What is the Oregon Trail?

A settler's wagon on the Oregon Trail.
A settler's wagon on the Oregon Trail.

Oregon Trail is an old 2,170-mile trading route that stretched from the eastern United States to the west coast. The Oregon Trail crossed through several present-day states including Kansas, Wyoming, Oregon, Idaho, and Nebraska. The route began from the town of Independence, Missouri and ended in Oregon City, Oregon. The Oregon Trail also served as an important emigration route.

Origin Of The Oregon Trail

Prior to the establishment of the Oregon Trail, the only way that traders in the eastern United States could reach the west was through sailing their ships around the entire American coastline (North American and South American coasts), a route that was time-consuming, taking almost a year to accomplish. Then in 1803, President Jefferson instructed explorer Meriwether Lewis to move west and map the area and identify any areas of economic significance. Lewis together with his colleague William Clark started the journey which is now known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition and their expedition signified the beginning of the Oregon Trail. The earliest sections of the Oregon Trail were used initially by fur traders, missionaries and trappers with the only available mode of transport being by foot or on horseback. Other expeditions would later follow to extend the trail westwards such as an expedition led by the Pacific Fur Company which was looking for new locations to capture beavers whose fur was in great demand. Missionaries also were key in the early stages of the Oregon Trail with the Dalles Methodist Mission’s leaders trekking westwards to spread the gospel while establishing new parishes and churches en route.

Emigration Along The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was an important emigration route as settlers moved west to seek new opportunities. The earliest migrants who used the Oregon Trail were a group of men from Illinois who set out to colonize Oregon on behalf of America on May 1st, 1839. The men, led by Thomas Farnham had labeled themselves as the “Oregon Dragoons” and went with the motto, “Oregon or The Grave.” Another group of emigrants were known as the Bartleson-Bidwell Party who in 1841 started out on the first known journey to Oregon using the Oregon Trail. After these early successful travels, huge groups of people began using the Oregon Trail to seek better opportunities in Oregon. This included the Great Migration of 1843, led by John Gantt, where about 1,000 people left Illinois for Oregon using hundreds of wagons. Another key event was the Mormon emigration of 1847 after the 1844 murder of their “prophet”, Joseph Smith in Missouri, Illinois. Tens of thousands of Mormons traveled westwards establishing various facilities along the way including the Mormon ferry which operated in the North Platte and the Green Ferry. In the late 1840s word spread that gold had been discovered in California, news which saw thousands of men and women travel from Oregon to California to exploit the precious metal while increasing the traffic along the Oregon Trail.

Legacy Of The Trail

It is estimated that more than 400,000 people used the Oregon Trail. The Louisiana Territory Purchased by the United States Government was one of the important events that are linked to the Oregon Trail. The Oregon Trail’s legacy is still felt in the state of Oregon with several literary pieces being written about it. Presently, much of the modern highway like the interstate 84 and interstate 80 follow the course and pass through towns that was established to serve the Oregon trail.


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