Report of General Monthly Meeting

The Oregon Trail
A talk given by Roger Shaw on 11th April 2017

Members enjoyed a most fascinating and illustrated talk by Roger Shaw on the Oregon Trail in America of the early 1800’s.

The Oregon Trail was a 2,170-mile east-west large-wheeled wagon route from Missouri to Oregon. Its origins began with the Louisiana purchase by America from Napoleon in 1803 which doubled the size of the country. Shortly thereafter President Jefferson decreed that a route should be found overland to the Pacific North West. He set up a Corps of Discovery Expedition comprising U.S. Army volunteers under the command of Lewis and Clark to find a practical route across the western half of the continent. This expedition of thirty three men and one woman, comprising just horses and canoes, succeeded in getting to the Pacific and produced a considerable number of maps. This was followed by fur and other traders by the same means and gradually trading posts were established along the route.

By the 1830’s and 1840’s America was experiencing various problems – immigration was overwhelming the east coast, there was considerable poverty, half of the banks had been closed by the government in 1837, religious persecution existed and there was turmoil over slavery. The government encouraged migration and provided incentives by paying for everything as well as offering cheap land in the west.

There were two ways to reach the west – either by sea trip around the tip of South America which took a year or by an overland journey. The first wagon train started out in 1843 from Independence, Missouri - the wagons, called Prairie Schooners, were designed to float across rivers. The first train consisted of 1,600 wagons, 10,000 oxen used to pull the wagons and 30,000 cattle.

Over the next twenty years or so half a million migrants travelled the route, taking from four to six months. The journey was hard with adults required to walk, many barefooted, 15 miles a day – only children were allowed to use the wagons. The rest each day was for the benefit of the animals, not the people!

Food consisted mostly of bread and bacon with occasional quail and buffalo. The need for water was great and with no experience of rivers hundreds of people drowned. However cholera and poor sanitation were the main killers.

Not surprisingly, the Rocky Mountains were the biggest challenge with many dying at a Sierra Pass of 10,000 feet and, with no food to eat, cannibalism occurred.

The eastern half of the trail was also used by gold seekers heading for California and by Mormons towards what is now Salt Lake City.

Use of the trail declined as the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, making the trip west substantially faster, cheaper and safer. Today, interstate highways follow parts of the same route and pass through towns originally established to serve those early pioneers.

Andrew Beadle