(The Oregon Trail kiosk houses thirteen panels which deal with Native Americans, the Fur Trade, the Oregon Question, Oregon Fever, and trials of the Oregon Trail.) "Pathway to the "Garden of the World"
Excitement filled the air May 22, 1843 as nearly one thousand Americans left Missouri toward new lives in the Oregon Country. During the next two decades, more than 50,000 people emigrated to a land of abundance. a land that Abigail Scott, emigrant of 1852, called the "Garden of the World."
The Oregon Trail was more than two thousand miles through what Riley Root, emigrant of 1848, called "Landscape without soil! River bottoms with scarcely enough grass to support emigrant teams." The fragile landscape's ability to sustain life eroded as numbers of emigrants increased and privation, illness and death often plagued emigrants. Survivors endured an extremely wearisome road, and by the time they reached this portion of the Trail, with much of the journey behind them, the "Garden of the World" still seemed very distant.
Indians and Emigrants
10,000 years ago an ancient people lived in caves along the banks of the Columbia River and near great lakes that occupied the southern part of Interior Oregon. By the time
emigrants arrived, native villages occupied the mouths of nearly every coastal stream and at numerous locations in the valleys of the western ranges wherever fish, game, and water supported life. The Indians of the Northwest perfected hunting and gathering to a fine art, and the land provided for all their needs. Oregon Trail emigrants, however, were strangers in a strange land, unable to recognize the bounty around them. Harriet Loughary, emigrant of 1964, when offered salmon by Indians exclaimed, "we, having never seen a salmon, refused it because of its color..." Nevertheless, a brisk trade soon developed between emigrants and Indians.
Our camp was about three miles from the Indian Village, and from the Indians we purchased Indian corn, peas and Irish potatoes, in any desired quantity. I have never tasted a greater luxury than the potatoes we ate on this occasion. We had been so long without fresh vegetables, that we were almost famished and consequently we feasted this day excessively. We gave the Indians, in exchange, some articles of clothing, which they were almost anxious to purchase. When two parties are both as anxious to barter as were the Indians and ourselves, it is very easy to strike a bargain. — Peter Hardeman Burnett, October 6, 1843
Diseased Devastate Tribes
Historians estimate that
over 250,000 emigrants used the Oregon Trail, its various cutoffs and alternatives to move from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean between 1830 and 1870. Along with wagons, and livestock, the overland migration also brought contagious diseased. A series of epidemics swept through the Willamette Valley and Columbia estuary in the years 1830-32 and destroyed an estimated 75% of the native population.These fevers and accompanying dysentery, referred to by emigrants as " intermittent fever" or the "bloody flux" continued well into the 1840s. When emigrants began arriving in greater numbers during the 1850s, the native population of the prime settlement areas was so reduced that survivors offered little opposition to the appropriation of their lands.
... we passed a pile of human bones that had been thrown out of a shanty that, I suppose, had been built for a vault. Perhaps they wee the remains of indians who had died of the contagious fever of 1839. the bones were scattered all around, — skulls, backbones, thigh-bone and pelvis in high profusion. Alas, the poor Indian! Not even his bones are allowed the rest of the grave, but are knocked about with the utmost contempt, and of the once powerful tribe of the Cascades but few now remain, the remnant of a mighty race... — Origen Thomson, September 22-27, 1852
When the first large emigration of Americans crossed the Oregon Trail in 1843 the native tribes of the Pacific North West were not overly alarmed - the region was enormous and could easily absorb the nearly 1,00 new arrivals. Each passing year brought more emigrants, however, and soon with much of the good land in the Willamette Valley taken in 320 acre land claims, settlement began to flow into other parts of the region. The stage was set for tragedy, especially when the federal government insisted that it could by land from a "head chief." Although the Pacific Northwest tribes were territorial, the concept of land ownership was alien - lifestyle, religion, and identity were intertwined, and all were bound to the land.
I wonder if this ground has anything to say ... The earth and water and grass say God has given our names or the whites have a right to change those names ... the earth says it was from her man was made. God placing then on the earth desired them to take good care of the earth and do each other no harm. — Tauitau, Covuse Chief, 1855
The Literary Oregon Trail
Approximately 500,000 emigrants trekked westward along the Oregon-California Trails during the covered wagon era: 1841-1866. Deep wagon ruts and scars are still visible at many sites along the overland route.
They provide silent, but stark evidence of the arduous journey. Considerably less mute and far more poignant, however, are the more than 2,000 emigrant journals that comprise the literary Oregon Trail. These diaries reflect both the personalities and varied backgrounds of their authors - determined, strong-willed individuals who gave up everything to start anew in the wilderness. Although some diarists were more eloquent than others, all recorded powerful accounts of the Oregon Trail.
From Sulphur spring, the road ascends rapidly to its highest point, a mile or two farther on, where the country can be viewed for a considerable distance all around. Reflecting upon such a wonderful scenery as is here on every side displayed, the mind can hardly appreciate the amount of dynamics adequate to displace and disrupt the surface of the earth so immensely. It appears like a great harrow, fit only for Hercules to use in leveling of the surface of some planet. — Riley Root, August 9, 1848
... have come about 12 miles to day and arriv'd at the second crossing of the snake river it is two weeks to day since we crossed it first and a sorrowful time it has been to us. we have lost 8 head of our work cattle,, and one yearling it is about 140 miles and we have seen more graves and dead cattle along the road, than all the balance of the way and we cannot get along
as we are much further, we are working the last old cow to make out & get along at all, but we trust to providence, and hope for his promise. — Sarah Suttan, August 3, 1854.
Oregon Trail emigrants were by and large substantial citizens. Roughly $800 to $1,200 was required to obtain a proper outfit and to provide food and clothing for an entire year before crops could be planted and harvested in Oregon - this was an appreciable sum at the time when Pennsylvania coal miners were earning 44¢ per day. Less affluent overlanders were able to make the trip, but only by hiring on as teamsters, cattle drivers, hunters, or guides.
The United States was as ethnically diverse during the emigration era as it is today, and cultures from around the world were well represented on the Oregon Trail. E.S. McComas, emigrant of 1864, found "Americans, English Irish Dutch French Spaniards Mexicans Kanackers Negroes Indians Chinamen and ladies of Easy Virtue." Native Americans occupied the land for generations prior to emigration, and they often intermarried with British and French-Canadian fur traders.
Ontario: Eastern Gateway to Oregon's Oregon Trail
Interstate 84 closely parallels the route of the Oregon Trail across the State of Oregon and allows today's motorist to
cross in a few hours the same terrain that required weeks of back-breaking labor on the part of 19th Century emigrants. Although Ontario is not directly on the route of the trail, its central position near several important trail sites, and its location along Interstate 82 make this community the eastern gateway to Oregon's Oregon Trail.
Oregon Trail emigrants entered today's State of Oregon by crossing the Snake River south of Nyssa. The story of Fort Boise and the Snake River Crossing is interpreted on an Oregon Trail kiosk that is easily found a short drive south on Highway 201. Emigrants headed northwest from the Snake River over Keeney Pass to the Malheur River at Vale, and the driving tour closely follows the emigrant route through this portion of the trail. The Bureau of Land Management interprets the trek through Keeney Pass at a wayside located near the summit, which also provides easy access to well preserved wagon ruts. The City of Vale provides a vivid display of Oregon Trail history at a kiosk located near the junction of Highways 20 and 26. From Vale the emigrants continued northwest through Alkali Springs and Birch Creek to the Snake River at Farewell Bend. Interpretive displays at the Alkali Springs and Birch Creek campsites are provided by the Bureau of Land Management. Farewell Bend is today a state park where another interpretive kiosk provides an excellent
account of the arduous journey through this region.
Oregon's First Trailblazers
Joel P. Walker's family joined a fur trade caravan in 1840 and became the first non-missionary emigrants with Oregon as their avowed destination. Others followed, and the "Great Migration" of 1843 was the first to bring wagons from the Missouri River to the Columbia River. With the discovery of gold in California during the winter of 1848 "gold fever" supplanted "Oregon fever" as the primary motivation for westward emigration. In twenty years between the Walker emigration and Abraham Lincoln's election to the Presidency, nearly a quarter of a million overlanders had worn trails westward so deeply that the ruts are still visible. Over 50,000 of these trailblazers were Oregon-bound.
Nearly 2,000 miles of prairies, mountains, parched deserts, and swollen rivers separated Missouri and Oregon. Hardship was the common fare and not every emigrant survived. Although accidents were common, disease was a major cause of death, especially during peak emigration years when poor sanitation and contaminated water led to epidemics of cholera, and dysentery. Shocked by the sudden demise of Samuel Hammond, Ester Hanna, emigrant of 1852, lamented "Only yesterday he was at our camp, full of life and vigor, with
as bright of the future as any of us! He was taken ill at dark and now lies in the cold embrace of death!"
Have done little today except lounge around having felt more unwell and more discouraged that at any previous time our tents stands in what we should style a barn yard at home and I am sure if I were there I should as Soon think of setting the table there as in such a place the stench is sometimes unendurable, it arrises from a ravine that is reported to for special purposes by all the Emigration, but such things we must put up with. — Charlotte Steurns Pengra, August 14, 1853
Westward emigration on the Oregon Trail was an annual event and every year the trail experience was unique. Early emigrations were small with overlanders blazing trails, establishing routes across mountain ranges, and living off the land. Later emigrants found a well worn path to Oregon, but as their numbers increased, emigrants like Franklin Longworthy in 1852 would report that "The road from morning till night, is crowded like Pearl Street or Broadway."
Emigration peaked in 1852 with 10,000 overlanders heading for Oregon, and 50,000 going to California. Wagons were reported traveling twelve abreast from St. Joseph, Missouri, and on the trail many emigrants along with Abigail Scott "found but little grass
... the first emigrants having taken it all." Without grass it was difficult to keep weary oxen healthy, and many in the 1850s were forced to lighten their loads.
... we came across many mute evidences of the jaded condition of the cattle in the trains preceding us. Feather beds, cook-stoves, chairs, tables, bedsteads, dishes, abandoned wagons and many other kinds of household furniture and utensils , all in good condition, strewed the ground for some distance. It was truly pathetic to see such awful waste ... left to decay and rust among the lava rocks, the careless playing of the elements, the coyotes and rabbits... — Esther M. Lockhart, emigrant of 1851 (Recollection)
The Oregon Question
In 1818 Great Britain and the United States agreed by convention that their citizens could engage in commerce in the Oregon county without prejudice to either nation's claims. Spain surrendered its claim to the Oregon county in 1819, but Great Britain and the United States continued to argue the relative strength of their claims for many years. During the 1840s the "Oregon Question" was an issue of great national concern - the presidential election of 1844 was characterized by James K. Polk's belligerent campaign slogan "Fifty-four forty or fight." Polk was prepared to fight unless the British rescinded claims to
all lands south of latitude 54 degrees, 40 minutes. In 1845 three years after the first large emigration on the Oregon Trail, a treaty established the 49th parallel as the northern boundary of the United States.
Fur Trade and the Oregon Country
In 1778 Capt. James Cook sailed the Oregon coast. Casual barter between his crew and northern Indians for sea otter skills ignited an era - the fur trade. Trade for fur soon flourished between the Pacific Northwest, New England and China. Fur trade in the 18th and early 19th centuries was a profitable business, especially when Indians were willing to barter valuable pelts for blankets.
The quest for furs soon brought British traders south to the Oregon country. Americans were quick to respond and in 1803 President Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis & Clark expedition in part to blaze the way for American fur traders. John Jacob Astor, a wealthy New York businessman, was one of the first. Astor financed an overland expedition and a voyage to the mouth of the Columbia River where a trading post called "Astoria" was built in 1811. Several Austrians trekked eastward in 1812 following a route that would become the Oregon Trail. Although Jefferson congratulated Astor on the apparent success of his venture, his expeditions for the future of Oregon were much greater than that offered by the
I considered as a great public acquisition the commencement of a settlement on that point of the western coast of North America, and looked forward with gratification to the time when its descendants would have spread themselves through the whole length of that coast, covering it with free and independent Americans, unconnected with us except by the ties of blood and interest, and enjoying like us the rights of self-government. — Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States.
Westward emigration was motivated by more than politics and clever slogans: some people sought relief from a depressed economy; some were evading the law; others were simply nomads in search of new horizons. Many emigrants were lured west to what Charles A. Brandt, emigrant of 1851, called "the promised land" by the prospect of up to 320 acres of free farmland. "Oregon fever" was a common complaint with as many causes as there were hundreds of would-be Oregonians.
The Oregon fever is raging in almost every part of the Union. Companies are forming in the east, and in several parts of Ohio, which added to those of Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, will make a pretty formidable army, the largest portion will probably join companies at Fort Independence, Missouri and proceed together across the
mountains. It would be reasonable to suppose that there will be at least five thousand Americans west of the Rocky Mountains next autumn. — The Niles National Register, Ohio, May 6, 1843