Each step stirs dust on the dry path in this high desert plateau in eastern Oregon, where hundreds of thousands of American pioneers walked, changing the course of history. A roadside sign beneath Flagstaff Hill points the way to this path, where you can walk in the actual ruts made during the mids by the wagon trains on the Oregon Trail.
The sage and other brush along the trail may have thinned or thickened over time, but the vista is undoubtedly the same as that seen by the adventurers who made the 2,mile, six-month-long trek to the Oregon Territory in the American West. A tan-and-green valley covers the foreground, and the majestic and imposing forested Blue Mountains dominate the sky. It's impossible to ignore the ghosts of the pioneers who walked this way and helped shape America's destiny. With at least a month's journey still ahead at this point, did they appreciate the beauty of the mountain view?
Or was it just stark evidence of another near-impossible task to master?
This year, Oregon is marking the th anniversary of the trail, commemorating the first large, organized wagon train that left in late May of from near Independence, Mo. There were diary accounts made at the time and shortly thereafter, but even still, details about that group vary widely. Some say as many as 1, people began the trek; others say it was between and people in wagons, with as many as 5, livestock along for good measure. What's clear is that the U. Politicians were determined to expand the United States "from one ocean to the other," but individuals were looking for a better life after economic woes hit during the s, said Kelly Burns, supervisory park ranger at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City.
But there was more to it than that. The sense of adventure and the monumental challenge of traveling so far and so long into mostly uncharted territory shows determination. More than , pioneers traveled west on the Oregon Trail, which turns years old in Not until trappers Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick rediscovered the pass in did that critical route through the mountains became widely known.
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Missionaries Blaze the Oregon Trail
See Article History. Start Your Free Trial Today. By , when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. Wagon trails were cleared increasingly further west, eventually reaching the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Each year, as more settlers brought wagon trains along the trail, new cutoff routes were discovered that made the route shorter and safer.
Improved roads, ferries, and bridges also improved the trip. From the early to mids, and particularly through the epochal years of —, about , settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, and businessmen and their families used the Oregon Trail and its many offshoots. The eastern half of the trail was also used by travelers on the California Trail from , Bozeman Trail from , and Mormon Trail from , who used many of the same trails before turning off to their separate destinations.
Use of the trail declined as the first transcontinental railroad was completed in , making the trip west substantially faster, cheaper, and safer. Today, modern highways such as Interstate 80 follow the same course westward and pass through towns originally established to service the Oregon Trail. The Overland Trail also known as the Overland Stage Line was a stagecoach and wagon trail in the American west during the 19th century. While explorers and trappers had used portions of the route since the s, the Overland Trail was most heavily used in the s as an alternative route to the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails through central Wyoming.
Starting from Atchison, Kansas, the trail descended into Colorado before looping back up to southern Wyoming and rejoining the Oregon Trail at Fort Bridger. The stage line operated until , when completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad eliminated the need for mail service via stagecoach. Ruts on the Oregon Trail : So many wagons traveled the Oregon Trail that ruts are still visible along some sections. This photograph was taken in in Wyoming.
In the 19th century, as today, relocating and starting a new life took money. Because of the initial cost of relocation, land, and supplies, as well as months of preparing the soil, planting, and subsequent harvesting before any produce was ready for market, the original wave of western settler-invaders along the Oregon Trail in the s and s consisted of moderately prosperous, white, native-born farming families from the east.
More recent immigrants also migrated west, with the largest numbers coming from Northern Europe and Canada. Germans, Scandinavians, and Irish were among the most common. Compared with European immigrants, those from China were much less numerous, yet still significant. In addition to a significant European migration westward, several thousand African Americans migrated west following the Civil War, as much to escape the racism and violence of the Old South as to find new economic opportunities.
The latter were were known as exodusters, referencing the biblical flight from Egypt, because they fled the racism of the South, with most headed to Kansas from Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. By , over , African Americans lived west of the Mississippi River. While the motivation for private profit dominated much of the movement westward, the federal government played a supporting role in securing land and maintaining law and order. Despite the Jeffersonian aversion to, and mistrust of, federal power, the government bore more heavily into the West than any other region, fueled by the ideas of manifest destiny.
Because local governments in western frontier towns were often nonexistent or weak, westerners depended on the federal government to protect them and their rights.
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The federal government established a sequence of actions related to control over western lands. First, it sent surveyors and explorers to map and document the land and ultimately acquire western territory from other nations or American Indian tribes by treaty or force. Next, it ordered federal troops to clear out and subdue any resistance from American Indians. It subsidized the construction of railroad lines to facilitate westward migration, and finally, it established bureaucracies to manage the land such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Land Office, US Geological Survey, and Forest Service.
By the end of the 19th century, the federal government had amassed great size, power, and influence in national affairs. Transportation was a key issue in westward expansion. The Army especially the Army Corps of Engineers was given full responsibility for facilitating navigation on the rivers. The steamboat, first used on the Ohio River in , made inexpensive travel using the river systems possible. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries were especially used for this purpose.
Army expeditions up the Missouri River from to allowed engineers to improve the technology. During this period, Colonel Henry Atkinson developed keelboats with hand-powered paddle wheels. In addition to river travel, the Oregon and Overland Trails allowed for increased travel and migration to the West.
The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in dramatically changed the pace of travel in the country, as people were able to complete in a week a route that had previously taken months. The rigors of life in the West presented many challenges and difficulties to homesteaders. The land was dry and barren, and homesteaders lost crops to hail, droughts, insect swarms, and other challenges. There were few materials with which to build, and early homes were made of mud, which did not stand up to the elements. Money was a constant concern, as the cost of railroad freight was exorbitant, and banks were unforgiving of bad harvests.
For women, life was especially difficult; farm wives worked at least 11 hours a day on chores and had limited access to doctors or midwives. Still, many women were more independent than their eastern counterparts and worked in partnership with their husbands. As the railroad expanded and better farm equipment became available, by the s, large farms began to succeed through economies of scale.
Yet small farms still struggled to stay afloat, leading to rising discontent among the farmers, who worked so hard for so little success. Although homestead farming was the primary goal of most western settlers in the latter half of the 19th century, a small minority sought to make their fortunes quickly through other means. Specifically, gold and subsequently silver and copper prospecting attracted thousands of miners looking to get rich quickly before returning East.
In addition, ranchers capitalized on newly available railroad lines to move longhorn steers that populated southern and western Texas. This meat was highly sought after in eastern markets, and the demand created not only wealthy ranchers but an era of cowboys and cattle drives that in many ways defines how we think of the West today. Although neither miners nor ranchers intended to remain permanently in the West, many individuals from both groups ultimately stayed and settled there.
The American West became notorious for its hard mining towns.
Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills, was an archetypal late gold town founded in Although the town was far from any railroad, 20, people lived there as of Tombstone, Arizona was a notorious mining town that flourished longer than most, from to Silver was discovered there in , and by the town had a population of over 10, Entrepreneurs in these and other towns set up stores and businesses to cater to the miners.
The popular image of the Wild West portrayed in books, television, and film has been one of violence and mayhem. The lure of quick riches through mining or driving cattle meant that much of the West indeed consisted of rough men living a rough life, although the violence was exaggerated and even glorified in the dime-store novels of the day. The exploits of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and others made for good stories, but the reality was that western violence was more isolated than the stories might suggest. These clashes often occurred as people struggled for the scarce resources that could make or break their chance at riches, or as they dealt with the sudden wealth or poverty that prospecting provided.
As wealthy men brought their families west, the lawless landscape slowly began to change. Abilene, Kansas is one example of a lawless town, replete with prostitutes, gambling, and other vices, that transformed when middle-class women arrived in the s with their husbands. These women began to organize churches, schools, civic clubs, and other community programs to promote family values. Western mining towns : The first gold prospectors in the s and s worked with easily portable tools that allowed them to follow their dream and try to strike it rich a.
It did not take long for the most accessible minerals to be stripped, making way for large mining operations, including hydraulic mining, where high-pressure water jets removed sediment and rocks b. During the early years of settlement on the Great Plains, women played an integral role in ensuring family survival by working the fields alongside their husbands and children. This was in addition to their handling of many other responsibilities, such as child-rearing, feeding and clothing the family and hired hands, and managing the housework.
As late as , a typical farm wife could expect to devote 9 hours per day to chores such as cleaning, sewing, laundering, and preparing food. Two additional hours were spent cleaning the barn and chicken coop, milking the cows, caring for the chickens, and tending the family garden. While some women could find employment in the newly settled towns as teachers, cooks, or seamstresses, they originally were deprived of many rights. Women were not permitted to sell property, sue for divorce, serve on juries, or vote. For the vast majority of women, work was not in towns for money, but on the farm.
Despite these obstacles, the challenges of farm life eventually empowered women to break through certain legal and social barriers. Many lived more equitably as partners with their husbands than did their eastern US counterparts. If widowed, a wife typically took over responsibility for the farm, a level of management very rare back east, where the farm would fall to a son or another male relation. Pioneer women made important decisions and were considered by their husbands to be more equal partners in the success of the homestead.
This was because of the necessity that all members had to work hard and contribute to the farming enterprise for it to succeed. Outside the family, women also played a crucial role in the community. People living in rural areas created rich social lives for themselves, often sponsoring activities that combined work, food, and entertainment, such as barn raising, corn husking, quilting bees, Grange meetings, church activities, and school functions.
Women also organized shared meals, potluck events, and extended visits between families. Homesteading family : Many women traveled west with family groups, such as the mother in this photograph. While homesteaders were often families, gold speculators and ranchers tended to be single men in pursuit of fortune.
The few women who went to these wild outposts were typically prostitutes, and even their numbers were limited. In , in the Comstock Lode region of Nevada, for example, there were reportedly only 30 women in a town with some 2, men. Women found occupations in all walks of frontier life. Some women worked in brothels despite the harsh and dangerous working conditions.
Many Chinese women, for example, came to the western camps as prostitutes to make money to send back home. However, life for these young women remained a challenging one as western settlement progressed. A handful of women, no more than , braved both the elements and male-dominated culture to become teachers in several of the more established cities in the West. Even fewer arrived to support their husbands or operate stores in the mining towns. Toward the latter part of the 19th century, wealthy men began bringing their families west, and the mostly lawless landscape slowly began to change.
Middle-class women arrived in the s with their husbands and established boarding houses, organized church societies, and worked as laundresses and seamstresses. These women began to organize churches, school, civic clubs, and other community programs to promote family values. They fought to remove opportunities for prostitution and other vices they felt threatened their values.
Annie Oakley — was an American sharpshooter and exhibition shooter whose talent first came to light when, at age 15, she won a shooting match with traveling show marksman Frank E. Butler whom she later married. Pearl Hart c. She committed one of the last recorded stagecoach robberies in the United States. Her crime gained notoriety primarily because she was a woman. A native of County Cork, Ireland, she and her sister were brought as young children to the United States by their mother around to escape the poverty of the Great Famine.
Cashman established her first boarding house for miners in British Columbia during the Klondike Gold Rush. During her time there, she led a rescue of dozens of miners in the Cassiar Mountains. In the late s, Cashman set up several restaurants and boarding houses in Arizona. In , she went to the Yukon for gold prospecting, and worked there until She became nationally known as a frontierswoman, with the Associated Press covering a later trip.
After a series of skirmishes with Mexico, the Republic of Texas won independence in and was annexed into the United States in Examine the economic motivations behind the Mexico and Texas war and the subsequent annexation of Texas by the United States. Anglo-Americans, primarily from the southern United States, began emigrating to Mexican Texas in the s at the request of the Mexican government, which sought to populate the sparsely inhabited lands of its northern frontier and mitigate attacks from American Indian tribes in the region.
Anglo-Americans soon became a majority in Texas and quickly became dissatisfied with Mexican rule. The soil and climate were conducive to expanding slavery and the cotton kingdom. To many whites, it seemed not only their God-given right but also their patriotic duty to populate the lands beyond the Mississippi River, bringing with them American slavery, culture, laws, and political traditions.
Most US settlers were from southern states, and many had brought slaves with them. Mexico tried to accommodate them by maintaining the questionable assertion that the slaves were indentured servants. However, American slaveholders in Texas distrusted the Mexican government and wanted Texas to be a new US slave state. The great dislike for Roman Catholicism coupled with a widely held belief in American racial superiority led to a generally racist and discriminatory view toward Mexicans. Fifty-five delegates from the Anglo-American settlements in Texas gathered in with demands including creation of an independent state of Texas separate from Coahuila.