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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 traffic jams.

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 blizzards.

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.

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"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 was cheap.

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 one.

"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 husbands."

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 story.

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 Southern California.

Life on the Trail
Riding 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 the challenges."

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 around.

The Trails today
If you're interested in exploring the history of the westward migration, Moulton recommends these museums and historical centers:

  • Fort 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.
  • End of the Oregon Trail Museum in Oregon City, Ore, which was the traditional end of the journey.
  • Scotts 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

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