This edited article about the Oregon Trail originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 743 published on 10 April 1976.
It was a mile wide and an inch deep, according to the great American humorist, Mark Twain, while another wit said it was “too thick to drink and too thin to plough”. But it was really deeper than this and the Platte River, which split in two at its forks in Nebraska, could be mean and treacherous, as successive wagon trains on the 2,000 mile (approx. 3,200 km.) journey to Oregon found to their cost.
“The river bottom is a shifty quicksand,” wrote one 1866 emigrant, who related how swiftly a wagon could get stuck fast in the sand. When that happened, shouts and yells rent the air, whips cracked and the driver and his friends urged the oxen, mules or horses to get clear.
The “Great Emigration” to Oregon of 1843, whose fortunes we are mainly following in this series, reached the first Platte crossing on June 29th on its long journey to Oregon’s fertile Willamette Valley, which was to make the area American not British. It took the pioneers, who had started out from a rendezvous near Independence, Missouri, on May 22nd, until July 25th to cross the river.
Some of the 1,000 or so travellers in their 200 wagons turned their “prairie schooners” into boats, covering the wagon box tops by sewing together buffalo hides and stretching them across the top. The sun dried the skins and made a raft for goods, the children and womenfolk, while the husband guided the oxen over, often wading alongside.
Young Jesse Applegate was very excited at the crossing, recalling more than half a century later how perilous it was for, where the water was deep, wagons sometimes overturned and there were a number of drownings. The boy never forgot how the water overflowed into the wagon boxes, how it was decided to chain all the wagons together in single file, using the chain that was attached to them each night when they made a great circle on the prairies for safety. He could not remember which Platte crossing it was, but he never forgot the events: how the men stayed alongside the wagons in the water, how part of the train would be floating for a time and was only kept in line by the chain.
The 4th of July, the great American holiday to celebrate the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776, was celebrated by a swim in the Platte; not by the parties, the ice creams and mint juleps, the horseplay and hard liquor that many emigrants were used to. Supplies were running too low for any sort of a feast.
Meanwhile, the country was growing drier and sandier, the only breaks in the flat wilderness being the spire of Chimney Rock and the dome of Scotts Bluff. There was next to no wood now; all cooking was done over fires made of buffalo chips (dried buffalo dung), placed in shallow trenches. And every night now there was more and more repairing to be done to equipment damaged on the trail.
On July 14, the famous fur-trading post of Fort Laramie was reached. It had been built in 1834 and was named after a French trapper killed by the Indians in 1821. The emigrants stayed two days, the women joyfully having a mammoth washing spree, while the children went to gawp at the nearby Indian camp. The Indians, seeing white women and children for the first time, were amazed at the size of the huge wagon train. Having no idea of the endless sea of Americans in the East, some supposed that this was the whole white village moving up beyond the mountains! These were the happy days before white land grabs, racial tension and the Indian wars.
Beyond Laramie, the going was hard. Fresh supplies had been bought, oxen had had their hooves re-shod after being upended in trenches, and wheels, shrunk by the dry air, were now carrying new iron tyres.
But the oxen were getting weaker, the springs fouler. There were few days as pleasant as the one on which Independence Rock, a great trail landmark, was reached, and the younger emigrants climbed up it to see the view and carve their names below those of earlier visitors. Every emigrant train left behind things more solid than signatures. As the years went by, the trail was littered with broken wagon wheels, broken utensils, scraps of clothing, mouldering scaffolds for drying meat – and graves. And there were buffalo bones everywhere, bleached by the scalding sun. One grave commemorated a little boy who had been run over by a wagon wheel. “This cursed wilderness,” wrote one emigrant.
Now they were crossing South Pass in the Rockies and the rivers flowed westwards to the Pacific. They were over the backbone of the continent. The 1843 emigrants headed southwest to trade at Fort Bridger, run by the old trapper and guide, Jim Bridger. Others would head directly across a waterless stretch of 50 miles (80 km.) where many animals and humans were to die. The two trails linked up again on the way to the Hudson’s Bay Company post of Fort Hall.
At Soda Springs, the 1843 expedition ran into a group of explorers led by J. C. Fremont, who shot off a 6-pounder cannon in their honour, to the delight of all the children.
Soda Springs was the main breaking-off point for the California Trail. But in 1843 it was “Oregon – or bust!” The front of the wagon train reached Fort Hall on August 27th and the rugged trappers told everyone within earshot to sell their wagons and proceed by horse, as others had done before them. At that moment Doctor Whitman rode up. This early emigrant to Oregon, who had founded a mission there, was travelling westwards once again with the 1843 party, as we saw earlier. Now he urged the emigrants to keep their wagons. He told them that they could reach the Columbia River and then float its raging waters on rafts.
Whitman set off with the lighter wagons, while the rest followed in groups. A few had changed to pack mules, but most of them believed the spellbinding words of the doctor in buckskins and drove their wagons through country that got rougher and rougher.
Suddenly, the roar of water, which grew louder every minute, could be heard ahead. To young Jesse Applegate it sounded like distant thunder. They were approaching the Salmon Falls of the Snake River and all along the route to them were Indians and what Jesse thought were clothes hanging out to dry on lines. When he got nearer he saw that the lines were holding salmon drying in the sun.
The most dangerous part of the journey was about to begin.
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