Pioneer Profiles – November 2015
California and the Oregon Territory seemed like the “promised land” to individuals in the eastern half of the United States dreaming of riches, adventure, or better lives. But first they had to get here. There were basically two routes—by land and by sea. Jacksonville pioneer Cornelius Beekman chose the latter and his experience of coming by sea was described in the June 2015 Jacksonville Review Pioneer Profiles. This month and next we’ll share the experience of those who came overland via the Oregon Trail.
“We cast our lots and sought our fortunes in the far West. It meant leaving our homes, our loved ones, our parents, and our friends to endure the hardships of a long and tedious journey…. to brave the dangers of camp life in the mountain wilds, added to the terrors and fears of molestations by the Indians. Our reason for coming to Oregon . . . to get free land in the heavenly country where sickness was hardly ever known.” – Mary Jane Smith Watkins, 1852
What we know as the Oregon Trail, was laid by fur trappers and traders from about 1811 to 1840, and at first was only passable on foot or by horseback. Then from the 1840s to the coming of the railroad, some 400,000 settlers, ranchers, farmers, miners, businessmen, and their families traveled the Oregon Trail and its offshoots in search of new homes and the riches the West had to offer. In the process, they created improved roads, “cutouts,” ferries and bridges that made the trip faster and safer every year.
First to come were the settlers. In 1841, a lonely caravan of 58 people followed the trail, half coming to Oregon and half following a land route to California. Beginning with “The Great Migration of 1843” when an estimated 700 to 1,000 emigrants left for Oregon, this trickle became a flood. After the Mexican War ended in 1847, another 4,000 ventured west on the trail.
The 1848 discovery of gold in California dramatically changed the character and experience of traveling the trail. Men dropped everything in a rush to get to California. By the end of 1849 over 25,000 more people had traveled the trail and arrived in California. The following year another 55,000 migrated to California; 50,000 more came in 1852.
Congress’s Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 added to the emigration. It offered free land in the Oregon Territory—320 acres to married settlers, 160 to unmarried settlers—providing that they occupied it for four consecutive years.
Independence, Missouri, was the main starting point for the 2,000 mile journey across the Oregon Trail to Oregon City. After selling their land, machinery, livestock, and household goods, most emigrants journeyed by steamboat from St. Louis to Independence Landing where, with their ready cash, they purchased the supplies they would need for the long trek.
It was a difficult journey and took four to five months by wagon. Ideally, a wagon train departed in April so it could traverse the Rockies and Cascades before the early snows set in. And nothing contributed more to the success or failure of the Western trek than the wagons that carried the pioneers across the miles of jolting wilderness.
Pioneers needed wagons strong enough to haul loads weighing as much as 2,500 pounds, yet light enough not to overtax the mules or oxen that would pull them for the duration. To outlast the rugged trail and months of wear, wagons needed to be constructed of seasoned hardwood. Iron was only used to reinforce the parts that took the greatest beating such as wheels and axles.
Most emigrants on the trail came west in their farm wagons, modified to take the punishment and fitted with canvas covers. These are the covered wagons—prairie schooners—that most associate with the Oregon Trail. A family of four might manage with a single wagon. However, it would not have been comfortable to ride in, since wagons lacked springs and most space would have been taken up with cargo. If they could afford it, families took more than one wagon.
Scholars estimate that up to three-fourths of pioneer wagons were pulled by oxen and most of the rest by mules. Both oxen and mules could eat the poor grass and sage en route where horses could not. Although mules could go faster than oxen, they could be stubborn, unruly, and tricky to handle. Oxen were slower, but more reliable and tougher. They could haul fully-loaded wagons up ravines or drag them out of mud holes.
A large wagon needed at least three yoke (pairs) of oxen to pull it. During the late 1840s, a yoke of oxen cost between $25 and $65. Mules cost about three times as much.
Many pioneers consulted trail guides both en route and as they made their preparations. These guidebooks originated with personal diary accounts and letters written to homes and newspapers back east. Several guidebooks were published before 1848, but hundreds of them were printed after the discovery of California gold. These trail guides usually described the route, suitable camp sites, the presence or absence of wood, water, and grass; fords of rivers and points of general interest. They also listed items that people would need for the trail.
Typical cargo crammed inside a 4’ x 11’ x 3’ wagon bed might include the following:
COOKING UTENSILS: Dutch oven, kettle, skillet, reflector oven, coffee grinder, teapot, butcher knife, ladle, tin tableware, water keg, matches.
CLOTHING: Wool sack coats, rubber coats, cotton dresses, wool pantaloons, buckskin pants, duck trousers, cotton shirts, flannel shirts, cotton socks, brogans, boots, felt hat, palm-leaf sun hat, sunbonnet.
FOOD: Flour (600 lbs.), bacon ( 400 lbs.), coffee (60 lbs.), baking soda, corn meal, hardtack, dried beans, dried fruit, dried beef, molasses, vinegar, pepper, eggs, salt, sugar (100 lbs.), rice, tea (4 lbs.), lard (200 lbs.).
BEDDING & TENT SUPPLIES: Blankets, ground cloths, pillows, tent, poles, stakes, ropes.
TOOLS & EQUIPMENT: Set of augers, gimlet, ax, hammer, hoe, plow, shovel, spade, whetstone, oxbows, axles, kingbolts, ox shoes, spokes, wagon tongue, heavy ropes, chains.
WEAPONRY: Rifle, pistol, knife, hatchet, gunpowder, lead, bullet mold, powder horn, bullet pouch, holster.
HANDY ARTICLES: Surgical instruments, liniments, bandages, campstool, chamber pot, washbowl, lanterns, candle molds, tallow, spyglasses, scissors, needles, pins, thread.
LUXURIES: Canned goods, plant cuttings, school books, musical instruments, dolls and toys, family albums, jewelry, china, silverware, fine linens, iron stoves, furniture.
Most pioneers would also take a milk cow or two and possibly a small herd of livestock that could be slaughtered en route for meat.
If you have a chance to visit the National Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City, Oregon, you can try your hand at loading a wagon. Are you packed and ready? Next month we’ll begin our journey.
Next month: Westward, Ho!