For twenty five years, as many as 650,000 people may have pulled up stakes and headed for the farms and gold fields of the West.
No accurate records exist of traffic on the great overland trails of that era, and some believe the figure may have been as low as 250,000 people. However, estimates have been slowly creeping upwards over the years, and it now seems that something like half a million people headed west from the 1840s through the Civil War. It is generally agreed that Oregon was the destination for about a third of the emigrants, California for another third, and the remainder were bound for Utah, Colorado, and Montana. This was the last of the so-called Great Migrations. It lasted until the coming of the railroads.
The first emigrant party, the Bidwell-Bartleson party, heads for California with 100 farmers and their families. En route, some of them change their minds and opt for Oregon, instead.
Dr. Elijah White’s party of 200 is known for resulting in many of the guidebooks that would be used by later emigrants. The journals of Medorem Crawford and Asa Lovejoy and the narratives of John C. Fremont contain useful information; the guidebook of Lansford Hastings contains fatal misinformation. White, Crawford, Lovejoy, Fremont, and Hastings would all later find their ways back to the United States and guide other outbound emigrant parties.
Over 800 people outfit for the first major migration and push their wagons through much of the intermountain west, establishing that a wagon road to Oregon is feasible. Jesse Applegate’s misfortunes on the Columbia River inspire him to forge a new route into Oregon. Oregon’s Provisional Government is formed in anticipation of the arrival of this wave of emigrants.
Four major wagon trains bring 2000 farmers, merchants, mechanics, and lawyers to Oregon. One party each leaves Independence, Westport, St. Joseph, and Bellevue (near Council Bluffs).
An estimated 5000 Oregon-bound emigrants are on the Trail this year, most of them departing from Independence and Westport. Sam Barlow’s party arrives late at The Dalles and strikes out to find an overland route around the south shoulder of Mount Hood. Stephen Meek leads a party through the uncharted reaches of central Oregon, gets lost in the high desert, and still beats Barlow to The Dalles.
A relatively light year, with but 1000 emigrants heading to California and Oregon. Barlow’s Mount Hood Toll Road and Applegate’s Southern Route extend the Oregon Trail into the Willamette Valley. However, 1846 is best remembered today as the year of the ill-fated Donner party.
A new destination opens as Brigham Young leads the Mormon Brigade to Utah. The 2000 souls on the trails this year include many non-Mormons bound for Oregon and California.
A massive Mormon exodus swells the ranks of the emigrants to some 4000 pioneers, though it’s an off year for the Oregon Trail side of the Platte River as cholera strikes Independence. Council Bluffs and St. Joseph replace Independence as the leading jumping-off points. The discovery of gold in California draws off more than three-quarters of the male population of Oregon, but most return before the arrival of the 49ers the following year.
Word of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill turns the trail into a superhighway as 30,000 emigrants, most of whom are California-bound, race west. Overland parties come from as far away as the east coast. Cholera spreads west along the Trail, helped by damp weather.
There are more 49ers traveling the trail this year than in 1849! Some 55,000 emigrants make this the banner year on the trail, but cholera runs rampant, killing thousands.
Word of the cholera epidemic spreads, discouraging many and holding traffic down to about 10,000 souls. Most emigrants start out for California but news of the Donation Land Act causes many to change their minds mid-route and opt for Oregon, instead. From 1851 to 1855, nearly half of those who would claim land in Oregon under the Donation Land Act leave the United States and head west.
The cholera epidemic has nearly burned itself out and the gold rush is back on: 70,000 people head west in these years, about 50,000 in ’52 and 20,000 in ’53. Half leave from St. Joe and half from Omaha, and half head to California and half to Oregon.
Most of the 10,000 emigrants on the trails this year are headed for Oregon. Problems arise as an Army command is annihilated near Fort Laramie, precipitating a three-year Indian war.
1855, 1856, 1857
Indian wars do what cholera could not and keep emigration down to only 5000 each year. Travel changes with the beginning of freight traffic leaving Leavenworth, Atchison, and Westport. The largest freight company is the firm of Russell, Majors, and Waddell.
Gold is discovered in Colorado, and it’s Pikes Peak or Bust! Heavy freight traffic to the military forts gives an assurance of safety, and 10,000 head west.
30,000 travel the trails with no single objective in mind. Destinations include Colorado, Utah, California and Oregon. Stagecoaches make their first appearance on the Oregon Trail with the Leavenworth and Pikes Peak Express carrying passengers and mail. Horace Greeley follows his own advice and goes west.
15,000 people escape the threat of Civil War by moving west. Silver strikes bring thousands to Nevada, including Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). Russell, Majors, and Waddell begin the Pony Express from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Pony Express stops dot the Oregon Trail every fifteen miles; every other station is a stage stop. Sir Richard Burton, the English lecturer and explorer, visits Salt Lake City.
1861, 1862, 1863
The removal of troops from the western frontier to fight in the Civil War drops emigration to 5000 in ’61 and ’62, and 10,000 in ’63 after word of gold strikes in Montana filters back east. The Pony Express goes bankrupt following the completion of transcontinental telegraph lines. Pony Express owner Ben Holladay extends his stage company to Oregon.
1864, 1865, 1866
Some of the heaviest traffic since the California Gold Rush, but many emigrants are bound for Montana via the Bozeman Trail. 20,000 in ’64 and 25,000 in ’65 and ’66 travel the Trails despite Sioux uprisings at several points along the way.
The end of the overland trails era began in 1866 with the formation of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Following the “wedding of the rails” in 1869, an emigrant could travel from Omaha to the Pacific Ocean in less than two weeks. However, wagon trains could still be seen on the Oregon Trail through the 1880s. We have had visitors at the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center who recalled making the trip to Oregon by wagon as late as 1912 because their families couldn’t afford to buy train tickets, but the last wagon widely known to have braved the Oregon Trail was driven by Ezra Meeker in 1906. Meeker was an early emigrant who spent his last years touring the country to remind people of the significance of the Oregon Trail before the experiences of his generation vanished from living memory. Even today, he is considered the father of all efforts to mark, preserve, and raise awareness of the Oregon Trail.