171 years ago today…the Oregon Trail began

On May 16, 1842, about 100 pioneers with 18 wagons set out from the Independence, Missouri, area in one of the first wagon trains to the Northwest. Over the next two decades, tens of thousands would follow on the Oregon Trail, the longest of the great overland routes to the western frontier.

“Oregon or the Grave.” “Patience and Perseverance.” “Never Say Die.” Such were the slogans that pioneer families painted on their wagons before striking out on the Oregon Trail, which began at Independence and stretched 2,000 miles across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to the valleys of the Oregon Territory. The journey usually took four to six months. The settlers started out in the spring so they could get through the mountains before snow blocked the passes.

They packed as much flour, bacon, salt, dried fruit, and other supplies as they could into the covered wagons, called “prairie schooners” because, from a distance, their white canvas tops looked like ship sails crossing the plains. Once on the trail, the settlers averaged about 15 miles a day. Many walked the whole trail beside the wagons.

Along the way, they faced blistering heat, biting cold, pounding rainstorms, and howling blizzards. They crossed flooded rivers and waterless plains. At times they endured hunger and thirst. Indian attacks were a rare but real threat. Cholera, smallpox, and other diseases were more common killers. Thousands died on the trail. The route was lined with broken wheels, smashed wagons, bleached bones of dead oxen, and buried loved ones, making it the nation’s longest graveyard.

“We lost everything but our lives,” wrote one settler after the trek. Yet thousands kept heading west, determined to make better lives for themselves and their children. The ruts left by their wagon wheels remain in some places—a testament to the iron will of the American pioneer.

The above is from Bill Bennett’s American Patriots’ Almanac.

Places in Wyoming to observe wagon wheel tracks and other Oregon Trail artifacts include, but are not limited to: Split Rock near Muddy Gap, Independence Rock South of Casper, Guernsey State Park, and South Pass City.

There exist some terrific and wonderful books to read about the Oregon Trail and the American Westward movement.  These include, but again are not limited to: The Way West by A.B. Guthrie (sequel to The Big Sky), and Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto.  The latter chronicles the decline of the fur trade in the 1830’s and is a history of the period immediately preceeding the birth of the Oregon Trail.  The A.B. Guthrie books are in the category of historical fiction, and are literary masterpieces.

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