- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 20, 2004

Poor Lewis and Clark. Those intrepid American explorers spent two years (1804-1806) searching for a water route to the Pacific by following the Missouri and Columbia River systems. Their explorations were invaluable in examining the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase, but what if they had known about “the shortcut”?

In 1811, legendary fur trade magnate John Jacob Astor founded — by sea — Astoria, his trading post on the present Oregon coast. In 1812, one of Astor’s employees, Robert Stuart, led a party on an arduous eastward overland journey at the behest of the boss in New York. Stuart’s “Astorians” were the first to trace the majority of the route eventually called the Oregon Trail.

The irony is that this westering road was first traveled in reverse. Along the way the Astorians traversed South Pass, a relatively low saddle of land on the Continental Divide in present western Wyoming. It would subsequently prove to be the easiest traveled route across the Rockies. All of this is chronicled in David Dary’s expansive “The Oregon Trail: An American Saga”.

By the mid-1820s, mountain men were regularly crisscrossing South Pass, and soon mule pack-train caravans were coming west from St. Louis, following the Platte River Valley to the annual mountain man Rendezvous held in various places in the central Rockies. South Pass was the Main St. of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. In 1830, the trader William Sublette brought the first wagons along the Trail to the Rendezvous.

Oregon-bound missionaries soon attached themselves to the trader wagon trains as the safest way to travel through Indian country, and there — after stoically withstanding the hedonistic spectacle of the two week mountain man gathering — hired guides for the second leg of the trip, though without wagons as the trail was rougher. In 1840, the retiring trappers Joe Meek and Robert “Doc” Newell brought the first wagons to Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

With Kit Carson as guide, “The Pathfinder” John C. Fremont in 1842 “discovered” South Pass (no matter that mountain men had frequented the area for the previous two decades), and went on to “explore” the Great Basin along the Trail farther west. Despite his blowhard claims as an explorer, which were marginal, all this made Fremont’s (and Carson’s) reputation in the national press that Fremont used in a later failed presidential bid.

Fremont’s western wanderings always had a political component, as his main sponsor was his father-in-law, the powerful Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. For instance, Fremont and Carson at the head of a large party were in California at the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, probably by machination because they participated in the Bear Flag Revolt.

The Oregon Country was soon opened to settlement, and as the fur trade went bust in the early 1840s, many prominent mountain men (Carson, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Moses “Black” Harris, et al) found employment guiding wagon trains through country they were thoroughly familiar with. In 1843, Jim Bridger built his eponymous trading pit stop Fort Bridger along the Trail in present southwestern Wyoming with the idea of tapping the emigrant market.

The Oregon Trail (and its California branch) was approximately 2000 miles long, and passed through a variety of landscapes from shortgrass prairie to mountains and deserts. A trip took roughly six months (May to October) to complete, and for that reason emigrants “jumped off” from western Missouri no later than mid-May each year. A wagon train could have up to a thousand people traveling in 150 wagons (though most parties were much smaller), accompanied by a couple of thousand head of horses, cattle and other livestock. In this way a quarter of a million people ventured west through the 1840s, with a small percentage dying along the way.

The most prominent tragedy chronicled by Mr. Dary was that of the ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. After numerous delays during their journey from Missouri, the 89 emigrants found themselves facing a Sierra Nevada crossing in late October.

This they foolishly attempted even as snow began falling, and made it halfway over the mountains before being halted at later infamously-named Donner Lake by deep drifts.

There they built cabins as new blizzards hit. The first rescuers arrived from the Sacramento Valley four months later to find “a horrible scene”, the results of cannibalism, with “terribly mutilated legs, arms, and skulls scattered in every direction.” Forty five of the original 89 survived.

Perhaps the greatest mass migration of a religious denomination in American history took place along the Trail the following year. In 1847, Brigham Young led 148 members of the recently founded Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — or “Mormons” — to their “Zion” in the Great Salt Lake Valley of present Utah. Fifteen hundred more in 500 wagons soon followed, and the industrious “Saints” quickly “made the desert bloom” thanks to sophisticated irrigation projects.

The Mormons were an anomaly, in that they settled along a desolate section of the Trail and prospered. Another surge started after the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California. Forty thousand “Forty niners” (mostly men) in 6,000 wagons made their way to the California goldfields in 1849 alone. The notorious “California Gold Rush” was underway. One in 10 would die on the Trail.

The 1850s saw travel on the Trail become safer as the route and its various cutoffs were well marked and mapped. A string of military posts (Forts Leavenworth, Kearny, Laramie and Hall) provided greater security against Indian depredations. And in 1860, the shortlived Pony Express traced the same route, its newly built “waystations” likewise benefiting emigrants. In 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads made wagon travel superfluous, though the new rail lines closely shadowed the Trail.

Today, the old wagon ruts are still visible on South Pass, among other places along the way. David Dary’s “The Oregon Trail” brings the venerable emigrant road back to life once more.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide