Oregon-California Trail Timeline


For 25 years, as many as 500,000 people traveled the overland trails to Oregon, California, and Utah. It is estimated that Oregon was the destination for about a third of the emigrants, California for another third, and the remainder were bound for Utah, Colorado, and Montana.


British fur agents arrive along the Columbia River in the Oregon Country to establish trading posts.

Robert Gray's ship the Columbia

Robert Gray’s ship the Columbia


American sea captain Robert Gray explored the mouth of the Columbia River on his ship the Columbia and claims the region for the United States.


Explorer Alexander Mackenzie completes an expedition that was the first to come overland to the Pacific through the Rocky Mountains.


The United States, under President Thomas Jefferson, purchases the Louisiana Territory.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition reaches Oregon.

John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor


John Jacob Astor establishes an American trading post in the Oregon Country.


John Jacob Astor’s partner in the American Fur Company, Duncan McDougall, dispatches a party led by Robert Stuart, overland and eastbound. The group blazes the route that would later become known as the Oregon Trail. Though they find a break in the Rocky Mountains called South Pass, the discovery is forgotten for a decade.


The Treaty of 1818 establishes the border between the United States and Great Britain’s Canada at the 49th parallel up to the Rocky Mountains. The treaty allows for the joint control of the Oregon Territory


The western fur trade begins.


William Henry Ashley

William Henry Ashley

Fur trade organizer, William Ashley of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, along with mountain man Jedediah Smith, take a party of trappers along the trail from east to west, rediscovering South Pass.


William Ashley and Jedediah Smith, in search of new trapping grounds, lead the first wagon parties along the trail through South Pass, Wyoming and eventually make their way to California.


Dr. John McLoughlin, director of the Hudson’s Bay Company, builds the first lumber mill in the Pacific Northwest at Fort Vancouver, Washington.


Rejoining his expedition in California, Jedediah Smith leads the way north into Oregon, where only Smith and three others escape an Indian massacre on the Umpqua River. The survivors flee to the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost at Fort Vancouver, Washington.


Easterner Hall Jackson Kelley organizes a missionary society to take the Gospel to the western Indians. His plans don’t come to fruition but he does eventually make it Oregon.


Jedediah Smith and William Sublette, who are partners in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, lead the first wagon train (10 wagons) across the Rocky Mountains at South Pass and on to the Upper Wind River. The six-week journey proved that even heavily loaded wagons and livestock could travel overland to the Pacific.

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville


U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Bonneville succeeds in taking wagons along the Oregon Trail as far west as Wyoming’s Green River.

Nathaniel Wyeth successfully leads a wagon party of colonizers to the Willamette River in present-day Oregon.


William Sublette and Robert Campbell establish Fort Laramie on the North Platte River in Wyoming, the first permanent trading post in the region and soon to be an important stopping point for pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail.

Methodist minister Jason Lee and a party of missionaries take the Oregon Trail to Oregon.


Responding to the 1831 Nez Perce request for teachers, the Whitman party, which included Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, and the Reverend H. H. Spalding, and his wife, Eliza, travel what will soon be known as the Oregon Trail. They arrived at the junction of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, where they established a mission to bring Christianity to the Indians of the northwest. Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to cross the Rocky Mountains.


Organizer Thomas Jefferson Farnham organizes the emigrant party called the Oregon Dragoons. Due to many hardships, many of the emigrants turn back, but Farnham reaches Oregon.


Father Pierre Jean De Smet

Father Pierre Jean De Smet

Catholic Jesuit priest, Father Pierre Jean De Smet takes the Oregon Trail west and establishes a mission in Oregon.


The first emigrant party, the Bidwell-Bartleson party, heads for California with 100 farmers and their families. After crossing South Pass the group divides with some going to California and some to Oregon.


Dr. Elijah White, the newly appointed Indian Sub-Agent to Oregon, led 112 emigrants to Oregon. Their wagons were cut down to two-wheeled carts at Fort Hall, Idaho, as it was generally believed at that time that wagons could not make the journey over the upcoming rough terrain.

Lieutenant John C. Fremont of the Army Topographical Corps leads a scientific expedition into the Rocky Mountains, guided by mountain man Kit Carson. On his return, Fremont’s account of the expedition and expert maps are ordered published by Congress. His reports encouraged Americans to go West on the trail.

The U.S. Congress passed the Preemption Bill, which gave permission for any American to occupy or “squat” on a piece of land prior to its being surveyed by the government. The law encouraged Americans to move to the Oregon Country.

The Great Migration

The Great Migration


Some 1000 people outfit in the small town of Elm Grove, Missouri. Called “the great migration,” the train was comprised of more than 100 wagons with a herd of 5,000 oxen and cattle trailing behind. After a journey of more than 2000 miles, they arrived at the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

Oregon’s Provisional Government was formed in anticipation of the arrival of the emigrants of the great migration from Missouri.

Seasoned mountain men, Jim Bridger and Louis Vasquez established Fort Bridger on the Green River to re-supply migrants traveling the Oregon Trail. Theirs was perhaps the first mountain outpost not designed as a trading post for trappers.

Again guided by Kit Carson, John C. Fremont launched a more ambitious expedition into the West. Fremont’s report, published in 1844, again by Congressional order, became a best-seller, and his map of the West became a travel guide to pioneers on the Oregon Trail.


Four major wagon trains bring 2000 farmers, merchants, mechanics, and lawyers to Oregon.


An estimated 5,000 Oregon-bound emigrants are on the trail this year, most of them departing from Independence and Westport, Missouri.