10 Facts About the Oregon Trail

Nooning on the Platte by Albert Bierstadt, c. 1859
Nooning on the Platte by Albert Bierstadt, c. 1859
St. Louis Art Museum // Public Domain

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.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

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Instant Pot/Amazon

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Roomba/Amazon

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Video games

Sony

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Microsoft/Amazon

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Apple/Amazon

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HBO/Amazon

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Amazon

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Casper/Amazon

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Ganni/Amazon

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10 Amazing Facts About Bruce Lee On His 80th Birthday

Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive
Photo courtesy of The Bruce Lee Family Archive

Bruce Lee is one of pop culture's most multifaceted icons. Legions of fans admire him for his movies, his martial arts prowess, his incomprehensible physical fitness, his championing of Chinese culture, and even his philosophies on life. Yet for all the new ground Lee broke, most of his recognition only came after his death at the age of 32. Read on to learn more about the life of this profound, if enigmatic, superstar.

1. Bruce Lee’s first starring role in a movie came when he was just 10 years old.

In 1950’s The Kid, a pre-teen Bruce Lee played the role of Kid Cheung, a streetwise orphan and wry troublemaker, based on a comic strip from the time. Starring opposite Lee, playing a kindly factory owner, was his father, Lee Hoi-chuen, who also happened to be a famous opera singer. (Bruce Lee was actually born in San Francisco while his father was there on tour; Lee would move back to the U.S. in 1959).

According to Lee biographer Matthew Polly, the movie was a big enough success in China to earn sequel consideration. There was just one problem: A young Bruce Lee was getting into fights at school and out on the streets, so his father forbid him from acting again until he straightened up—which, of course, didn’t wind up happening.

2. Bruce Lee was deemed physically unfit for the U.S. Army.

While he may have walked around with body fat in the single digits and could do push-ups using only two fingers, Lee still managed to fail a military physical for the U.S. draft board back in 1963. Despite being an adherent to physical fitness all his adult life, it was an undescended testicle that kept him from fighting for Uncle Sam in Vietnam.

3. Bruce Lee was an exquisite cha-cha dancer.

Long before he was known for breakneck fight choreography, Bruce Lee’s physical skills were focused on the dance floor. More specifically, the cha-cha. In Polly’s book, Bruce Lee: A Life, the author explains that the dance trend made its way from Cuba through the Philippines and soon landed in China. And once the cha-cha settled into the Hong Kong social scene, it didn’t take long for youth dance competitions to spring up. Lee had been taking part in cha-cha dancing since the age of 14, and in 1958, he won the Crown Colony Cha-Cha Championship. Foreshadowing his later dedication to martial arts, Lee would keep crib notes of all 108 different cha-cha steps in his wallet so that he could obsessively memorize them.

4. Bruce Lee refused to lose a fight to Robin.

The Green Hornet aired its first episode in September 1966, with Bruce Lee as the Hornet's (Van Williams) lightning-quick sidekick, Kato. The series would immediately be compared to Batman, ABC's other costumed crime-fighting show, and it wouldn't be long before a two-part crossover episode was in the works. And as heroes do, before they teamed up, they first had to fight each other. According to Newsweek, since Batman was by far the more popular show, the script featured a fight between Burt Ward's Robin and Bruce Lee's Kato that was set to end with the Boy Wonder getting the upper hand. But who would really buy that?

Well, Lee certainly didn't—and he knew no one else would, either. Williams later recalled that Lee read the script and simply said, "I'm not going to do that," and walked off. Common sense soon prevailed ... sort of. The script was rewritten to change the ending—not to a Kato K.O., but to a more diplomatic draw. Though The Green Hornet was Lee's first big break in the United States, the series itself lasted only 26 episodes.

5. Bruce Lee trained numerous Hollywood stars.

As Bruce Lee worked to become a big-screen heavyweight, he made a living as a martial arts trainer to the stars. Among Lee’s students were Steve McQueen, James Coburn, James Garner, Roman Polanski, and Sharon Tate. For his services, Lee was known to charge about $275 per hour or $1000 for 10 courses. McQueen and Coburn grew so enamored with Lee over the years that they remained close friends until his death in 1973, with both men serving as pallbearers at Lee's funeral (alongside Chuck Norris).

6. Roman Polanski may have (briefly) thought Bruce Lee murdered Sharon Tate.

In addition to providing Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate with kung fu lessons, Bruce Lee also lived near the couple in Los Angeles when Tate and four others, including Lee’s close friend Jay Sebring, were murdered by the Manson Family in August 1969. It would be months before the Manson Family was arrested for the murders, but in the meantime, according to an article from Esquire, Polanski had grown obsessed with finding a suspect, looking for potential perpetrators even amongst his own inner circle.

During one kung fu lesson in the months after the murders, Lee had mentioned to Polanski how he had recently lost his glasses, which immediately piqued the director’s interest. A mysterious pair of horn-rimmed glasses had been found at the murder scene near his wife’s body, after all. Polanski had even purchased a gauge to measure the lenses and find out the exact prescription so that he could do his own detective work, according to The New York Post.

The director, without giving himself away, offered to bring Lee to his optician to get a new pair—this would allow him to hear Lee’s prescription firsthand and determine if the specs discovered at the crime scene belonged to him. It turned out Lee’s prescription didn’t match, and Polanski never told his friend about his suspicions.

7. Bruce Lee had his sweat glands removed.

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973).Warner Home Video

Bruce Lee brought an impeccable physique to the screen that was decades ahead of its time. But because his roles required so much physicality, he would be drenched with sweat while filming. And apparently, the martial arts pioneer loathed the sweat stains that would show up on his clothing as a result. His solution? In 1973, Lee actually underwent a procedure to surgically remove the sweat glands from his armpits to avoid the fashion faux pas from showing up on camera.

8. Bruce Lee’s cause of death still raises questions.

Bruce Lee’s death at the age of 32 on July 20, 1973, was officially ruled the result of a cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain. Lee had complained about headaches on the day of his death, and was given a painkiller by Betty Ting Pei—an actress who claimed to be Lee's mistress—before lying down for a nap. He never woke up.

Though many reports at the time suggested Lee had an allergic reaction to an ingredient in the painkiller, Polly points to a mystery that began on May 10, 1973, when the star previously collapsed in a hot recording studio while dubbing new dialogue for Enter the Dragon.

In Polly’s opinion, Lee’s collapse had to do with heatstroke, since his stint in an overheated recording studio was compounded by a lack of sweat glands that prevented his body from cooling off naturally. Heatstroke can also cause swelling in the brain, much like was found during Lee’s autopsy. And Dr. Lisa Leon, an expert in hyperthermia at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, told Polly, “A person who has suffered one heat stroke is at increased risk for another" and that there may be long-term complications after the initial incident.

9. Footage from Bruce Lee’s Funeral was used in 1978’s Game of Death.

At the time of his death, Bruce Lee was involved in numerous projects, including the movie that would become Game of Death, his next directorial effort. According to Vice, there wasn’t much completed on the film by the time of Lee’s passing—there were some notes, a story outline (which simply read “The big fight. An arrest is made. The airport. The end.”), and 40 minutes of footage, including Lee’s now-iconic fight against NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Usually, a project in that situation would just be a lost cause, but production company Golden Harvest wanted to salvage what they could, so they hired Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse to put together ... something. The result was a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, comprised of 11 minutes of existing footage Lee shot, overdubbed clips from his previous movies, and stand-ins to fill out certain scenes. The director even resorted to using an unfortunate Bruce Lee cardboard cutout to complete one shot.

That’s not even the top rung on the ladder of poor taste: When the movie called for Lee’s character to fake his death, they used footage from his actual funeral to realize the scene, complete with waves of mourners, pallbearers, and closeups of Lee’s open casket.

10. Bruce Lee’s posthumous success resulted in its own sub-genre.

Lee’s career was exploding in China and gaining momentum in the United States by 1973, but he passed away just a month before his biggest hit was released: Enter the Dragon. The movie, which grossed more than $200 million at the worldwide box office, catapulted the late Lee to icon status. But with the star himself no longer around to capitalize, there would soon be a wave of knockoff films and wannabes looking to take advantage of the martial arts craze.

Both affectionately and derisively known as “Bruceploitation” films, this strange sub-genre of martial arts cinema gave life to z-movie oddities like Re-Enter the Dragon and Enter the Game of Death, starring the likes of—and we’re not kidding—Bruce Le and Bruce Li. Jackie Chan was even roped into a few of these movies, like 1976's New Fist of Fury. In 1980, Bruceploitation even went meta with The Clones of Bruce Lee, starring Dragon Lee, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lai, who play genetic reconstructions of the late actor after scientists harvest his DNA.