Have you ever moved to somewhere far away? Or maybe had a friend who did? It can be exciting, but also scary. You don’t know what to expect as you pack up all your things and say goodbye to the friends and places you’ve always known. But you know you can call your friends and stay in touch, starting as soon as you arrive in your new house in just a few days. Maybe you can even visit them in the summers.
150 years ago, things would have been different. A move of more than a few hundred miles meant selling or giving away most of your things, and undertaking a tough and dangerous journey to reach your new home. You could write letters to your old friends, but chances were, you would never see them in person again. And yet, in the middle of the 19th century, thousands of people decided to make just such a journey, from the eastern United States to the Oregon territory, near the Pacific Ocean, where the US government was encouraging people to settle. The route people took was called the Oregon Trail, and it was a much bigger deal than moving today.
Imagine it’s 1859. Your parents have told you that you’re going to move to the Willamette Valley, in Oregon territory. You start your journey in Independence, Missouri in early May. Maybe you took a train to get from your home in the eastern United States to this point, but there are no trains to take you on the rest of the way. You’ll be traveling in a covered wagon pulled by a team of oxen. Or, at least your stuff will be traveling that way. You and your family will ride sometimes, but very often, you’ll walk. The wagon will be stuffy, bumpy, and crowded. You’ll be passing through prairies, mountains, and deserts, crossing roaring rivers, warding off disease, fixing things constantly, and hunting for food.
You know other people have gone on this route before, and your parents have read and planned a lot to help make your journey a success. Your parents have told you about Oregon, and it sounds like a dream. They’ve never been there either, but they’ve read accounts by previous settlers. The Willamette Valley, where you’re headed, is said to be full of rolling hills and groves,, and the Willamette River runs right down the middle. All kinds of crops grow well in the mild climate there – it rains often, and rarely snows. But you’re still nervous. You’ve taken a peek at the books they read, and seen that the journey can be dangerous.
Your parents have sold many of your family’s things, because there won’t be room for them on the wagon. The wagon is only 4 feet by 8, so you had to be careful about what you kept. You have a few clothes and blankets for the trip, tools you’ll need along the way, and a few keepsake items.
What will you need on your trip? What can you get along the way? The answer to the second question is “not much” – at least you won’t be buying much, so before you go, you need to stock up on food and supplies for the 5 to 6 month journey. That’s right, this trip could take half a year! So fresh fruits and veggies, anything that will spoil, are out. You help your parents buy 600 pounds of flour, 90 pounds of crackers, 200 pounds of bacon. Huge amounts of coffee, tea, sugar, salt, and dried fruit and beans. You wonder how it will all fit into your wagon, but also worry that it won’t be enough for the journey. But as you slowly load up the wagon, you realize there’s plenty of space, and sacks of flour aren’t so uncomfortable to sit on. Your parents reassure you that they will also hunt for buffalo, deer, and other animals on the trail.
But food is just part of the cargo. You need tools and cookware too. Pots and pans, dishes, axes, scythes, shovels, and saws. Guns and knives for hunting. Finally it’s all packed into the covered wagon that will be your homebase on the trail. You’re ready to start off, along with several other families in a wagon train.
On the trail, your days are long, but the tracks are well-worn at first. During the first month, you pass several trading posts where your parents pick up supplies you need, trading with both European settlers and Native Americans. Your dad is able to hunt and get fresh meat for the family often, and you camp near bubbling streams each night.
One day, you come up to a river. You’ve crossed some rivers by now, but the weather has been stormy, and this one is moving high and fast. There’s no ferry or bridge, like at some of the other rivers, and you can’t imagine trying to just walk across. How will you cross it?
Your dad and a few other adults talk. When they return to the group, they say the wagons can cross here. But, you have to turn them into boats! You unload the wagons and press caulking into all the gaps, making them waterproof. You take off all the wheels and load them into wagons. The men push the wagons into the water, then jump in when they’re afloat and start rowing like mad with shovels, sticks, anything else that makes a decent oar. The animals struggle to swim behind. One of the cows is washed away in the current. It seems like hours, but you finally reach the other side. Then you begin the work of putting the wagons back together and reloading everything. By the time you get going again, it really has been hours.
As you walk or ride, you start to notice strange rock formations off in the distance that look like buildings or chimneys or phantoms. You encounter your share of thunderstorms, and hear rumors of travelers getting sick with a terrible disease.
At one campsite, someone left a warning carved into a fallen log: BAD WATER. But there’s nothing else to drink, so your mom boils the water for an extra-long time. Actually, all the water on the trail tasted bad. Bad enough to make you drink coffee instead, which you normally think is terrible. Boiling the water does the trick, and your family stays healthy. Many people in your wagon train aren’t so careful, and they get sick with cholera. Some end up dying on the trail, their journey west coming to a tragic end.
After a couple of months, the weather starts to get hotter during the day, but is still bitingly cold at night. You celebrate Independence Day, July 4th, at a huge round rock called Independence Rock. Your mom tells you it’s a good sign that you’ve made it this far: it means you should be in Oregon before snow starts to fall on some of the route.
The terrain slowly starts to get steeper, as you trek up endless miles of hillsides and into the Rocky Mountains. The place where you cross doesn’t look like the grand, majestic mountain pass you imagined: dry scrubby hills rise slowly in front of you, and wagons further up in the train disappear one by one over a curved horizon.
Sometimes, you lie down in the wagon to try to sleep on the road, but it’s so bumpy and hot, you usually end up walking alongside after a while. One day, your stomach starts to churn. You’re getting sick. You’re not sure if it was the water you drank, the aging dried meat, or just sheer exhaustion from nonstop travel. You have to ride in the stuffy wagon, near the back so that if you need to throw up, you can poke your head out. Given how bumpy the ride is, that happens a lot. But after about a week, you slowly start to feel better. You can walk alongside the wagon for a few minutes at a time. You even feel like eating the hard, stale crackers and the tough, leathery meat again.
The months on the trail wear on, and you wonder if you’ll ever get to Oregon. The beautiful land of the Willamette Valley starts to seem like a myth. You lose count of the times you’ve had help to fix an axle or wheel. You’ve lost count of the rivers you’ve forded or ferried or floated across. The bags and barrels of flour, sugar, coffee, and other food are getting looser and lighter. You wonder if there will be enough to reach the west. You miss home.
September rolls around, and the days start to get colder. You hope you reach the Willamette Valley before the snow starts. You’ve heard your parents talking late at night, when you’re supposed to be asleep. They worry that the wagon train will get caught in the mountains in early snows before you reach Oregon City in the Willamette Valley, where your wagon train will officially disband.
The road doesn’t get any easier, and you do see a few flurries of snowflakes in the mountain passes. But after months of walking, bumpy riding, stale food, sickness, worry, and hardship, you realize that Mount Hood, a magnificent mountain rising high above the Willamette Valley, is looming larger in the distance. Soon, you’ll see the little town of Oregon City in the distance. You realize the air here is fresh and clear, the land green and rolling. You finally feel what your parents told you they felt, way back when they told you you were going west.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your imaginary journey on the Oregon Trail. Between 1840s and 1880s, 300 to 500 thousand men, women, and children made this arduous journey on the trail, looking for new opportunities in the western United States. Today, the National Park Service operates dozens of sites along the Historic Oregon Trail. If you’re anywhere near the US states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, or, of course, Oregon, you can check out the National Park Service website to find out how to visit. It’s at nps.gov/oreg.