Why a Trail to Oregon?

Excerpted from The Oregon Trail; the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, 1939.

Explorers, Frederic Remington, 1904

All explorers, nearly all pioneers, and certainly all the fur traders who headed to the American West belonged to a restless breed. When, after a hard winter in a hut along the Missouri River, Meriwether Lewis wrote that the moment of departure for the untrodden wilderness was among the happiest of his life, he was voicing the feeling of all who followed him westward.

Time and again the traders and mountain men vowed that they were through with hardships and were going back to the security of the settled East, but the first person who asked them to return to the mountains was sure to start them west again. Those who returned to the East, even briefly, spread unrest and stirred up the adventurous blood dormant in most of the descendants of the first pioneers.

In the early decades of the 19th century, a large part of the population of the United States was in a particularly disturbed state of mind. The more perfect union envisioned by the Constitution had not abolished taxes or created idyllic communities; the new factories, belching forth smoke and cinders, provided many new comforts but did not pay wages that enabled the hands to buy them in quantities; farmers were receiving lower prices for their products because of competition from the newly settled lands; the blow dealt to the spiritual authority of the churches by the American Revolution had robbed many of their feeling of spiritual security; and the ideas let loose by the French Revolution, widely aired by those who had fled to America to escape the reactionary regimes of the post-Revolutionary period, added to the mental ferment.

Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition  of 1804-06

Sacagawea guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition of 1804-06

The Journals of Lewis and Clark and of other explorers, the diaries and letters of travelers and journalists, turned public attention to the Far West. European philosophers, poets, and novelists had long been romanticizing the American wilderness and, to some extent, the pioneers. James Fenimore Cooper, however, was the first American to idealize the frontiersmen. Washington Irving began the literary exploitation of the Far West. The romantic attitude gradually spread downward from the literate to the illiterate, and restless migrants who had never read a book in their lives began to see themselves as participants in heroic drama and to act and pose accordingly.

One of the first to advocate emigration to the Oregon region was Hall J. Kelley, a teacher in a school near Boston, Massachusetts who began writing letters and memoranda to the newspapers on the subject in 1818, basing his statements largely on his own interpretations of what Lewis and Clark had reported. In time, he organized emigrant meetings, addressed memorials to Congress for aid, and eventually founded an Oregon Emigration Association to travel west in 1832. His first appeals were commercial and agrarian; but as the clergy, fearful of losing more parishioners, and factory owners, determined not to have their cheap labor market diminished, began to attack him and his propaganda, his writings became somewhat socialistic.

Kelley interested the well-to-do Nathaniel Wyeth in the scheme. Wyeth clearly indicated the state of mind of the average emigrant when he wrote: “I cannot divest myself of the opinion that I shall compete better with my fellow men in new and untried paths than in those which require only patience and attention.” But Wyeth early discovered Kelley’s impracticality and determined to lead his own expedition, but as a fur trader, not a settler. His plans were like those John Jacob Astor had made earlier; a ship would carry supplies for the Indian trade to the Columbia River and Wyeth would travel overland to meet it. In late October 1832, Wyeth reached Fort Vancouver, Washington after many difficulties resulting from his lack of experience and upon his arrival, he found that his ship was still at sea. Dr. McLoughlin, liking the young man, took him into the Hudson’s Bay mess with his usual hospitality, but at the same time, warned him frankly that he would do all he could to oppose his business venture. Wyeth did not learn for many months that his ship had been wrecked and that it was useless for him to remain in Oregon.

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville

In 1832 Captain Benjamin de Bonneville also arrived in Oregon, ostensibly as a fur trader but, was actually a United States secret intelligence officer. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville, written by Washington Irving from Bonneville’s notes, was read by many people, who, in 1837, the year the book was published, were sharing the results of the disastrous financial crash that had been caused by mad speculation in public utilities and unsound public and private financing. To them, the West began to seem a place of refuge, offering unlimited land without mortgages.

It was a rule of the Hudson’s Bay Company that an employee reaching the end of his term of service must return to the point of enlistment for discharge. A number of French Canadians employed in the Department of the Columbia asked McLoughlin’s permission to settle near Fort Vancouver when their time was up; they liked the country and had taken wives from local Indian tribes. Ignoring the company regulation, the doctor sent them down the Willamette and aided them with tools and supplies; he did this partly from kind-heartedness and partly, perhaps, because he had an idea that settlement south of the river by loyal Canadians might enable him to hold the country. As the settlement expanded and the number of half-breed children increased, he became anxious to provide education and religious training. He several times asked headquarters to obtain a clergyman for the post, but none was sent in spite of promises.

In 1831 four members of the Flathead tribe had journeyed to St. Louis, Missouri to ask for instruction in the white man’s religion, having heard from a wandering band of Canadian Iroquois of the superior efficiency of the “medicine” of the “black robes” (priests). Their action aroused such interest in religious circles that in 1833 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed the efficient Jason Lee “Missionary to the Flatheads.” Lee rapidly organized a small party of assistants and, learning that Nathaniel Wyeth was returning to Oregon to make another attempt to compete with the Hudson’s Bay Company, obtained permission to travel overland with the Boston merchant. In July 1834, the party reached the Snake River in present-day Idaho, where Wyeth established a small post, which he named Fort Hall; the party reached Fort Vancouver on September 16. McLoughlin greeted them cordially, in spite of his knowledge of Wyeth s intentions, and was soon advising Lee that it was dangerous to establish a mission among the Flatheads and that he had a congregation ready for his ministrations along the Willamette River.

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