Photo above: Conestoga wagon as it sits on the Oregon Trail at Scotts Bluff National Monument, during a reenactment in 1961. Photo courtesy of NARA. Right: Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. Photo from Hayden Survey, William H. Jackson, 1870.
Oregon National Historic Trail
The trails of western expansion, the routes of the cattle trade, Indian paths from summer to winter quarters, the route for Lewis and Clark, the trails that lead wagon trains from east to St. Louis, then west to the coast. From the Chisholm Trail to the Oregon Trail, these pathways led European settlers across dangerous Indian lands, caused a scandal of shame to permeate the U.S. government as Indian lands were confiscated, or bought, or bartered for, for towns, farms, land rushes, and what some would call progress.
- Then and Now
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But there was no doubting that the history of the Oregon Trail was one of the most dynamic in the history of the United States. As many an easterner took flight west, looking for a promised land they had not yet even seen, some culled by the romance of dime store novels of western heroes and other drawn by lands where you could homestead one hundred and sixty acres for an $18 filing fee, the men who led the wagon trains across a rugged land were characters of lore. And it was a lore the history of the United States fell in love with, during its en action, in stories, and later on movie screens. Even today, many know of the Oregon Trail from the most modern of entertainments, a video game, or for those who try to gain a little more authenticity, from period era reenactments, as shown in the photo of the wagon train above as a mountain man leads Conestoga wagons past a rock formation from the Scotts Bluff National Monument in the early 1960s.
The Oregon Trail overland route was developed as an easier alternative to the Lewis and Clark trail blazed in 1803, with Lewis and Clark traveling over the western part of the Oregon Trail during their trek in 1805. Robert Stewart of the Astorian fur trading group was the first to traverse this route in 1810 during his ten month journey from Fort Astoria to St. Louis. The trail was 2,170 miles long, beginning in Independence, Missouri, and winding its way past Fort Kearney in Nebraska to Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, and South Pass in Wyoming , along the Snake River in Idaho, then into Washington to Marcus Whitman's Mission and Fort Vancouver, before heading into the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Independence Rock, a noted landmark on the trail, pictured in the William H. Jackson photo on the left, contains the names of noted trappers, travelers, and explorers who etched them into the rock from 1835 forward.
Completing the trail was an arduous test of stamina, taking six months in a covered wagon to cover all those treacherous miles, enduring a lack of food and water, Indian attacks, and sickness. Explorers and fur traders initially tracked the trail with the first wagon train negotiating South Pass in the 1830s, and the Presbyterian missionaries of Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, reaching Walla Walla in 1836. The migration of trains began in earnest in 1843 when a 1,000 member wagon train left Independence, Missouri, crossed the South Pass, and made it to Oregon. Immigration using the Oregon Trail peaked in the 1850s, but emigrant used the trail to cross the country into the 1860s.
Tracing the Oregon Trail today, you can still see many sections of the rutted depressions where the wagon wheels of the western expansion ancestors turned. There are a variety of attractions along the way, many now beginning to be pulled into the National Park Service's Oregon National Historic Trail project, which includes auto routes, some still in the development stage.
Oregon Trail Then
The Oregon Trail - Photo left. From the top of a mountain looking west over Devil's Gate in Fremont County, Wyoming, with the plains of the Sweetwater, Oregon Trail, and the Seminole Mountains in the background. Survey expedition wagon sites below in the valley. This photo was taken during the 1870 expedition of the Hayden Survey, photo by William H. Jackson. The photo below left shows a view of the Red Buttes at Bessemer Bend on the Oregon Trail at the location where the trail left the North Platte River for the Sweetwater River. The photo was taken during the same survey in 1870. This location was the approximate spot where twenty-three United States troopers were massacred in 1865, concurrent to the death of Casper Collins, namesake of the town of Casper, Wyoming, at the bridge. Photos courtesy of NARA.
Oregon Trail Now
The myriad of historic sites along the Oregon Trail is aplenty with opportunities for heritage tourism, with museums, hiking trails, horseback riding, and many interesting interpretive sites, and natural vistas that were there during pioneer days. Visit the Oregon National Historic Trail website at the National Park Service for new about the effort of the trail to coordinate some of the interesting sites along the way. Besides those listed there, existing National Park Service units and State Historic Sites also hold part of the story of the men, women, and their families who made the trek. Listed below in the What is There Now section are some of the noteworthy, but the actual list is much longer for certain.
1. Visit Fort Laramie. A great example of both the vestiges of the U.S. Army and their role in taming the west, as well as the Oregon Trail and its use as a road for westward expansion. 2. Make sure you visit Independence Rock, the famous landmark, which is now a Wyoming State Park, that contains the names of seven hundred explorers, settlers, and military men who passed by during their days on the Oregon Trail.
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