Wagons Ho! Crossing the Legendary Oregon Trail

By Bartruff, Dave | The World and I, May 2013 | Go to article overview

Wagons Ho! Crossing the Legendary Oregon Trail


Bartruff, Dave, The World and I


Historians call it the greatest voluntary human migration ever recorded--350,000 men, women, and children who embarked on a 2,000-mile journey between 1843 and 1859 along America's Highway of Hope: the Oregon Trail.

These were days of promise, when folks from all walks of life would just pull up stakes, load all they had aboard a prairie schooner, and follow their dreams West.

Their quest for a better life took them from the banks of the Mississippi River all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean and became one of the greatest epochs in U.S. history--"The Great Migration." It doubled the size of the country in less than two decades and helped realize their country's doctrine of Manifest Destiny, stretching the United States of America "from Sea to Shining Sea."

The long, dusty overland journey traditionally began from Courthouse Square in Independence, Missouri, where travelers like William Barlow were advised to "bring 75 pounds of bacon for every adult." In the square, the pioneers met face to face with masters of wagon trains who vigorously recruited them to join their train for a fee.

Trail's end was Oregon City, on the Willamette River only 60 miles from the shores of the Pacific Ocean, a challenging 1,932-mile overland journey.

Trains of 25 to 250 covered wagons, pulled by oxen, horses, and mules first began to depart in May of 1843 for the arduous journey that would last five to six months at a pace that averaged 10 to 20 miles per day. These migrant wagons can only be described as "Lilliputian," just 12 feet long and but three feet wide. Because the wagons were chock-full of all their earthly possessions, most of the migrant folks simply walked along beside their wagon the entire journey.

Today, history buffs and travelers looking for a different kind of adventure come from around the globe to take part in wagon train treks at various points along the route of the original Oregon Trail. These are off-road, open prairie rides that last from a day to a week in a number of the western states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. Some of today's wagon masters are descendants of the original migrants.

Still discernable now are more than 300 miles of indelible ruts cut into the sod and sandstone by the thousands of iron-clad wagon wheels that rolled across the Great Plains and up and over the Continental Divide centuries ago.

One hundred and twenty-five historical sites also mark the trail, some with the travelers' graffiti that has also weathered the time and the elements.

However, the pioneers' ordeal exacted a terrible human toll: as many as one traveler in ten died en route, nearly 30,000 in all. Beneath every mile of the trail, there are an average of 15 unmarked graves. Most died of disease (mainly cholera), accidents (including encounters with rattlesnakes), and fights between one another. Very few pioneers were killed by native Indians, their greatest fear from the start.

At Rock Creek Station Historical Park near Fairbury, Nebraska (one of 150 historical sites along the trail), I met a 75-year-old blacksmith adroitly pounding out red-hot iron horseshoes on an anvil that once served Pony Express riders, the West's first mail carriers.

Outside the foundry, a bull whacker drives an oxen team pulling a covered wagon full of adventurers over 19th-century wagon tracks. Casually, the man at the reins recounts how on a hot July afternoon in 1861, "Wild Bill" Hickok launched his bloody gun fighting career by shooting the express station's manager "just over there."

The trail's most famous landmark, Chimney Rock, is a strange sandstone spire more than 500 feet high that juts straight out of the prairie near Bayard in western Nebraska. …

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