(Twelve panels dealing with Oregon Trail related topics are found at this kiosk) 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 became constant companions. Emigrants endured an extremely wearisome road, and by the time they reached this portion of the trail, with the journey's end in sight, many would soon switch their teams from the wagon to the plow.
We lay last night about 3 miles above the mouth of Big Sandy Creek on the opposite of the river, which was out (sic) stopping place. We landed this morning at our destine place and to our great joy found the rest of our company with the mules all safely over the Cascade Mountains. We remained here several days to rest and dry
out and counsel where to lay our claims and after retuning our acknowledgements to the Beneficent Being who alone can preserve through the many dangers and difficulties through which we have passed, and having all got through this terrible wilderness alive. I bring my journal to a close in the Valley of Willamette. — Henry Allyn, September 6, 1853
Diseases Devastate Tribes
Historians estimate that over 250,000 emigrants used the Oregon Trail, its various cutoffs and alternates 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 diseases. 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 were the remains of Indians who
had died of the contagious fever of 1839. The bones were scattered all around, — skulls, backbones, thigh-bones 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 remain, the remnant of a mighty race ... — Origen Thomson; Sept. 22-27, 1852
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 surrounding them. Harriet Loughary, emigrant of 1864, 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 corn, peas and Irish potatoes, in any desired quantity. I have never tasted a greater luxury than the potatoes we ate on that 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 most 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
Land Not For Sale
When the first large emigration of Americans crossed the Oregon Trail in 1843 the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest were not overly alarmed — the region was enormous and could easily absorb the nearly 1,000 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 buy 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 and we are told those names; Neither the Indians or the whites have a right to change those names... the earth says it was from her man was made. God placing them on the earth desired them to take good care of the earth and do each other no harm. — Tauitou, Cayuse 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.
At midday we stopped for dinner. Mr. Linnet was content with some small pieces of biscuit but as for myself I wanted to see if I could not find some edible herbs. What a happy discovery! I recognized a species of cress that Italians call
crispinio and eat with great enjoyment. I brought back an armful of this here but when Mr. Lionnet saw it he cried out to me, "Do you want to poison yourself? That is hemlock!" "Alright," I said to him, "Let me do so, I am going to enjoy poisoning myself." I melted a little bacon fat, after which I sautéed the cress in the hot pan having first parboiled it. I dined with excellent appetite. In the evening I again had some of it. Mr. Linnet was expecting al the time to see me die or at the very least have an attack of colic. The next day, however, he also wanted to poison himself! — Honore-Timothee Lempfrit, October 1, 1848
We was detained by hed winds &c.
We went a fue miles & was detained by hed winds.
We had a fare day & mad a good days travel & in camped at the crawsing.
We was detained by hed winds till late in the evening; then we went some 10 miles.
We were detained by headwinds.
We was detained by head wind untill late in the evening; then we embarked & went in hearing of the Cascade Fawls.
William T. Newby, October 26 - November 1, 1843
The Many Oregon Trails
The Oregon Trail was never a single set of parallel wagon ruts leading from Missouri to the Willamette Valley, nor did it ever consist of a single route. This fact was never more evident than here at Memaloose.
Early overlanders passed this site on the Columbia River in Indian canoes, rafts, or Hudson's Bay Company bateaux. In the early 1840s an alternate route was established across the Columbia Plateau to The Dalles, where some emigrants continued via the river, while others drove livestock down its rugged banks. By 1846 Samuel K. Barlow's road across the south flank of Mt. Hood offered emigrants another alternate route to the Willamette Valley. The appearance of steamboats below the Cascades in 1851 presented yet another version of the Oregon Trail.
Oregon Trail emigrants were by and large substantial citizens. Roughly $800 to $1200 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 a 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.
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 the 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.
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)
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 fever, cholera, and dysentery. Shocked by the sudden demise of Samuel Hammond, Esther Hanna, emigrant of 1852, lamented "Only yesterday he was at our camp, full of life and vigor, with as bright hope of the future as any of us! He was taken ill at dark and now he lies in the cold embrace of death!"
Have done little today except lounge round have felt more unwell and more discouraged than at any previous time our tent 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 arises from a ravine that is resported to for special purposes by all the Emigration, but such things we must put up with. — Charlotte Stearns Pengra; August 14, 1853
The Oregon Question
In 1818 Great Britain and the United States agreed by convention that their citizens could engage in commerce in the Oregon country without prejudice to either nation's claims. Spain surrendered its claims to the Oregon country in 1819, but Great Britain and the United States continued to argue the relative strength of their claims for many years. During the 1840's 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 54 degrees 40 minutes. In 1846, 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 along the Oregon coast. Casual barter between his crew and northern Indians for sea otter skins ignited an era — the fur trade. Trade in furs 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 Astorians 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 expectations for the future of Oregon were much greater than that offered by the fur trade.
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 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 prospects 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. —
Niles National Register; Ohio, May 6, 1843.