It was perfectly logical to believe. After all, the Rhine connected with the Danube via the Main and a short portage, tying together the entire European continent. The Nile ran for an astonishing 4,000 miles deep into central Africa. So why wouldn’t the Missouri flow from the Mississippi all the way to the Pacific Ocean?
If it did, it meant the entire North American continent was connected by water, the implications of which were staggering. It meant the entire American west could be opened up for commercial and agricultural development. It meant goods manufactured in the east could find a market deep in the interior.
President Thomas Jefferson wanted to know, so he dispatched Lewis and Clark in 1804. But after following the Missouri River to its source, more than 2,000 tantalizing miles to the northwest, they came back with bad news. There was no all water route to the Pacific. The prospects for opening the west briefly dimmed.
Shangri-La Among the Evergreens
In 1818 the United States and Great Britain attempted to bury the hatchet of 40 years of intermittent warfare by signing a treaty marking the boundary between the U.S. and Canada at the 49th parallel. The Treaty of 1818 allowed for several exceptions, most notably the joint occupation of the Oregon territory (present day Oregon and Washington states). It wasn’t long before British and American settlers were trying to push each other out.
The British solution was to eradicate all the fur-bearing animals in the region, thus discouraging Yankee fur traders from seeking their fortunes there. The American solution was simpler, and quintessentially American: to flood the Pacific Northwest with Americans. Great in theory, but getting to that faraway place proved problematic.
Without a river route, the settlers had two choices. They could travel by ocean down the coast of South America, around Cape Horn, and up the west coast of two continents, a distance of 14,700 miles. Or they could attempt to travel overland, a grueling journey across 2,000 miles of forbidding prairies, deserts and mountains.
Still, the powerful lure of Oregon drew people on. If ever a land had the appeal of Shangri-La, this was it, a fertile, disease-free climate, extensive uncut forests, crystal clear rivers swarming with fish, abundant game, friendly natives, ocean access, and plenty of land free for the taking. All you had to do was get there.
What Good is the Platte?
As early as 1810 American fur trading mogul, John Jacob Astor, outfitted an exhibition to blaze an overland route to Oregon territory. His team made it across the Grand Tetons to the Snake River in modern day Idaho before having to abandon the river and bushwhack their way to the Columbia River in what is today western Washington State. They passed on what they learned from the experience to those who came after them.
Like programmers tweaking open source software, these early explorers built on those who went before them, always seeking improvements and efficiencies. One thing the fur traders learned, much to their vexation, was that the one of longest rivers they encountered on their journey, a river that ran straight west in the direction they were heading, and so was perfectly situated for their purposes, was also unnavigable.
The Platte River for much of its length is a shallow, meandering brook running down a broad, sandy river bed that, if it was filled to its banks, would be an estimable waterway. Sadly, it rarely fulfills its promise. Anyone attempting to float a boat down its length will find himself carrying the boat much of the way.
Still, the Platte does provide a source of drinking water, and the river does run through flat, easily sloping country, making it an ideal artery along which to set a wagon road, which is precisely what the early explorers did. That wagon road became the Oregon Trail.
RV’s of the 1800’s
Once a wagon road was established, it became clear that getting to Oregon would be a matter of rolling there on wheels. But what kind of wheels? The logical choice for the rugged country ahead would be a two-wheeled cart of the sort used in Mexico. Such carts had the advantage of being able to trundle easily over rugged ground but were limited by the amount they could carry. What was needed for the long cross-country trip was a vehicle that could carry plenty of supplies, and could double as shelter along the way, sort of a mobile tent, the 19th century version of an RV.
The covered wagon of the time was basically a long wooden box on wheels with sides about two feet high and a canvas top rising to a height of about five feet and then arching over several bows of bent hickory. The canvas was waterproofed with paint or linseed oil to keep the contents dry.
For their parts, the emigrants themselves often got wet. A common misconception about the pioneers is that they rode along in their wagons. For reasons that will become clear in a moment, they didn’t. Instead, they walked beside them. It’s astonishing to consider that over the 2,000 miles that comprised the Oregon Trail the emigrants walked most of the way.
The wagon was pulled by a team of oxen, between four and eight animals yoked two abreast. At one-third the cost of mules, oxen were preferred, particularly as the probability of losing an animal was great.
The trek from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon took in excess of five months, during which time an ox could die of disease, of drinking alkaline water, of thirst, of slow starvation, or of being overworked. The loss of an ox was worrisome because the additional strain it put on the remaining team could endanger them as well, unless the wagon load was lightened, putting emigrants in the unenviable position of deciding which essential supplies to leave behind on the trail.
The Oregon Trail was notoriously littered with all sorts of discarded stuff, evidence of the pioneers’ desperate attempts to lighten their loads. Under such circumstances, riding in the wagon would be be ill advised at best.
Hazards of the Trail
Death and disaster lurked everywhere along the Oregon Trail. Wagon tongues and axles broke with maddening regularity, forcing emigrants to fashion new ones on the spot from whatever trees could be felled in the immediate vicinity. In barren country finding a good tree could slow an emigrant party for days. Carrying spare tongues or axels was out of the question as they added too much weight, slowing progress, and the emigrants had a need for speed.
They had a short window. They generally left Missouri in May and strove to get through the Rockies before October. Too long a delay would put them in the mountains as the snow began to fall, and as the Donner Party discovered to their everlasting horror, winter in the mountains could be a death sentence.
This, than, put them on the Great Plains during the height of summer where the sun beat down like a hammer. Thirst was a constant companion. Carrying too much water, however, added extra weight. So the emigrants fended for themselves along the way. Beyond the Platte River watershed, however, finding potable water could be tricky and drinking from the wrong waterhole could be deadly.
River crossings were perilous. Fast flowing rivers could smash a wagon to splinters. Steep descents were nerve-wracking. Wagons didn’t have brakes and so had to be lowered by ropes. One slip and it was over.
A wagon damaged beyond repair would have to be abandoned, throwing the emigrants on the mercy of their fellows, adding to the friction that inevitably occurs in close quarters over long periods of time. Quarrels were common. Fights broke out, adding another potential source of injury. An injured or sick emigrant was a burden, not only because his loss removed a hand needed to perform work but because he added unwanted weight to the wagon if his injuries were such that he had to be carried.
Snake bite, disease and Indian attack were other sources of potential disaster. But in spite of all this, most emigrants made it through.
Getting a Taste of the Oregon Trail
To get a taste of the Oregon Trail my wife Marianne and I traveled along the Platte River in western Nebraska and stopped at the Fort Kearny State Historical Park. Fort Kearny functioned as way station, sentinel post, supply depot, and message center for emigrants traveling west on the Oregon Trail in 1850’s. During its height it saw as many as 2,000 emigrants passing through each day.
From there we traveled 125 miles west to the Chimney Rock National Historic Site near Bayard, Nebraska. Chimney Rock is a 325 foot high natural geological feature that served as a prominent landmark along the Oregon Trail. Frequently mentioned in pioneers’ journals, the impressive spire was significant as the point at which the grasslands would give way to more arid soil as the country rose in elevation.
Finally we stopped at The Oregon Trail Wagon Ride in Bayard, Nebraska. This family friendly attraction features a covered wagon ride, a chuck wagon dinner and a cowboy sing-along . We strolled along the Platte River, enjoyed a juicy steak, and sang cowboy songs like “Whisperin’ Wind” and “Oh, Nebraska”. But the highlight was the wagon ride.
Covered wagons did not have springs for suspension. The wheels were made of wood and the tires were made of iron. Riding in one is a jostling, jarring experience. For early pioneers who were breaking trail, the experience would’ve set teeth to clattering. Yet another reason they chose to walk.
The British Throw in the Towel
The great period of overland emigration lasted just thirty years.
In 1840 the Meek-Newell party became the first emigrants to reach the Columbia River in Oregon traveling exclusively by wagon. A year later, the Bartleson-Bidwell party became the first to use the Oregon Trail over its entire length. In 1842 the White party proved that a large group consisting of more than 100 pioneers could make the journey successfully, which ushered in the year 1843, the year of The Great Migration, when an estimated 1,000 emigrants, in groups large and small, made the journey to Oregon. The flood gates were open.
Three years later, in 1846, the British, whose fur trading enterprise was in steep decline, and whose attempts to lure eastern Canadians to the territory had floundered, agreed to end the experiment in joint occupation by signing the Oregon Treaty, which extended the 49th parallel as the US-Canadian border all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Present day Oregon and Washington State were now firmly within US jurisdiction.
Ironically, however, within three years, emigrant interest in Oregon territory fell off sharply. In January 1848 gold was discovered in the American River in Northern California. By the end of the year, two-thirds of the male population of Oregon had gone to California. By the following year tens of thousands of Easterners headed off eagerly down the Oregon Trail, not for Oregon, but for California.
The Trail’s End
The early 1850’s saw use of the trail at its peak, which brought all sorts of new hazards. With so many people using the same springs and watering holes, sanitation became an issue and cholera broke out. Increased traffic also brought desperadoes; emigrants were held up at gunpoint and relieved of their valuables. By the late 1850’s the plains Indians, who had viewed the early emigrants as mere curiosities and pretty much left them alone, began to bristle at the ever-increasing tide of white settlers crossing their lands.
In 1855 a railroad was built across the Isthmus of Panama, providing a speedy new way to move cargo to the west. By 1859 gold fever was on the wane, and then the Civil War broke. Use of the trail began to decline. Then in 1869 the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was completed and use of the trail fell off sharply.
Through the 1870’s and 80’s portions of the trail were still in use by settlers moving down it to other regions. Many offshoots and side trails carried easterners to new homes throughout the plains, but the trail’s original purpose as the main conduit for emigrants moving west to Oregon was no longer in play.
Today Interstate 80 follows roughly the same route as the Oregon Trail through much of Nebraska. US highway 26 and Interstate 84 in Idaho and Oregon also parallel portions of the trail.
As a symbol of America’s determination to expand westward in spite of all obstacles the Oregon Trail tells an important story. The sheer grit it took to walk 2,000 miles across forbidding territory to reach a promised land in the west is impressive. It speaks of a drive and tenacity at the heart of the American character.
As it turned out, an all water route to the Pacific was not to be. Instead, Americans had to walk across a continent and face of all sorts of hardships to get where they were going. But that didn’t stop them. Heck, it didn’t even slow them down. They just threw out their extra baggage and kept going.
Check it out…
Kearney, NE 68847
1.5 miles south of Hwy 92
on Chimney Rock Rd
Bayard, NE 69334
Rt 2 Box 502
Bayard, NE 69334
My American Odyssey Route Map
View My American Odyssey Route Map in a full screen map
All images by Malcolm Logan, except Women standing beside cover wagon, Public domain; Fort Kearny stockade, C.S. Imming; Oxen pulling covered wagons, Public domain; Oregon Trail map, Mattes; Forty-niners on the Oregon Trail, Public domain; Wagon train, Public domain