The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It

Trista - November 18, 2018

There were countless trails created from the wheels of the wagons. If the cart was too heavy to cross the water, household necessities were often left behind. Parents often died, leaving their children to fend for themselves. By the end of the era, there were at least ten people buried within every mile. This story, fictional as it sounds, was the reality of the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
The location of the Louisiana Purchase over a modern USA. William Morris / Wikipedia.

16. The Cost of the Louisiana Purchase

The Louisiana Purchase treaty was dated April 30, 1803, and signed on May 2nd. This purchase gave the United States Louisiana Territory, which doubled the size of the country. President Thomas Jefferson, Robert Livingston, and James Monroe were all astonished about the deal they made with France of the Louisiana Purchase. The territory they claimed through the sale was larger the Great Britain, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, and Portugal combined. With this purchase, America gained about 828,000 square miles of land. The final price of the total investment was $27,267,622.

One problem with the Louisiana Purchase was how vague the treaty was. There were no necessary boundaries established, which did create tension over the next few years and caused another war with Great Britain. However, limits eventually developed. With the Louisiana Purchase, the land became available for settlement and exploration. However, there were not many people who wanted to venture into the unknown territory. It was not too long after the purchase that Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Lewis and Clark expedition. Jefferson wanted to know what the land consisted of and, more importantly, he tried to get people to settle there.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Portrait of Meriweather Lewis and William Clark circa 1807. Wikimedia Commons.

15. The Real Lewis and Clark

In a June 20, 1803 letter, President Thomas Jefferson sent instructions for the expedition to Meriwether Lewis. Jefferson put Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in charge of putting together a crew to explore the Louisiana Territory. They were sent to see what the area contained and determined if it was livable for Americans. Lewis and Clark started their journey in 1804 and traveled throughout the newly purchased territory until 1806. They called their crew the Corps of Discovery.

The trip spanned about 8,000 total miles. They went up the Missouri River, up and down the Ohio River, across the Continental Divide and to the Pacific Ocean. Throughout their whole journey, Lewis wrote down such information as geographical information, what wildlife they encountered, ethnocentric knowledge, and weather. On their return home, they received many welcoming parties as they passed through various areas heading to Washington, D.C. Once the duo reached Washington, they were given a warm welcome. As practically a household name, the pair is still considered some of the best explorers in American history.

In the end, several states were founded over the Louisiana Purchase. These states are parts of Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. In addition, it also paved the path to Oregon Territory and California. Without the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark, the routes for the Oregon Trail or being able to move west would not have been possible.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
A re-enactment of the Oregon Trail. Newsela.

14. The First People Who Took the Trails Were Fur Trappers and Mountain Men

It was missionaries, fur trappers, and what came to be known as mountain men who were the first people to become interested in the new American territory. It would be this group of people that would lay the rest of the foundation for the significant migration into Oregon and California. The Oregon Trail was not created all at once but was built over time and piece by piece. Fur traders, who were in the business of buying and selling animal fur, started to explore the territory in the 1820s.

It was the mountain men who really began to explore the territory. Mountain men were rugged and were uncomfortable in a civilized society. However, even their exploration was slow going, and they were not sure how far they could safely go. Throughout the 1820s, they began to create a path that would soon become known as the Oregon Trail. Some of the most famous Mountain men who would help pilot this trail were Jed Smith, Bill Sublett, Jim Bridger, Jim Clyman, and Tom Fitzpatrick that would blaze the trail. In fact, it was these men who traveled and clearly defined the South Pass.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Several miles from Lewellen in western Nebraska, this Oregon Trail marker is near the top of Windlass Hill. Lincoln Journal Star.

13. The Oregon Trail Begins to Grow Before the First Wagon Train Leaves for Settlement

Stops along the Oregon Trail for supplies were springing up in the 1820s. Fort Vancouver was one of the first areas established on the Columbia River by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was this area that would quickly become a prominent trading post. In 1827, Independence, Missouri was established. This city would become the original starting point of the Santa Fe Trail, which would branch off from the Oregon Trail for those who would decide to head to California instead of Oregon Territory.

Then in the early 1830s, 110 soldiers and a United States Military Officer were sent to test the trail. These men knew that they might not make it back and were prepared for nearly any situation because no one was genuinely sure if anyone would be able to make the trail in ox-drawn wagons. Their journey ended just southeastern of Washington, which was just a little short of their goal. Nonetheless, this inspired another group that the trip could be made. It was not too long after the United States Military trip that missionaries started to make their way along the Oregon Trail.

The goal of the missionaries was to try to convert the Native American to Christianity. By 1834, a small group of ministers had formed a community in northwestern Oregon. Of course, the only people in this group were males because, at the time, people were still unsure that women and children would be able to handle the trail. However, this all changed two years later when two female missionaries, Eliza Spalding and Narcissa Whitman, proved that women would be able to handle the trip when they reached Oregon. This action also made these two women the first white women to cross the Rockies and reach Oregon territory.

By the time the first pioneer wagon train left in 1841, there were several stops along the Oregon Trail which were often used as supply stops. Over time these stops would also become areas where the Oregon Trail would branch off into other trails, such as the Santa Fe Trail towards California. Some of these stops were Independence Rock, Fort Hall, Fort Laramie, and Soda Springs. Without these early travelers along the Oregon Trail, there would not have been as many supplies stop as there were for the pioneers who traveled the trails during the 1840s and into the 1850s.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
A painting of the Oregon Trail. History/Getty.

12. Wagon Preparations to Head West Took More Than a Year

The trail was over 2,000 miles, and it would generally take anywhere from four to seven months for a wagon train to complete. The preparation a pioneer family would put in for their journey west would take more than a year. Often, a family had to sell their home long before they began the journey to pay for all the supplies the particular wagon would need. Sometimes the package included two carts for one family and the oxen that they would need to make the trip. About $1,000 would need to be saved per family for the journey.

The supplies for the trip would cost an average of $539.60. Some of the necessities included 200 pounds of flour, 100 pounds of bacon for each family member, beans, lard, coffee, rice, salt, biscuits, dried fruit, and sugar. On top of that, the pioneers had to sell their horses in order to buy oxen. Horses would not be strong enough to carry the wagon, which would often weigh as much as 2,500 pounds. So each cart would need about four to six oxen for the trip.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
The side view of an Oregon wagon drawing. Oregon Trail Center.

11. Organization of the Wagon Was Crucial For Daily Loading and Unloading

The wagon was carefully organized because everything the family had and could take with them had to fit. All of the people and belongings were also arranged in a certain way because they would have to be unloaded every night and reloaded the following morning. The wagon was made to live inside measuring 12 to 14 feet long and would be able to carry as much as five tons. The bottom of the cart would be covered with chests and boxes that stored the dishes, tools, and clothing. In the back of the wagon was the washtub, iron stove, and storage of food. On top of these items were cloth mattresses filled with goose feathers and horsehair, blankets, and pillows.

Other supplies, such as pots and pans, were hung on the outside of the wagon. Because the carts were so full, there would be no room for passengers in the back. Therefore, everyone but pregnant women, elderly, and the sick would walk. This long haul meant that on average each family member would need about nine pairs of shoes for the trip. Then there were the supplies of tools that were needed not only for the journey but also for being able to build a home once the pioneers reached their destination. These tools often consisted of an ax, augers, gimlet, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, chains, hammer, nails, hoe, plow, shovel, ox shoes, and spade.

Of course, there was more to the preparation than just supplies, wagon, oxen, shoes, and money. There was also the organization of the wagon train. Each wagon train had a leader, who would be in charge of when the wagon train would start and stop. They would also set the pace for the wagon train. There was an organization on when the wagon train would leave the area the pioneers were living in at the time. With all this preparation and the pioneer’s knowledge of danger along the trail, people have often wondered why the pioneers decided to take the trip out west.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Wagons in a circle on the Oregon Trail. wyoshpo.

10. The Numbers of Oregon Trail Travelers Skyrocketed for Years

While “Oregon Fever” began to take hold in 1841 with the first pioneer wagon, it was not until two years later in 1843 where “Oregon Fever” really took shape. In 1841, the first pioneer wagon train held about 70 people who made their way to Oregon Territory. The following year, the number jumped to nearly 100 pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail. However, 1842 would not even compare to the number of pioneers which would traverse the Oregon Trail in 1843. In total, around 1,000 pioneers took the trail to Oregon or California during the spring, summer, and fall of 1843.

Many historians believe that the main reason why the number of pioneers jumped so high within a year had to do with the depression which took shape between 1842 and 1843. This reason, mixed with the advertising about the land in Oregon from the fur traders, government, and missionaries created the will in farmers to travel west. On top of this, farmers were getting frustrated with their land out in Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, which was not doing much to help their finances and lives. These combined reasons made the farmers believe and hope that they would be able to create a better experience for themselves and their families in Oregon.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Covered wagons crossing water. Film fanatic.

9. Crossing the Water with a Wagon Was One of the Biggest Obstacles

Crossing the rivers was one of the biggest obstacles for wagons because it was so dangerous for them. Before the wagon trains would cross the river, they had to make sure they had found the safest place to pass. By the mid-1840s, the Oregon Trail had been scouted out pretty well. However, before the 1840s, travelers would have to take time to look for the best place to cross. Usually, the safest place was where the lowest point of the river was as that was the least dangerous for wagon trains. Unfortunately, many currents were over four feet high, and this created a more robust job for the wagon trains and the pioneers.

Nevertheless, no matter how shallow the water was, the pioneers had to make sure that the wagon was light enough for the oxen to bring it across the river. This notion would mean that some of the heaviest items were taken out of the carts and either carried across by hand or left there. The things that were often left and not transported across the river were known as “leeverites” items, from the pioneers saying “leave ‘er right there.”

If the water was fast-moving or too high for a team of oxen to bring the wagon, a raft known as scows were created to get everything and everyone across. The barges were made from fallen trees and rods which were tied together. There were also posts that were placed in the scow to keep the wagon in place. Just like with the shallow water, the wagons had to be light enough for the barges so they could cross without too much of a problem. Once the carts were across, they would stop re-pack the items left over and continue on their journey.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
A family on the Oregon Trail around 1850. Scholastic/Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo.

8. Native Americans Were Friendly and Helpful, But Most Pioneers Feared Them

One of the biggest things the pioneers on the trails dealt with was fear. They often feared the Native Americans in the area due to many reasons. First, they were told of stories where the Native Americans would try to harm and kill men and often kidnapped women and children. The pioneers were usually prepared for an attack at any moment. They would also organize their wagon trains in a certain way at night to protect themselves and their belongings from the Native Americans. Every night the wagons would be set in a circle, where the pioneers and their belongings would reside to protect themselves from an attack.

Pioneers would also fear that Native Americans would dig up the bodies of those who had died along the Oregon Trail for the corpse’s clothing. Therefore, to stop the Native Americans from knowing where they buried their loved ones and travel mate, they would have their campfire where on top of the actual dirt. Then they would run over the ashes with the wagons in the morning to keep the ground from looking like it had recently been dug up.

However, as time went on, many pioneers came to learn that the majority of Native Americans did not want to harm them. The Native Americans were often very helpful towards the pioneers. Native Americans would often help any starving pioneers by showing them how to cook certain foods or trading food for other items that they had. They also advised the pioneers to find the best places to cross the rivers. The Native Americans also would help the wounded or the sick if they could. In many ways the relationship between the pioneers and Native American were positive.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Tracks of the Oregon Trail. Salsacycles.

7. Traces of the Oregon Trail Can Still Be Viewed in Certain Areas

By 1870, over 400,000 pioneers had traveled the Oregon Trails. By this point, the routes were distinct, even though pioneers were still trying to find quicker ways to Oregon territory and California. With all these pioneers who traveled the paths, it is no wonder that there are still bits and pieces of this history around. Today, there are many areas where you can see the tracks of some of the Oregon Trail routes. Thus, more people than you think have traveled parts of the Oregon Trail.

In fact, there are about nine places where you can still view the trails of the wagons. Kansas City, Missouri holds some very hidden tracks at Red Bridge Crossing. Blue Rapids is the other place in Kansas with remnants of the trail. Brule and Fairbury in Nebraska both still reveal parts of the Oregon Trail. In Wyoming, you can see tracks at both Guernsey and Casper. Traces can be seen in Montpelier, Idaho as well as Baker City and Biggs Junction, which are both in Oregon.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
A painting of Oregon Trail pioneers. Oregon Trail Center.

6. Men and Boys Had Difficult Tasks to Endure Along the Trail

The men of the pioneer families who traveled the trails were often the head of the families and were in charge of keeping their family together and everything moving with the pace of the train. At night, they would also take turns guarding the wagon trains. The men, and often the boys starting at the age of seven or eight, were in charge of hunting while on the trail. While each family brought their own supply of food and most supply stops on the path would carry food, it was usually boxed and canned goods.

The only type of meat most families would bring on the trail was bacon. However, that was usually just used as breakfast meat; so for supper, the males of the wagon train would often look around for rabbits or other types of animals that they could cook for meat. They would also hunt bigger animals and would be able to store the meat for a while. Sometimes the emigrants only ate twice a day, in the morning and the evening when they stopped for the night.

Another job that the men and boys had was to gather wood for the campfires. The wagons did not travel with wood because that would not only take up more space in the back of the cart, but it would also add to the weight of the wagon. The pioneers already had enough struggle when it came to the weight and the packing of the wagons with the items they had to bring for all their family members. Teenage boys were often given the task of making sure the livestock got fed. They would also learn such tasks as how to drive the wagons.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
A painting of a family on the Oregon Trail. Pinterest.

5. Women and Girls Had Hardships, Too

Women and girls often had a tougher time on the trail than the males. Some of this was because the wives had not to say whether they wanted to go on the path or not. However, many other factors played into this. Not only did women tend to the children, take care of the cooking and the cleaning, but they would also have to tend to the sick and injured. On top of this, it was often the women who would be busy unloading the wagon for the night because the men would go off to hunt for food.

Then again in the morning, it was often the women’s jobs to get up early enough, so they could make breakfast and pack up the wagon. All the carts had to be packed up and ready to go by the time the leader of the wagon train announced the start of their journey. This announcement often came as a whistle or another loud noise that would alert all the wagons that it was time to move out. If a cart was not ready by this time, which was usually around 7:00 in the morning, they were going to be left behind.

If it were left behind, the wagon would either have to catch up or just travel along the rest of the way. Like the older women on the wagon train, teenage girls often had a variety of chores during their journals. Not only did they have the traditional duties of cooking, cleaning, and helping look after the young children but some were also given other tasks. A couple of these tasks could be learning how to drive the wagons and ride the horses.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Oregon Trail Tombstone. Kansas Historical Society.

4. Death Was Common, Especially Through Disease and Drowning

The pioneers knew the trail would be tough and that injury or death could happen, however, many were unaware of how dangerous the path was until they were part of a wagon train. There were many steep hills, high rivers that were fast-flowing, and other dangers along the trail that would contribute to injury or death. Many pioneers drowned while trying to cross the rivers. In fact, drownings were the second cause of death on the Oregon Trail. The first cause was disease. Between the years 1840 to 1860 as many as 300 emigrants drowned while trying to cross rivers along the Oregon Trail.

Disease would spread quickly along the wagon train because everyone was in close quarters every day with everyone else. While the sick were kept in the back of the wagon, they were still cared for not only by their family members but sometimes by members of another family. One of the most significant diseases that claimed many lives was cholera. This disease is spread through contaminated water and food. The only source of water for the emigrants on the wagon trains were the rivers and ponds, which could easily cause cholera. The two key symptoms of this disease are dehydration and diarrhea. The virus could also cause seizures.

There usually was no doctor or supplies to treat any disease along the Oregon Trail so many emigrants would quickly succumb to their illness. It would only take a matter of hours for a person who was suffering from Cholera to pass away. Of course, there is no other place to bury those who died during the travel but on the side of the Oregon Trail. It is believed that about 10,000 people died during the history of the Oregon Trail. It is also stated that by the end of the Oregon Trail. By 1860, there were about ten graves in each mile along the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Across the Plains in 1844 by Catherine Sager Pringle. Goodreads.

3. Children Like the Sagers Were Often Left Alone on the Oregon Trail If Their Parents Died

Sometimes children were left alone on the Oregon Trail due to the death of their parents. If this unfortunate event occurred, children were often adopted or taken in by another family along the trail, such as the case of the Sager children. In 1844 Henry and Naomi Sager and their six children would become seven while on the Oregon Trail, were left alone after both their parents died. Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman then adopted them.

However, tragedy would strike the Sager children again when the Whitman family and the two oldest Sager children were murdered in what is now known as the Whitman massacre, which occurred in November of 1847. It was the oldest Sager girl, Catherine, who wrote her account of traveling the Oregon Trail. The book is called Across the Plains in 1844. Today it is known as one of the best reports of the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
Photo of a wagon in the prairie. Windriver.

2. While the Whole Trail was Challenging, the Worst Part was Near the End

While the whole trail was tough on the pioneers, it usually became harder as the path went on. Part of this was because near the end of the journey, there was practically little to no food left for many of the families. During the most significant years of traveling, which was from the mid-1840s and into the early 1860s, the supply stops would not be able to keep up with the demands of food and supplies. Therefore, some of the families on the wagon trains were not able to resupply their wagon throughout the trip.

Moreover, there were always times when the supplies and food out become damaged, lost, or fell out of the wagon due to the rivers that needed to be crossed and driving conditions of the trail. Furthermore, sometimes pioneers ended up giving some of their food to Native Americans in return for help the pioneers received from the Native Americans along the path. There were times when families were so desperate for food that they started to eat rawhide or tree bark just to try to keep alive.

The Oregon Trail Was Filled with Hardship and Surprises, these 16 Facts Prove It
James F. and Margaret (Keyes) Reed, who were members of the Donner Party. History.

1. The Donner Party is One of the Most Disturbing Stories from the Oregon Trail

While becoming so desperate as to eat tree bark seems like the worst part of the trail, there was one instance where it became worse for one wagon train party in the 1840s. The wagon train party is now known as the Donner Party or the Donner-Reed Party. This group began their wagon train trip to California in May of 1846, which was a reasonable time for wagon trains to leave. Just like any other wagon train, the Donner Party figured they had plenty of time to get to California; however, they would not finish their trip in the usual four to seven months.

The Donner Party wagon train decided to take a new route to California, which came to be called the Hastings Cutoff. This trail crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert and Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. It was also believed to be a bit shorter than the previous paths. However, being a new route, it was not as well worn by last wagon trains as the original trails were to California. Therefore, the Donner Party ran into a lot of mishaps, difficulties, and rugged terrain during their journey. On top of that, the party ran into winter weather once they reached the Sierra Nevada and got caught for the winter.

In mid-December, some members from the Donner Party decided to go on foot for help. Unfortunately, support did not come fast enough. While many rescuers were trying to reach the Donner Party, it would not happen soon enough. Several of the members of the Donner Party became sick and weak due to lack of food. It did not take long for the members of the wagon train to start dying due to starvation, the cold winter weather, and illness. Soon, the remaining members began to resort to cannibalism.

Finally, in February of 1847, a group of rescuers was able to reach the Donner Party, but it was months after the wagon train had become trapped in the Sierra Nevada. Only 48 out of 87 were alive when the rescuers came. Many were held back due to being too weak, including children being separated from their parents. It wasn’t until the beginning of March when the second rescue party arrived for the remaining members of the party. Only seventeen of them would be heading there with the second party. Five people remained at Truckee Lake until a third relief party was able to get them.


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

“Remembering the Oregon Trail.” Karen Kellaher, Scholastic. May 2018.

“Nine Places Where You Can Still See Wheel Tracks from the Oregon Trail.” Jennifer Billock, Smithsonianmag. October 2016.

“10 Things You Should Know About the Donner Party.” Evan Andrews, History. April 2016.

“What Life on the Oregon Trail Was Really Like.” Jacoby Bancroft, Ranker.

“Oregon Trail—Facts, information and articles about the Westward Expansion” Editors, History.

“Interesting facts about the Oregon Trail and the pioneers that endured its hardships during their journey.” Ian Harvey, the vintage news. February 2017.

“Oregon Trail.” Wikipedia.

“What It Was Like on the REAL Oregon Trail?” Family History, Ancestry. August 2014.

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