The Oregon Trail Helped Shape America, And Its Impact On The Landscape Can Still Be Seen Today

Images: Doug KerrChris Light

For four decades, the Oregon Trail has played a starring role in American history, carrying hundreds of thousands of settlers towards a new life in the west. Now, railroads and highways have supplanted it. But the memory of the trail remains, and its legacy is still carved into the country’s landscape.

Image: William Robert Shepherd

To the European settlers who began arriving on North American shores in the 16th century, the new continent was a land of fresh starts and endless opportunities. Their pioneering spirit had led them to travel across the Atlantic Ocean in search of a new life. However, it would take two centuries before they began to colonize what would become the western United States.

Image: Seth Eastman

At first, the majority of European emigrants settled in eastern America. And for those who wished to travel to the lands of modern-day Oregon and California, a long and challenging journey lay ahead. By ship, they were forced to travel through perilous seas all the way around South America in order to reach their destination.

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Image: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

However, over time, paths developed that opened up cross-country travel to a new generation of pioneers. And with the help of these routes, hundreds of thousands of settlers left to seek their fortune in the west. Of course, their trailblazing migration forever changed the course of American history.

Image: James Tolbert

In the 19th century, two migration trails emerged that led settlers from Independence in the north-eastern state of Missouri to various destinations in the west. One of these was the Santa Fe Trail, which took pioneers south across the country to present-day New Mexico. But the busiest route by far was what is known today as the Oregon Trail.

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The bare bones of the Oregon Trail were mapped out as long ago as 1811. Early entrepreneurs, animal trappers and men of God began venturing into the unexplored west. Then, in 1812, a group of frontiersmen in the employ of  businessman John Jacob Astor founded Fort Astoria – the first American settlement on the country’s western coast.

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Later that year, an expedition was sent back east in the hope of rallying assistance and supplies for the ailing outpost. And along the way, the men discovered Wyoming’s South Pass – a traversable gap in the Rocky Mountains some 20 miles across. And even though Fort Astoria fell to the British in 1813, the foundations of the Oregon Trail had already been laid.

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Image: Rick Obst

However, many would-be pioneers were initially unenthusiastic about the west. Described as the “Great American Desert,” it generally held little appeal for the American public. And perhaps because of this attitude, the South Pass lingered in obscurity until two trappers rediscovered it in 1824.

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Even then, another decade passed before the first large group embarked on the nascent Oregon Trail. A band of missionaries headed by Canadian Jason Lee left Missouri in 1834. Joining forces with an expedition led by New England inventor Nathaniel Wyeth, they successfully followed the course of the Platte River west to their destination.

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Image: CAJC: in the Rockies

As more missionaries began to brave the journey west, the American public found their interest in the new lands piqued. And in 1840, the first group of overland travelers arrived in Willamette Valley, OR. Then, in 1841, a party of pioneers boarded a train of wagons and used the emerging trail to push on beyond Fort Astoria into California.

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As early as 1842, pioneer Marcus Whitman made the epic journey in reverse. Whitman traveled some 3,000 miles on horseback in order to raise additional funds for his missionary work. His reports, along with those of other explorers, finally helped to convince America that the lands west of the Rocky Mountains were filled with promise.

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Image: Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Soon, the golden age of the Oregon Trail was in full swing. First in their hundreds and then in even larger numbers, settlers began boarding wagons in Missouri and embarking on the long journey west. But the trail was full of hazards, and many hopeful pioneers did not make it to their destination alive.

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In fact, of the estimated 500,000 migrants who embarked on the Oregon Trail, it’s thought that up to 50,000 died en route. Of these, the vast majority fell victim to disease or fatal accidents. Only a small portion of deaths can be attributed to attacks by hostile Native American tribes, despite what Hollywood movie scripts and other stereotypical accounts would have you believe.

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Apparently, there were several factors that influenced the migrants’ decision to up sticks and risk the dangerous journey in search of a new life. While some hoped to make their fortune in the west, others were simply taking their cue from the trailblazing spirit that had brought their ancestors across the ocean. Later, many sought to flee the violence of the American Civil War.

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Image: Mike Tigas

Covering 2,170 miles, the trail eventually stretched from Independence, MO, to Oregon City, OR. Along the way, there were several landmarks that reassured nervous migrants that they were on the right route. And from the distinctive silhouette of Nebraska’s Scotts Bluff rock formation to the towering peak of Chimney Rock, North Carolina, many of these remain today.

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Image: Ken Lund

In 1869, the first great, transcontinental railroad was completed, sounding the death knell for the trail. But during its heyday, it had played a significant part in shaping the history of North America. And today, the landscape from Missouri to Oregon still bears traces of the epic journey made by so many thousands of souls.

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Image: Jon Roanhouse

As wagons made their way along the trail, they wore ruts into the ground. And even though they often deviated from the main route in search of short cuts and easier tracks, there were some points – such as California Hill, NE – where the topography meant vehicles were forced to follow exactly the same path.

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Image: Chris Light

In many of these places, the wagon ruts can still be seen carved into the landscape today. And in others, geological conditions – such as the pliable sandstone at Wyoming’s Guernsey Ruts – helped vehicles to leave their mark. Amazingly, the wheel tracks at Guernsey are a staggering five feet deep.

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Meanwhile, at Flagstaff Hill, OR, 19th-century wagon ruts still stretch for seven long miles across the Baker Valley. And those aren’t the only physical remnants of the trail. In other locations, such as Independence Rock in Casper, WY, and Alcove Spring in Blue Rapids, Kansas, visitors can still see the names of early pioneers etched into stones.

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Image: Baker County Tourism

Today, these scattered tracks and carvings are all that remain of the great trail. It has inspired everything from songs to television shows – and even an iconic 1980s computer game. But the main legacy of this cross-country route is the success of migration itself, and the pioneers who helped establish the western United States.

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