.  Each year a new group of settlers set out from Independence, Missouri to make the trek.  As time went on and the trail became easier, greater numbers would move west.  Other trails would branch off of the main Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Mormon Trail, and the Bozeman Trail.

During the next few decades over 400,000 settlers would travel on the Oregon Trail.  Those numbers began to decline in 1855 when the Panama Canal was completed.  They dropped off entirely when the Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1869.  But more about that to come.  For those decades in the middle of the 19th century intrepid men and woman were willing to risk everything for the chance at a better life by traveling the trail.

Yep, the Oregon Trail was so much more than just an awesome video game!