By Addison Erwin Sheldon, 1913
Each of the old overland trails which crosses Nebraska from the Missouri River to the mountains has a story. It is a story written deep in the lives of men and women, and in the record of the westward march of the American people. The story of these overland trails was also written in broad deep furrows across our prairies. Along these trails, journeyed thousands of men, women, and children with ox teams, carts, wheelbarrows, and on foot, to settle the great country beyond. Over them, marched the soldiers who built forts to protect the settlers. Then the long freighting trains loaded with food, tools, and clothing passed that way. So there came to be great beaten thoroughfares one or two hundred feet wide, deeply cut in the earth by the wheels of wagons and the feet of pilgrims.
The Oregon Trail was the first and most famous of these in Nebraska. It started from the Missouri River at Independence, Missouri, ran across the northeast corner of Kansas and entered Nebraska near the point where Gage and Jefferson Counties meet on the Nebraska-Kansas line. It followed the course of the Little Blue River across Jefferson, Thayer, Nuckolls, Clay, and Adams counties, then across the divide to the Platte River near the head of Grand Island in Hall County, then along the south side of the Platte River through Kearney, Phelps, Gosper, and Dawson, to a point in Keith County about seven miles east of Big Springs, where it crossed the South Platte and continued up the south side of the North Platte through Keith, Garden, Morrill, and Scotts Bluff Counties, where it passed out of Nebraska into Wyoming.
The beginnings of the Oregon Trail in Nebraska were made in 1813 by the little band of returning Astorians (fur traders of the Astoria trading post in present-day Washington) as they, leading their one poor horse, tramped their weary way down the Platte Valley to the Otoe village where they took canoes for their journey down the river. These first Oregon Trailers left no track deep enough to be followed. They simply made known the way. After them, fur traders on horseback and afoot followed nearly the same route. On April 10, 1830, Milton Sublette with ten wagons and one milk cow left St. Louis, Missouri and arrived at the Wind River Mountains in present-day Wyoming on July 16th. They returned to St. Louis the same summer, bringing back ten wagons loaded with furs and the faithful cow which furnished milk all the way. Theirs were the first wagon wheels on the Oregon Trail across Nebraska. The track they made from the mouth of the Kansas River up the valley of the Little Blue River and up the south side of the Platte and North Platte was followed by others and thus became the historic trail. Their famous cow and the old horse, which 17 years before had carried the burdens for the Astorians, are entitled to a high place among the pioneers of the West.
In 1832, Captain Bonneville, whose story is told by Washington Irving, followed over Sublette’s trail from the Missouri River to the mountains. In the same year, Nathaniel J. Wyeth following the same trail pushed through the South Pass in the mountains and on to Oregon, thus making an open road from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean. With slight changes, this road remained the Oregon Trail through the years of overland travel. Every spring in May the long emigrant wagon trains left the Missouri River and arrived on the Pacific coast in November. It was a wonderful trip.
Every day the train moved 15 or 20 miles. Every night it camped. Every day there were new scenes and events. New friends were found among the travelers. Children were born on the way. There were weddings and funerals. It was a great traveling city moving two thousand miles, from the river to the ocean.
There are five periods in the story of the Oregon Trail. The first was the period of finding the way and breaking the trail and extends from the return of the Astorians in 1813 to the Wyeth wagons in 1832. The second period was that of the early Oregon migration and extends from 1832 to the discovery of gold in California in 1849.
The third period was that of the rush for gold and extends from 1849 to 1860. During this period the Oregon Trail became the greatest traveled highway in the world, wider and more beaten than a city street and hundreds of thousands passed over it. The fourth period is that of the decline of the Oregon Trail that extends from 1860 to 1869.
The best brief description of the Oregon Trail is that of Father De Smet, who knew it well and tells of its appearance when first seen by him and his party of Indians from the Upper Missouri River in 1851:
“Our Indian companions, who had never seen but the narrow hunting paths by which they transport themselves and their lodges, were filled with admiration on seeing this noble highway, which is as smooth as a barn floor swept by the winds, and not a blade of grass can shoot up on it on account of the continual passing. They conceived a high idea of the countless white nations. They fancied that all had gone over that road and that an immense void must exist in the land of the rising sun. They styled the route the ‘Great Medicine Road of the Whites.'”
In another place Father De Smet tells of the great government wagon trains he met on the Oregon Trail in 1858:
“Each train consisted of 26 wagons, each wagon drawn by six yokes of oxen. The trains made a line fifty miles long. Each wagon is marked with a name as in the case of ships, and these names served to furnish amusement to the passers-by. Such names as The Constitution, The President, The Great Republic, The King of Bavaria, Louis Napoleon, Dan O’Connell, Old Kentuck, were daubed in great letters on each side of the carriage. On the plains, the wagoneer assumes the style of Captain, being placed in command of his wagon and twelve oxen. The master wagoneer is admiral of this little land fleet of 26 captains and 312 oxen. At a distance, the white awnings of the wagons have the effect of a fleet of vessels with all canvas spread.“