10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail

D.G. Hewitt - May 25, 2018

In the year 1836, the first wagon train set off from Independence, Missouri, heading west. That wagon train followed the Oregon Trail, a route laid down by fur trappers and traders just 20 years before. This was the first wagon train to set off on the 2,170 mile route. And it was by no means the last. In fact, for the next three or four decades, thousands of people followed suit. If they didn’t have a wagon of their own, they paid to join a train. Some even walked or travelled on horseback, whatever would get them to the north-western United States.

Most pioneers completed the journey in between four and six months. Along the way, they would experience some euphoric highs as they passed through some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in all of North America. They would also grow as people, forging bonds with their fellow pioneers that would last a lifetime and even writing their names into American history. But many would also endure crushing lows. This was no easy journey. It was fraught with many and varied dangers. And, while the pioneers knew a bit about what to expect before they set off from Missouri, there were some things only those on the Oregon Trail could learn first-hand. Here are just 10…

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
There were many reasons people left it all behind to take the Oregon Trail, not just financial factors. NPR.org

Not everyone was hoping to get rich quick

If, in the first decades of the 18th century, you set off on the Oregon Trail, you would soon learn that there was no one reason for people to be heading west. The trail was first created in around 1811 by traders and fur trappers. And these people were its main users for the first few years. Before long, however, a wide variety of people were hitching up their wagons and heading off on the Trail. In many cases, economic factors were the main reason people chose to make the journey. But the pursuit of the American dream, looking west for riches, doesn’t tell the whole story.

Some pioneers were escaping the debts they racked up in their hometowns. The promise of being able to start again was too good to resist. Others were won over by the promise of land – settlers in Oregon were told they would have their own farm, complete with land the equivalent size of Disney World – and of the rumors that the soil was simply more fertile out West. But the journals and other accounts published at the time also reveal that a substantial number of pioneers made the journey simply because they wanted a taste of fun and adventure. This was especially true in the early years of the Oregon Trail.

In some cases, the East coast and Mid-West of America were pushing people away just as much as the West was drawing them. The first few years of the 19th century were difficult for the people of the eastern United States. Jobs were hard to come by, and so many looked west for opportunities. Meanwhile, in the 1830s, the Mid-Western States were hit by a spate of diseases. Malaria and yellow fever hit cities in this part of the country hard. Unsurprisingly, many people thought it would be safer to up and leave and take their chances elsewhere, with the less-densely-populated West Coast seen as a healthier option.

And then there was the idea of ‘Manifest Destiny’. As soon as California became part of the United States, many people came round to believing the idea that God willed the Americans to spread West and colonise the vast continent. The American government did little to play down this idea. In fact, they openly supported it! Since the U.S. still shared the state of Oregon with Britain at the turn of the century, the authorities in Washington D.C. rightly believed that, the more Americans they could get settled there, the greater their chances of winning sole custody. The start of the settler influx in 1842 – brought about by the Oregon Trail – led the British to sign the Oregon Treaty of 1846. It seemed like Manifest Destiny was not such a crazy idea after all.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
Living in close proximity with fellow emigrants meant disease spread fast. Pinterest.

Disease was rife and spread easily

If the hunger, the cold or out-of-control oxen didn’t get you on the Oregon Trail, then disease surely would have. Only a few hardly souls made it the entire 2,170 miles without falling ill at all. The vast majority of pioneers got sick at some point along the way. If you were heading west for a new life, then communicable diseases were an occupational hazard. As such, the Trail was as messy as it was deadly. This was no journey for the faint-hearted. Or for anyone with a weak constitution for that matter.

There were many diseases you could catch on the Trail. But three were more serious than all the rest. Typhoid fever killed an estimated one in five of those people who contracted it along the way. In most cases, people caught dysentery by drinking unclean water. Since most people making the journey had – at best – rudimentary knowledge of bacteria, they would often fill their canteens with dirty water. As well as causing them severe gastrointestinal pains, some victims would also become delusional. They would wander around, confused, until finally succumbing to typhoid.

And then there was the dysentery. Simply put, there were no bathrooms on the Oregon Trail. Poor toiletry habits (for example, doing your business too close to the wagons or campsites) caused germs to spread. So, when one person got dysentery, pretty soon their whole wagon trail would be afflicted by it too. But even a bout of dysentery was preferable to the one disease that was feared more than any on the Trail: Asiatic cholera. Caused by unsanitary conditions and so spreading easily through unclean camps, it was an unseen killer. It started with a stomach ache. Before long, the cramps got worse and worse and soon the vomiting and diarrhoea would come. If this didn’t do the job, killing you though dehydration and exhaustion, then your skin would turn blue. The good news? Anyone who made it through the first 12 or 24 hours usually made a full recovery and could resume their journey.

In the late 1840s, a cholera epidemic hit the Oregon Trail. The Great Plains region in particular was a deadly hotspot, with hundreds dying as they attempted to cross this stretch of the country. For some reason, pioneers from Missouri seemed to be more likely than anyone else to not only catch cholera but to succumb to their diseases. Again, there was some good news: If you made it past the Great Plains, chances are you would make it to Oregon cholera-free.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
On the Oregon Trail, the wagons were small and oxen couldn’t be overloaded. NPR.org

You probably would have to leave it all behind

Even though they were moving west to start a new life, people setting off on the Oregon Trail were advised to pack as lightly as possible. This meant no furniture or other big possessions and only a few essentials. According to most historians of the era, the typical pioneer would keep the total weight of the goods they packed onto their wagons below the 2,000 pound-mark. Of this, around 90% would be food, leaving only a bit of space for clothes, tools and perhaps a personal memento or two. Packing more than this would place excess strain on the oxen pulling the carts and not just threaten to slow down your progress, but potentially ruin your journey altogether. Wealthier pioneers would send large items, including furniture, by ship to the West Coast. Those without the necessary funds, however, were forced to leave it all behind.

As is human nature, however, many people simply packed too much. Understandably, people found it hard to leave behind either valuable possessions or items with sentimental value. Most would soon learn the error of their ways. As the journey progressed and both the people and the oxen or horses started to tire, possessions would start to be shed. In fact, this was so common that there was even a term for abandoned possessions on the Trail. They were known as ‘leeverites’, taken from the fact that the travelers had to “leave ‘er right here”. In some instances, whole piles of leeverites sprang up along the length of the trail.

These discarded possessions rarely went to waste, however. Towards the later years of the Oregon Trail, entrepreneurs cashed in on the fact emigrants couldn’t take it all with them. The Mormon communities of Utah in particular became adept at salvaging what was left behind. The goodies were then taken to Salt Lake City and sold on for a profit. As you might expect, such profiteering was frowned upon by the pioneers and there was bad blood between the Oregon settlers and the Mormons for years after.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
Most wagon trains had rules and some even had their own constitutions. Wikimedia Commons.

There was ‘freedom’ but freedom with rules…

One of the enduring myths of the pioneer era is that it was a time of complete freedom. After all, people just had the open road in front of them. They left their old lives – and old troubles – behind them and had the chance to start anew. While this is mostly true, most pioneers didn’t enjoy complete freedom ‘on the road’. Moreover, hardly anyone would have wanted that. To travel alone (and so completely free) came with a number of risks. Far safer to travel in a group or in a convoy. And traveling with others usually meant following the rules of the road.

Histories of the trail reveal that almost every wagon train was highly-organised. And for good reason – those with rules in place were more likely to make it to Oregon safe and sound than those with a more-anarchic approach to heading west. In most cases, a group would elect a leader or leaders before they set off. Often, members would also sign a written constitution or set of rules, too. Such rules would vary between wagon trains. In some cases, they were very strict indeed. Drinking was discouraged, or even banned for most of the time, while gambling could also be banned. So, those old films of pioneers drinking hooch while playing cards? Not always completely accurate. On the plus side, wagon groups could be as benevolent as they were strict. Provisions were in place should a member fall sick or even died on the way. This improvised form of social security kept the wagons on track and looked after the more vulnerable members of a group. Some groups took this even further by forming companies among themselves: The Peoria Pioneers and the Wild Rovers were just two of the (best-named) firms on the Trail.

And, this being the 19th century, there was hardly much equality of the genders on the Oregon Trail. Indeed, even in the middle of nowhere, the traditional gender roles were firmly entrenched. Sundays were a rest day for the men and for the animals too. But for women? Well, a day’s rest gave them a chance to catch up on their domestic chores. Above all, Sunday was usually set aside for doing laundry. As you might expect, the road was dirty and dusty, with clean, fresh water hard to come by. So, once a week, the women were expected to clean what they could – after they’d attended a religious service, of course.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
Pioneers needed to be extra-resourceful while out on the Trail, especially with their recipes. Pinterest.

Food was basic but surprisingly tasty

If eating the same thing day after day seems like a nightmare, then the Oregon Trail wound not have been for you. This was hardly a gastronomic journey. Instead, practicality and logistics trumped any ideas about taste, and most people packed almost all the food they would need before they set off. While certainly dull, and often tasteless, it was surely better than relying on your hunting skills to eat fresh meat along the way.

Historical research carried out by the National Oregon-California Trail Center found that a typical family would have needed to pack 600 pounds of flour, 100 pounds of sugar and 200 pounds of lard for the road. Alongside this, they would most probably pack 100 pounds of sugar and 60 pounds of coffee, to be made fresh along the way when they found water. To supplement this, a wagon would often carry rice and even dried fruit. And then there was the bacon, the one real treat of the Oregon Trail. But even this was relatively tasteless since it would usually be heavily salted since it was stored in brine or packed in barrels of bran.

But still, the food wasn’t all that bad. There was often fresh bread. Plus, several Trail recipes survive to this day. The pioneers were highly adept at improvising and making the most of both what they packed and what they could find along the way. Dishes that were created through necessity on the Oregon Trail include Johnny Cake, a type of cornbread or tortilla, as well as corn pancakes, buffalo jerky, and the delightfully-named cornmeal mush. One extra-special treat for the pioneers was molasses stack cake. Made with eggs, molasses, cinnamon and nutmeg, this was usually saved for weddings or other special occasions, with fresh apples on the side making it even tastier.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
Thousands of people never made it to Oregon and were buried on the Trail. Wikipedia.org.

Death was always stalking the pioneers

Loren Hastings was one of the many thousands of Americans who completed the Oregon Trail. In 1847, after settling in the city of Portland, he looked back on his days on the move. He wrote: “I look back upon the long, dangerous and precarious emigrant road with a degree of romance and pleasure’ but to others it is the graveyard of their friends.” And, one might add, of their loved ones too. Not for nothing is the Oregon Trail route known as the ‘biggest graveyard in the United States’. Quite simply, anyone who set off on the trail had no guarantee of completing the journey.

In fact, an estimated one in ten of people who set off on the Oregon Trail did not survive. What’s more, among children, the odds dropped to one in five. Notably, far from ambushes or other violent attacks, by far the biggest causes of death were disease and accidents. In many cases, such accidents involved firearms – for, while actual premeditated shootings or murders were extremely rare, mishaps with loaded guns really weren’t. Animals actually killed more people on the Oregon Trail than humans did. There are countless tales of unfortunate souls being booted or trampled by horses or oxen, while wild animals, and above all rattlesnakes, also cut many a traveler’s journey short.

According to some estimates, some 65,000 people died on the Oregon Trail during its peak years. That means that, if they were buried at even spacing along the way, there would be one grave every 50 yards. And, in some ways, there actually is. In many cases, these pioneers died close enough to towns or settlements to be buried in a proper churchyard or cemetery. Often, though, they would simply be buried by the side of the road or, in a macabre twist, under the trail itself. Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon to see tell-tale, human-shaped bumps along the trail. But these were far from macabre. Instead, they were practical: When someone died, their bodies were left in the way of wagons. This was, the heavy wheels could run over the bodies and help erase any scents, keeping hungry wolves at bay.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
Pioneers were a close bunch – and many ended up falling in love. National Oregon/California Trail Center.

Love often blossomed on the Trail

There’s a good reason why the Oregon Trail has been used as a backdrop for many a romance novel. It had adventure, it had danger and excitement. And, above all, it was a place where love could blossom. After all, many of the early pioneers were young – many were hormonal teenagers or young adults – and single, and they were forced to travel together in close-knit little communities for weeks at a time. Small wonder, then, that many people fell in love on the way to Oregon, often forging relationships that would last a lifetime.

Many couples decided to get hitched before they set off on the journey of a lifetime – so, in a way, the Oregon Trail was actually a honeymoon journey for countless newlyweds. But for those who fell in love after they set off, they would usually have to wait until their wagons pulled into a settlement where a marriage ceremony could be performed. As a result, the small towns along the Platte River and Fort Laramie especially, became wedding towns, hosting dozens of ceremonies a month.

While young couples may have been able to get married on the Oregon Trail, they certainly wouldn’t have been able to enjoy any privacy as newlyweds. If they were lucky, the couple might get a wagon of their own, at least on the night of their wedding. But even then, their friends and relatives might play practical jokes on them. This was so commonplace, in fact, that there was even a term for it: A “shivaree” was when friends or relatives would make a huge din after the happy couple retired for the night. They might bang pots and pans right outside the marital wagon, or they could even drag the pair out and force them to take part in a drunken, mocking, parade. All in the best possible spirits, of course, and couples were eventually left in peace to consummate their unions.

For those men not lucky enough to have a wife to start the journey with or to find love on the way, there were always the brothels of the Oregon Trail. While many histories – and the classic computer game based on the trail – gloss over this part of history, not all pioneers were clean-living Christian folk. At almost every town and settlement along the way, men could make use of pubs and brothels. At Fort Laramie, for example, while happy couples got hitched, the single men would have gone to the Hog Ranch bordello. Cheyenne was also a hotbed of vice, and the reason why many men arrived in Oregon with much less money than they initially hoped to have.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
Many on the Oregon Trail believed it was God’s will that they were heading west. Oregon/California Trail Center.

You could find God on the road

The Road to Damascus it wasn’t. But still, like St Paul in the Bible, many people did indeed ‘see the light’ and convert to Christianity on the Trail to Oregon. This may have been in response to the natural beauty they saw all around them. Or it could have been that the vast expanses of empty land made them feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But in the vast majority of cases, however, people turned to God on the Trail after meeting, or even traveling alongside one of the many, many Christian missionaries who headed west during the Trail’s heyday.

In fact, the history of the Oregon Trail – and indeed, the history of North American exploration – is closely linked to the spread of Christianity through the country. As soon as explorers and pioneers started heading West, missionaries started to follow. Inevitably, they would try to convert anyone they met to Christianity. The mountain guides working along the route would call these missionaries ‘crazy do-gooders’. However, they both benefitted from their close connections: The guides could show the missionaries the directions to settlements, including Native American settlements, for which they would be paid. Notably, one of the first missionaries to make the journey was Marcus Whitman. He travelled the Oregon Trail in 1836. Accompanying him was his wife, Narcissa. She would become the first European-American women to cross the Rocky Mountains, all because of her faith.

For their part, the missionaries not only saved souls along the Oregon Trail, they also served as an early-day advertising agency for the route. Many of them sent letters back to their families in the East. In them, they would praise the beauty of Oregon and the fertility of the soil. They even maintained the rumor that new settlers would automatically receive 640 acres of land just for making the move.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
Contrary to popular perception, relations between pioneers and Native Americans were often very good. National Oregon/California Trail Center

Not all Native Americans were out to kill you!

According to popular perception, the biggest danger facing pioneers on the Oregon Trail was being attacked by Native Americans. Not so. Sure, the early pioneers did certainly fear the various tribes whose land they were to cross on the way to Oregon. But this was more due to the countless stories of clashes between wagon trains and Native Americans – most of them exaggerated to say the least – and not really a reflection of daily life on the trail. In fact, relations between Native Americans and pioneers were often friendly or at the very least cordial.

The two parties had good reason to remain on good terms, after all. The pioneers needed goods and food, and the Native Americans were happy to trade. Native American tribes could often be hired as guides in cases of bad weather or blocked roads. Indeed, for the early pioneers, Native Americans were a valuable source of help, without whom they might not have made it. For instance, the diaries of some pioneers tell how Native Americans would be waiting at rivers with canoes to help pioneers make the crossing. Or, in some cases, they served as porters, helping out those pioneers who were travelling on foot with their luggage in exchange for a small fee. There was also a vibrant trading scene. The Native Americans would trade buffalo hides or furs and might even sell horses in exchange for beads and tobacco.

However, sometimes the pioneers’ worst fears were realized. In one much-publicized case, the Ward Train was attacked by Soshones. In all, 19 pioneers were killed, many of them having been tortured beforehand. But the violence wasn’t all one-way. In fact, one of the biggest blood baths that occurred on the Oregon Trail was actually carried out by the pioneers. When a cow strayed into a Sioux village, the people living there slaughtered it and ate it. This infuriated the cow’s owner, a man by the name of Gratten. Even though the Sioux apologised and even offered Gratten a horse as compensation, he was not willing to back down. He and his men fired on the Sioux. Even though they didn’t fight back, the pioneers showed no mercy, killing several people, including the Sioux chief, Chief Conquering Bear. Enraged by this, the Native Americans finally retaliated, killing 29 men, including Gratten. The First Sioux War had begun.

10 Eye Opening Details about Life on the Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail was a long, arduous journey full of danger. Pinterest.

You would get nowhere fast

These days, a 2,000-mile overland trip across North America can be done in a couple of day. But the Oregon Trail was more a marathon than a sprint. This really was an epic adventure and a true test of endurance. It wasn’t so much a question of the distance, huge though this was. Indeed, even the fastest wagon could only really travel around 15 miles in a day, meaning the whole trip would take between four and six months to complete. Rather, it was the terrain involved that made the Oregon Trail such an ordeal – and the reason why so many people never actually made it to the end but perished along the way.

So tough was the trail that getting over the Rockies weren’t the only obstacle – though they were a formidable foe. Most pioneers reached the famous mountain range around three months into their journey, by which point they would most likely have been tired, hungry and perhaps even low on supplies. But the Rockies were a cakewalk compared to the Blue Mountains. Here, progress was extra slow, and extra dangerous, too. Men would be required to use ropes to haul wagons up the mountains, with women and children following behind, laying down rocks to ensure they didn’t roll backwards. Progress was glacial and accidents were all too common.

On the Oregon Trail, men were at the mercy of the elements. However, you could improve your chances of making it safely to Oregon by planning accordingly. Timing was everything. In the early days, some pioneers would set off as soon as winter ended. Big mistake. By this point, the grasses of the plains hadn’t grown long enough. Oxen starved and died, leaving wagons stranded. Alternatively, parties leaving it too late ran the very real risk of being hit by winter. There are many instances of wagon trains becoming stuck in snow or trapped by ice up in the mountains, with many even freezing to death.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Facts of the Oregon Trail”: USA Today, April 2018.

“Life and Death on the Oregon Trail”. The Oregon-California Trails Association.

“What Animals Were Found on the Oregon Trail?” Meg Jernigan, USA Today, March 2018.

“5 ‘Oregon Trail’ Diseases You Could Still Get.” Alex Gardner, Men’s Health, April 2014.

“The True Tale of the Oregon Trail”. Allison Williams, Seattle Met, February 2018.

“The bloody, sexy, drunken Oregon Trail”. Phil Edwards, Vox, March 2016.

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