West To Home: The Oregon Trail Pioneers

In 1843 over one thousand pioneers began traveling the Oregon trail. A journey that would ultimately be known as the greatest migration in American history.

Soon after the Revolutionary War, a movement was made to explore the Appalachians, west of the original colonies on the Eastern Coast of the United States. By eighteen forty-three, a new movement had begun; this one would later be known as the greatest migration in American history. Ending in places such as Oregon and Utah and even as far west as California, this journey began in Missouri and was traveled along what is known as The Oregon Trail.

In eighteen forty-three more than one thousand people, seeking to find farmland in the West, gathered near the bend in the Missouri River in preparation for the trip to Oregon. Solid in their determination to find land and make homes, these pioneers were prepared for the very long and dangerous journey that would take them from their homes in the mid-west to the 'promised land' of the far west.

The highway that would enable them to make such a journey began in Missouri, and ran across to the Platte River at Fort Kearney, Oregon, which was built to protect and outfit the settlers once having reached their destination. Once there, they could settle or push onward over the Continental Divide, a region in the Rocky Mountains that lays between streams running north to the Atlantic and south to the Pacific.

Whether it was Oregon or California, those early pioneers, in all their determination, faced the longest and most difficult challenge of their lives on this journey. Some had already endured earlier migrations to the frontier of the Midwest, but what obstacles and set-backs lay ahead in the frontier west of Missouri was unknown.

The first job at hand was the preparation for the journey. Traveling in covered wagons, or prairie schooners, as they were then known, these pioneers found it necessary to make extensive lists for the incredibly long trip westward. A typical list for food would be as follows: five hundred pounds of flour, three hundred pounds of meal, fifty pounds of beans, one hundred pounds of rice, fifty pounds of cheese and butter, and four hundred pounds of sugar. Also purchased for the journey were barrels of crackers, tea, coffee, salt, bacon, ham, dried beef, dried fruits, and vegetables. Brought along for the preparation of meals was a campstove, cooking kettles, and frying pans.

Besides the necessities for cooking was the need for adequate cleaning supplies. Washtubs, washboards, flatirons, and starch and soap were also brought along. Many times sewing machines, which were a very necessary staple to the pioneer family, were also packed for the journey; sometimes, though, these much-larger and more cumbersome versions of today's machines were left behind because of the huge inconvenience they imparted on the travelers. The wagons that were to be the home of such settlers were small, about ten feet long and four feet wide, and could not accommodate more than what was absolutely necessary. Most keepsakes and large, bulky household items had to be left behind; they could be replaced once the family had settled.

Once properly prepared for their trip westward, these pioneers soon met face to face with the challenges of such a journey. One problem that would arise often was the weather, everything from torrential downpours of rain to deadly lightening to extreme and damaging winds. Traveling in wagons found these pioneers vulnerable to the elements, and often times the winds were such that even the stoutest of coverings could not withstand them. If the wind did not destroy the tarp that covered these wagons and the precious items inside, the heavy rains often would. Beds stuffed with cotton, and the comforters and other linens that protected them, could be soaked completely through by a downpour sweeping into the wagons.

When the weather allowed, most families slept outdoors on featherbeds and quilts. This, too, often proved to be a significant problem; intruders forcing their way into the nighttime campground could cause trouble and danger for the campers. Both humans and wild animals were a cause of unease and sometimes fear for those who took their rest outside the wagons. Wolves, especially, were known to slink into campgrounds after dark, and their howls would keep many a weary traveler awake for the better part of the evening.

Many of these pioneers held a fear of being attacked by Indian tribes as they slept with their families in the open; for this reason some of the wagontrains chose to circle their wagons at evening as a precaution. While fairly uncommon, clashes between Indians and whites added to the apprehension felt between these two races. Each had more to fear than the danger presented from the other; disease claimed far more emigrant lives than did the Natives, who themselves were all but annihilated by the diseases that were introduced by the Anglos traveling westward.

Indeed, disease was perhaps the most dangerous and relentless enemy of those who traveled west in the search for land. Water-borne diseases were unfortunately very common in these times. Very little was known about how to adequately dispose of waste water, as could be found in the latrines of the camps, and how to ensure that it was not introduced into the springs or rivers that supplied precious drinking water.

Another problem: finding drinkable water along the trail, especially in the years that followed the original drive westward. Thousands and thousands of teams of oxen and mules had depleted the stores of water from viable streams, lakes, and springs. Those traveling throughout the late eighteen sixties would happen upon bodies of water known as 'Poison Spring' and 'Bad Water.' Many times the pioneers would walk through miles of badlands that contained no water whatsoever. The Great Basin was particularly difficult to pass for those who continued on westward; the dust would very often choke and blind the travelers as they made their way. Water could be found but was not drinkable; the teams often died from thirst or became so exhausted from the heat they had to be left to die.

All of the aforementioned dangers almost pale in comparison to the deadly threat posed to the pioneers by cholera, a highly contagious disease that ran rampant among the wagontrains. An extremely fast spreading disease, it was made even worse with the terrible sanitary practices of those traveling. It has been reported that perhaps thousands died from this horrible disease. From eighteen forty nine to eighteen fifty four, cholera was reported from all over the country; some tried to escape its clutches by joining other wagontrains only to be followed by it.

For miles and miles those lucky enough to have escaped cholera could witness a gruesome sight---graveyards, holding the bodies of entire families who had succumbed to this disease. Sometimes they would even see the actual burying of its victims.

While there remains no complete record of the number of lives lost from cholera in the eighteen fifties, we know that some wagontrains lost as many as two-thirds of their original numbers; one emigrant has left record of estimating up to two thousand gravesites along the Oregon Trail. Yet another has estimated five thousand.

Lives changed, reinvented, forsaken, and lost. Such were the consequences of journeying westward to the land of promise; the rewards, however, and the pride taken in such a monumental undertaking, were well worth the cost of such heartbreak to those who opened the great American west.

© High Speed Ventures 2011