Oregon Trail – Pathway to the West

 

Oregon Trail Map

Oregon Trail Map 

The Oregon Trail became one of the key migration routes that pioneers crossed on their way to the vast west. Spanning over half the continent the trail proceeded over 2,170 miles west through territories that would later become Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. The long journey through endless plains, rolling hills, and mountain passes, began in Independence, Missouri and ended at the Columbia River in Oregon.

Oregon Trail Historic Sites:

Landmarks Along the Oregon Trail

Independence, Missouri – Queen City of the Trails

Minor Park/Red Bridge Crossing – Kansas City, Missouri

Alcove Spring – Blue Rapids, Kansas

Rock Creek Station, Nebraska

Fort McPherson, Nebraska

Fort Kearny – Kearney, Nebraska

California Hill/Upper Crossing, Nebraska

Oregon Trail Through the Platte River Valley, Nebraska

Scotts Bluff, Nebraska

Oregon-California Trail Across Wyoming

Fort Laramie, Wyoming

Register Cliff, Guernsey, Wyoming

Guernsey Ruts (Deep Rut Hill) – Guernsey, Wyoming

South Pass – Gateway to the West, Wyoming

South Pass City, Wyoming

Soda Springs Complex – Soda Springs, Idaho

Fort Hall, Idaho

Three Island Crossing – Glenns Ferry, Idaho

Fort Dalles, Oregon

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center – Baker City, Oregon

Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff on the Oregon Trail

“When you start over these wide plains, let no one  leave dependent on his best friend for anything;  for if you do, you will certainly, have a blow-out before you get far.”

 —  John Shivley, 1846

Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt, 1869

Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt, 1869

The route of the Oregon Trail began to be scouted as early as 1823 by fur traders and explorers. By the 1830s, it was used regularly by mountain men, traders, missionaries, and military expeditions.

At the same time, small groups of individuals and the occasional family attempted to follow the trail, with some succeeding in arriving at Fort VancouverWashington.

On May 16, 1842, the first organized wagon train on the Oregon Trail set out from Elm Grove, Missouri, with more than 100 pioneers. On May 22, 1843, what is known as the Great Migration, with up to a 1,000 settlers, livestock and more, in a massive wagon train, departed to follow the same route from Independence Missouri, arriving in the Willamette Valley. Hundreds of thousands more would follow, especially after gold was discovered in California in 1849.

While the first few parties organized and departed from Elm Grove, Missouri, the Oregon Trail’s generally designated starting point was Independence or Westport, Missouri. The trail ended at Oregon City, Oregon, which was the proposed capital of the  Oregon Territory at the time. However, many settlers branched off or grew exhausted short of this goal and settled at convenient or promising locations along the way.

At many places along the trail, alternate routes called “cutoffs” were established, either to shorten the trail or to get around difficult terrain. The Lander and Sublette cutoffs provided shorter routes through the mountains than the main route, bypassing Fort Bridger, Wyoming. In later years, the Salt Lake cutoff provided a route to Salt Lake City.

Register Cliff near Guernsey, Wyoming

Register Cliff near Guernsey, Wyoming, Kathy Weiser-Alexander, 2009.

The Oregon Trail was too long and arduous for the standard Conestoga wagons used in the eastern U.S. for most freight transport. These big wagons had a reputation for killing their oxen teams approximately two thirds along the trail and leaving their unfortunate owners stranded in desolate, isolated territory. The only solution was to abandon all belongings and traipse onward with the supplies and tools that could be carried or dragged. In one case in 1846, the Donner Party, en route to California, was stranded in the Sierra Nevada in November and had to resort to cannibalism to survive.

This led to the rapid development of the prairie schooner. Though this wagon looked similar, it was approximately half the size of the big Conestogas and also manufactured in quantity by the Conestoga Brothers. It was designed for the conditions and was a marvel of engineering in its time.

Pioneers on the Oregon Trail followed various rivers and used landmarks along the trail to guide their way and gauge their progress. Within Nebraska, the Oregon Trail followed the Platte River and then the North Platte River into Wyoming. Along this part of the journey, the Great Plains started giving way to bluffs and hills that were the precursor of the Rocky Mountains. After crossing the Rockies through South Pass, the trail followed the Snake River to the Columbia River. From there, emigrants had the option of either rafting down the Columbia to Fort Vancouver or taking the Barlow Road to the Willamette Valley and other destinations in what are now the states of Washington and Oregon.

Many rock formations became famous landmarks that Oregon Trail pioneers used to navigate, as well as leave messages for pioneers following behind them.

The first landmarks the pioneers encountered were in Western Nebraska, such as Court House Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff (where wagon ruts can still be seen to this day). Further west, in Wyoming, you can still read the names of pioneers carved into a landmark bluff called Register Cliff.

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock in Nebraska, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander. A number of other trails followed the Oregon Trail for part of its length. These include the Mormon Trail from Illinois to Utah and the California Trail to the goldfields of California.

Other migration paths for early settlers prior to the establishment of the transcontinental railroads involved taking passage on a ship rounding the Cape Horn of South America or to the Isthmus (now Panama) between North and South America. There, an arduous mule trek through hazardous swamps and rainforests awaited the traveler. A ship was typically then taken to San Francisco,  California.

The trail was still in use during the Civil War, but traffic declined after 1869 when the transcontinental railroad was completed.

However, in its more than 25 years of regular use, the trail carried an estimated 300,000 emigrants to the vast west, a trip that took about five months to complete. The trail continued to be used into the 1890s, when modern highways began to take its place, eventually paralleling large portions of the trail. Today, U.S. Highway 26 follows the Oregon Trail for much of its length.

Some of the original routes from our nation’s early days still remain today as reminders of our historic past. The Oregon National Historic Trail is an extended trail that follows much of the original path of the Oregon Trail.

In 1968, Congress enacted the National Trails System Act and in 1978, National Historic Trail designations were added. The National Historic Trails System commemorates these historic routes and promotes their preservation, interpretation, and appreciation.

In 1995, the National Park Service established the National Trails System Office in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Salt Lake City Trails Office administers the Oregon, the California, the Mormon Pioneer Trail, and the Pony Express National Historic Trails.

Oregon Trail Wyoming

Scenery along the Oregon Trail in Wyoming, by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

The National Trails System does not manage trail resources on a day-to-day basis. The responsibility for managing trail resources remains in the hands of the current trail managers at the federal, state, local and private levels.

National Historic Trails recognize diverse facets of history such as prominent past routes of exploration, migration, trade, communication and military action. The historic trails generally consist of remnant sites and trail segments and thus are not necessarily contiguous.

Contact Information:

National Trails System Office
P.O. Box 45155
Salt Lake City, Utah 84145-0155
801- 741-1012

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2019.

Reproduction vintage Oregon Trail Poster Map

Reproduction vintage Oregon Trail Poster Map

Also See:

California Trail

The Mormon Trail

Oregon Trail Photographs

Overland Trails of Nebraska

Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny

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