Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Let Us Honor Those to Whom Honor Is Due": The Discovery of the Final Link in the Southern Route to Oregon

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

"Let Us Honor Those to Whom Honor Is Due": The Discovery of the Final Link in the Southern Route to Oregon

Article excerpt

THE SOUTHERN ROUTE to Oregon, the longest alternative route of the nineteenth-century overland emigrant trails, was established by a group of fifteen explorers who could easily have died because they had to travel long distances without water. (1) One of the group's leaders, Levi Scott, recalled one day of the journey: "The outlook was not at all promising that we should be able to reach water, again, in one day. Our course lay to the south across a vast sandy desert and this proved to be as hot a day as I ever experienced in my life. ... We traveled until about 3 o'clock in the afternoon without any indication of water." (2) Despite such an unpromising outlook, they all managed to make it out of the desert and establish a new wagon road for emigrants, but how, exactly, they found their way from the barren Black Rock Desert to the life-giving Humboldt River has remained a mystery. Locating that path provides an important contribution to the ongoing work of documenting and understanding the experience of Euro-Americans migrating to the Oregon Country.

Fur trappers and traders led missionaries to the Oregon Country during the 1830s, and then the missionaries sent letters home, recruiting people who came and built settlements around the missions. By 1842, emigrants had defined a route from Missouri to Oregon that allowed the passage of farm wagons loaded with families and their equipment for a new life, and they negotiated a route to California by 1844, with wagons passing down the Humboldt River to the Sierra Nevada.

These overland routes were barely sufficient to support the lives of the emigrants and their draft animals. Water was often scarce and dangerous to drink. Grasses for feeding the animals were plentiful only during the first half of the trip and then were scattered and isolated for the second half, and there were difficult mountain ranges and dangerous rivers to cross. Many lives were lost. Children were especially vulnerable to injury, disease, and death. Explorers, many of whom had seen or heard of other routes, searched for safer ways for the emigrants to travel. (3)


Explorers concentrated most of their efforts on eliminating or reducing two great detours that kept emigrants from traveling a direct route to Oregon after crossing the South Pass, in what is now central Wyoming and about halfway between the jump-off point of Independence, Missouri, and the Willamette Valley destination. The first great detour led south to Fort Bridger and then north to Fort Hall. The Oregon Trail then went on a nearly direct route west to Fort Boise. The second great detour turned north from Fort Boise to the valley of the Columbia River. On reaching the Columbia, emigrants turned west, again, and proceeded to the north end of the Willamette River valley.

Overland emigrants gathered information about the journey from three sources: they hired guides who had traveled the country, like Caleb Greenwood, James Clyman, and Moses "Black" Harris; they read reports of explorers such as Wilkes and Fremont; and they bought maps of the explorations. Mapmaker John Arrowsmith of London produced a series of continually improving maps of the Oregon Country from 1832 to 1844, basing them on the reports of Peter Skene Ogden and other Hudson's Bay Company explorers. (4) American maps were based on the explorations of Capt. Charles Wilkes, leader of the U.S. Exploring Expedition's journey through the Oregon Country in 1841, and Capt. John C. Fremont, who journeyed throughout the Far West from 1842 to 1844. Wilkes's maps, published in 1844, and Fremont's maps, published in 1844 and 1845, all showed that South Pass was near the same latitude as the southern border of the Oregon Country. (5) They also showed rivers at apparently convenient distances between South Pass and the Willamette Valley. Mountain men and traders had crossed through the area and provided inconclusive reports of the possibilities for a wagon route. …

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