Oregon Trail

1841–1869

The Oregon Trail is the most famous of the Overland Trails used by thousands of American pioneers who emigrated to Oregon and other western territories during the age of Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion. It was blazed by frontiersman Robert Stuart in 1812–1813 and was most popular from 1841 to 1869.

The Oregon Trail, Painting, Bierstadt

The Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt, 1869. Image Source: Butler Institute of American Art.

What was the Oregon Trail?

Oregon Trail Summary

The Oregon Trail was the most historic of the Overland Trails used by settlers, traders, and others to migrate to the western United States during the 19th century. The trail stretched for more than 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, in present-day Oregon. The trail was originally used by Native American Indians for hunting and trading. Later, it was developed and improved by explorers like Lewis and Clark and Mountain Men like Jedediah Smith and Jim Bridger. The trail gained widespread popularity in the 1840s when thousands of settlers started using it to move west. The trail’s popularity died out after the use of railroads started in the late 1860s, however, it played a significant part in the westward expansion of the United States and the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

Oregon Trail Quick Facts

  • The Oregon Trail played a significant role in America’s fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.
  • It is estimated that as many as 650,000 moved west on the Overland Trails, including the Oregon Trail, from the early 1840s through the end of the Civil War.
  • Roughly one-third of those people went to Oregon.
  • In total, the Oregon Trail was about 2,000 miles long.
  • The desire to move west was called “Oregon Fever.”
  • The Oregon Trail passed through the present-day states of Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.
  • The California Trail, Mormon Trail, and Bozeman Trail were all offshoots from the Oregon Trail.
  • Wagons were pulled by oxen, not horses, because Indians would only take horses in raids.

Oregon Trail History

Robert Stuart Finds the South Pass Through the Rocky Mountains

Robert Stuart was a member of the fur trading group known as the Astorians, who worked for John Jacob Astor and the Pacific Fur Company, part of the American Fur Company. Stuart led an expedition to the Oregon Country that established Fort Astoria. 

On the journey back to St. Louis, he discovered a path in the southern portion of present-day Wyoming that went over the Continental Divide and through the Rocky Mountains — and could be traveled by wagon. This part of the trail became known as the “South Pass,” because it was south of the route blazed by Lewis and Clark. The trail Stuart followed from Oregon back to St. Louis is what became known as the Oregon Trail.

Stuart and Astor kept the location of the South Pass a secret.

Oregon City, 1849, Illustration
This illustration depicts Oregon City in 1849. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Running east to west, the trail started in Independence, Missouri, stretched west for approximately 2,000 miles, and ended in Oregon City, Oregon. It was not one continuous trail from Missouri to Oregon. It was a series of paths, trails, and wagon roads that often followed old Native American Indian trails. Along the way, it passed through six states including Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. 

Although there were several other westward trails, the Oregon Trail was the most popular. As more people emigrated west, towns along the route became alternate points of departure for the westward journey, including Atchison and Leavenworth in Kansas, St. Joseph and Weston in Missouri, and Omaha in Nebraska.

Jefferson’s Vision and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Even before Thomas Jefferson became President in 1800, he had dreams of a nation that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. He tried to organize at least two expeditions that never came to fruition. Finally, the opportunity presented itself in 1803 when he received funding from Congress for a secret military expedition that was going to travel west, into French territory. The plan changed a few months later when France offered the Louisiana Territory to the United States. By the time the Lewis and Clark Expedition set sailed up the Missouri River, the Louisiana Purchase had been completed, eliminating concerns about trespassing in French territory. The expedition spent nearly three years exploring the area, and their reports encouraged many others to travel westward. 

Sacagawea, Lewis and Clark Expedition
Lewis and Clark with their scout and interpreter, Sacagawea. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Hudson’s Bay Company and the Fur Trade

Following the War of 1812, the British presence in the west increased, primarily through the efforts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Although the Treaty of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain established “joint occupation” of the Oregon Territory, the Hudson’s Bay Company essentially controlled the area.

However, the United States continued to explore the area west of the Louisiana Territory and sponsored more expeditions, which were led by men like Captain Benjamin Bonneville, John C. Frémont, and Kit Carson. The American expeditions usually stayed south of the Oregon Territory, including Stephen H. Long’s 1820 expedition into the Great Plains. During that expedition, he famously called the plains the “Great American Desert” — which effectively slowed westward migration for a short time.

Carson and other men, like Jim Bridger, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and James Beckwourth became renowned Mountain Men, known for their knowledge of the territory. Not only did they work for the fur trading companies but they also served as scouts for military and emigrant expeditions.

Jedediah Smith Maps the South Pass

Jedediah Smith led an expedition from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company into the Wind River Valley, in central Wyoming, for the winter of 1823–1824. At some point, they located the Crow Indians, who told them about a passage — the “South Pass” — through the Rocky Mountains that would safely take him across the Continental Divide, which ran between the Central and Southern Rocky Mountains.

Jedediah Smith, Mountain Man, Illustration
Jedediah Smith. Image Source: Wikipedia.

In February 1824, Smith and his men went through the South Pass and made their way to the Green River in present-day Utah. They stayed there for the spring, trapping along the river and its tributaries.

Smith sent Thomas Fitzpatrick back to St. Louis to deliver the news of the “discovery” to William Henry Ashley, who used the South Pass to establish his Trapper Rendezvous system, which he started in 1825.

In 1830, Smith sent a letter to Secretary of War John Eaton, informing him of the South Pass. This allowed the route to become an important part of the Oregon Trail, as thousands of Americans used it to move west.

Wyeth-Lee Party

The first group of settlers traveled west in 1834, led by Nathaniel Wyeth and Jason Lee. Wyeth was a merchant from New England and Lee was a missionary. Wyeth made the trip to sell supplies at the annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, a gathering of Mountain Men in the Rocky Mountains. Lee was headed west to establish a mission to convert Native American Indians to Christianity. The Wyeth-Lee Party was the first to travel the full length of the Oregon Trail.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman

In 1836, American missionaries, led by Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, took the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley. The Whitman Party was led by Bonneville. During the journey, the Whitmans became the first people to use wagons to make the journey on the trail. Narcissa Whitman also became one of the first Anglo-American women to travel the entirety of the Oregon Trail. Once they arrived in the Willamette Valley, the Whitman’s established a mission that was visited frequently by emigrants on their way west.

Fort Bridger

By 1840, the demand for felt hats decreased, which diminished the fur trade and Britain’s interests in the region. As the fur trade dwindled, many of the Mountian Men lead emigrants across the Great Plains and over the trail to their new homes in Oregon and California. Some, like Jim Bridger, also established trading posts along the Oregon Trail. Bridger’s post, called Fort Bridger, was set up in 1842 on Blacks Fork of the Green River, in present-day Uinta County, Wyoming.

Fort Bridger, Black's Fork of Green River, Illustration
Illustration of Fort Bridger. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Great Migration of 1843

During the winter of 1842–1843, Marcus Whitman traveled to Boston. On the return trip, he stopped at Independence, where a massive group of emigrants had gathered to make the journey west. This massive wagon train would be the first major migration along the Oregon Trail and became known as the “Great Migration of 1843.” It is estimated there were at least  120 wagons and somewhere between 800 and 1,000 men, women, and children.

Whitman did not go with the wagon train when it left for Oregon. He traveled to visit missions in the Great Plains but promised to meet them along the Platte River. John Gantt led the group until Whitman met up with them, and then Whitman led them to the Columbia River. 

Until then, no one had been able to travel the full length of the Oregon Trail in wagons. When expeditions reached Fort Hall in the eastern portion of the Oregon Territory, they were forced to abandon wagons and finish the trip on pack animals. Whitman convinced the members of the wagon train they could take their wagons with them. When the wagon train arrived near Mount Hood, the wagons were taken apart and floated down the Columbia River. By October, the emigrants arrived in the Willamette Valley.

From then until 1846, when a new road — the Barlow Road — was opened in the territory, allowing emigrants to travel the entire distance of the Oregon Trail by wagon.

Oregon Trail Campfire, Painting, Bierstadt
Oregon Trail Campfire, Albert Bierstadt, 1863, Image Source: Wikipedia.

Oregon Treaty

Following the Great Migration of 1843, emigration to Oregon increased and the call for the United States to take full control of the Oregon Territory grew, as supporters used the slogan, “54 degrees 40 minutes or fight!” 

President James K. Polk, a firm supporter of the concept of America’s Manifest Destiny, made a proposition to British officials to establish a boundary along the 49th parallel. Secretary of State James Buchanan and Senator John C. Calhoun of South Carolina worked with British officials to design the Oregon Treaty of 1846. Per the treaty, all of Vancouver Island was given to Canada, and the United States was given the lower portion of the territory, which comprised present-day Washington and Oregon. The treaty was ratified by the Senate on June 18, 1846.

Later Years on the Oregon Trail

Thousands of Americans streamed west to Oregon and California over the Oregon Trail following the Oregon Treaty. Some of the key events included:

  • 1846 — The Donner Party became stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter.
  • 1847 — Brigham Young led the Mormon Brigade to Utah.
  • 1849 — Following the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California, an estimated 30,000 emigrants went west at the onset of the California Gold Rush. At least 55,000 followed in 1850.
  • 1851 — Congress passed the Donation Land Act, which granted land to settlers in Oregon and incentivized immigration.
  • 1854–1857 — Immigration slowed due to the Indian Wars.
  • 1858 — Gold was discovered in Colorado.
  • 1859 — The first stagecoaches were used on the trail.
  • 1860 — Silver was found in Nevada and the Pony Express started.
  • 1863 — Gold was found in Montana and the Pony Express went bankrupt.
  • 1866–1869 — The era of the overland trails came to an end with the railroads.

Interesting Facts About the Oregon Trail

Prairie Schooners

Emigrants primarily traveled the Oregon Trail in covered wagons, known as “Prairie Schooners.” They were built out of wood and iron and covered with waterproofed cotton or linen canvas. The wagons were usually about 10 feet long, and 4 feet wide, and could weigh up to 2,500 pounds when fully loaded. The pioneers often walked alongside the wagons, which were pulled by oxen or mules.

The wagons were typically loaded with enough food to finish the trip to the West Coast and included preserved foods, including hard tack, bacon, coffee, flour, beans, and rice. They also carried critical supplies, such as cooking utensils, clothing, candles, a rifle, tents, bedding, axes, and shovels.

They were called schooners as a reference to small sailing ships.

A Treacherous Journey

The journey was dangerous. The pioneers were exposed to harsh weather, threats from wild animals, and attacks from Native American Indians. Clean water was often an issue, and unsanitary conditions contributed to the spread of diseases, which led to the deaths of many settlers.

Crossing the Plains, Painting, Nahl
Crossing the Plains, Charles Christian Nahl. 1856. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Destinations Other than Oregon

Despite the dangers, many people made the journey in search of new opportunities and a better life in the western territories. The Oregon Trail was the most popular of the westward wagon trails, but there were others. Some of them branched off the Oregon Trail, such as the California Trail, which left the Oregon Trail in Idaho and headed south to California, and the Mormon Trail, which went from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Salt Lake City, Utah.

Oregon National Historic Trail

The Oregon Trail was popular until the Transcontinental Railroad connected the East to the West in 1869. In 1978, the U.S. Congress officially named the trail the Oregon National Historic Trail. Although much of the trail has been built over, around 300 miles of the trail have been preserved and can still be visited today.

Among the Sierra Nevada, Painting, Bierstadt
Among the Sierra Nevada, Albert Bierstadt, 1868, Image Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Why was the Oregon Trail Important?

Oregon Trail Significance

The Oregon Trail is important to United States history because it provided a vital path for westward expansion in the United States. The trail was used by hundreds of thousands of people in the 19th century. It played a key role in the settlement and development of the American West and will forever be linked with the concept of Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion.

Oregon Trail APUSH

Use the following links and videos to study the Oregon Trail, Manifest Destiny, and Westward Expansion for the AP US History (APUSH) exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Oregon Trail Definition

The definition of the Oregon Trail for APUSH is a vital overland route to the western United States that extended from Missouri to the Oregon Territory. The trail was discovered in 1812, and then opened to emigration in the 1840s. Over the next 25 years, it is estimated that 500,000-650,000 people moved west on the Overland Trails, including the Oregon Trail.

Oregon Trail FAQs

Why was the Oregon Trail important for the settlement of the West?

The Oregon Trail was important to the settlement of the West because the eastern portion of the trail served as the main path westward for most emigrants. Several other Overland Trails branched off of it, including the California Trail, Mormon Trail, and Bozeman Trail. The Oregon Trail played an important role in America’s Manifest Destiny.

What was the most common cause of death on the Oregon Trail?

It is estimated that nearly one in every ten people died on the trail. The most common causes of death were sickness, particularly cholera, and accidents.

What was it like to be on the Oregon Trail?

This video from Weird History explores what it was like for pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Oregon Trail
  • Date 1841–1869
  • Author
  • Keywords Oregon Trail, Robert Stuart, South Pass, Thomas Jefferson, Lewis and Clark, Louisiana Purchase, Hudson's Bay Company, Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Marcus Whitman, Jim Bridger, Fort Bridger, Great Migration of 1843, Oregon Treaty, Who made the Oregon Trail, What was the Oregon Trail, When did people use the Oregon Trail, Where did the Oregon Trail start, Where did the Oregon Trail End, Why was the Oregon Trail important, How is the Oregon Trail connected to Manifest Destiny
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 5, 2024

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