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article number 298
article date 12-17-2013
copyright 2013 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
You Will Never Forget Your Trip on the Oregon Trail, 1843
by Dan Clark

From the 1937 book, The West in American History.

DURING the decade of the eighteen forties several trails to the Pacific coast and to the inter-mountain region were worn deep by the passage of thousands of migrating Americans. First came the movements to the Oregon country which played a determining part in achieving American possession of that territory, and made the Oregon Trail one of the great highways to the Far West.

The year in which the Oregon Treaty was signed witnessed the beginning of the organized trek of the Mormons to their new home in Utah.

Then two years later, came news from California that aroused the entire country to a high pitch of excitement and lured an unnumbered host of eager men across plains and mountains and deserts, and by ship to the Pacific coast in search of gold.

The story of these early migrations to the Far West constitutes a chapter in the history of the westward movement that is markedly unlike those which precede it. Hitherto the great majority of those who moved westward traveled to a region fifty, one hundred or, at most, a few hundred miles west of the place where they previously lived.

Much of their journey, especially after 1820, was through a country partially settled. They could secure supplies and assistance along the route, and they were seldom in danger from Indians or other causes.

Far different were the conditions faced by those who, in the early years, made the long overland trip to Oregon and California. From the settlements along the Missouri to the Pacific stretched more than two thousand miles of wilderness unpeopled by white men, except at widely separated trading posts and later in the Mormon colony in Utah.

Great trails of the Far West.

Such a journey, occupying at best a period of three or four months, required courage, careful preparation, organization, obedience to leaders, and dogged determination. One who would appreciate fully the fortitude and despair, the dangers and hardships, the pleasures and high ambitions of those who traveled the transcontinental trails must peruse their diaries, journals, letters and memoirs, many of which have fortunately been preserved and published.

The generalizations which follow can only serve to illustrate the early migrations to Oregon, the hegira of the Mormons, and the mad rush of gold-seekers to California.


In the preceding chapter mention was made of the journeys of Jason Lee and Marcus Whitman in 1834 and 1836 to establish missions in the Willamette Valley and in the Walla Valla country, and of the migration of one hundred settlers to Oregon in 1842 under the leadership of Elijah White. Space forbids any description of the adventures of these early pioneers on the long pilgrimage or of their activities and services in the Oregon country.

It was the migration of 1843, when one thousand people crossed the plains, that made a well-marked trail to Oregon—the “Great Medicine Road of the Whites,” as the Indians called it. The caravans of this year and those immediately following may well be selected to illustrate and typify the early movements to the Oregon country.

The early months of the year 1843 were marked by a widespread interest throughout the Middle West in the Oregon country, and especially in the Willamette Valley.

Government reports, bills in Congress to organize Oregon Territory, and letters from missionaries, early settlers, and other enthusiasts—all served to spread information regarding the advantages of the lower Columbia Valley as a region for American settlement.

The beauty and fertility of the Willamette Valley, its varied resources, and its easy access, by river and ocean, to the markets of the world were described in a manner that was very enticing. Harassed by hard times, many mid-western farmers were strongly attracted by these alluring reports. In the border States, there were many families who were becoming increasingly displeased by the continual spread of slavery.

Love of adventure—the prospect of seeing a strange country of vast plains, immense herds of buffalo, wild Indian tribes, and towering mountain ranges—must have inspired descendants of generations of frontiersmen.

Finally, there is evidence that a few, at least, were animated by a patriotic desire to help settle the Oregon country, and thus establish forever the claims of the United States to that rich and resourceful region.

A dream which will come true; Oregon City on the Willamette River in the 1850’s.

Whatever may have been their motives, people in Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, and other States of the Middle Vest were discussing in small groups or in public meetings the question of migrating to Oregon. For instance, on March 3, 1843, the citizens of Clear Creek precinct in Johnson County, Iowa, met “for the purpose of taking into consideration the propriety of organizing a company to emigrate to Oregon, and devise rules by which said company shall be governed.”

A few weeks later an elaborate constitution for an “Oregon Emigration Society” was adopted. On March 30th a public meeting was held at Bloomington (now Muscatine), Iowa.

A committee previously appointed, reported that “from the information they have obtained from various sources, they believe the Oregon Territory to be far superior in many respects, to any other portion of the United States—they believe it to be superior in climate, in health, in water privileges, in timber, in convenience to market and in many other respects; they believe it to be well adapted to agriculture and stock raising, also holding out great inducements to mechanics of the various branches.

“They would therefore recommend to every person possessing the enterprise and patriotic spirit of the true American citizen to emigrate to Oregon Territory at as early a day as possible, and thereby secure to themselves a permanent and happy home, and to their country, one of the fairest portions of her domains.”

Abundant advice was furnished prospective emigrants by speakers at public meetings, by communications in newspapers, and by guidebooks. The route was described in general, with information concerning camping places, Indians likely to be hostile, and difficulties to be encountered along the way.

Possibly a small portion of the emigrants followed the detailed admonition of some experienced writers regarding all phases of desirable equipment, from light sturdy wagons to articles of personal apparel. In view of the fact, however, that the Oregon Trail soon became strewn with wreckage of broken-down wagons and cast-off furniture and supplies, it is evident that many families chose to ignore much of this advice.

Although other points along the Missouri River, such as St. Joseph and Council Bluffs, became well known “jumping-off places” for the journey across the plains, Independence, Missouri, near the site of Kansas City, was the favorite gathering and outfitting place for early emigrants to Oregon.

To Independence they made their way in the spring from all directions, traveling mostly in small parties with their wagons and loose horses and cattle. By the middle of May, 1843, the little frontier town was a scene of bustle and activity, as hundreds of men, women, and children made ready for what has been called the Great Migration, because of its significance in determining the ownership of the Oregon country.


On May 22nd the emigrants left Independence, headed for Elm Grove, which was the first rendezvous. For several days their numbers were augmented by late arrivals, until there were nearly one thousand persons in the company, with about five thousand head of livestock.

For about forty miles they followed the Santa Fe Trail, and then came to a place where a sign-board announced the “Road to Oregon” as nonchalantly as any modern road marker directs the traveler to the next town. By the time the Kansas River was reached the party had effected a permanent organization for the journey.

Peter H. Burnett was first elected captain and James W. Nesmith orderly sergeant. Later the party was divided into two companies of about sixty wagons each. One known as the “light column” chose William Martin as its leader; while the other, called the “cow column” because it was made up of the emigrants who had herds of cattle, elected Jesse Applegate as its captain.

John Gantt was the official guide as far as Fort Hall, but the entire party profited greatly by the presence with them of the famous missionary, Marcus Whitman, whose knowledge, cheerfulness, and untiring services were invaluable, especially beyond Fort Hall.

The trail from Independence ran in a northwestwardly direction from the crossing of the Kansas River to the Platte, and up that stream and its northern fork to Fort Laramie, 667 miles from the point of departure.

Continuing up the North Platte and the Sweetwater, the road led past Independence Rock (which the emigrant party of 1843 reached on July 26th), through Devil’s Gate, over the famous South Pass, and along the tributaries and the main stream of Green River to Fort Bridger, 1,070 miles from Independence and a little more than half way to the mouth of the Willamette.

From Fort Bridger the route ran northwest 218 miles to Fort Hall, then a post of the Hudson’s Bay Company, which was reached on August 27th.

Less than eight hundred miles now lay between the emigrants and their destination, but it was by far the most arduous part of the journey.

It was the end of November before the weary emigrants arrived in the Willamette Valley, after traveling along the Snake River, past Fort Boise, into the Grand Ronde valley, over the Blue Mountains to Whitman’s mission at Waiilatpu, down the Columbia, either on rafts or by land, to The Dalles, and thence in the same manner to the Willamette.



Although the emigration of 1843 was of vital importance in establishing American rule in the Oregon country, its numbers were exceeded by those of parties arriving in several succeeding years.

The best estimates indicate that 1400 new settlers arrived in Oregon in 1844; 3000 in 1845; 1350 in 1846; and between 4000 and 5000 in 1847. The census of 1850 gave Oregon a population of 13,294; while the enumeration of 1860 credited the new State with 52,465 people.

No better description of the routine followed by a well organized emigrant company on the Oregon Trail, at least in the journey across the plains, has been written than Jesse Applegate’s account of ‘A Day with the Cow Column.’

“It is four o’clock A.M.,” he wrote, “the sentinels on duty have discharged their rifles—the signal that the hours of sleep are over—and every wagon and tent is pouring forth its night tenants, and slow-kindling smokes begin largely to rise and float away in the morning air.

“Sixty men set out to drive in the cattle, oxen and horses. Breakfast is prepared and eaten, tents are struck, wagons loaded, and teams yoked or harnessed. ‘All know when, at 7 o’clock, the signal to march sounds, that those not ready to take their proper places in the line of march must fall into the dusty rear for the day.’

“Each wagon has its turn in the coveted position at the head of the line. “The clear notes of a trumpet sound in the front; the pilot and his guards mount their horses; the leading divisions of the wagons move out of the encampment, and take up the line of march; the rest fall into their places with the precision of clock work, until the spot so lately full of life sinks back into that solitude that seems to reign over the broad plain and rushing river as the caravan draws its lazy length towards the distant El Dorado.

“After about five hours of steady travel the caravan halts for the noon meal at a spot selected by the pilot. At one o’clock the bugle sounds and the westward march is resumed.

“Now, however, drowsiness has fallen apparently on man and beast; teamsters drop asleep on their perches, and even when walking by their teams; and the words of command are now addressed to the slowly creeping oxen in the soft tenor of women or the piping treble of children.

“Toward evening the pilot indicates the camping-place for the night, the wagons are drawn in a circle and fastened securely together, tents are pitched, fires kindled, and supper prepared.

“It is not yet 8 o’clock when the first watch is to be set; the evening meal is just over, and the corral, now free from the intrusion of cattle or horses, groups of children are scattered over it.

“Before a tent near the river a violin makes lively music, and some youths and maidens have improvised a dance upon the green; in another quarter a flute gives its mellow and melancholy notes to the still night air, which, as they float away over the quiet river, seem a lament for the past rather than a hope for the future. . . .


“But time passes; the watch is set for the night; the council of old men has been broken up, and each has returned to his own quarter; the flute has whispered its last lament to the deepening night; the violin is silent, and the dancers have dispersed. . . .

“All is hushed and repose from the fatigues of the day, save the vigilant guard and the wakeful leader, who still has cares upon his mind that forbid sleep, until the last care of the day being removed, and the last duty performed, he too seeks the rest that will enable him to go through the same routine tomorrow.”

In other diaries and reminiscences we get glimpses of many aspects of the trip over the long trail. We read of terrific storms, when, to quote the words of Francis Parkman in his classic, The Oregon Trail, “lightning flashed all night,” thunder “roared over the boundless waste of prairie, seeming to roll around the whole circle of the firmament with a peculiar and awful reverberation,” and the belongings of the more careless were drenched with rain or strewn over the prairie by the wind.

Occasionally stampedes of huge herds of buffalo caused the terror-stricken flight of emigrant parties in their pathway. Indian scares were numerous, but fortunately they seldom were more than scares. Comparatively little loss of life was due to Indian hostility. The greatest damage done by the redskins was in stampeding and stealing livestock.

Flour and bacon were the main food staples carried by the emigrants. But we also read of dried fruits and vegetables, of cereals, beans, root vegetables, and of canned fruits, packed in the barrels of flour, to say nothing of coffee, sugar, salt and lard.

Milk was abundant as long as there was sufficient grass and water for the cows. Butter could be churned without effort by the simple expedient of putting milk in a can and letting the continual jolting of the wagon do the work.

Fresh buffalo meat was a most welcome addition to the diet while crossing the plains; and “jerked” meat, while far less appetizing, helped to maintain the strength of many emigrants on the further western stages of the trip.

There is ample evidence that migrating women became exceedingly proficient in camp-fire cookery and in baking, even raised bread in “Dutch ovens” and by means of “reflectors.”

It was a fortunate party, however, whose supply of food was not exhausted or its variety severely limited before the Oregon country was reached. Great privation, amounting to near-starvation, was the lot of large numbers.

Painting: Pilgrims of the Plains.

The major events of life occurred with about normal frequency among those who traveled the Oregon Trail. Rare was the emigrant party of any size which did not contain several expectant mothers when it left the Missouri River, or celebrate the arrival of “covered-wagon babies” before the destination was reached.

The marvel is that so many mothers survived the ordeal, and that so many of the babies born on the trail lived through the early months when proper care was well nigh impossible.

Weddings took place between young men and women who had either known each other before setting out on the journey or became acquainted while on the road.

The number of deaths was large in the aggregate, especially in the terrible years of cholera epidemic. But, with the exception of these periods and the instances when attempts were made to break new trails, the death rate was not abnormally high, when all the hardships and perils of the undertaking are taken into consideration.

Each death, however, was attended by special pathos and by anguish to relatives and friends, because of the necessity of pressing forward with a minimum of delay, leaving behind, in most cases, unmarked graves.

Altogether, a journey over the Oregon Trail was an experience never to be forgotten. For the young and strong it was, in the main, a long picnic excursion. The older men found the adventure of the trip and the hope of prosperity to be attained in the new home sufficient to counterbalance the toil and hardship they endured on the way.

The most heroic aspect of the entire story is the record of the patience and fortitude with which the wives and mothers bore the discomforts and privations and dangers of the long trek.


The westward spread of the population made the question of our right to Oregon an issue in the early 1840’s. In pursuance of an agreement made in 1818, the territory had been occupied jointly by England and the United States, but in 1844 the west adopted the slogan, “Fifty-four forty of fight.”

It referred to the parallel up to which the extremists felt we had claim. England now compromised on a boundary along the forty-ninth parallel, the present line, and a settlement was made on this basis in 1846. Vancouver Island, in its entirety, went to Great Britain.

Cartoon relating to the “Oregon Question.”
Left third of cartoon.
Middle third of cartoon.
Right third of cartoon.
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