The Oregon Trail has been immortalized in pop culture through Western films and the incredibly popular computer game that you probably played in elementary school in the ‘90s. But who were the 400,000 American settlers who made the journey from Independence, Missouri, out West? Was it safer for them to caulk the wagon or to ford the river? And just how many died of dysentery? Let’s find out.
1. The Oregon Trail began in the 1840s.
Though some American settlers had traveled to Oregon and California in the 1830s, West-bound wagon trains really started heading out in great numbers in 1843, when Oregon’s Provisional Government began promising 640-acre tracts of land to each white family that settled in the territory. Missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman led a train of 1000 pioneers out West in what's now known as The Great Emigration—and the Oregon Trail was born.
The trail only expanded in future years. In 1846, the U.S. officially acquired Oregon through negotiations with Great Britain, and, in the following years, was ceded California after defeating Mexico in the Mexican-American War. Use of the overland route—which started in Independence, Missouri, and ended in Oregon City, Oregon—swelled to its peak in the early 1850s, led by fortune-seekers using it to reach California, where gold had been discovered in 1848.
2. Cholera and dysentery were common killers on the Oregon Trail.
“You Have Died of Dysentery” was a phrase you'd commonly encounter in the Oregon Trail computer game, and indeed, Oregon Trail emigrants struggled with that and other gastrointestinal maladies, some very deadly. Cholera—whose symptoms include severe dehydration that could kill within a day—was caused by a water-borne bacteria that spread through the rivers, ponds, and streams that the Oregon Trail travelers used as their water supply and public toilet. The most common treatment was opium, which reduced pain from cramping but didn’t cure the disease [PDF].
Historian John Unruh estimates that about 4 percent of the settlers that traveled along the Oregon Trail died along the way, and that nine out of 10 of these deaths were caused by disease. With little time and few resources, wagon parties usually wrapped their deceased in blankets and left them in unmarked graves along the side of the trail.
At the same time, cholera also spread to the Native nations of the Great Plains, where, combined with malnourishment and outbreaks of smallpox and measles—which were also brought to the region by white settlers—it proved to be an even more potent killer.
3. Travelers on the Oregon Trail didn't use Conestoga wagons.
Conestoga wagons were used to transport goods in the East—but they were much too heavy to be hauled over the long distance of the trail. Instead, pioneers used smaller, lighter prairie schooners, so named because the white bonnet of the wagon resembled schooner sails from afar.
4. Oregon Trail guidebooks were so unhelpful they became a joke.
Most Oregon Trail emigrants learned what routes to take, what supplies to bring, and how to survive on the trail through printed guidebooks. Unfortunately, many of those guidebooks were pretty unreliable, giving rosy descriptions of the trail—which was, in reality, incredibly challenging.
Take, for example, what Lansford Hastings, wrote in his guidebook, The Emigrant’s Guide To Oregon and California in 1845. He recommended a shortcut: “The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall, thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake,” he wrote, “and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco.” On this route, he said, "Wagons can be as readily taken from Ft. Hall to the bay of St. [sic] Francisco, as they can, from the States to Fort Hall; and, in fact, the latter part of the route, is found much more eligible for a wagon way, than the former.”
But when a group called the Donner Party attempted to take Hastings’s proposed route—which, by the way, he had never actually traveled himself—they found a steep, rugged, and largely unmarked trail. Almost half of the party perished, with some resorting to cannibalism to survive. “Thay was 10 days without anything to eat but the Dead,” Donner Party survivor Virginia Reed wrote of her experience, warning her cousin to “never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can.”
The guidebooks were so infamously awful that, around 1851, Boston publisher John B. Hall released a satirical guide called An Account of An Overland Journey to California [PDF], which included an older article warning the trail would be full of rattlesnakes and that travelers would be hungry, wet, and sick. The article even contains the trail’s first recorded dysentery joke: “As wild meat is of a running breed, and you of a tame one, you needn't be surprised to find yourself running the day after eating it.”
5. Many of the Oregon Trail's overland migrants were Latter-Day Saints on their way to Utah.
While the Oregon Trail led people to Oregon, parts of the trail were also used by people traveling to other locales out west. Some of the settlers that made the overland journey west were European members of the Latter-Day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons), who were seeking to settle with the church’s American members in Salt Lake Valley in modern Utah. But because of a series of bad harvests and poor financial investments, the church was strapped for cash. Rather than using covered wagons pulled by oxen, church leader Brigham Young ordered the Mormon settlers to haul their belongings themselves using rickshaw-style handcarts. Pulling the handcarts over the Rocky Mountains was a grueling task; one Mormon emigrant called them “two-wheeled torture devices.” Some handcart companies experienced high death rates. In the winter of 1856, the Willie and Martin handcart companies lost at least 250 of their 1000 members when they were caught in a blizzard in modern-day Wyoming.
6. Oregon Trail travelers could ford the river, caulk their wagons—or just cross a bridge.
Much like in the Oregon Trail computer game, river crossings could be perilous for parties of covered wagons—but luckily, they had options. Settlers crossed a number of rivers over the course of the trail, though many were shallow enough to ford, meaning settlers could wade across on foot. At the most famous river crossing, on the North Platte River near Casper, Wyoming, emigrants often loaded their belongings onto crude wooden rafts or sealed their wagons with caulk before floating them across. In 1847, an enterprising group of Mormons built a sturdy raft and began charging other wagon parties to ferry them across. Then, in 1860, a Frenchman named Louis Guinard built a wooden bridge over the river, ending the era of perilous crossings over the North Platte.
7. Women took on extra burdens on the Oregon Trail.
Taking a family of settlers across the Plains required a lot of labor, particularly on the part of female settlers. Women were generally expected to complete their traditional tasks, including washing and mending clothes and preparing meals. But the demands of the trail meant that women sometimes did “men’s” work as well: shoeing and driving animals, repairing wagons, even taking up arms in self-defense. Many women left detailed records of their experiences in journals—like this one from Lucia Eugenia Lamb Everett, who crossed the California trail in 1862—which has allowed historians a rich source of material for understanding daily life on the overland trails.
8. Inventors looked for ways to speed up the trip on the Oregon Trail.
The grueling Oregon Trail journey usually took four to six months. In 1853, inventor Rufus Porter presented a new form of transportation that would allow settlers to go from New York to California in three days. His “Aero-Locomotive” was a zeppelin-style airship filled with hydrogen gas that could travel 100mph and carry 100 passengers. Sadly, Porter was unable to attract investors for his airship, which he never completed.
Porter wasn’t the only innovator to take on the Oregon Trail. In 1860, a man named Samuel Peppard attached a canvas sail to a wagon and sailed across the breezy plains of Nebraska, reaching speeds of up to 40mph. Unfortunately, Peppard’s wind wagon met its demise when he ran into a small tornado outside Denver.
9. Native Americans have created their own Oregon Trail computer game.
The Oregon Trail was part of the larger process by which white settlers conquered and displaced North America’s Native peoples. While Native Americans are largely absent from the iconic Oregon Trail computer game, a team of Native American game designers, led by Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée, recently created When Rivers Were Trails, an Oregon Trail-style adventure game told from the perspective of Native peoples. The game follows the journey of an Anishinaabeg who travels from Minnesota to California in response to colonization in the 1890s. It has been called “a monumental achievement for Indigenous gaming.”
10. You can still travel the Oregon Trail by car—or wagon.
While travel on the Oregon Trail largely stopped after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, you can still see wagon ruts and replica covered wagons along the 2170-mile-long Oregon National Historic Trail, passing though the states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. Every year, thousands of tourists make their way to iconic trail landmarks such as Chimney Rock and Fort Laramie, as well as museums like the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center and the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Oregon Trail re-enactors in covered wagons still travel portions of the trail, which are marked and maintained by the Oregon-California Trails Association. In 2011, author Rinker Buck traveled the entire trail in a covered wagon, as detailed in the book The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.
Additional Sources: “Satire and the Overland Guide: John B. Hall’s Fanciful Advice to Gold Rush Emigrants,” Thomas F. Andrews, California Historical Society Quarterly 48; “‘ One Long Funeral March’: A Revisionist’s View of the Mormon Handcart Disasters,” Will Bagley, Journal of Mormon History 35 no. 1; “‘Sometimes When I Hear the Winds Sigh’: Mortality on the Overland Trail,” Robert W. Carter, California History 74 no. 2; Women and Men on the Overland Trail , John Mack Faragher; “Treading the Elephants Tail: Medical Problems on the Overland Trails,” Peter D. Olch, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 59, no. 2; “Cholera among the Plains Indians: Perceptions, Causes, Consequences,” James N. Leiker and Ramon Powers, The Western Historical Quarterly 29, no. 3.