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

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

Trista - November 18, 2018

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.