5 Things I Learned At the End of the Oregon Trail


When my parents are in town (Portland, Oregon), I finally get around to seeing local areas of interest. Yesterday we checked out the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, which was full of Oregon Trail trivia. Here are some of my favorite bits.

1. Awesome hairstyles were par for the course. The photos (well, daguerreotypes) in many exhibits showed dudes with out-of-control hairstyles. See the image at right for some examples (see also: "Father of Oregon" Dr. John McLoughlin and the same as an image macro). (Pictured above right: Sam Barlow and Joel Palmer -- later, Palmer's neck beard got vastly more protuberant.)

2. Emigrants didn't know how to handle their guns. According to several exhibits, accidental gunfire was a leading cause of death on the Oregon Trail (and I seem to remember this from the Oregon Trail video game). The issue was that emigrants brought muzzle-loading rifles which required a laborious loading procedure -- involving a piece of wetted cotton, a lead ball, a ramrod, a firing cap, and a few minutes of fiddling -- which was deemed too time-consuming if the weapon was needed in a hurry. As a result, wagons were trundling along the plains with loaded rifles in them. Of course, when a wagon hit a big enough bump, the weapon would discharge, often with tragic results. (Later invention of the breech-loading rifle largely eliminated this problem.)

3. Oregon City was a big deal. Now a small community near the vastly larger city of Portland, Oregon City was the capital of the Oregon Territory in the late 1840's, and it contained the only land office serving a huge region of the American West. This meant that for a time, if you wanted to plat a new city anywhere on the west coast, you'd have to make it to Oregon City to get your plans approved. (The most famous example of this was San Francisco: after it was platted, the plans were schlepped up to Oregon for approval because California wasn't yet a state and thus didn't have a land office.)

4. The first Oregonian woman to vote arrived via the Oregon Trail. Abigail Scott Duniway arrived in Oregon in 1852, keeping a diary of the journey which recorded, among other things, the death of her mother on the trail. In 1872, Duniway started a newspaper, The New Northwest, in which she debated her brother Harvey Scott (a writer for The Oregonian) on the issue of women's suffrage. In 1912 Duniway became the first woman to vote in Oregon.

5. The Oregon Boot was not something you wanted on your foot. The museum had an example of an Oregon Boot, which is a heavy leg shackle used on prisoners to prevent them from running. The fun part of the exhibit is strapping the Oregon Boot to your own leg and hobbling around. The sad part is thinking about the podiatric suffering Oregon prisoners must have endured living with the damn things.

There's lots more to learn at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, should you find yourself near Portland with an afternoon to kill!

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