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The longest of the many overland routes used in the westward expansion of the United States, the Oregon Trail stretched over 2,170 miles through territories that eventually became Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Travel on the trail was a severe test of strength and endurance. The journey in a covered wagon took six months, if the weather was good along the way. Travelers often had to cross flooded rivers, were subject to attack from Native Americans, and cholera and other diseases were common. On average, one out of every ten persons who started the journey died along the way.
The vast majority of travelers on the Oregon Trail started from Independence, Missouri. From there they followed a trail which ran in a northwesterly course to Fort Kearny, Nebraska, and then up the Platte River and its north branch to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. From this point, they continued along the North Platte to its Sweetwater branch, and crossed through South Pass in the Rocky Mountains to the Green River Valley at Fort Bridger, Wyoming. The route then turned northwest toward Fort Hall in the Snake River area, and then on to Fort Boise, Idaho. Settlers then crossed the Grande Ronde Valley and the Blue Mountains to Marcus Whitman's mission at Walla Walla, Washington, then traveled down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The trail "officially" ended at Oregon City, the proposed capital of the Oregon Territory.
There were also several "cutoff" routes along the trail, most of which were established to get around difficult terrain. The most commonly used of these were the Lander and Sublette cutoffs, which provided shorter routes through the mountains than the main route but which also bypassed the safety and provisions provided by Fort Bridger, Wyoming. The California Trail branched off the Oregon Trail just west of Fort Hall, followed the Humboldt River through what is now Nevada, crossed the infamous Donner Pass, and ended at the California Gold Fields.
History of the Trail
The route of the Oregon Trail began to be scouted by fur traders and explorers as early as 1823, and by the 1830's it was being regularly used by mountain men, traders, missionaries, and military expeditions. At the same time, small groups of individuals and the occasional family attempted to follow the trail, with some making it all the way to Fort Vancouver in Washington. Benjamin Bonneville is credited with taking the first wagons through South Pass in the 1830's. Nathaniel J. Wyeth also led companies over the trail, and John C. Frémont surveyed a portion of the route for the United States Army in 1841.
The first organized wagon train (with more than 100 pioneers) on the Oregon Trail set out from Elm Grove, Missouri, on May 16, 1842. The following year, an estimated 800 immigrants arrived in the Willamette Valley. The trail continued to carry travelers through the Civil War, but traffic declined dramatically after completion of the Transcontintental Railroad in 1869. By then, however, the trail had carried some 300,000 emigrants into Oregon.
This page was last updated on January 24, 2017.