The Oregon Trail Essay

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The West as an Ideal

            During the 19th century, people migrated from Missouri to Oregon or to the Pacific Northwest of what is now known as the United States of America. Originally, the route covering Missouri all the way to Oregon was determined in order to provide a more convenient route for the fur trade, especially for establishing an overland supply route post right at the edge of the Columbia River.

            The Oregon Trail, stretching at about 2,170 miles, essentially commenced through a rough system of rutted traces spanning the breadth of land from the Mississippi River that was utilized by roughly 400,000 individuals. In more recent times, the Oregon Trail has been known as symbolic of the differences which separate American Indians from the whites who settled in the land. Back in 1840, only three states were recognized to exist at the western side of the Mississippi River inasmuch as Canadas boundary with Maine remained undefined during those days.

            The Nations boundary in the west was approximately situated in the Continental Divide, and within a decade Great Britain and the United States have created a boundary that spanned from the Pacific up to the Atlantic. After four decades, masses and masses of emigrants entirely diminished the concept of frontier which radically altered the lifestyle of the American Indians. It also threatened and ravaged numerous species of wild animals along the way, not to mention the buffalo herds. While barbed wires as well a plows dominated the prairies, long stretches of distances were eventually cut shorter by the transcontinental railroads.

            During 1837 and 1841, both businessmen and farmers have grown frustration over the economic depressions which affected and sunk their livelihood. As the fur trade became increasingly troubled after the trade collapsed back in 1839, thoughts of the British dominating the Northwest Territory heightened. During those times, the American Indians in Oregon were seen by eastern churches as potential candidates for the thoughts of European civilization. Heading for Oregon as missionaries in 1836, Henry and Eliza Spalding as well as Marcus Whitman and his new wife gave an increasing publicity for Oregon in terms of its advantages and promising opportunities through the letters which they wrote and sent home.

            Eventually, more and more people became increasingly interested in Oregon for a wide variety of reasons. In 1841, the very first group of people began to leave the Missouri River banks and proceeded west with the serious intention of emigrating. Almost two years after, almost a thousand emigrants completed the travel which signaled the many others who followed in the years to come.

Hardships Faced

            Like any other long distance journey, those who traversed the Oregon Trail would have to face challenges and hardships along the course of their path. Every part of the trail uniquely had its difficulties to be dealt with by the travelers. For the most part, the emigrants would have to face the challenge of loading and unloading their livestock so as to maintain the durability of their wagons. This they would have to do countless times until the trail is over. More importantly, the emigrants would have to spend some time fetching water and food for the animals they brought along with them. Otherwise, the animals would starve and probably die long before they reach the destination which will also affect the food supply determined by livestock and other animals.

            Moreover, the emigrants would also have to adjust in terms of the way they deal with their fellow emigrants in order to maintain harmony throughout the journey and prevent disorder. They would have to determine and set rules that they have to abide along the journey as well as to arrange and break camp each morning and evening. They would have to take turns in terms of positioning in several columns so that lesser dust is raised and a minimal number of the travelers will choke from the air created.

            Knowing that the most difficult part of the journey would be near the journeys end where crossing mountains prior to winter snows was a necessary imperative. Hence, the emigrants would have to set the journey and their pace in such a way that the time they travel will be during the time when grass was present almost everywhere along the trail so that the animals they brought would have sufficient food to feed on.

            Health hazards to the emigrants were a large hindrance during the journey. Cholera was one of the feared ailments that the emigrants would have to face, caused perhaps by the contaminated water they might have used. Since the 19th century was the time when medical advancements were yet to be discovered, cholera remained one of the most dangerous health hazards the emigrants feared. Small pox also claimed a number of the lives of those who journeyed the Oregon Trail.

            In financial terms, the emigrants would have to be financially ready to shoulder the tolls situated at ferries as well as bridges, including the prices for food and other supplies bought along the trading posts or from other travelling emigrants. The payments required for repairing the wagons and other vital tools also shared a considerable fraction of the emigrants finances during the travel.

            Moreover, the prices for the food and water relatively vary than in contrast to ordinary circumstances. Since the supply for water is scarce and the demand considerably high during the journey, emigrants would have no choice but to purchase water at costs they are able to pay for, whether low or high, just to survive the travel. Perhaps the only times when the emigrants are able to purchase water at lower prices are whenever they reach a small town and whenever they found a source of potable water along the way.

Reasons for Leaving

            Thousands have already traveled across the trail and settled in Oregon by 1846. But why were these individuals willing to leave their homes and land, travel across thousands of miles with barely minimal food to eat and water to drink to a place where they have not been to yet? The answer to this question can be answered in three simple terms: these people were drawn towards the west because of the cheaper value of land where they can purchase and own more, the sense of patriotism, or perhaps the attractive promise of a more fulfilling life in Oregon.

            Because Oregon was a region where very few people lived, the value of land was comparatively cheaper than in places were civilization is on the rise. People would take the journey just acquire more areas of land and start life anew. It was one of the risks they were willing to take all for the name of acquiring a better life and securing as well as sustaining the wealth of their families. As the civilization in Oregon sprawled and as transcontinental railroads were established, travelling became easier as the time covered for traveling was dramatically reduced. Access to Oregon became easier and the value of land eventually increased. The need to travel to Oregon because of cheaper land eventually diminished.

            The relatively lower price of land back in the days essentially corresponded to a better life for the emigrants. Since Oregon was a newly formed state, acquiring land in the area was almost equivalent to acquiring a better life as compared to their former settlements. Given a larger land area to manipulate, emigrants who settled in Oregon and who were able to acquire land were given the opportunity to raise a higher number of livestock and other animals and cultivate a larger piece of land.

            The promise of a more fulfilling life in Oregon manifested itself in terms of the higher chance to raise animals and cultivate the land with plants which resulted to an increase in ownership and income. Trade and commerce in Oregon reached heights and settlers found themselves amidst an area fertile for purposes of trade and commerce. Eventually, news of this spread and people became more and more interested in leaving their homes and transferring to Oregon.

What Awaited the Emigrants?

            Although there was no assurance of whatever it is that awaited the emigrants at the end of the journey, it became increasingly known that flocks of individuals were heading towards the west. This fever created a deeper sense of awe and increased the longing of individuals to obtain a better life even at a distant land more than 2,000 miles away. As the number of emigrants grew larger, people began to think of things becoming better that awaited them at the end of the trail.

            In effect, Oregon grew in many different ways. The population count boomed in less than a couple of decades more than the normal annual rate. As settlers continuously increased and poured into Oregon, the small towns in the new state were nearing the verge of transforming into cities. Log cabins were slowly replaced by frame houses as the land became more and more civilized in the years that went by. The great migration, in the end, only heightened the urge of the people to travel far and wide towards Oregon.

            As Oregon grew at a rapid pace, news easily spread across neighboring areas giving the new state an increasing sense of popularity and presence in the minds of individuals. In the coming years, what awaited the emigrants has become less and less of what they expected. For the most part of the years to follow, new emigrants who settled in Oregon found themselves in the midst of a growing population where finding a place to settle in the heart of civilization in the new state was becoming scarce almost every year. The prospect of finding a place to stay at the center of commerce was diminishing.

            Nevertheless, it has been rare for settlers in the new state to return to their original homes once they were able to find a suitable place to stay in Oregon. With a few exceptions such as the case of Ezra Meeker, the settlers have very little reason to retrace the Oregon Trail and return home. The harsh conditions they may have encountered along the journey and the things they have fulfilled in Oregon might have discouraged them to gamble on traveling back to where they originated.

            In essence, the Oregon Trail used to be one of the most treacherous yet mostly taken the path by people gathering near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The prospect of a better life mostly fueled this desire to leave home and travel thousands of miles amidst hardships and hazards to their health and property. The reasons for leaving mostly centered on the promise of acquiring cheaper land where they can begin their lives anew and attain prosperity.


Fanselow, J. (2001). Traveling the Oregon Trail (Second ed.). Guilford, Connecticut: Falcon.

Faragher, J. M. (2001). The Oregon Trail: A review. The Journal of American History, 88(2), 15.

Parkman, F. (2002). The Oregon Trail (Dover Value ed.). Toronto, Canada: Dover Publications.

Roberts, J. M. (1954). A Review On the Oregon Trail: Robert Stuarts Journey of Discovery by Kenneth A. Spaulding. American Anthropologist: New Series, 56(6), 2.

Willingham, W. F. (1994). Review: Interpreting the Oregon Trail: Three New Perspectives. The Public Historian, 16(1), 3.

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