The Oregon Trail; 19th Century America's Route to Wild, Unsettled West Brought to Life

Article excerpt


Poor Lewis and Clark. Those intrepid American explorers spent two years (1804-1806) searching for a water route to the Pacific by following the Missouri and Columbia River systems. Their explorations were invaluable in examining the recently acquired Louisiana Purchase, but what if they had known about "the shortcut"?

In 1811, legendary fur trade magnate John Jacob Astor founded - by sea - Astoria, his trading post on the present Oregon coast. In 1812, one of Astor's employees, Robert Stuart, led a party on an arduous eastward overland journey at the behest of the boss in New York. Stuart's "Astorians" were the first to trace the majority of the route eventually called the Oregon Trail.

The irony is that this westering road was first traveled in reverse. Along the way the Astorians traversed South Pass, a relatively low saddle of land on the Continental Divide in present western Wyoming. It would subsequently prove to be the easiest traveled route across the Rockies. All of this is chronicled in David Dary's expansive "The Oregon Trail: An American Saga".

By the mid-1820s, mountain men were regularly crisscrossing South Pass, and soon mule pack-train caravans were coming west from St. Louis, following the Platte River Valley to the annual mountain man Rendezvous held in various places in the central Rockies. South Pass was the Main St. of the Rocky Mountain fur trade. In 1830, the trader William Sublette brought the first wagons along the Trail to the Rendezvous.

Oregon-bound missionaries soon attached themselves to the trader wagon trains as the safest way to travel through Indian country, and there - after stoically withstanding the hedonistic spectacle of the two week mountain man gathering - hired guides for the second leg of the trip, though without wagons as the trail was rougher. In 1840, the retiring trappers Joe Meek and Robert "Doc" Newell brought the first wagons to Oregon's Willamette Valley.

With Kit Carson as guide, "The Pathfinder" John C. Fremont in 1842 "discovered" South Pass (no matter that mountain men had frequented the area for the previous two decades), and went on to "explore" the Great Basin along the Trail farther west. Despite his blowhard claims as an explorer, which were marginal, all this made Fremont's (and Carson's) reputation in the national press that Fremont used in a later failed presidential bid.

Fremont's western wanderings always had a political component, as his main sponsor was his father-in-law, the powerful Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri. For instance, Fremont and Carson at the head of a large party were in California at the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, probably by machination because they participated in the Bear Flag Revolt.

The Oregon Country was soon opened to settlement, and as the fur trade went bust in the early 1840s, many prominent mountain men (Carson, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Moses "Black" Harris, et al) found employment guiding wagon trains through country they were thoroughly familiar with. In 1843, Jim Bridger built his eponymous trading pit stop Fort Bridger along the Trail in present southwestern Wyoming with the idea of tapping the emigrant market. …