There’s no denying that the Oregon Trail and all of its subsets were the means by which the West was opened. The trappers, traders, and explorers of the first third of the nineteenth century discovered paths that the Trail could take, the first groups of settlers in the 1840s cut the path and proved that wagons could travel from Missouri to the Willamette Valley in the Oregon Territory. But what about everyone else?
Well, in January of 1848 a man named James Marshall found a small gold nugget in the American River in California. While an off-shoot trail had already been established from the Oregon Trail into California, the California Trail, suddenly in 1849 the number of people (mostly men) traveling it skyrocketed. The California Gold Rush drew people West with dreams of riches. Of course many never made a dime, but they did settle California.
Earlier, in 1844, the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, was martyred. His death came after a long period of persecution and mob violence directed at the Mormons. The Mormons were living in various areas of Missouri and Illinois at the time, but the locals made sure they knew they were not wanted. Upon Smith’s death, the new Mormon leader, Brigham Young, made the decision to move all church members across the west to the Salt Lake Valley. Beginning on the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail branched off at Fort Bridger and headed south into Utah.
California wasn’t the only territory that experienced a gold rush. In 1863 gold was discovered in the Dakota Territory. Unlike California, the route to the location of the gold was somewhat accessible by river travel. Also unlike California, the gold was smack in the middle of Indian territory. But did that stop prospectors and settlers? Of course not. John Bozeman and John Jacobs searched for an overland route to connect the newly formed Montana Territory to Oregon in the west and the Oregon Trail to the south. Thus the Bozeman Trail, which saw the most travel from 1863 to 1868, was born.
Then, of course, there was the Santa Fe Trail, which went in a different direction entirely. First cut in 1821, the Santa Fe Trail began in Missouri, like the Oregon Trail, but headed south towards Santa Fe, New Mexico. Of course, at that point New Mexico was Old Mexico. The Santa Fe Trail began as an international trade route. It was also a route of invasion during the Mexican-American War in 1845. When the Southwest was ceded to the United States, it too became a route for settlers. But even more so than the Bozeman Trail and Montana, the Santa Fe Trail (and the Gila Trail, which extended through southern New Mexico and Arizona) was prone to attacks by Native American tribes who were just a bit pissed off that all these white people were barging in on their land uninvited.
So there you have it. If you were planning to go west, by the 1860s you had several options to choose from. And once you started off on one of those trails, you and everyone with you would head straight for the end-point of the trail and make your settlement there, right? Not right.
Wagon trains and settlers heading West didn’t exactly make a bee-line for their destination. In fact, many people stopped along the way and decided they’d gone far enough. On the one hand, there were several supply points along the trails where wagon trains refreshed their supplies. Those stations, be they military forts like Fort Bridger, Fort Hall, and Fort Vancouver or river crossing points, like Omaha, Nebraska, were attractive spots for people to settle. With plenty of other settlers coming behind them, there was ample opportunity to make money in these places.
The gold and silver rushes in various spots from California to Montana and all through the Rockies in between were an alluring choice for fortune hunters seeking to settle. People broke from the trails all through Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah to settle the mountains in places like Denver City, Colorado, Carson City, Nevada, and Soda Springs, Idaho.
And, of course, there was the abundance of fertile farmland throughout the huge central area of the continent. From Montana to New Mexico a steady stream of settlers moved in to lands belonging to the Native Americans but claimed by the United States, building farms and ranches. The process was a slow bleed away from the trails that shot out to the Pacific coast.
The fact is, trails or no trails, there was so much land that enterprising citizens of the United States thought of as empty and open that it was only a matter of time before miners and farmers, businessmen and prospectors pushed the boundaries of the states further and further west. Yes, there were politics involved, both in the handling of the Native Americans and in the claiming of states as either “free” or “slave” as they were admitted to the Union.
But I have to believe that none of those things were on the minds of the brave men and women who took their fortunes into their own hands by making the journey. If it had been me I would have been too overwhelmed by the possibility of taming a wild new land to worry about politics