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Section 3, Chapter 5 -The Oregon & California Trails 1840 - 1860

Chapter 5:
Birth of the Trails
The Oregon-California Trail
Trail Routes
  Hudspeth Cutoff
   Lander Trail
   Salt Lake Cutoff
   Fort Hall and West
   Goodale Cutoff
   Northside Route
   Applegate Route
   End of the Trail

Wagon Ruts
Click here for a larger view
Map showing routes of the Oregon and California Trails plus cutoffs and alternate routes, (redrawn from National Geographic Society map). Click on image for larger view.

Birth of the Trails
For various reasons, in the 1830s and 1840s, interest began to grow throughout the settled parts of the United States in the area west of the Mississippi River. Here was land for the taking, places where people could get a new start in life. There were newspaper articles praising the little-known areas. Returning missionaries told of the wonders of the distant lands. A few people started out and the trickle of settlers grew.

Mountain men knew the way. There were animal trails to follow, streams and rivers to furnish water and enough feed for animals. The pioneering spirit of the country was aroused.

Replica of Oregon Trail wagon, east of Declo, Idaho, (July 1993). Wagon was part of the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) Oregon Trail wagon train.

This was not an organized migration. The government did not establish programs to encourage travel to the West. No roads were built, no preparations for a mass movement of settlers were undertaken. The whole idea just grew. Small groups of people would decide to go west. Parties would gather at jumping off places where they joined others who were ready to go and a wagon train would be organized.

For the first few years, before guidebooks became available, it was necessary for a wagon train to hire a leader, usually a retired fur trapper, who knew the country and could help the inexperienced travelers find their way. Some of the pioneers were experienced in handling large numbers of animals and did not find the prospect of a 4 or 5 month trip into a wilderness to be daunting. Many, however, were from cities in the east or mid-west and had no concept of what they were getting into. It took a lot of courage, and not everyone had it. Many turned back.

Life was less complicated then. The American diet was limited and the usual foods could be carried easily. Barrels of flour or corn meal, in which eggs were stored for safe carrying, sides of salt pork and bags of beans made up the usual fare. Travelers expected to supplement these staples on the trail with vegetables, fish and game. Clothing was rough and simple.

The large Conestoga wagons, used in an earlier time when east coast settlers were moving into the Mississippi area, were unsuited for this movement. They were too bulky and heavy. Instead, the pioneers used smaller, slab-sided wagons which could be floated across streams. These were pulled either by horses or oxen. Families took everything they owned and brought all of their animals. The draft animals would be used in farming when the trip was over.