Though much sympathy was given the western bound emigrants, few of them asked for it. They were taking part in one of the great mass movements of history and they knew it, as is shown by the diaries they kept under difficult conditions, by the letters they wrote to the hometown newspapers and to friends, and by the efforts they made to leave their names on various rocks along the way. To many, the journey was an exhilarating picnic, with gossip, chatter, love-making, sightseeing, and adventure providing them with something to boast about for the rest of their lives. If the hardships were greater than they anticipated, the majority was undismayed. Cholera epidemics along the trail in 1849, 1850, and 1852 took a heavy toll, as such epidemics did in cities.
On the whole, the emigrants had such good health on the trail that hordes of sick and anemic persons journeyed to the Missouri River to travel at least for a time with the parties. Had the emigrants stayed at home, the average annual death rate would have been 500 in every 20,000; probably the death rate on the trail from natural causes was lower than at home. Most deaths not resulting from epidemics were the result of rashness or carelessness. Loaded guns in the hands of amateur frontiersmen were a leading cause of accidents.
Every party had some members who were sure that they could find shorter and better routes than could experienced guides; the tragic experience of the Donner party took place because the members acted on advice given in a letter written by a man of whom they had never heard.
As Army posts were opened along the way, the officers became increasingly annoyed by the foolhardiness of the travelers. Finally, to save themselves the labor of rushing about rescuing the foolish, they forcibly organized the trains under military rules and passed them along under escort.
While many of the emigrants feared the Indians and were always alert, others could not be made to take reasonable precautions against surprise. The Indians stole when they could and caused occasional deaths during raids, but they were not serious menaces until the 1860s when they began to realize that the invaders were driving away and killing off the buffalo and other animals on which the natives depended for their food and clothing. By this time, the Indians had become thoroughly disillusioned of any hopes that the whites would keep the land treaties. By these agreements, the whites took the best lands and gave the Indians the worst. In addition, comparatively little of the promised compensations in money and goods ever reached the natives. Even the Army officers sent to quell uprisings when the Indians became desperate, reported, with a stern sense of justice, that the Indians had just cause for their frantic last stands. For many years the forces sent against the Indians were inadequate, but when at length the Government undertook to finish the job of expropriation, the results were swift and final.
Great hardship was caused by the settlers determination to carry their prized possessions with them. Many a cherished chest and spinet on the West Coast was carried overland at the price of semistarvation.
By 1850 the immigrants were beginning to clamor for quick mail service and better transportation, but it was 1859 before an overland stage went as far west as Colorado. The Pony Express, which gave the first fast mail service to California, was inaugurated in 1860. Though it lasted only 16 months and ruined its promoters, it provided the country with one of the most exciting series of relay races in history. In 1861 a telegraph line connected the Pacific Coast with the East.
After much talk about building a railroad to the far west, the Federal government accepted the responsibility. A Congressional act permitted the Central Pacific to build eastward from Sacramento, California and the Union Pacific to build westward from Council Bluffs, Iowa until their lines should meet, with a bait of princely land grants to stimulate rivalry between the two companies for distance covered. The most formidable engineering difficulties were encountered at the western end, but the building of the Union Pacific was a far more dramatic enterprise as it was carried through at a time when many of the Indian tribes of the plains were actively and fiercely hostile. On May 10, 1869, at Promontory, Utah, a golden spike was driven into a cross-tie of California laurel, celebrating the junction of the rails pushed from the East and the West, and the completion of an iron span across the continent.
Wagons continued to follow the Oregon Trail until late in the 1880s, but the days of pioneer travel were over and the physical frontier was almost gone. Many who went west remained only a short time, then turned back to settle in the Middle West, or to resettle in their native states east of the Mississippi River. Relatively few of the immigrants found the quick wealth and happiness they had sought. Through the years the migrations grew steadily smaller.
Excerpted from The Oregon Trail; the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean; compiled and written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration, 1939.
Compiled and edited for Legends of America by Kathy Weiser-Alexander