The Oregon Trail has been immortalized in pop culture through western films and the incredibly popular computer game that you probably played in elementary school in the 90s. But who were the 400,000 American settlers who started the journey from Independence, Missouri, from the west? Was it safer for them to seal the car or call the river? And how many died of dysentery? Let’s find out.
1. The Oregon Trail started in the 1840s.
Though some American settlers traveled to Oregon and California in the 1830s, the wagons drove west in large numbers in 1843 when the provisional government of Oregon began bringing 640 hectares of land to every white family that settled on the territory promise. Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman led a platoon of 1
The path was only expanded in the coming years. In 1846, the United States officially acquired Oregon through negotiations with Britain, and was ceded to California in the following years after defeating Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Use of the overland route, which began in Independence, Missouri and ended in Oregon City, Oregon, peaked in the early 1850s, led by seekers of fortune, to reach California, where gold was discovered in 1848.
2. Cholera and dysentery were common causes of death on the Oregon Trail.
“You died of dysentery” was a phrase that you often hear in the Oregon Trail Computer game, and indeed the Oregon Trail emigrants struggled with this and other gastrointestinal disorders, some of which were very fatal. Cholera – one of the symptoms of which is severe dehydration that could die within a day – was caused by waterborne bacteria that spread to the rivers, ponds, and streams that Oregon Trail travelers used as a water supply and public toilet. The most common treatment was opium, which relieved the pain from cramps but did not cure the disease [PDF].
Historian John Unruh estimates that about 4 percent of the settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail died on the way and that nine out of ten of these deaths were caused by disease. With little time and little resources, wagon parties usually wrapped their dead in blankets and left them in unmarked graves on the edge of the path.
At the same time, cholera spread to the natives of the Great Plains, where it proved to be an even more effective killer in combination with malnutrition and smallpox and measles outbreaks, which were also brought to the region by white settlers.
3. Travelers on the Oregon Trail did not use Conestoga wagons.
Conestoga wagons were used for the transportation of goods in the east – but they were far too heavy to be pulled along the long way. Instead, pioneers used smaller, lighter prairie pads, so-called because the white bonnet of the car resembled schooner sailing from a distance.
4. Oregon Trail guides were so unhelpful that they became a joke.
Most Oregon Trail emigrants learned from printed guides what routes to take, what supplies to bring, and how to survive on the trail. Unfortunately, many of these guidebooks were quite unreliable and gave rosy descriptions of the way – which was actually incredibly challenging.
Take, for example, what Lansford Hastings wrote in his guide: The guide for emigrants to Oregon and California 1845. He recommended an abbreviation: “The most direct route for the California emigrants would be to leave the Oregon route to Salt Lake about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall, from there to the southwest,” he wrote. “And from there to the Bay of St. Francisco.” On this route, he said: “Cars can just as easily be taken from Fort Hall to the Bay of St. [sic] Francisco as they can from the States to Fort Hall; and in fact the last part of the route is much more suitable for a wagon path than the former. “
But when a group called Donner Party tried to take Hastings’ suggested route – which, by the way, he had never traveled himself – they found a steep, rugged and largely unmarked path. Almost half of the party died, and some resorted to cannibalism to survive. “They were 10 days without eating anything except the dead,” wrote Survivor of the Donner Party, Virginia Reed, about her experience and warned her cousin, “Never take cutofs and jury with you as soon as possible.”
The guidebooks were so terrible that Boston publisher John B. Hall published a satirical guide named around 1851 A report about an overland trip to California [PDF], which contained an older article warning that the trail would be full of rattlesnakes and that travelers would be hungry, wet, and sick. The article even contains the trail’s first recorded Ruhr joke: “Since wild meat is of a running breed and you are tame of a breed, you don’t have to be surprised to find yourself To run the day after eating. “
5. Many of the Oregon Trail’s overland migrants were Latter-day Saints on their way to Utah.
While the Oregon Trail led people to Oregon, parts of the trail were also used by people who traveled to other places in the west. Some of the settlers who made the overland journey west were European Latter-day Saints (commonly known as Mormons) who wanted to settle with the American Church members in Salt Lake Valley in modern Utah. But because of a series of poor harvests and poor financial investments, the Church was dependent on cash. Instead of using covered wagons pulled by oxen, church leader Brigham Young ordered Mormon settlers to transport their belongings themselves using rickshaw-style handcarts. Pulling the handcarts across the Rocky Mountains was an arduous task; A Mormon emigrant called them “two-wheeled torture devices”. Some handcart companies had high mortality rates. In the winter of 1856, the handcart companies Willie and Martin lost at least 250 of their 1,000 members when they were caught in a blizzard in what is now Wyoming.
6. Oregon Trail travelers could challenge the river, seal their wagons, or just cross a bridge.
Similar to the Oregon Trail computer game, river crossings could be dangerous for groups of covered wagons – but luckily they had options. Settlers crossed a number of rivers along the way, although many were flat enough to demand, which meant that settlers could wade across on foot. At the most famous intersection on the North Platte River near Casper, Wyoming, emigrants often loaded their belongings onto raw wooden rafts or sealed their wagons with sealant before crossing them. In 1847, an enterprising group of Mormons built a stable raft and began to hire other groups of wagons to cross it. In 1860, a Frenchman named Louis Guinard built a wooden bridge over the river, thereby ending the era of dangerous crossings across the north plate.
7. Women took additional loads on the Oregon Trail.
Getting a family of settlers across the plains required a lot of work, especially for women settlers. Women have been widely expected to do their traditional jobs, including washing and mending clothes and preparing meals. But the requirements of the way meant that women sometimes also worked “men”: misting and driving animals, repairing cars and even taking weapons for self-defense. Many women have left detailed records of their experiences in magazines – such as that of Lucia Eugenia Lamb Everett, who crossed the California path in 1862 – which has provided historians with a rich source of material for understanding everyday life on the overland trails.
8. Inventors were looking for ways to speed up the Oregon Trail journey.
The arduous trip on the Oregon Trail typically took four to six months. In 1853, the inventor Rufus Porter introduced a new means of transport with which settlers could travel from New York to California in three days. His “Aero Locomotive” was a Zeppelin-style airship filled with hydrogen gas that could travel 100 miles an hour and carry 100 passengers. Unfortunately, Porter was unable to attract investors to his airship, which he had never completed.
Porter was not the only innovator to take the Oregon Trail. In 1860, a man named Samuel Peppard attached a canvas to a cart and sailed across the airy plains of Nebraska, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles an hour. Unfortunately, Peppard’s wind truck died when he encountered a small tornado outside of Denver.
9. Indians developed their own computer game Oregon Trail.
The Oregon Trail was part of the larger process by which white settlers conquered and driven away the Native Americans. While Indians are largely absent from the legendary Oregon Trail computer game, a team of Native American game designers led by Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée founded When rivers were traces, an Oregon Trail-style adventure game narrated from a Native American perspective. The game follows the journey of an Anishinaabeg traveling from Minnesota to California in response to colonization in the 1890s. It has been described as a “monumental achievement for indigenous games”.
10. You can still drive or drive the Oregon Trail.
While travel on the Oregon Trail was largely discontinued after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the 2170-mile Oregon National Historic Trail, which runs through the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, still shows wagon tracks and replica wagons , Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Every year, thousands of tourists make their way to famous landmarks like Chimney Rock and Fort Laramie, as well as museums like the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center and the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Oregon Trail re-enactors in covered wagons still ride parts of the trail that are marked and serviced by the Oregon-California Trails Association. In 2011, the author Rinker Buck drove all the way in a covered wagon, as described in the book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.
Additional sources: “Satire and the Overland Guide: John B. Hall’s imaginative advice to Gold Rush emigrants,” Thomas F. Andrews, California Historical Society Quarterly 48; “‘A Long Funeral March’: A Revisionist’s View of the Mormon Handcart Disaster,” Will Bagley, Mormon magazine H.history 35 no. 1; “‘Sometimes when I hear the wind sigh’: mortality on the Overland Trail”, Robert W. Carter, California history 74 no. 2; Women and men on the Overland Trail John Mack Faragher; “Entering the Elephant Tail: Medical Problems on Overland Routes”, Peter D. Olch, Bulletin of the history of medicine 59, no. 2; “Cholera among the Plains Indians: perceptions, causes, consequences”, James N. Leiker and Ramon Powers, The Western Historical Quarterly 29, no. 3rd