Oregon Trail ExerciseOregon Trail Exercise
• Over the next few classes, please read
through this, in order, and answer the
related questions. Also, for fun, open
maps.google.com and follow along the
Oregon Trail by typing in the names of the
different stops and locations along the trail
and finding them on current-day maps.
Hudson Bay Company (EDIT)Hudson Bay Company (EDIT)
Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, England’s Hudson BayThroughout the 1820s and 1830s, England’s Hudson Bay
Company controlled nearly all trading operations in theCompany controlled nearly all trading operations in the
Pacific NorthwestPacific Northwest, based at the company headquarters at, based at the company headquarters at
Fort VancouverFort Vancouver on theon the Columbia RiverColumbia River. Commercial. Commercial
operating rights were shared by the United States andoperating rights were shared by the United States and
Britain through theBritain through the Anglo-American Convention of 1818Anglo-American Convention of 1818..
Company policy, enforced through the Oregon headCompany policy, enforced through the Oregon head
John McLoughlinJohn McLoughlin, leader of the company's, leader of the company's
Columbia DistrictColumbia District, was to discourage United States, was to discourage United States
settlement of the territory. The company's effectivesettlement of the territory. The company's effective
monopoly on trade virtually forbade any settlement in themonopoly on trade virtually forbade any settlement in the
region. It establishedregion. It established Fort BoiseFort Boise in 1834 (in present-dayin 1834 (in present-day
southwestern Idaho) to compete with the American Fortsouthwestern Idaho) to compete with the American Fort
Hall, 483 km (300 mi) to the east. In 1837, it purchasedHall, 483 km (300 mi) to the east. In 1837, it purchased
Fort Hall, also along the route of the Oregon Trail, whereFort Hall, also along the route of the Oregon Trail, where
the outpost director displayed the abandoned wagons ofthe outpost director displayed the abandoned wagons of
discouraged settlers to those seeking to move west alongdiscouraged settlers to those seeking to move west along
the trail.the trail.
• Hudson Bay Company’s stranglehold on the
region was broken by the first successful large
wagon train to reach Oregon in 1843, led
by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. In the years
that followed, thousands of emigrants poured
into the Willamette Valley. In 1846, the United
States acquired full authority south of the 49th
parallel (line of latitude); the most settled areas
of the Oregon Country were south of
the Columbia River in what is now Oregon.
John McLoughlin, who had once turned away
new settlers as company director, then
welcomed them from his general store
at Oregon City and was later proclaimed the
"Father of Oregon". The company retains no
presence today in what is now the United States
portion of the Pacific Northwest.
• For many years, Independence, MO was the most popular "jumping
off" point on the Oregon Trail. Here the emigrants stocked up on
supplies and prepared their wagons. There was generally a festive
air in Independence in the spring. The newcomers collected
information and misinformation, made friends and enemies,
changed proposed destinations, and behaved in general as though
they were on a picnic.
• Because of the fear of Indian attacks (which was largely
unfounded), emigrants often tried organize a traveling party here,
because no one wanted to head west alone. When a wagon "train"
had been assembled, a quasi-military organization was often
• For many pioneers who left from Independence,
Missouri, the first night's camp would be at the Shawnee
Mission. This Methodist outpost was built in 1839 for the
purpose of teaching English and agriculture to the
children of the Shawnee tribe. Here, the Oregon-bound
emigrants might encounter a Native American for the
first time. But the Shawnee were not native to this area;
they had been moved to the mission from the eastern
states. For centuries, they had been great hunters, but
here they were taught to farm.
• A week or so after crossing the Kansas River, the emigrants were
rewarded by the beauty of a popular campsite known as Alcove Spring.
• Emigrant Edwin Bryant:
"About three-fourths of a mile from our camp, we found a large spring of
water, as cold and pure as if it had just been melted from ice. We named
this Alcove Spring."
• Many pioneers were impressed with the pastoral beauty of the area.
Some were tempted to end the journey and begin farming.
• Emigrant James Pritchard:
"The scenery was so inviting that it induced us to take a stroll. We found
beautiful spots and romantic situations."
• But James Pritchard kept moving, as did everyone else. It wasn't until the
late 1850s that that the first settlement came to this region
• Rock Creek Station was built primarily to serve the stagecoach and Pony
Express. But the Oregon-bound emigrants did stop here to purchase
supplies or camp.
• Rock Creek Station owner David McCanless eventually built a toll bridge
here. The charge: between 10 and 50 cents, depending on how well-off the
emigrant family looked that day.
• Emigrant Matthew Field, while camping at Rock Creek Station:
"We are all very well and growing fat; not on buffalo however; for the lords of
the prairie are far in advance of us. We had turtle soup last night for supper
and that ain't bad; even when eaten out of tin plates and squatting on the
• Ft. Kearny was the first military post built to protect the Oregon Trail
emigrants. The fort remained an important wayside throughout the
emigration period. Many pioneers purchased food at the fort, and
nearly everyone took advantage of the fort's reliable mail service. In
late May as many as 2,000 emigrants and 10,000 oxen might pass
through in a single day.
• Ft. Kearny was not the walled fortification that many pioneers
expected. It was instead a collection of ramshackle buildings, most
made of sod. The construction was so crude that snakes often
slithered through the walls and into the beds of the soldiers
stationed there. But the enlisted men were not overly refined
• Ash Hollow
• Most emigrants had been following the south side of the Platte River for
hundreds of miles--this was the best place to cross. Unlike many other
crossings, this river crossing was not difficult most years. That’s because
the Platte here was often no more than one or two feet deep--although it
was typically more than a mile wide. Some years, the Platte River would
actually be two miles wide at this point.
• The reason for the crossing was simple: for hundreds of miles, the
pioneers had followed the south side of the Platte River, but the river was
about to split in two. If they stayed on the south side of the river (now the
South Platte), the pioneers would have reached a dead end in Colorado.
So they had to cross the river to connect with the north branch--called
the North Platte.
• A few miles further along the trail was Ash Hollow. Here was fresh, clean
water--a luxury the emigrants had not tasted for weeks. But getting to
Ash Hollow was tricky. The pioneers had to negotiate a very steep hill.
Sometimes they would let the wagons down with ropes--or get a dozen
men to hold on as "human brakes." Occasionally, the brakesmen would
lose control of a wagon and a severe crash would result.
• Once they reached the bottom, Ash Hollow was a welcome site. The
trees were the first the pioneers had seen for 100 miles. Most of the
wagon trains would rest at Ash Hollow for a day or two.
• To an emigrant who had never seen a mountain, or even a
bluff, Courthouse Rock and its companion, Jail Rock
were quite stunning. Many pioneers were so enraptured by
these bizarre geologic features, they took a side trip of
several miles--on foot--just to get a closer look.
• Today, the spire stands 325 feet above the plain,
but during the time of the migration, Chimney Rock
was substantially higher. It was the most
spectacular landmark on the entire trail. Many
considered it the eighth wonder of the world. In their
enthusiasm, some tried to climb the massive rock
but none got higher than the base.
• FORT LARAMIE
• This military post was a welcome site for the pioneers--the
first sign of civilization in six weeks. It was a unique respite
from the endless wilderness.
• Ft. Laramie marked the gateway to the Rocky Mountains.
The emigrants were now one-third of the way to the
Willamette. Here, they rested and regrouped. Some would
give up the dream, turn around and go home. But most
made the decision to push ahead.
• There was only one building at Ft. Laramie that required a
visit by the Oregon-bound emigrants--the post trader's store.
It was the only reliable post office within 300 miles. Supplies
could be purchased here too although prices were
outrageously high. Tobacco, for instance, that could be had
for a nickel in St. Louis, cost a dollar here.
• South Pass was the most important landmark on the
Oregon Trail; the key to westward migration. Without South
Pass, wagon travel across the continent would have been
impossible--and Oregon and California would probably not
have become a part of the United States. Yet, there's no
narrow gorge here--this gap in the Rockies is miles wide.
• South Pass crossed the continental divide and hence
marked the boundary between the United States and
Oregon Country. Even though the emigrants were now in
Oregon, there was no reason to celebrate. They were still
only half-way to their destination. There were a thousand
miles yet to travel.
• Before arriving, many emigrants hoped that Ft. Bridger
would be a civilized outpost; perhaps something similar
to Ft. Laramie. Instead, Ft. Bridger was a crude collection of
rough-hewn log buildings that greatly disappointed the
• Emigrant Edwin Bryant:
"The buildings are two or three miserable log cabins, rudely
constructed and bearing but a faint resemblance to
• The fort was built in 1843 specifically to serve the emigrant
traffic. Unlike Ft. Kearny and Ft. Laramie, this fort was
privately owned and operated by the legendary Jim Bridger.
• Ft. Hall was an important stop for the emigrants in the trail's
early years. Yet few who passed through this fort knew the
strange reason it was built.
• Nathaniel Wyeth began with a grand moneymaking scheme.
He and 70 men planned to haul supplies to the 1832 fur
trappers rendezvous, reap huge profits, then push west to
the Columbia River, where they hoped to set up a fishery
and export salmon to Hawaii and New England.
• When Ft. Hall was completed in 1834, it stood as the only
American outpost in the entire Oregon country.
• Not all the emigrants had the opportunity to visit Shoshone Falls, but
those who took the short side trip were in for a remarkable experience.
The falls offered a fantastic view unlike any other in the US. Those who
had been to Niagra noted the similarity, but Shoshone Falls is higher
and has a greater volume of water than its New York cousin.
• Today, Shoshone Falls is often just a cliff--as irrigation has stolen much
of the river's water. But early in the spring (or anytime in a wet year)
visitors can see the landmark just as the sightseeing pioneers did many
• Approaching Three Island Crossing (of the Snake River) meant the
emigrants had a difficult choice. They could make a dangerous river
crossing here for a direct route to Ft. Boise or stay on the south side of
the Snake and follow the river around the bend. About half made the
decision to cross using the three islands in the Snake as stepping stones.
It would not be easy.
• Emigrant Samuel Hancock:
"We lost 2 of our men, Ayres and Stringer. Ayres got into trouble with his
mules in crossing the stream. Stringer, who was about thirty, went to his
relief, and both were drowned in sight of their women folks. The bodies
were never recovered."
• Fort Boise was originally built by the British Hudson's Bay Company to
compete with American Fort Hall for fur. But by the 1840s, the fur trade
was declining, and the emigrants were increasing. The fort served the
wagon trains throughout the 40s but floods plagued the area--and by
1855 Ft. Boise was gone.
• Eight years later a new Ft. Boise was built 50 miles to the east--and the
city of Boise grew up alongside. Except for the start and finish, Boise
was the largest city on the Oregon Trail. Over a century later, it still is.
• By the time the emigrants struck west from Ft. Boise, it was mid-
September. What if the snows came early, they worried? Would they be
stranded in the mountains. Would they end up like the Donner Party--
freezing to death, or resorting to cannibalism? It was on the mind of
nearly everyone as they hurried through this region--and they still had
400 miles to travel.
• The sight of the Grande Ronde valley brought delight to
early travelers after their long journey across the dry plains.
This great green bowl, encircled by mountainous walls, was
more like the "Oregon" they expected to find.
• Despite its lushness, the none of the pioneers settled here
until many years later. While the valley could support
farming, it was an unknown and unprotected place in the
• At The Dalles, the Columbia River rumbled through a narrow
chasm. It was here that Jason Lee set up a Methodist
mission in 1838. History does not tell us how many were
converted at Lee's tiny outpost, but The Dalles did become a
critical stop for the emigrants. That's because it was here that
the trail ruts came to a complete stop--blocked by the
Cascade Mountains. Unfortunately, the Willamette Valley--
the emigrant's destination--was still 100 miles further on. In
the Trail’s first years, there was only one solution--float the
wagons down the Columbia River.
• Because of the swirling rapids, the trip down the Columbia was
• Emigrant Lindsey Applegate:
"One of our boats, containing six persons, was caught in one of
those terrible whirlpools and upset. My son, ten-years-old, my
brother Jesse's son Edward, same age, were lost. It was a painful
scene beyond description. We dared not go to their assistance
without exposing the occupants of the other boat to certain
destruction. The bodies of the drowned were never recovered."
• Many emigrants soon realized they could not navigate the
hazardous river themselves, so they hired experts--Native
• Even with Native American help, floating the Columbia was risky.
Commercial ferrymen also set up shop, but their prices were
outlandishly high. Even if an emigrant was willing to pay the steep
fee, there were not enough ferry boats available to handle the flood
of wagons rolling in. So here at The Dalles they waited for days--or
weeks. As a result, a city was born.
• Floating the Columbia by yourself was risky. Commercial ferrymen set up
shop, but their prices were outlandishly high. One man who was
particularly angry about high ferryboat prices was Sam Barlow. And so
he devised a plan to build a road from The Dalles to the Willamette
Valley, avoiding the Columbia altogether. Just one thing stood in his way:
Mt. Hood. But Barlow was determined--and in 1845 he and a few men
began hacking and cutting their way through the forests of Mt. Hood. The
thick pine and steep hills proved to be difficult obstacles, but Barlow was
determined. By 1846, the Barlow Road was finished, complete with toll
gates. The charge: five dollars per wagon. It was an immediate success.
Emigrants willingly endured the steep inclines and sheer descents
because it certainly was better than the ruinous rapids of the Columbia
River--or was it?
• Sarah Cummins:
"The traveling was slow and toilsome; slopes were almost
impassible for man and beast. As night was coming on, it
seemed we all must perish, but weak, faint and starving we
went on. I could scarcely put one foot before the another. I
weighed less than eighty pounds at the time. My own party
had been 14 days with only nine biscuits and four small
slices of bacon. "
• The final stop on the Trail for many of the emigrants was Ft.
Vancouver--the massive British outpost on the north bank of the
Columbia. Most of the emigrants were now very low on supplies and
• Explorer John Fremont:
"Their thin and insufficient clothing, bareheaded and barefooted children
attesting to the length of the journey."
• Without help here, many would not live through the winter. But help was
exactly what they found--from a most unlikely source--a man named
• McLoughlin was head of British Ft. Vancouver and his
orders were to discourage the American emigrants--but he
did just the opposite. McLoughlin offered the weary travelers
food and medicine, and he even organized rescue parties
for emigrants in trouble along the way. They affectionately
dubbed him "The Father of Oregon."
• A few emigrants had the opportunity to visit McLoughlin's
house at the fort; a rare dose of civility for the weary
• Across the river from Ft. Vancouver came the final stop in
the 2000 mile long trail--Oregon City. From there the
emigrants fanned out in all directions to stake their claims
and begin their new lives. They had reached the promised
• Emigrant Overton Johnson: "We were happy, after a long
and tedious tour, to witness the home of civilization. To see
mills, storehouses, shops. To hear the noise of the
workman's hammer; to enjoy the warm welcome of
countrymen and friends." From Oregon City the emigrants
fanned out in all directions to stake their claims and begin
their new lives. The provisional government allotted 640
acres of fertile Willamette valley farmland to every male
citizen. The emigrants soon learned that the legend of
Oregon was true.
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