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The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail – La Grande to Baker City, Oregon

I remember growing up hearing about the Oregon Trail as a video game, then come graduation I drove part of it when I headed to the West Coast. The Oregon Trail is a pioneer trail that extends approximately 2,170 miles from the Eastern to the Western United States. It was used by large-wheeled wagons by primarily Euro-American settlers heading West before the railways were built. It was originally carved by trappers and fur traders from 1811 until 1840, originally only passable by horseback and foot. The first wagon trail was cleared from Independence, Missouri to Fort Hall, Idaho, and eventually to Willamette Valley, Oregon. The modern-day states that the trail passed through were Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Since its 1811 inception, the trail grew and expanded with trails to roads, cutoffs, bridges, and ferries were established. Then it died when the rails brought settlers via train faster and more safely. It is believed that between 1846 and 1869 over 400,000 pioneers followed the trail with over 10% of which died along the journey. The Oregon Trail was used to access other immigrant trails such at the California Trail in 1843, Mormon Trail in 1847, and Bozeman Trail in 1863. The First Transcontinental Railroad was finished by 1869 diminishing its use. Federal Interstate highways were later established for motorized vehicles creating faster, safer travel along Interstates 80 and 84 west.

Oregon Trail displays, Baker City, Oregon.

The great explorer Meriwether Lewis was assigned to “explore the Missouri River, and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or another river may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce.” Lewis teamed up with fellow explorer William Clark, following Thomas Jefferson’s 1803 order to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. This route eventually was carved into the Midwest through the Wild West as the Oregon Trail. It became Mullan Road in 1859 connected the Missouri River with the Columbia River. With the advent of motorized vehicles, it became Interstate 80 and 84.


Lewis and Clark mapped the route between 1804 and 1806 believing they found a practical overland route to the West Coast. Their original route traversing the Rocky Mountains involving Lolo Pass and Lemhi Pass was too difficult for wagons to safe passage through, so during their return trip in 1806 they followed the Columbia River to the Snake River, and Clearwater River over Lolo pass, upland to the Blackfoot River crossing the Continental Divide onwards to the Missouri River which roved much faster. They ran into other difficulties with this route as it was affected by the Blackfoot Indians and was very rough for wagons. They stated there was no easy route through the northern Rockies. They successfully mapped the Eastern and Western river valleys which gave birth to the Oregon Trail to cross the continental divide. The Trail eventually used the South Pass which was not traveled by Lewis and Clark originally. It was a tough trail and many reports back East told of the journey as rough. Even Lieutenant Zebulon Pike in 1806 said the Great Plains were “unfit for human habitation.


In 1810, the Pacific Fur Company found a need for a better route and initiated much of the original trailblazing for the Oregon Trail. The Pacific Fur Company was founded by John Jacob Astor as a subsidiary of his American Fur Company in the Pacific Northwest. They initially set up operations along the Columbia River. They established two expeditions, one by the Tonquin and the other by Wilson Price Hunt to establish supply routes and trapping territories. The Tonquin crew built Fort Astoria min March 1811 along the Columbia, leaving supplies and staff while exploring further north along the Pacific coast to Clayoquot Sound. The ship was destroyed by the Tl-o-qui-aht elder of the Clayoquot, and the surviving interpreter Quinault informed Fort Astoria of the tragedy. Meanwhile, Hunt continued upland south of Lewis and Clark’s route within what is modern-day Wyoming, passing across Union Pass into what is now Jackson Hole. They crossed over the Tetons down through the Snake River into what is now Idaho. They used the Snake River for transport finding steep canyons, waterfalls, and impassable rapids. They walked the rest of the way to the Columbia River where they made boats and arrived at Fort Astoria. They proved that much of the Snake River and Columbia could be passed by foot, horse, mule, or wagons with improvements made. This eventually became segments of the Oregon Trail.

The Pacific Fur Company sent a team back east retracing the overland expedition’s trail with Robert Stuart in charge. However, they feared attacks near Union Pass and re-routed further south where they discovered South Pass, making transit much easier. They went further east by means of Sweetwater River, North Platte River, and the Platte River to the Missouri River making a landing in St. Louis. This proved to be an effective wagon route, and in 1813 began development and use. The War of 1812 caused a lack of interest in treading west for fear of safety, access, and viability.

While this had occurred, separately the British North West Company had an expedition led by David Thompson exploring much of western Canada and the Columbia River. After mapping out possible fur trading posts, they floating down the Columbia River to Fort Astoria and camped at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers. They laid claim for Britain to build a fort on the site. Fort Astoria felt threatened so sold their supplies and establishment to the North West Company in 1812. Development was then taken over by the North West Company. Once the War of 1812 ended by the Treaty of Ghent, the Oregon territory was given back to the United States.


But struggles between the United States and Canada persisted even though it was officially “joint occupation” of the region, officially by the Anglo-American Convention of 1818. The British discouraged U.S. trappers from establishing themselves in the region.

Then in 1821, the British government had the North West Company merge with Hudson’s Bay Company to squash rivalry, establishing a monopoly on trading in Oregon. British parliament gave the district and company power to enforce the laws as if it was part of Canada. They took near full control of the Pacific Northwest from 1812 until 1840. This included the western half of the Oregon Trail. This was tested in 1824 when American missionaries and settlers began arriving in Oregon. Fort Vancouver in Washington began expansion in 1824 upstream of Fort Astoria becoming the central hub for the Pacific Northwest greeting ships from London to the Pacific via Cape Horn. Furs, supplies, and goods were traded here. Major Stephen Long in 1819 warned settlers that the Great Plains were the Great American Desert with a lack of timber and surface water, sandy wastelands with vast herds of bison that somehow managed to live there.

Before the massive emigration hit the West and developing the Oregon Trail, most of the explorers were fur traders and trappers. The trappers worked for the traders, exploring all water sources with a lot of attention on beaver. Some of the most famous were Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Peter Skene Ogden, Manuel Lisa, Robert Stuart, William Henry Ashley, Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Alexander Ross, James Sinclair, Andrew Henry, Donald Mackenzie, Thomas Fitzpatrick, David Thompson, James Douglas, all of whom were trailblazers who kept good journals of their travels, hired out as consultants and guides. They helped blaze the trail.


By 1825 the Hudson Bay Company began utilizing two brigades from each end of the express route, the York Factory on Hudson Bay and the other from Fort Vancouver via the Columbia River. During this time the York Factory Express created another route from Fort William Ontario to Fort Astoria, Oregon. Each Spring they would pass one another in the Midwest and created a quick journey one way to resupply its forts and fur trading centers within a 100 day period covering the 2600 mile one-way route. The Hudson Bay Company created Fort Colvile on the Columbia River near Kettle Falls to control the upper Columbia River fur trade. They built Fort Nisqually by where present-day DuPont, Washington is located taking vantage of Puget Sound.

From 1832-1834, Captain Benjamin Bonneville explored a good portion of what became the Oregon Trail, bringing wagons up the Platte, North Platte, Sweetwater across South Pass to the Green River of Wyoming. His explorations detailed most of the Trail to the Columbia through Idaho which was later published by Washington Irving by 1838.

Reverend Jason Lee established the Methodist Mission in the Dalles, Oregon by 1834 along the Columbia River. Marcus Whitman and Henry H. Spalding went west establishing the Whitman Mission near where Walla Walla, Washington new exists. These were amongst the first notable Missionaries taking the Oregon Trail for God. Many husband and wife missionaries too to the trail on wagons establishing missions along the way.

Thomas Farnham and his band of 18 men called the “Oregon Dragoons” left Peoria, Illinois in 1839 to colonize Oregon on behalf of the United States with intent to drive out the Hudson Bay Company, and were amongst the first pioneers to traverse most of the Oregon Trail – “Oregon Or The Grave” was imprinted on their flag they carried.


Along the Trail, many settlers did not make it, and some gave up along the journey settling where they found themselves destitute or broken. Many refused to stop in the Great Plains, even in the 1840s, because it was land illegal for homesteading as it was set aside by the government for the Native Americans (until at least 1846). Oregon was painted out to be free for the taking and was fertile, disease-free, uncut, unclaimed, with big rivers and potential seaports. The British were not seen as a threat. By the 1840s thousands of emigrants arrived, outnumbering the British. Fort Vancouver (now modern-day Washington State) was a central influence for the fur and trade industry with influence spreading from the Rocky Mountains to the Hawaiian Islands and Russian Alaska to Mexico-controlled California. By 1840 it was recorded to have over 34 outposts, 24 ports, 6 ships, and over 600 staff. This monopoly was challenged with Euro-American settlers came over the Oregon Trail having their final destination at Fort Vancouver where they would get their sundries, aid, and assistance to begin homesteading in Oregon and Washington state.

Disputes between the United States and Canada were overwhelming. The Hudson Bay Company was primarily defending itself with three forts – Fort Hall, Fort Boise, and Fort Nez Perce on the west end of the Oregon Trail. The fur trade began to slow down in 1840. James Sinclair led 200 settlers in 1841 from the Red River Colony near present-day Winnipeg into the Oregon territory. the Plan failed as most of the families joined those in the Willamette Valley under the promise of free land and a Hudson Bay Company free government.

It wasn’t until the fall of 1840 that the first wagons made the Columbia River over land and officially opening the final leg of the trail to wagons, by Robert Newell, Joseph Meek with their families to Fort Walla Wall. The first emigrants headed West using the full Oregon Trail was the Bartleson-Bidwell Part in 1841 setting out for California, but half the party went to Oregon instead of California leaving their wagons at Fort hall going different ways at Soda Springs, Idaho. The 2nd organized wagon trail left Elm Grove, Missouri in 1842 with 100 pioneers led by Elijah White – and they broke up at Fort Hall as well.

Kit Carson guided three expeditions from 1842-1846 detailing California and Oregon for the U.S. Army Corp of Topographical Engineers for John C. Fremont that became widely published. By 1843 Hudson Bay headquarters was established at Fort Victoria covering all operations in British Columbia. This was the birthing moment for present-day Victoria.

The “Wagon Train of 1843” a.k.a. “The Great Migration of 1843” brought nearly 1,000 emigrants to Oregon via the Oregon Trail, led first by John Gantt – a former U.S. Army Captain and fur trader. The biggest obstacle at the time was past the Blue Mountains of Oregon where they had to cut and clear a trail through heavy timber, stop at the Dalles in Oregon, disassemble their wagons, float them down the Columbia River while the animals were headed over the rough Lolo Trail to pass Mt. Hood. This blazed the Trail to become passable for wagons from the Missouri River to the Dalles.

The lands within Oregon Country were claimed by settlers in the Willamette Valley, drafting the Organic Laws of Oregon in 1843 – granting married couples free land up to 640 acres, and unmarried settlers 320 acres, though these claims were not valid under British nor United States law. Eventually they were honored by the United States in 1850 under the Donation Land Act granting married settlers 320 acres and unmarried ones 160 acres. By 1854 the land was no longer given free, but sold at the rate of $1.25 an acre.

By 1846 the struggles came to a head and the Oregon Treaty was written ending the Oregon boundary dispute. The British lost land north of the Columbia River and a new Canadian – United States border was established north at the 49th parallel. The Canadians received good anchorage at Vancouver and Victoria, the United States a reasonable boundary and good anchorage in Puget Sound. The United States tested everything by pushing more settlers into the future state of Washington outnumbering the British.

They completed the Barlow Road around Mount Hood in 1846 providing a rough but completely passable wagon trail from the Missouri River to the Willamette Valley.

In 1844 the Mormons witnessed the assassination of the prophet Joseph Smith as well as persecution in Missouri, Illinois, and parts of the Midwest. This led their leader Brigham Young to Salt Lake Valley in 1847 with over 2,200 pioneers to establish settlements and create a base camp for future emigration for the church. In 1848 thousands of emigrants joined them bringing many women and children. From 1847 to 1860 over 43,000 Mormons traveled on the Oregon Trail as well as the California Trail to Utah. They established the Mormon Trail with trail improvements and ferries for those following them.

By 1848 gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevada giving birth to the California Gold Rush. Approximately 2/3 of Oregon males went to California in 1848 by lure of gold. They created the Lassen Branch of the Applegate-Lassen Trail cutting a wagon road through the forest, bringing back gold to finance Oregon’s economy. This lured many from the East coast and the Midwest onto the Oregon and California Trail, calling themselves the “forty-niners” in a mad dash across the country, sacrificing safety for speed taking shortcuts. This was the year when the cholera epidemic had struck the United States causing thousands to die along the trail.

Use of the trail declined by 1855 once the railways were established, the first of which was the Panama Railroad across the Isthmus of Panama as well as paddle wheel steamships and sailing ships carrying goods and people from the East Coast and New Orleans to and from Panama to ports in Oregon and California. Ferries were built along many rivers on the Oregon Trail, increasing populations across the Americas.

By 1859 the U.S. Army made improvements along the Trail for wagons and stagecoaches, after the Civil War the Pony Express was established around 1860 having riders on horses with relay stations every 10 mils along the trail from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento California. Most of these stations were built along the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, Bozeman Trail, and California Trail.


Around this same time, the First Transcontinental Telegraph began laying lines along the Central Overland Route, with several stage lines for mail and passengers traveling day and night – getting settlers to California from the Midwest in 25-28 days. The Pony Express was closed down by 1861. The First Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1869. The Oregon Trail was heavily used from the Missouri River to the Columbia River for miners, farmers, lumberjacks, ranchers, and business opportunities – with two-way traffic. By 1870 populations along the trail increased by over 350,000 settlers. The trail was also used to drive herds of thousands of livestock to various towns along the route.

With the railroad, the journey took seven days and cost approximately $65. The trail was taken over by highways and railroads eventually turning into U.S. Highway 26, Interstate 84, and Interstate 80.


  • BLM 2016 “Basic Facts About the Oregon Trail”.
  • Dary, David 2004 “The Oregon Trail: An American Saga”.
  • Hanson, T. J. 2001 Western Passage”.
  • Johnson, Randall 1995 “The Mullan Road: A Real Northwest Passage”.
  • Rollins, Philip 1995 “The Discover of the Oregon Trail: Robert Stuart’s Narratives of His Overland Trip Eastward from Astoria in 1812-1813.”
  • State of Oregon n.d. Rest Area historical information signs
  • Unruh, John David 1979 “The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1860”. University of Illinois Press.
  • Wikipedia n.d. “The Oregon Trail”. Website referenced 5/25/21 at
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