Oregon Trail, overland emigrant route in the United States from the Missouri River to the Columbia River country (all of which was then called Oregon). The pioneers by wagon train did not, however, follow any single narrow route. In open country the different trains might spread out over a large area, only to converge again for river crossings, mountain passes, and other natural constrictions. In time many cutoffs and alternate routes also developed. They originated at various places on the Missouri, although Independence and Westport (now part of Kansas City, Mo.) were favorite starting points, and St. Joseph had some popularity.
Those starting from Independence followed the same route as the Santa Fe Trail for some 40 mi (64 km), then turned NW to the Platte and generally followed that river to the junction of the North Platte and the South Platte. Crossing the South Platte, the main trail followed the North Platte to Fort Laramie, while the Overland Trail followed the South Platte. The main trail continued from Fort Laramie to the present Casper, Wyo., and through the mountains by the South Pass to the basin of the Colorado River. The travelers then went SW; the Overland Trail rejoined the route E of Fort Bridger. From Fort Bridger the Mormon Trail continued SW to the Great Salt Lake, while the Oregon Trail went northwest across a divide to Fort Hall, on the Snake River. It then went along the Snake River. The California Trail branched off to the southwest, but the Oregon Trail continued to Fort Boise. From that point the travelers had to make the hard climb over the Blue Mts. Once those were crossed, paths diverged somewhat; many went to Fort Walla Walla before proceeding down the south bank of the Columbia River, traversing the Columbia's gorge where it passes through the Cascade Mts. to the Willamette Valley, where the early settlement centered. The end of the trail shifted as settlement spread.
The Wagon Trains
The mountain men were chiefly responsible for making the route known, and Thomas Fitzpatrick and James Bridger were renowned as guides. Capt. Benjamin de Bonneville first took wagons over South Pass in 1832. The first genuine emigrant train was that led by John Bidwell in 1841, half of which went to California, the rest proceeding from Fort Hall to Oregon. The first train of emigrants to reach Oregon was that led by Elijah White in 1842. In 1843 occurred the "great emigration" of more than 900 persons and more than 1,000 head of stock. Four trains made the journey in 1844, and by 1845 the emigrants reached a total of over 3,000. Although it took the average train six months to traverse the c.2,000-mi (3,200-km) route, the trail was used for many years. Travel gradually declined with the coming of the railroads, and the trail was abandoned in the 1870s. Many trail sites are now preserved in the Oregon National Historic Trail (see National Parks and Monuments, table). An interpretive center is in Baker City, Oreg.
The classic work by F. Parkman, The Oregon Trail, actually concerns only the eastern part of the trail. See also Federal Writers' Project, The Oregon Trail (1939, repr. 1972); E. Meeker, Story of the Lost Trail of Oregon (1984); J. E. Brown, Oregon Trail Revisited (1988); D. Dary, The Oregon Trail: An American Saga (2004).