Oregon Trail began a tide of migration that helped transform America into a transcontinental colossus from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
Much about this epic journey remains a matter of dispute, starting with its size, with historians offering emigrant estimates in the 1840s to the 1869 completion of the Transcontinental Railroad ranging from 50,000 to hundreds of thousands.
That vast overland migration was the result of “Oregon Fever,” a yearning to strike out for a new life in the West. It was fanned by a near-messianic belief that new lands could allow America to become, to use Thomas Jefferson’s coinage, “an empire of liberty.” “Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free,” Henry David Thoreau would write.
This willingness to break loose from their old economic and political constraints led the emigrants to undertake an arduous 2,100-mile journey from the jumping-off points (e.g., Independence and St. Joseph, Mo.) to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. They took the main fur-trapping route to the Rockies, the Platte River Road, which was renamed the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.
The two main destinations for the overlanders were California and Oregon. Starting out on May 18, the California group, led by John Bidwell and John Burleson, linked up with Oregon-bound emigrants, spearheaded by Jesuit priests and mountain man Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick.
The combined party split off at Soda Springs, Idaho, with Fitzpatrick guiding his contingent towards the Willamette Valley. By the time they reached Fort Hall in present-day Idaho, the emigrants had covered two-thirds the distance to their destination but only half the time. Ahead, beyond the Snake River, lay the Blue Mountains, which they could only scale with the help of ropes, pulleys and winches.
Despite these dangers, in the years before the California gold rush, Oregon tended to be preferred by these first travelers, driven powerfully by “sedulous advertising by missionaries, military explorers, traders, merchants, sailors, trappers, propagandists, and such publicists as Hall Kelley,” according to Bernard DeVoto’s The Year of Decision, 1846. “[Senator Thomas Hart] Benton, [Senator Lewis] Linn, and their fellow expansionists had its history, geography, and statistics by heart — if attractively colored by their private fantasies. [President James Knox] Polk need only send to the Library of Congress for any information he might want.”
Tossed into the mix was good old-fashioned American exaggeration. In one stump speech cited by Robert F. Hine and John M. Faragher in The American West: A New Interpretive History (2000), Peter H. Burnett delivered a recruiting pitch by no means untypical: “Gentlemen, they do say, that out in Oregon the pigs are running about under the great acorn trees, round and fat, and already cooked, with knives and forks sticking in them so that you can cut off a slice whenever you are hungry.”
*Indian attacks were not as common as believed. Though Indian attacks, even ones resulting in fatalities, did occur, more emigrants died in shooting accidents or wagon crashes.
*Overall, an estimated one-tenth of emigrants died on the overland passage. Common causes of disease on the trail were typhoid fever, cholera and dysentery (all products of poor sanitation), along with food poisoning, tick-generated "mountain fever" and death in childbirth, according to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management.
*Federal land policy facilitated Native American displacement and lack of racial diversity in the territory. Although an initial 1842 plan by Senator Linn to encourage mass migration failed, it later formed the basis of the Donation Land Law of 1850. The egalitarian chief provision of the legislation—encouraging claims by citizens over the age of 18 to parcels in the territory—came with provisions excluding Native Americans, blacks, Hawaiians, and Asians from this land bounty. Moreover, Native Americans already on the land for thousands of years were forced to resettle through negotiated treaties or executive agreements with the United States.
* Oxen and mules, not horses, were the preferred beasts of burden. Although oxen and mules had their advocates, most travelers, despite the impression left by Hollywood westerns, found out soon enough that horses were at distinct disadvantages on the long trip. Their comparative swiftness could not compensate for what their use entailed: more feed, lighter loads, and susceptibility to injury and theft.
*The movement of settlers left environmental damage in its wake. Emigrants overgrazed grass tribes needed for their horses, depleted wild game, destroyed staple camas meadows, fouled drinking water, cleared trees and cliffs, carved passages through mountain ranges, and left still-visible ruts from the wagon trains. (See, for example, this 2016 Jennifer Billock article from Smithsonian and this Sarah Gilman piece from High Country News.)
The overland movement along the Oregon Trail has so etched itself into the American cultural consciousness (including in the accompanying image, the painting The Oregon Trail by Albert Bierstadt), that it is easy to lose sight of its even wider impact on the nation.
Years ago, a high school social studies teacher I knew impressed on students, when they were responding to essay questions about an event or movement, to consider factors centered around the acronym SPERM: social, political, economic, religious, and military. It’s not a bad way to think about all that followed when the impact of the Oregon Trail. So let’s consider each letter in turn:
*(S)ocial: The Oregon Trail and the larger movement west fostered among the emigrants a risk-taking, entrepreneurial energy that remains central to America’s wealth and power, but also a restlessness and rootlessness that led to what midcentury journalist and social critic Vance Packard called “a nation of strangers.” The distance back home was so vast and the dangers so numerous that emigrants could not simply go home if a farm or a marriage failed.
*(P)olitical: The two main parties of the time, the Democrats and Whigs, were initially divided about pushing on to Oregon. Democrats were more gung-ho while Whigs were somewhat fearful of the tensions this was creating with the other principal claimant to the territory, Great Britain. Polk’s campaign slogan, “54-40 or Fight” (a reference to 54 degrees, 40 minutes, the northern border that would effectively exclude Britain), demonstrated this jingoism. Fortunately, upon becoming President, he sensibly agreed, in the Oregon Treaty of 1846, to a border at the 49th parallel (thus forestalling the possibility that the U.S. would go to war not just against Mexico to the south, but Britain, with all its naval power). Once admitted to the Union in 1859, Oregon provided a bulwark against the expansion of slavery.
*(E)conomic: The nation was still wobbly from the Panic of 1837 as the Oregon Trail migration began. “Oregon Fever” helped kick-start the economy, spur the social mobility of the emigrants, and provide a safety valve for tensions on the East Coast arising from a massive influx of Irish and German emigrants later in the decade. With much of the prime agricultural land already claimed by this time, more and more people were pouring into cities for further opportunity. Anti-immigrant sentiment in the antebellum period began to mount, but it might have reached unimaginable heights without the land in Oregon and out West to relieve the pressure.
*(R)eligious: Religious movements were crucial to fanning settler interest in the Western lands. The Belgian Jesuit missionary, Fr. Jean-Pierre de Smet, contributed his geographic and ethnographic expertise to subsequent waves of travelers. The Protestant missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman generated huge publicity by becoming the first white couple to cross the Rockies in a covered wagon, then helped drum up interest in pursuing the last 500-mile leg of the overland journey along the Snake River.
*(M)ilitary: The need to protect the lives of the emigrants and to provide for their material needs led the federal government to establish several outposts along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 1850s: Forts Kearny, Laramie, Caspar, Bridger, Hall, Boise, and Vancouver. In the years between the Mexican War and the Civil War, these outposts gave many Army veterans their only opportunity to stay active and rise in the ranks. The experience, even if not exactly comparable to what they had faced and would face East of the Mississippi when the Union was threatened, enabled them to command troops.
Other years would see greater movement towards the Pacific Northwest, including 1843 and 1846. But 1841 was when it all began in earnest. America would never be the same.