How about a six-month-long move?
If you think loading up a truck to move thousands
of miles across the country is tough now, think back. Travelers
determined to go west in the 1840s had to choose between two equally
unhappy options: a six-month trek from Missouri to California or
Oregon through the rough country of the far West, or a nearly yearlong
voyage by ship around the tip of South America, skirting Antarctica.
Those choosing the land route often ran into 18th-century style
But such was "gold rush fever" and the yearning
for a fresh start that hundreds of thousands braved the odds in
hopes of making a new life out West. Between 1843 and 1868, more
than a half-million people took the Oregon or California Trails.
While many traveled by wagon, others walked the whole way. During
the 2,000-mile journey, one in 10 travelers died. It wasn't Indian
attacks that did them in -- it was disease, bad sanitation and mountain-pass
Those anxious to avoid the hazards of the Oregon
Trail embarked in New York for the arduous voyage south. Many braved
the yearlong trip around the tip of Chile; others attempted shortcuts
through Panama. Tropical diseases as they crossed Panama felled
many travelers, who frequently waited months for a berth on a California-bound
ship. Unfortunately, many of these ships were poorly constructed
and sank en route.
"Whichever way they took, the emigrants were
energetic, ambitious people," says Michael Golay, author of
"The Tide of Empire: America's March to the Pacific."
"I admire these people for their ability to take
risks. The ship voyage was probably marginally safer than the overland
trail and more people had done it by the 1850s. On the trails, there
was a lot of disease, the diet wasn't varied and there was the constant
grind of travel."
Which way to travel?
While "gold rush fever" was a major motivator for pioneers
moving west, economic depressions in 1837 and 1841 forced many farmers
and businessmen to seek a new life in the fertile West where land
People already settled in the Midwest favored the
overland route to either Oregon or California, while people in the
East tended to take a ship rather than travel all the way to Missouri
for the jump off to the trail. Regardless of which way a traveler
and his family chose, making the decision to leave was a monumental
"When they said goodbye to relatives in
the East or Midwest, it was forever," says Mike Trinklein,
who runs the Oregon-Trail
Web site and co-produced a PBS documentary on the trail. "No
phone calls, no e-mails, no visits at Christmas time. And often,
the women didn't want to go at all. Many were forced to go by their
Heading out on the trail
The jumping-off points for travel on the trails
included Independence, Westport and St. Joseph, Mo., as well as
Omaha, Neb. and Council Bluffs, Iowa. Many travelers arrived there
off steamships that traveled the Missouri River from St. Louis.
These start points turned into noisy boom towns, thronged
with travelers loading up on supplies, forming wagon trains and
waiting for the grass on the western plains to grow tall enough
to support grazing. If they left too early, the emigrants might
lose their animals because of lack of fodder, but if they left too
late in the season, they risked being caught by snowstorms in the
high mountains of the West.
By late April or early May, the grass was long enough
and the emigrants left in throngs. There was still enough time at
this point to get across the mountains, but any prolonged delays
-- whether due to sickness, weather or mechanical difficulties --
could be fatal.
Contrary to popular belief, Conestoga wagons were
not the vehicle of choice for the savvy emigrant. They were too
large and unwieldy. Instead, they used a farm wagon made of hickory
or maple. Four to eight oxen pulled each wagon, although mules,
cattle and even horses could do the job in a pinch. A list
of the typical supplies carried in each wagon accompanies this
The Overland Route
Routes to Oregon and California were established early. The trails
were so well-traveled that many wagon ruts are still visible today.
Several guidebooks were published by the late 1840s so that emigrants
had solid information about the supplies to take, the potential
hazards and the routes to follow to California, Oregon and Utah.
The trail west follows the Platte River through Nebraska
into Wyoming and then went over the Rocky Mountains. In southern
Idaho, the route split into two trails, one going northwest into
Oregon, the other southwest into northern California. The Santa
Fe Trail turns south into Kansas from the embarkation point in Missouri,
into Colorado, through Santa Fe, N.M, then Utah, Nevada and into
Life on the Trail
in a wagon for four to six months was no fun. Candy Moulton,
co-author of "Wagon Wheels, a Contemporary Journey on the Oregon
Trail," says, "Physically, wagon trail travel is very
difficult. It is exhausting because of the long days, the work of
harnessing and hitching and even driving teams, the putting up and
tearing down of camp every day -- or almost every day -- sunburns,
wind, mosquitoes, bathing in a creek once in a while, all add to
Golay agrees, noting "for
the emigrants, it was hard to have a real sense of making progress.
The horizons were boundless and you knew even if it went to plan,
it would take five or six months. It was hard to get along with
fellow travelers for that long."
Although most travelers took
a lot of supplies, it was still impossible to load enough to feed
themselves for the entire journey. And many travelers overloaded
their wagons, forcing them to abandon supplies en route in favor
of a faster pace.
"All along the trail, emigrants reported
seeing iron stoves, bacon, even heirloom furniture scattered about
quite regularly," says Trinklein. "I'm actually going
to be moving in a few weeks, and I'm having a hard time paring down
to one semi-truck load. These people were lucky if they had a single
memento by the time they reached their destination."
Trials and tribulations
Once they hit the Platte River in Nebraska, they
encountered huge buffalo herds, which would feed them for the next
stage of their journey. They also had to endure the unpredictable
weather of the high plains in the summer.
"At times it is extremely uncomfortable, particularly
if it is very hot. We've been out day after day with temperatures
at 90 degrees or above," says Moulton, who participates in
modern wagon train re-enactments. "It can be very wet. Try
day after day of rain when every piece of clothing you have is wet
and your bedroll too, or very windy, as it seems to always blow
in Wyoming. Tornados and major wind storms definitely add spice
to a wagon train trip."
Thousands of travelers were felled by cholera,
which killed most of its victims in less than 24 hours. Children
and adults were run over by wagons, while others drowned when overloaded
ferries capsized. Indian attacks were rare, especially in the early
days. In fact, emigrants killed more Indians than the other way
The Trails today
If you're interested in exploring the history of the westward migration,
Moulton recommends these museums and historical centers:
Laramie National Historical Site in Fort Laramie, Wyo., is "an
absolutely critical place to visit because everyone went there
on their way west," according to Moulton. The site is restored
to its 1850-era condition.
of the Oregon Trail Museum in Oregon City, Ore, which was
the traditional end of the journey.
Bluff National Monument in Gering, Neb. is a prominent natural
landmark for travelers. The monument museum contains a collection
of watercolor paintings by frontier artist William Henry Jackson.
-- Posted: July 7, 2004