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The Oregon Trail
The History Cat Classroom
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Thinking Questions

Manifest Destiny

Americans have, as far back as Jamestown, always been on the move. Those early European settlers saw the vast American continent as a wilderness to be tamed. Taming the wilderness, of course, meant clearing the forests and establishing farms, the main way a person could earn a living in those days.  Fast forward to 1840. Those British colonies were now a new nation- The United States (in case you were wondering) and those colonists- now Americans- were continuing to expand westward across to the Pacific Ocean.


Like their colonial ancestors, these American trailblazers were leaving their friends and family behind and heading off into an unknown and hostile world. Some, like the Mormons, went west in search of religious freedom. Others sought economic freedom on the plains of Kansas or the gold mining towns of California. Economic depressions in 1837 and 1841 saw thousands unemployed and many lost their farms; for many, moving west was one of their best hopes. All of these folks shared a common vision- that it was America's destiny to one day stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.


Manifest Destiny worked the boundaries of the United States into the familiar shape we know today. But to do this, millions of Native Americans would have to be forcibly removed onto reservations, we would fight a war with Mexico in what many considered to be an illegal land grab. Florida was also obtained from the Spanish under somewhat sketchy circumstances.Obtaining western land often meant conflict with the natives and Mexicans who already called these places home. The pioneering spirit of Manifest Destiny that has built the American character also carries with it a darker side of racism.

The phrase Manifest Destiny means more than just a spirit of independence and individualism that motivated those early pioneers to move west. The phrase Manifest Destiny reflects a deeply held belief among 19th-century pioneers that the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was destined by God Almighty to be given to the white settlers.

Many whites saw the hunting-gathering lifestyle of the Native Americans (even though many tribes were also farmers)  as a backward and primitive lifestyle. They looked at the wide open plains and forests as wasted space just waiting for civilization to come and turn it into green farmland. So, if the Indians weren't interested in making good use of their land, why not let someone come in and do it?


Farming done by individual families was the best lifestyle.  Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln promoted the American farmer as honest and hard working. The best qualities that an American should aspire to.

The Oregon Trail

Aside from the occasional stories of fur trappers and what they read in the newspapers, most families on the Oregon Trail were not prepared for the harsh conditions that they would face. Packing up all of your stuff in a wagon and walking 2,000 miles under a blazing sun, sudden rainstorms, and freak snowstorms may sound romantic but it wasn't all fun and games. March and April were the best time to do your jumping off because the grasses along the Great Plains were perfect for grazing the oxen. Of course, the last thing you would expect to hear about in the old west is traffic jams, but yep they even had them back then. With thousands of people literally lining up to start their journey things could get pretty messy (and smelly with all of those oxen).

Sometimes the trail out of town might be backed up for days before everyone got underway.The pioneers followed a set course first along the Platte River, over the Rocky Mountains, and then follow the Snake and Columbia Rivers into the fertile Willamette Valley. The first settlers made their way west in 1841. By 1845, 5,000 people were making the trek to Oregon. Once gold was discovered in California this numbered surged to 55,000 people annually in 1850. However, not everyone made it to the Oregon. The trail from Missouri to the Willamette Valley is lined with the graves of over 20,000 folks who didn't survive. Cholera was the biggest killer. Caused by drinking water that had been tainted by animal or human feces, a victim of Cholera could expect severe diarrhea, cramps, and vomiting. If untreated a person could die from rapid dehydration.

Making the journey was very difficult as almost the entire journey had to be done on foot. Only the very young, the very old, and the very sick were allowed to ride in the wagons; and in the days before shock absorbers, most people preferred to take their chances walking. The pioneers never traveled along- that was unthinkable. Usually, families would team up with other families along the route and they would stay together for protection or share the workload. Although the threat of Indian ambushes were almost certainly on the mind of every pioneer, most people didn't even see an Indian, much less survive an attack. The biggest threats were from Mother Nature and wagon malfunctions.

The Great Plains (or the Great American Desert as it was known back then) was a vast grassland that was seen as being only good for wild Indians and buffalo. Summer temperatures were scorching, tornadoes and thunderstorms could spring up without warning, and the winters were bitterly cold and snowy. A snapped wagon axle was by far the biggest concern.

All smart pioneers brought tools and brushed up on wagon mechanics before leaving home. A snapped axle could at best delay your journey by a week or more. At worst, you would have to abandon most of your stuff along the trail and turn your wagon into a pushcart with only the barest of necessities. The Oregon Trail could be called one long trash heap; those who made their journey in the late 1840's and 1850's only had to follow the oxen bones, broken furniture and abandoned wagons to know they were on the right path. Of course, this is one of the main reasons why wagons traveled in groups called wagon trains.

Jumping Off

In the 1830s a new type of pioneer was heading west into Indian Territory.  Rather than coming to trade and then go back home, entire families were heading west along a northern route called the Oregon Trail. Following in the footsteps of the fur trappers and explorers who blazed the first paths for white settlement in the Oregon Territory, it took these pioneers 6 months and over 2,000 miles of walking to finally reach their destination, the Willamette Valley (near modern-day Portland); but was back then claimed by both Britain and the United States.


However, don't go thinking that just because someone did it before them that it made things easier for the settlers. Most travelers on the Oregon Trail were escaping a crushing economic depression that was sweeping the country in the late 1830's. In 1837 and 1841, thousands of banks went bankrupt, unemployment was high, and farm prices had collapsed meaning that farmers had to sell their corn and wheat for less than what it cost to grow it. Many farmers found their land being repossessed by the banks.  The only alternative for many was to sell everything they had, say goodbye for the last time to your family and friends and catch the next steamship bound for Missouri.


Missouri was just the beginning or jumping off point as the settlers called it. Towns like St. Joseph, Omaha, Council Bluffs, and Independence grew up faster than a wink. The very existence of these towns was centered on selling the goods that pioneers would need on their 2,000-mile trek west. Since they were heading into unknown territory with no Target just off the expressway, pioneers had to prepare for every possible occasion.


One jumper-offer summed up the supplies that one would need along the Oregon Trail as such this advice given by Oregon emigrant Lansford Hastings:


"In procuring supplies for this journey, the emigrant should provide himself with, at least, 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon; ten pounds of coffee; twenty pounds of sugar; and ten pounds of salt."-




Lard, apples, bacon, and biscuits were also common foodstuffs that a pioneer would want to stock up on. On average each person would need about 1,000 pounds of food to last the 6 months or more that it might take. Of course, food was essential but it wasn't the only thing you'd need to stock up on. First, you had to buy a wagon (no, everyone didn't own one of those back then) and an ox or two to pull it. The Schooner Wagons (named after the fast ships that sailed up and down the east coast) was your best bet.

Manifest Destiny
"The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs. For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity, I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union"

-President John Adams
$100 for a glass of water! Crazy but true. Read the story of how pioneers got gouged on the trail.


Oregon Trail
Kids on the trail used to play with Frisbees made of buffalo dung!

"The whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles, and accustomed to one general tenor of social usages and customs. For the common happiness of them all, for their peace and prosperity, I believe it is indispensable that they should be associated in one federal Union"

-President John Adams

Fot Kearney
Jumping Off Day
in Fort Kearney, NB

Women on the Trail

Life along the trail was hard work. Not only were you expected to walk 15 miles or more each day but the usual chores of cooking, cleaning, taking care of the livestock and the children still had to be done, but now without any of the creature comforts of home. Most of these folks were not born rugged pioneers. They became that way by adapting to the difficulties that they had to face every day. Many men and women left their lives as middle-class farmers, teachers, shopkeepers, or laborers because what they had back home was worse than what they might be able to have once they made it to Oregon.  Life along the trail took on familiar gender roles. The men took care of driving the wagons, caring for the livestock, and hunting. Women took care of the children, cooking (camp style), the washing, and nursing sick members back to health.


One woman put it this way:

"It strikes me as I think of it now -- of course, I was a girl, too young then to know much about it -- but I think now the mothers on the road had to undergo more trial and suffering than anybody else. The men had a great deal of anxiety...but still, the mothers had the families."

- Martha Morrison Minto


The life of women on the trail was especially hard compared to men. Once the decision was made to make camp, the men would unload the necessary goods needed for supper, stake up a tent if it threatened to rain or was too cold but, the rest of the night was spent talking and smoking around the Buffalo chip (with little wood, fires were lit using buffalo or oxen dung) campfire. One woman complained that after walking all day the men got to rest but the women still had to cook dinner, wash dishes and get the children ready for bed. We have no time for sociability; there is no rest in such a journey.


Women on the trail often took roles that once only men did such as helping to dislodge a stuck wagon, gathering buffalo dung for a fire, or helping to build a makeshift bridge over a flooded river. Men, however, rarely pitched in with the domestic chores. That would be considered unmanly and how could they face the boys at the poker game if caught doing dishes or changing diapers? Faced with the hardships of the trail, some gave up and went back home. Most, however, had no home to go back to and so they had no choice but to push forward.



Oregon Trail Women

Walk 2,000 miles to Oregon, they said! It'll be an adventure, they said! Pffft!

"I would make a brave effort to be cheerful and patient until the camp work was done. Then starting out ahead of the team and my men folks, when I thought I had gone beyond hearing distance, I would throw myself down on the unfriendly desert and give way like a child to sobs and tears, wishing myself back home with my friends and chiding myself for consenting to take this wild goose chase."

- Lavina Porter

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