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

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 traveling 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 Shoshones. 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 apologized 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 days. 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.