The Route of the Oregon Trail
Map courtesy of Ned Eddins

Map courtesy of Ned Eddins

The Route of the Oregon Trail

Many started from Independence, Missouri, but others set out from nearby Westport (later Kansas City) to the west or St Joseph further to the north. They followed the Platte across the endlessly flat prairie for about a month until the confluence of the North Platte and South Platte Rivers was reached, some 460 miles west of where it flowed into the Missouri . The South Platte has to be traversed, not an easy feat because here the river was half a mile wide. Furthermore, at this time of year, the spring waters were deep, fed by streams swollen by the melting snows of the Rockies. Wheels removed, the wagons converted into makeshift boats while the stock were swum across. Gaps in the wooden structure of the wagon had been caulked with just such an eventuality in mind, but usually the caulking had not lasted, being split by the intensity of the heat during the day and contrasting cold at night. In this case buffalo often hunted for meat, were shot for their hides, which were used inside the hulls to make them temporarily proof against the river waters.

Having successfully made the crossing the route climbed to a tableland, and twenty two miles further on the travellers were met by an idyllic sight. Nestled into the hills a sheltered wooded valley created by a clear, fresh spring, Ash Hollow, must have been reached with much relief, especially since a steep incline down to it meant that the wagons had to be lowered, strenuous, back breaking work. Little wonder that this became one of the landmarks which was sought out by the emigrants.

Continuing to follow the North Platte, the next landmarks were far more awe inspiring but of no practical use. As they journeyed on up the sandy river banks, tall rock formations climbed out of the nearby terrain: a 400-foot-high mound of volcanic ash and clay known as the Courthouse (owing to a supposed resemblance to its namesake in St Louis) and further on, Chimney Rock, again named for its similarity to such a feature, except it was about 500 feet tall and was surrounded by boulders around its base. Then came Scott’s Bluff, whose towers, in common with the other rock formations, dominated the landscape, especially since they contrasted so much to the surrounding area. Register Cliff was also a precipitous and imposing outcrop, and here the emigrants carved their names, which may still be seen today.

At last, 640 miles from their starting point in Independence they reached Fort Laramie, often a disappointment because it was far from the military bastion that one might have expected from its title. In reality it was a sprawling series of buildings which, although it possessed an inner log stockade could hardly be called fortified. Trappers frequented Fort Laramie before the 1840s to sell beaver pelts and to purchase supplies such as bullets. Native Americans were also very much in evidence, it had been established as a trading post. As such it afforded the wagon trains the opportunity to pause, make repairs to the vehicles, re-shod the stock and buy such supplies as they needed and could afford. It was only purchased by the military in 1849 and even then it was hardly a genuine fortification and the troops who were garrisoned there were complacent and lacking in discipline.

From Fort Laramie the trail began to climb towards the Rockies. Already exhausted from hauling the wagons across the Plains, the oxen or mules found the ascent increasingly more difficult. Treasured possessions, like furniture, family heirlooms and heavy equipment, which had earlier seemed essential or so valuable, had to ditched, doubtless causing much soul searching and sorrow for their owners. Water was scarce and the wagon wheels ground out the rock to form a choking alkali dust which stung their eyes and embittered the water. Relief eventually came when the Sweetwater River was reached, its waters a welcome respite from the harsh aridity of before. Many camped next to Independence Rock, a granite outcrop reputedly named by trappers who reached it in 1830, on the Fourth of July.

A brief sojourn and on and upwards into South Pass where the temperature dropped because of the altitude, and at the summit, at Ice Spring Slough solid ice could be hacked away to freshen the water supply. Even in midsummer the ice was just below the topsoil and could easily be accessed. Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick is credited with discovering the South Pass through the Rockies as early as 1824 with his friend Jedediah Smith. At Pacific Springs, soon the voyagers celebrated their entry into Oregon Territory, although at this time the federal territory was a much larger than Oregon state would be, and there were still hundreds of miles to go.

Shortly afterwards the main trail took a left fork southwest to Fort Bridger , established by Jim Bridger as a trading post in 1843 when his former chief source of income, trapping beavers, had been ended by the animal’s virtual extinction. The right fork was called Sublette’s cut off, which, by headed more directly westward, saved 52 miles of the arduous journey. Established by the Frenchman William Sublette around 1830, this short cut was completely devoid of watering points and was only undertaken by those with absolute confidence they had enough to make Bear River where they would rejoin the majority who opted for the safer route. The cut off was inadvertently way marked by dead animals that had been left behind by their owners in earlier wagon trains. Those heading in the more south westerly direction had to cross the Green River, until 1847 by their own devices but after this date a less hazardous and stressful method was available as a ferry had been built. Some called in at Fort Bridger while others continued, now in a north westerly direction across a divide towards Fort Hall.

Seventy miles down the trail was Soda Springs where naturally carbonated water gurgled from the hillside and provided the wayfarers with a welcome diversion as well as a thirst quenching treat. Another fifty miles Fort Hall provided another chance to buy or barter supplies. Owned by the Hudson Bay Company this had operated as a trading post since being built in 1834, but had been run by this British company since 1837. They warned emigrants of the dangers which lay towards the north, intending to dissuade Americans from settling on land claimed by their country of origin. Instead settlers were encouraged to take the south western fork to California which first would take them the 500 miles to the Sierra Nevada across the barren, arid plateau of the Great Basin.

Those opting for the Oregon Trail followed the black lava canyons which surrounded Snake River for some 300 miles. Deep crossings of the river were necessary, for example in the area of Three Islands some travellers crossed where the Snake was shallow enough to enable it to be forded at Three Island Ford, while others went over one mile further upstream and had to traverse the river at Two Island Crossing by floating the wagons and swimming the stock across.

William T. Newby, September 11, 1843
"We crawsed Snake Rive[r]. First we drove over a part of the river one hundred yards wide on to a island, the[n] over a northern branch 75 yards wide on a second island; then we tide a string of waggons together by a chane in the ring of the lead cattles yoak & made fast to the waggon of all a horse & before & him led. We carried as many a[s] fifteen waggons at one time. We had to go up stream. The water was ten inches up the waggeo[n] beds in the deepe plaices. It was 900 hundred yards acraws." Quoted in The Oregon Trail in Idaho

They continued to the River Boise, where crossing over to Fort Boise could be dangerous, as the water was quite deep. About a quarter of a mile upstream of the ford Fort Boise had been built of adobe by Thomas McKay in 1834 backed by the Hudson’s Bay Company which took over the post two years later. It was abandoned in 1854 and destroyed in 1862 when the Boise flooded its banks.

Further rivers were crossed, including the Grande Ronde where treacherous swamps had to be avoided. Now they climbed the steep passage to traverse the cold, tree lined Blue Mountains from which they could view the Columbia River valley snaking below. Those travelling to the lush Willamette Valley went via Fort Walla Walla , down the south bank of the Columbia River, which meant negotiating the Columbia's gorge where it passes through the Cascade Mountains, a journey of 250 miles. Others opted to ride the river, which could be a very dangerous choice, for rapids had to be negotiated in the raging torrent. In fact, there were many different variations of the overland trail, since all the land was wild, emigrants chose their own specific way through, except where the trail narrowed because of natural features. Also, as more settlers arrived destinations became more varied and the route was adapted correspondingly.

In the early years not many emigrants settled north of the Columbia River since the land was still claimed by the British, but after 1846 when a border was agreed Americans settled the area today known as Washington state. The 1850 census showed that 12,003 people lived in Oregon Territory. Ten years later, when Oregon had been a state for one year, 52,495 were counted.

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© Chris Smallbone September2006