Appendix 2: A Brief History of the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was a 2,000-mile route that connected the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon as well as locations in between. The original trail was part of an ancient network of Indian footpaths and animal trails that crisscrossed the West. With the discovery of South Pass, Wyoming, crossing the Continental Divide in 1812, overland travel with ox-drawn wagons became possible. Fur trapping caused further development of the trail that was later augmented by the travels of Christian missionaries. The fur trade ended at the close of the 1830s, but by April 1840, it was demonstrated that families could make the overland trip to Oregon via the trail. The first emigrant wagon train set out from Independence, Missouri, and was composed of a party of about 80 men, women, and children who were joined by guide Thomas Fitzpatrick for the long trip west.

At first Indians helped the emigrants traveling along the Oregon Trail, but things changed as they discovered that the “free land” offered to whites was Indians’ ancestral territory. Relations deteriorated by the late 1850s. Indians killed travelers, and emigrants killed Indians. Indian resistance to the traffic along the Oregon Trail largely subsided by the 1880s as most tribes were forced onto reservations by then.

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa/Omaha, Nebraska to Oakland, California, in 1869, through traffic on the Oregon Trail rapidly declined, except in parts where it was used for local trips. Better stretches of the trail were paved over. Other traces of trail were plowed under, built over, or just faded away.

The trail saw about 500,000 persons travel along its paths between 1840 and 1869, though it is estimated that 3-10% of emigrants perished during their journeys. Perhaps surprisingly, disease was the main killer of trail travelers, notably by cholera from 1849-1855. The cost of traveling the trail varied from nothing to several hundred dollars per person and might take as long as 3-4 months on foot. By comparison, it cost as little as $65 to travel by train to the coast and took only 7 days. Once in California, though, travel to Oregon was generally accomplished by steamer along the western coast of the United States. Despite the cheaper and faster travel afforded by the transcontinental trains, some emigrants continued to use the trail well into the 1890s.