The Oregon Trail was American's main street west. Building upon American Indians footpaths, emigrants bound for the Pacific Northwest used the trail. They were soon followed by Mormons fleeing persecution, gold seekers rushing to California and the thundering hooves of the Pony Express.
The Way West
Following Indian paths, fur trapping mountain men traveled west. Astor's Pacific Fur Company opened the trail through the Rockies at South Pass in 1812. Mountain men guided the first wagon train over it in 1841. Until the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the Oregon Trail was the way west. As many as 500,000 men, women and children journeyed this way over some 2,000 miles of deserts, plains and mountains.
With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the rush was on! By 1850, nearly 75,000 "49'ers" traveled through this valley. Numerous Trail cutoffs were developed that saved time or made for easier going. Some were pioneered by California emigrants and are known today as the California Trail.
Church leader Brigham Young led the first Mormon wagon train west along the trail in 1846-47. He followed the Oregon Trail to Fort Bridger, taking the Hastings Cutoff into the Salt Lake Valley. At this time,
the Valley was part of Mexico, a situation that was changed by the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
Day of Fleeting Glory
Starting in 1860, the California Overland Mail and Pikes Peak Express galloped into history and the legend of the Pony Express was born. For 18 months, "wiry young men" on fast horses carried the mail, covering the 1600 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California in 15 days.
There was no other route across the west that provided the three essential things needed for travel good water every day; a dependable supply of grass; a passable grade to and through the Rocky Mountains which can be found only at South Pass.
The Oregon, Mormon Pioneer, California and Pony Express are National Historic Trails designated by Congress. BLM is actively involved in preserving and maintaining trail sites in Wyoming.