Oregon National Historic Trail

Register Cliff, Wyoming
Register Cliff near Guernsey, Wyoming, just west of Fort Laramie on the North Platte River

The Oregon Trail was never a clearly defined route. Instead, it was a conglomeration of various trails established over the years by fur trappers, mountain men and Christian missionaries. Oftentimes, those early explorers and emigrants were following old Native American game and migration routes. In the early 1800's, the British Hudson's Bay Company was working its way down the West Coast, building trading posts and claiming land. In a countermove, John Jacob Astor established a trading post and fort at Astoria in the mouth of the Columbia River. He then sent Robert Stuart east, cross country, to carry dispatches to the company headquarters. Stuart is credited with the discovery of South Pass in Wyoming after he followed a Crow Indian trail through the area. South Pass is where most Oregon-bound emigrants passed over the Continental Divide. The crossing of South Pass is so gentle that most folks on the route never knew they had crossed it. With all the wide open river bottoms crossing the Great Plains before heading into the Rocky Mountains, the eastern parts of the Oregon Trail were almost pre-set.

Wagon ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming

The 3 major eastern portals to the Oregon Trail were Independence, Missouri, St. Joseph, Missouri and Council Bluffs, Iowa. The routes from all three cities came together at Fort Kearny on the Platte River in central Nebraska. From Fort Kearny, the route was along the Platte River and then the North Platte River to Fort Casper, Wyoming. Near Fort Casper the North Platte had to be crossed, and then the route continued southwest above the western rim of the North Platte Canyon to the Sweetwater River, which was then followed essentially to South Pass.

While the main route continued from South Pass down to Fort Bridger, the Lander Cutoff and the Sublette Cutoff were established in later years. (The Sublette Cutoff headed west from the main route at Parting of the Ways and then rejoined the main route near what is now Cokeville, Wyoming after crossing a 50 mile stretch with no water and little grass (but also saving 85 miles and one week of travel). The Lander Cutoff left the main route just east of South Pass and went through some heavy mountainous terrain before rejoining the main Oregon Trail east of Fort Hall in Idaho. Both of these cutoffs were shorter than the main trail but each also presented its own difficulties.) From Fort Bridger the main route of the Oregon Trail headed northwest around Bear Lake and up to Fort Hall on the Snake River in Idaho.

The Snake River Valley was reasonably level and wide, and most folks followed it to Three Island Crossing. Depending on the water level in the Snake, they either crossed the river there and enjoyed plenty of water and forage for their stock or they stayed south of the Snake and enjoyed little water and less forage as they crossed essential desert to reach Fort Boise, where both sections of the trail rejoined again. They then crossed the Snake and traveled across the dry barrens of eastern Oregon before ascending into the mountainous terrain of the Blue Mountains.

Once over the Blues, they followed the Boardman Segment from what is now Pendleton down to The Dalles. From The Dalles, the first emigrants had no option but to build rafts and float down the Columbia River to the area of Fort Vancouver. After the Barlow Road across the Cascades was opened in 1846, they could then travel south from The Dalles (up the hill) to Tygh Valley, then pay the toll to cross the Barlow Road and descend directly into the Willamette Valley to Oregon City.

Rock Avenue on the Oregon Trail in central Wyoming
Rock Avenue along the Oregon Trail in central Wyoming

Early traffic to Oregon was fueled by several things: an urge to make the Oregon Country part of the United States and keep it out of British hands, the collapse of the fur trade in 1839, and economic depressions in 1837 and 1841. The first missionaries, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman with Henry and Eliza Spalding, headed west in 1836 and established missions among the northwest Indians. The first group of farmer/settlers didn't cross the trail until 1841. Come 1843 and nearly 1,000 people made the journey. By 1869, nearly 400,000 people had crossed over the Oregon Trail to Oregon Country.

The smart trail travelers left the environs of the Missouri River in the spring time, so they would have lots of water and forage for their livestock and the weather was at least pleasant. They had to learn how to get along with one another, agree on the "rules of the road," spread out their wagons so they weren't all eating each other's dust, etc. They took turns riding "point" and took care to keep moving and stay ahead of the caravans behind them. As the season passed, campsites would get overgrazed and water supplies fouled: cholera was the biggest killer in those days. By all estimates, life on the Oregon Trail was no more dangerous than it was in any of the "civilized" Eastern cities of the time.

Fort Bridger, Wyoming
Fort Bridger, Wyoming

Passing Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff meant that one-third of the route was finished. A week later most arrived at Fort Laramie, a major resting place and restocking center. After Fort Laramie began the grueling ascent into the mountains to cross the Continental Divide and then descend to Fort Bridger. Water and grass got continually harder to find. The dry air made the wooden wagon wheels shrink and sometimes fall off. The further west they went, the less game and cooking fuel (wood or buffalo chips) was found. This part of the trail was where survival became dominant in everyone's minds, and family heirlooms were dropped out of the wagons in favor of keeping food, seeds, and tools. That section of the route between Fort Laramie and Fort Bridger was also shared with travelers along the California and Mormon Pioneer Trails. It was at Fort Bridger that the Mormon Pioneer Trail headed off to the southwest while the Oregon and California Trails doglegged to the northwest and headed for the Snake River Valley. Fort Bridger was another major resting place and supply depot on the journey, but this was just past the halfway marker of the route.

The Oregon Trail went northwest to Fort Hall (a Hudson's Bay Company post) on the Snake River before following that river for most of the journey across what is now Idaho. The main California Trail split off and went southwest at Raft River Crossing, about a week out from Fort Hall. In this area, trail travelers tried to push on quickly because they knew summer was passing and they didn't want to be caught in the Oregon mountains in winter snows. If the Snake River was low enough, most folks would cross to the north side at Three Island Crossing for better travel conditions and plenty of water along the way. If the river was too high to cross safely, they were forced to continue along the south side of the river in drier conditions through more rugged countryside. Both routes came back together at Fort Boise at what is now the border between Idaho and Oregon.

Massacre Rocks, Idaho
Massacre Rocks in eastern Idaho, a landmark along the Oregon Trail

The journey across Oregon was probably the hardest part of the entire trip, and for most travelers, on-coming winter made it even harder. They had to cross the Blue Mountains in eastern Oregon and then descend into the Columbia River Gorge to The Dalles. After the Barlow Road was built in 1846, they then had to climb back up a steep ascent to Barlow Pass and cross the Cascades before dropping down to the finish line in the Willamette Valley. Or, from The Dalles, they could build rafts and float down the treacherous Columbia... Many a would-be settler died on that river almost within site of the "Promised Land." While most of the early settlers spread out south of the Columbia River, once the Unted States and Great Britain came to terms and defined an international boundary between what is now Washington State and British Columbia, settlers started to flow north of the Columbia and began the American settlement of Washington. The 1850 census counted 12,093 people in Oregon. Oregon became a state in 1859 and the 1860 census counted 52,495 citizens.

In the early days of the Oregon Trail, the Indians encountered along the way tended to be helpful and friendly, quite often offering guides at difficult river crossings and offering assistance such as extra wagon teams, medical help and food supplies. However, as traffic on the trail increased and more and more wild game was killed and water and food sources fouled by the emigrants, relations got more and more strained. The emigrants also brought deadly new diseases and a radically different approach to land management. After 1860 the hostilities and casualties on both sides increased until finally, the U.S. Army intervened and the Native Americans were (usually) forcibly removed to Congressionally designated reservations. It didn't help that the Bureau of Indian Affairs tended to attract corrupt (and criminal) individuals as Indian Agents to run those reservations. Then Congress started "changing" the various deals and treaties with the tribes in order to accommodate more and more demands for Indian land from the "American" settlers, all of which led up to the "Nez Perce War" of 1877.

The Oregon National Historic Trail was designated by Congress in 1978 along an auto route from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon. The route is administered by the National Park Service in partnership with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, several local and state governmental units, citizen organizations and numerous private individuals whose properties are crossed by the original trail route(s). Along the way there are 125 historic sites and some 300 miles of discernable wagon ruts. logo
Most photos are courtesy of the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
Photo of Massacre Rocks courtesy of Matthew Trump, CCA ShareAlike 3.0 License.
Maps of the Oregon National Historic Trail are courtesy of the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
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