The First Emigrants

Early Wagonners on the Oregon Trail 1846

The First Emigrants

Into the Unknown

Fired by tales of rich lands in the west from the trappers like Jim Beckwourth and Jim Bridger, and wishing to escape impoverishment, unemployment or religious persecution in the east, the emigrants were, nevertheless, in possession of very little information about what to expect. As John Bidwell recalled, "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge."

As newcomers poured in from Europe they found eking out a living in the east to be quite similar to the life they had left behind. Having been hardy enough to survive the arduous passage and subsequent hazardous conditions of entry to the New Land, the newcomers dreams were kept alive by wild tales of prosperity by working the fertile coastlands in the western states of Oregon and California. Thus a variety of poor families gathered their worldly possessions and set forth with one desperate last chance in mind, to venture out into the unknown, make it across the span of the continent and to begin a new life. It was a journey fraught with difficulty and hazardous conditions but those who survived the challenge must have felt uplifted by the experience and hardened by the strenuous outdoor life in which they constantly battled against adversity. They soon discovered that the feared attack by native Americans was the least of their problems.

Westward the Wagons

The first documented emigrants to cross into the western states travelled to Oregon in 1839. The following year mountain men Joe Meek and Bob Newell made the journey over the Blue Mountains by wagon. Next spring the first wagon train assembled at Independence, Missouri and set off on May 10 1841, led by John Bidwell and John Bartelson. Their thirteen wagons, drawn by horses, mules or oxen, were accompanied by a group of missionaries led by Father Pierre Jean de Smet, who were mounted and whose supplies were carried by five mule drawn carts. The missionaries had journeyed from St Louis late in April, and were guided by Thomas ‘Broken Hand’ Fitzpatrick, who, like many of his counterparts such as Jim Beckwourth and Jim Bridger, turned his hand to acting as a guide when trapping beavers was no longer a viable business. (see Broken Hand , Leroy R Hafen, Chapter 9) "It was well we did (wait for Fitzpatrick) “. wrote Bidwell,” for otherwise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience".

The trappers were used to negotiating their way with the native peoples, which gave the travellers some security. They were also accustomed to shooting buffalo for food, and so kept the party supplied. Even with Fitzpatrick's expert guidance the first wagon train ran short of food while crossing the Rocky Mountains and eventually all the wagons had to be abandoned. On 22nd October the last of their oxen was killed for food. Of the 69 people in Bidwell's party who set out, only 32 people reached California on 4th November. These were the first emigrants to travel by wagon train overland from Missouri to the Pacific coast.

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© Chris Smallbone September2006