Where did the Oregon Trail Go?

Reaching Oregon's Willamette Valley

Where did the Oregon Trail really go? The answer is not simple, as there was no single route, just a destination: Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Across the street from Barton Store in Clackamas County is a triangular sign bearing the National Park Service's Oregon Trail wagon logo and the words "Route of the Oregon Trail." It is on the closest well-maintained road to the actual route of the pioneer emigrants. There are about 300 identical signs across the state of Oregon, showing where modern tourists can parallel the Trail's route.

There are two other similar signs, as well. One in Oregon City at Abernethy Green points to the "End of the Oregon Trail," and another (a gift from Oregon City) in Independence, Missouri, reads "Beginning of the Oregon Trail."

Where did the Oregon Trail really go? The answer is not simple, as there was no single route, just a destination: Oregon's Willamette Valley.

The route started on the banks of the Missouri River, originally at Independence, then Westport, then Weston across from Fort Leavenworth. The first route followed the Santa Fe Trail into Kansas Territory. The Westport Road bypassed the Santa Fe Trail, went through Shawnee Mission in Kansas, and caught up with the Oregon Trail at Lawrence. The Weston route caught up with the main trunk of the Trail at the Big Blue River.

The first few days on the Trail were times of trial and error, of sightseeing, of getting used to new conventions. Rules of the road had to be established and leaders elected. Up at dawn, on the road by seven. No swearing. A "nooning" for a cold meal. No alcohol except for medicinal purposes. Drive fifteen miles a day. Walk nearly all the way.

Deaths and graves would too soon become commonplace, but some of the first ones showed more time and care. Susan Hale's newly-wed husband walked back to Missouri to have a tombstone made, then carried it in a wheelbarrow back past Alcove Springs to give her a proper burial. Then he continued on his way west, vanishing in the mists of history while her name lives on.

Angling across northeastern Kansas and southeastern Nebraska, the Oregon Trail is joined by the road from St. Joseph. For several hundred miles the Trail was punctuated by Pony Express stations. Hollenberg Station in Kansas is well preserved; Rock Creek Station in Nebraska was the site of a shooting that brought fame to Wild Bill Hickok.

The Platte River -- too thick to drink and too thin to plow, the pioneers complained -- was the major emigrant highway across the plains. The Oregon, California, and Mormon Trails all followed the Platte River, and historian Merril Mattes referred to the route simply as "the Great Platte River Road" rather than associating it with any single historic trail. Overlanders reached the Platte at Fort Kearny, the first of seven forts along the Trail (more would be built in later years to repress Indian uprisings). Forts Kearny and Laramie were owned and operated by the U.S. Army. Fort Bridger was an independent fur trading post. Forts Boise and Vancouver were Hudson's Bay Company trading posts; Fort Hall was originally an American fur trading post but soon passed into the hands of the HBC, as well. Fort Kearny had all the amenities and services of a prairie fort, including a post office and nearby Dirty Woman Ranch.

The Oregon Trail would follow the south shore of the Platte River, crossing the South Platte at California Crossing, and then follow the North Platte and the Sweetwater all the way to South Pass. The Mormon Trail paralleled the Oregon Trail on the north side of the Platte River all the way from Fort Kearny to Fort Laramie. Emigrants on both sides of the river could see fantastic rock formations such as Courthouse and Jail Rocks, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, and Independence Rock. These were important landmarks on the journey, and many of them (and other rock formations) still bear the names of travelers written in axle grease or scratched into the stone many decades ago.

When the route was flat, the wagons would fan out rather than eat one another's dust, and the Trail would be many wagons wide. In other places the Trail narrowed, and the rocks are rutted several feet deep from hundreds of wagons following in single file.

At some places there were cutoffs or shortcuts where emigrants or later gold miners impatient to get to their destinations would bypass forts. Forts Bridger and Hall were both bypassed in this manner by the Sublette and Hudspeth Cutoffs. An alternate route crossing the Snake River at Three Island Crossing and going to the tree-lined Boise River became the main stem, preferred to the arid Snake River route, which the overlanders took to calling the South Alternate. Until an 1847 Indian attack, the Whitman Mission was a well-known stop on the Oregon Trail.

In 1841 and 1842, the first two years of the Trail's use by emigrant parties, the overland route ended at Fort Walla Walla, at the mouth of the Walla Walla River. From there, emigrants rafted their wagons down the Columbia River to the Willamette River Valley. For the next three years, the overland segment ended at The Dalles. Here, the pioneers had a choice of building rafts to carry their wagons down the Columbia or abandoning their wagons for British bateaux to Fort Vancouver and Oregon City. Beginning in 1846, the Barlow Road around Mount Hood became the preferred route for more than two-thirds of all emigrants -- except in the years 1847 and 1852, when early snowfalls slowed the route. Even the Barlow Road had some alternates as travelers found better routes or chanced fines by going around the toll gates.

Ultimately, all roads led to Oregon City, the last place to camp while looking for new farms or business opportunities and the location of the land office where settlers filed their claims.

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