Interesting facts about the Oregon Trail and the pioneers that endured its hardships during their journey


In the mid-nineteenth century, there was only one major route to get from St. Louis, Missouri to merchant and settlement opportunities in the American West. That route was the Oregon Trail, taken by over 400,000 men, women, and children that were seeking a new start. The journey took five months by wagon and covered 2,000 miles.

It was quite difficult as they had to cross arid deserts and swollen rivers. Most of the people traveling on the trail were farmers, and the wagons held all their worldly possessions. The first of the travelers, a caravan of 58 people, started out in 1841. Two years later, the number of travelers on the trail increased and quickly became the big migration west.

10.Newlywed Protestant missionaries made one of the first wagon crossings

Covered wagon replica and Mission Monument at the Whitman Mission National Historic Site about ten miles west of Walla Walla, Washington

The route of the Oregon Trail was thought to be too rough for women or children to travel.  This changed when the newlywed missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman took a small party of wagons all the way from St. Louis to Walla Walla Valley so they could minister to the Cayuse Indians that lived there. Narcissa was known as the first white woman to travel through the Rocky Mountains.  Her letters home were later published in Eastern newspapers, helping to convince many hesitant pioneers that their families could make the journey west.  In 1843 Marcus would help the first major wagon train of 1000 people traverse the Trail.

9.Graffiti tradition of carving names and dates on stone landmarks

Oregon Trail pioneer Ezra Meeker erected this boulder near Pacific Springs on Wyoming’s South Pass in 1906 Photo Credit

As the settlers traveled, they left etched reminders of their presence on stone landmarks. The most notable is the Independence Rock, a 128-foot-tall granite outcrop that is covered in names, dates, and hometowns of the people that camped in its shade.

Register Cliff and Names Hill are two other prominent places in Wyoming where similar etchings and carvings were made.

8.The boat-shaped Conestoga wagons were rarely used on the Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail reenactment at Scotts Bluff

In the beginning, pioneers used a wagon that was dubbed the “prairie schooner”, due to the canvas covers which looked like ship sails.   Conestoga wagons were actually too large and unwieldy to use on the trail, so a smaller wagon of four by ten feet was created and these were pulled by mule or oxen along the trail.  The boards could even be caulked with tar; this allowed the wagons to be floated across rivers and streams. The schooners carried a ton of cargo and passengers, but they lacked suspension, so the ride was extremely bumpy. The settlers often preferred to ride horses or walk beside the wagons.

7.The Oregon Trail separated into many side trails

The route of the Oregon Trail shown on a map of the western United States from Independence, Missouri (on the eastern end) to Oregon City, Oregon (on the western end) Photo Credit

As more and more people traveled along the trail, the wagon ruts sometimes veered off to the side to get to good grazing areas for the draft animals or even new shortcuts that let the travelers pass by old stopping points.

In Wyoming there were trails that wandered for hundreds of miles both north and south. The guidebook that was available often contained false information, so the poor people sometimes got lost.

6.The wheel ruts from the hundreds of wagons are visible today

Trail ruts near Guernsey, Wyoming Photo Credit

The wheel marks of the hundreds of wagons have worn unmistakable trails across prairie lands that are still visible today. Because the wagons traveled in all weather, the ruts are deep in places and nothing much grows on them. All the six states that the pioneer trails traveled over still have these as reminders of how courageous the pioneers were.

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