Postcard with map of the Oregon Trail
The newer postcard above shows the route called the Oregon Trail taken by pioneers who crossed the country in wagons and on foot between the years 1840 and 1860. After the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, the European travelers who came along the route beginning about 1811 were fur trappers and traders who walked or went on horseback. The first wagon train left Independence, Missouri in 1836 along a trail that had been cleared as far west as Fort Hall, Idaho. Wagon trails were gradually cleared farther west until they reached the Willamette Valley in Oregon. As time went on bridges and ferries made the trip faster and safer. It is estimated that about 400,000 people traveled along the Oregon Trail and its offshoots including Mormons and California gold rush hopefuls. The use of the trail declined when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 since it was faster, cheaper, and safer to travel by train. The card below has a photograph taken by Ben Wittick, ca mid to late 1800s, titled "The Halt" that is part of the collection of the Museum of New Mexico.
"The Halt" by Ben Wittick, ca mid to late 1800s
On a recent trip we stopped at the Oregon Trail Interpretative Museum in Baker City, Oregon where they have life sized models showing the pioneers, the wagons, the native populations, and artifacts from the pioneer period on display.
There were flip charts with questions such as “If you could fit a iron stove top into the wagon, should you take it?” The answer was “No.” The stove top would weigh so much that the poor animals pulling the wagon would probably perish from exhaustion somewhere along the way. The journey from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon took 5 or 6 months and required what seemed a huge amount of basic food like flour and salt. Game could provide meat along the way but salt was the main means of preservation. Water was available from streams and rivers but in several areas water was not as plentiful so some water had to be carried in barrels usually attached to the outside of the wagon.
Many of the exhibits were inter-active and designed especially for school children. For example there was a small version of a wagon box and blocks to scale representing the necessary supplies and household goods a pioneer would have to pack into the wagon. Although the wagons came in different shapes and sizes the most common wagons were quite small and it would have been like cramming all your worldly possessions in a mini-van today. It turned out to be a lot more difficult than imagined getting all the essentials in the wagon let alone the household items like bed frames and clothing. Many items had to be left behind, musical instruments were the exception and helped provide entertainment around the evening camp fire.
The museum had placards with excerpts from pioneer journals that gave accounts of what it was like to travel in a wagon all those miles. The ride was bumpy, the wagons were not comfortable, there were accidents with tragic consequences when a wooden wheel hit a rock or hole and broke tipping the wagon over and in some cases crushing or seriously injuring children and adults walking too close or riding in the box and falling off when the wagon lurched. Many pioneers chose to walk rather than ride in a wagon. Journal entries, mostly written by women, also showed the courage of the pioneers, their continued hope and sometimes the despair of ever reaching the end goal. Some saw the beauty and grandeur of the land they crossed others wondered why they had ever left the east. There were encounters with Native Americans, some peaceful, some dangerous.
The numbers of wagons passing along the trail were so great that wheel tracks are still visible on the hills today. So many people crossed the country feeding off the land that the native population saw their source of food being decimated and that contributed to conflicts.
Flying takes only hours to make the same trip across the entire country and when I try to compare how we drove in a comfortable, air-conditioned car, going 80 miles an hour most of the way and taking a day and a half to travel 900 miles over mountains and desert it is incredible to think what that same journey would have been like in a wagon pulled by oxen, mules or horses making perhaps 20 miles or less a day. How many new things and means have come about in less than 200 years? We do live in an absolutely amazing time.
For more information there is a lengthy article on Wikipedia about the Oregon Trail:
The Oregon Trail Interpretive Center can be found here: http://www.blm.gov/or/oregontrail/