Where did the Oregon Trail really start? The answer is difficult because there was no single Oregon Trail.
There were cutoffs, alternate routes, and a number of wagon roads through the countryside which fed into the main trunk of the Trail — the Nebraska City Road, for instance, picked up the Platte River over 100 miles east of Fort Kearny, where the Oregon Trail proper reached the Platte. For over forty years, emigrants left the eastern half of North America with every intention of settling in the western half, even if they had no idea exactly where it was or how to get there.
Pioneers — and for at least the first few years, the emigrants were truly so — came from farms and villages across the Old Northwest and Southwest Territories. They sold their land, packed their trunks, and booked passage on a steamer bound for Missouri River towns such as Independence, St. Joseph, or Council Bluffs.
These jumping-off spots, as they were called, were places to supply the bands of travelers with the items necessary to get the party to its destination: a wagon, draft animals, clothing, food, and camping supplies. Early farmers and miners found it necessary to carry with them the tools of their craft — plows, harnesses, picks, pans, and shovels — but as towns and cities sprang up in the West, it was no longer necessary to take with them what they could buy in Oregon City or Sacramento.
As the trails became more heavily traveled, another handy and necessary item became available in the Midwest: guidebooks for emigrants could be purchased for a nominal fee, around 10 cents. At first, they were not all that reliable. Authors working from memory or interviews with recent travelers sometimes mixed up beacons or guideposts along the way.
In later years, as the Civil War neared and Indian uprisings became common, men would hire themselves out as guides or scouts. They were typically about as reliable as the guidebooks.
The initial jumping-off spot for emigrants to Oregon was Independence, Missouri. Its location on both the Missouri River and the Santa Fe Trail destined it for this status. When Oregon became a destination for Americans fleeing the economic hardships of the East in favor of free land and opportunity in the West, the facilities for outfitting for the trek were already in place at Independence.
Emigrants would camp for up to three weeks along the river banks where the steamers disgorged them as they purchased animals, had a wagon made, trained their teams, and bought their supplies. Then they met at Independence Court House Square, where they hit the trail for Oregon.
The initial route of the westward overland trail was to follow the Santa Fe Trail into Kansas until it reached a small, inconspicuous sign, probably the most understated road sign in American history. Marking the beginning of an arduous four-to-six month, 2000 mile trek across plains, desert, rivers, and mountains, the sign simply read, “Road to Oregon.” One in ten pioneers would be left in graves along the way. Families would be broken, and treasured possessions lost or left behind at river crossings and difficult mountain grades.
Overcrowding at the Wayne City landing for Independence, followed soon by a cholera epidemic, left emigrants looking for other jumping-off spots. Westport, Oregon Crossing, Fort Leavenworth, and Weston were further up the river in Missouri, which meant that jumping off from those towns would save a few days’ travel. The farther west the emigrants jumped off, the shorter their trip would be. By the late 1850s, lower steamboat fares opened jumping-off spots in Iowa and Nebraska, such as Plattesmouth, Nebraska City, Council Bluffs, and Omaha.
When the Mormons were chased out of Illinois and headed west under the leadership of Brigham Young, their Winter Quarters were on the west bank of the Missouri River (pronounced “Misery River” by some) just north of present-day Omaha. The Saints set out for Utah the next spring following the north shore of the Platte River. For several hundred miles the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail paralleled each other on opposite banks of the Platte River, until the two Trails joined for a time near Fort Laramie.
The chief competitor to Independence in the early years was St. Joseph, Missouri, better known today as the birthplace of the Pony Express. Founded in 1825 as “Blacksnake Hills” by fur trapper and trader Joseph Robidoux, the town was platted and renamed in 1843. By then, St. Joe had three stores and a hotel — nothing to sneeze at on the frontier! In 1850, with cholera in Independence and gold recently discovered in California, the population of St. Joe exploded to 3000 permanent residents and as many as 10,000 emigrants living in “Gambling Hells” — ramshackle temporary communities described as little more than men, mules, and tents — while they waited for spring to arrive and open the overland trails for the year.
Following the discovery of gold in the West, the emigrant trails took on a different character. Covered farm wagons carrying entire families and their worldly possessions were replaced by handcarts, two-wheelers, or pack animals without wagons carrying bachelors and wayward husbands who often had no intention of permanently settling in the West. All previous jumping-off spots were used by these fortune hunters.
Shops in Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska kept up with the changing times and brought in new stock to cater to their shifting clientele. Entirely novel products began showing up, especially those made out of a new and wondrous material: rubber. Emigrants quickly took to wearing India rubber boots, raincoats, and life preservers, and some even complained in their diaries that their air mattresses had leaked during the night.
Wherever they jumped off from, they were headed west. And their journeys had just begun.