Oregon History: Overland to Oregon

covered wagon
"Oregon Fever" brought a wave of overland travel in the 1840s. Shown above is a covered wagon on display at the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center on Flagstaff Hill near Baker City. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
Some said there was a contagion in the land and called it the "Oregon Fever." It caused dreams, persuaded men and women to give up all that was familiar, risk their lives and fortunes, and set out for the far shores of the Pacific. The overland emigrations of the mid-nineteenth century were one of the epochal events of human history. Seldom had so many traveled so far by land to seek a new beginning.
The motives for moving to Oregon were clear. Tens of thousands of Americans residing along the frontier from Minnesota to Texas were land speculators. Many had moved before, to buy a new farm, erect a home and barn, clear and fence fields, and sell their "improvements." They were poised to do so again, particularly when senators Lewis Linn and Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri repeatedly introduced bills in Congress calling for grants of up to 1,000 free acres for those who would settle in Oregon. Land speculation ran in their veins. Even when the bills did not pass, thousands were ready to take the risk and hope, in time, Congress would reward their labors.
Oregon had a good press founded on careful observations and scientific authority. The reports of Lewis and Clark, the Astorians, the narratives of John B. Wyeth (1833), Samuel Parker (1838), William Slacum (1838), John Kirk Townsend (1839), Lieutenant John C. Fremont (1845), Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1846), and Lieutenant Neil Howison (1848) described a rich land with attractive potentials. Letters from missionaries to newspapers and magazines, sermons and lectures delivered during fund-raising in the East, summary reports such as that by Robert Greenhow (1840)--all laid before the public the region's prospects. The pull factors attracting emigration to Oregon were land, timber, salmon, a climate favorable for agriculture, sites for water power, and a peaceful environment. Relations with natives had remained positive and stable throughout the fur-trade era.
A political cartoon laments unemployment brought on by the Panic of 1837.
On the other end, several push factors motivated frontier residents to consider relocating. The late 1830s and early 1840s were a period of calamitous flooding along the Missouri, Mississippi, and Ohio Rivers. Many who had foolishly built on the floodplains watched their cabins, barns, and split-rail fences wash away in freshets and waited anxiously for weeks as floodwaters drowned their fields and ruined their crops. The Panic of 1837 plunged the country toward depression. Bank failures, currency problems, poor credit, and the inability to pay off loans beset millions. Many hungered for a chance to walk away from their losses and heartaches for a new beginning. Recurrent fevers, particularly malaria, beset many who lived on the frontier. Oregon had a good reputation for health; though thousands of Indians perished in the 1830s, most Euro-Americans remained well.
So the stage was set: Oregon's allure was strong, and the pressure to move out pushed many. A small emigration of about 100 people in 1842 followed Dr. Elijah White westward. The following spring, nearly a thousand emigrants gathered along the Missouri frontier to wait until the prairies were dry enough to travel. They loaded their wagons with dried fruit and vegetables, flour, bran, cornmeal, beans, bacon, ham, and kegs of vinegar. They brought weapons, clothing, tools, blankets and quilts, and a few treasured possessions. Most carried light tinware for eating, a reflector oven for baking biscuits, a spider for holding the coffee pot, and a frying pan. Musicians put in a violin, accordion, or Jew's harp. All else they sold or gave away to family and friends. Those who brought too much were compelled to abandon their possessions along the trail.
photograph of Doctor Elijah White
Dr. Elijah White led about 100 people overland to Oregon in 1842, helping to trigger much larger numbers of travelers in subsequent years. Learn more about White. (Image via OHS)
No one had ever seen anything like it before. The waves of emigrants grew. More than 3,000 traveled overland to Oregon in 1845; by 1850 an estimated 9,000 had crossed the trail to the Pacific Northwest. They knew their journey was a rite of passage. For the first time in their lives, and for many the only time, they penned daily entries in diaries. Their trip was epochal. They were part of history and wanted to record their participation in it.
The overland journey exacted many tolls. For some it was death on the trail. In many respects the Oregon Trail became one continuous, linear cemetery. Along its course lay the remains of men, women, and children who died of cholera, measles, dysentery, drownings, and accidents. Guns misfired; wagons overturned; cattle bolted; clothing caught fire--the calamities that befell those on a four- to six-month camping trip were many. In spite of the hardships of 1,950 miles of trail between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Oregon City, Oregon, the trip was a great adventure. Vast herds of buffalo, visits of Indians wanting to trade, the distant Wind River Mountains, basalt flows and canyons along the Snake, and the succession of sunrises and sunsets were all part of the experience. Boys found swimming holes. Women and girls did their best to create a semblance of home by cooking creatively and maintaining norms of domesticity. The men went hunting and fishing, bartered with one another for horses and gear, and carved or marked their names in axle grease on prominent rocks near the trail.
The overland journey was often the migration of an extended family. Parents, children, and grandparents made up the parties. Sometimes several brothers, their families, their sisters and their families, and young hired hands from the neighborhood constituted the group. If one family migrated in 1846, three related families might migrate in 1847 to join them in Oregon. The Applegate family, immigrants of 1843 to Polk County and settlers by 1848 of the Umpqua Valley, were illustrative. Three brothers, their wives, and 39 children constituted this clan. The families took adjoining land claims near Yoncalla. The connections of kinship and friendship were part of the social fabric that knit frontier Oregon in the mid-nineteenth century.
The primary Oregon Trail ran from Fort Hall to Fort Boise in Idaho, then via Burnt River to the Grande Ronde Valley. It crossed the Blue Mountains and the Columbia Plateau, running up to 20 miles south of the river almost to The Dalles. Travelers then made a perilous trip by canoe, bateau, or log raft through the Columbia Gorge to western Oregon. By 1846 they had another option, transit of the Barlow Road, a rugged, rock-filled trace through the forests across the Cascade Mountains to Oregon City.
drawing of Samuel Barlow
Samuel Barlow opened the Barlow Road in 1846. The route provided a land alternative to the raft trip down the Columbia River. Learn more about Barlow. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
In 1845 Stephen H.L. Meek led nearly a thousand emigrants with their 200 wagons and livestock east from the Snake River onto Oregon's high desert. The shortcut he proposed over the Cascades proved a terrible trail. Eventually the wagon train had to work its way through the Deschutes River watershed to regain the old trail at The Dalles. That same year Samuel Barlow, Joel Palmer, William Rector, and others blazed a trace around the southern slopes of Mount Hood. They were compelled to abandon their wagons in the mountains, but the following year workmen opened the Barlow Road, a final overland segment of the Oregon Trail. Thousands traveled its course and paid the toll until 1919, when it passed to the State of Oregon. In 1846 explorers from the Willamette Valley opened the Applegate Trail. This route cut southwest from Fort Hall, crossed the deserts of northern Nevada, passed through the Klamath Basin and Rogue River Valley, and then entered the Willamette Valley from the south. Many who settled in southwestern Oregon in the 1850s and 1860s were emigrants on the Applegate Trail.
The Oregon Trail pioneers were creatures of habit. They carried their attitudes, prejudices, and ideas as part of their baggage. They were imitators rather than innovators. They attempted, as best they could remember, to recreate the governmental and social institutions they had left behind. They founded schools and academies and erected Federal, Greek Revival, and Gothic Revival buildings to house them--just like at home. Although they saw themselves as stalwart, brave, and independent, they were actually a highly dependent people, demanding righteously that the federal government give them land, survey their claims, guard them from Indians, erect lighthouses, establish postal routes, and construct wagon roads. They saw themselves as makers of history but seldom perceived they were locked into the historical fabric of which they were merely threads.