The trail facts which appear on our website are the work of Dr. Robert Munkres, our resident historical expert, who compiled them from various sources. These trail facts may be downloaded for personal reading convenience or to be used in the classroom. For all other uses you must first obtain permission. Click on a question to view answers.
• How many emigrants followed the trails?
• What was the length of the trail?
• How long did the trek take?
• How long did emigrants "lay by" before beginning the trek?
• When did travel on the Oregon-California Trail begin?
• Which type of draft animals were most frequently used?
• What kinds of accidents and injuries occurred most often?
• Do we know who any of the first accident victims were?
• What kind of health problems were there?
• How many emigrants died?
• Were Indian attacks a problem?
• How many bison were there before people began settling?
• How effective were buffalo chips as fuel?
• Where did emigrants cross the South Platte River?
• What load did a wagon carry?
• Was there crime on the trail?
• What types of non-hostile interactions took place between the Indians and emigrants? If they traded, what were some of the things they traded?
How many emigrants followed the trails to California, the Pacific Northwest, and Utah?
Probably about 500,000. Perhaps 1 out of every 250 emigrants left some kind of written account.
[Merrill Mattes, Platte River Narratives, p, 5.]
1812-1848: 5,000 to Salt Lake; 10,000 to Oregon; 2,000 to California.
1849: Perhaps as many as 40,000. This includes northsiders and those who failed to register either at Fort Kearny or Fort Laramie.
1850: 65,000 is a defensible figure. This was the most disastrous of the migration years with perhaps 5,000 deaths, mostly caused by cholera.
1851: Less than 10,000.
1852: Probably close to 70,000.
1853: About 35,000.
1854: Some 20,000, with over half going to California and the rest to Utah.
1855: The majority of an estimated 7,000 went to Utah.
1856: An estimated 12,000; two-thirds went to California.
1857: Not more than 6,000, with two-thirds again going to California.
1858: An estimated 7,500.
1859: Perhaps 80,000; 60,000 went to Colorado because of the discovery of gold on Cherry Creek.
1860: On the order of 20,000. This figure is more of an estimate than those for other years.
1861: Less than 10,000.
1862: About 20,000. The increase was caused by the discovery of silver and gold in Montana and in eastern Oregon.
1863: About the same level as 1862.
1864: About 40,000; most went to Montana.
1865: Did not exceed 20,000; most traveled to Colorado and Utah.
[Merrill Mattes, Platte River Narratives, pp. 2-5]
How long was the journey from the Missouri "jumping off" place to California or Oregon?
About 2,000 miles.
How long did the trek take, on the average?
Subject to considerable variation because of weather, accidents, etc., on the average a wagon train could expect to be "on the road" 4 1/2 to 5 months.
[Greg Franzwa, folio:Newsletter of the Patrice Press, May 1996.]
Average number of days of travel time to California and to Oregon:
1841-1848: California: 157.7 Oregon: 169.1
1849: California: 131.6 Oregon: 129.0
1850: California: 107.9 Oregon: 125.0
1850-60: California: 112.7 Oregon: 128.5
1841-1860: California: 121.0 Oregon: 139.6
[John Unruh, Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60, p. 403]
How long did emigrants "lay by" after arriving at the Missouri River before beginning the trek west?
During the Gold Rush, the '49er's averaged about 15 days; during the years before and after 1849, the figure was reduced. Probably most fell within a time frame of a week to 10 days.
[John Unruh, Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60, p. 112]
When did travel on the Oregon-California Trail begin?
In the winter of 1812-13, Robert Stuart and his party returning from Astoria stumbled through South Pass on their way back to the "States." The effective discovery of South Pass was accomplished by Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1824. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party is generally credited with being the first true emigrant train. It left Missouri in 1841 in the company of the party of fathers Jean Pierre DeSmet and Nicholas Point, guided by Thomas Fitzpatrick. The party split at Fort Hall with some going on to the Snake River and the others opting for the Humboldt River and California. By the time the latter reached California they were no longer a "wagon" train, having been forced to abandon their wagons en route. The first major migration to Oregon came in 1843. Among its prominent members were Peter Burnett, Jesse Applegate and Marcus Whitman.
[Merrill Mattes, Platte River Narratives, p. 1]
Which type of draft animals were most frequently used by overlanders?
"John Unruh, Jr. and Merrill Mattes, the two premier scholars of westward migration, are in general agreement that oxen were much preferred, with horses and mules considerably less favored. Unruh is content to make the general observation that more than half of all overlanders' wagons were pulled by oxen, while Mattes cites diary excerpts that suggest a figure closer to two-thirds or three-quarters ... The cost of a yoke of oxen during the last half of the 1840s varied from a low of $25 to a high of $65."
[Robert L. Munkres, "Wagon Train Animals," Annals of Wyoming, Summer/Fall 1993, p 16.]
Most accounts describing life on the trail indicate that accidents were an ever-present possibility. What kinds of accidents and their related injuries occurred most frequently?
According to Peter D. Olch, being runover by wagon wheels was the most frequent cause of injury/death. With some frequency, both children and adults apparently slipped while getting out of a wagon and fell beneath the wheels. Firearm accidents were the second leading cause of emigrant injury/death, and the third major source was stampeding livestock. Other causes of injury/death include attacks by emigrants on other emigrants, lightning, gunpowder explosion, and suicide.
["Treading the Elephant's Tail: Medical Problems on the Overland Trails." Overland Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, 1988. Pp. 25-31]
Many accidents marred the trip west. Do we know who any of the first accident victims were?
We know at least the following: Joel Hembree (six years old) was the first to be killed on the Oregon Trail by being run over by a wagon. ["July 18-A very bad road. Joel J. Hembree son Joel fel off the waggeon tung & both wheels run over him. July 19-Lay buy Joel Hembree departed this life about 2 oclock." [William Thompson Newby's Diary of the Emigration of 1843." P. 3, entries for July 18 and July 19.]
James Shotwell was the first emigrant firearms casuality. [John Bidwell (1841) reported "A mournful accident ... a young man by the name of Shotwell while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew it with the muzzle towards him in such a manner that it went off and shot him near the heart - he lived about an hour and died in full possession of his senses."
John Bidwell, A Journey to California. Newberry Microfilm 1-12. Compiled by M.J. Mattes-1945. Transcribed by Louise Ridge-1/46; re-typed by R. Mackrill 1963. Pp. 4-5, entry for "S. 13th."]
What kind of medical problems afflicted trail travelers?
"The most common medical problem was gastrointestinal illness, ranging from chronic bowel complaints to unspecified diarrheas and dysenteries, and diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever."
"The most terrifying disease was cholera. Its sudden onset, rapid course, and high mortality rate were fearsome. Cholera's appearance on the trails coincided with its epidemic years in the United States. It was particularly prevalent on the Oregon-California Trail in 1849 and 1850 and on the first third of the trip from the Missouri River to Fort Laramie."
"Initially mountain fever was a 'catch-all' term applied to a variety of febrile diseases that happened to develop in the high altitude of the Rocky Mountain area. Eventually, however, a common pattern of symptoms began to be differentiated which separated mountain fever from other. . .cases. The disease occurred primarily in the spring and early summer with one to three episodes of fever lasting roughly forty-eight hours separated by two to eight days of seeming good health. Pronounced and prolonged chills were characteristic at the onset. Constipation, severe muscle and chest pains, particularly in the back and loins, joint pains, headache and retro-orbital pain were also common symptoms."
"Other medical problems mentioned at least once in the diaries examined include death in childbirth and infant death, rape, tuberculosis, insanity, cancer, laudanum overdose, rattlesnake bites, bronchitis, neuralgia, rheumatism, brain congestion, intestinal worms, boils, fever blister, blistered feet, felon, severe sunburn, head colds, headache, toothache and earache."
[Peter D. Olch, "Treading the Elephant's Tail: Medical Problems on the Overland Trails." Overland Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, 1988. Pp. 25-31.]
How many wagon train emigrants actually died on their way west?
A "conservative figure for the number of deaths which occurred in wagon train parties is 20,000 for the entire 2,000 miles of California Trail, or an average of ten graves to each mile." Between 1849 and 1853, Asiatic Cholera was the greatest killer on the trail. The disease continued to appear during the 1850s, but its appearance considerably diminished after 1853. [Merrill Mattes, The Great Platte River Road, pp. 85 & 82]
"It has been estimated that the overall mortality rate on the Oregon-California Trail was 4 to 6 percent of those starting west."
[Peter D. Olch, "Treading the Elephant's Tail: Medical Problems on the Overland Trails". Overland Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, 1988. Pp. 25-31.]
How severe was the threat of Indian attack during the first half of the journey west?
"The various tribes on the Platte-Sweetwater route did pose a threat to those moving west. Just how serious this threat was prior to 1860 can be determined, in part, by reference to several sets of figures. In the sixty-six diaries utilized for this study, there were nine eyewitness accounts and four second-hand reports of Indian attacks or the immediate results of such attacks. Situations in which an attack appeared both plausible and imminent were described in eight diaries. It is apparent that an overwhelming majority of the diarists and their companions encountered no overt threat of attack while passing through present-day Nebraska and Wyoming." [p.194]
"The figures concerning Indian attacks, cited earlier, do not reflect the sole, or even the primary danger from Indians along the Oregon-California Trail. Many, and probably most, of the attacks previously mentioned were undoubtedly motivated by hope of plunder. In addition, twenty-seven other cases of theft or attempted theft are recorded in the sixty-six diaries. Of these, nineteen are eyewitness accounts and eight are based on reports received by the authors of the various diaries. It should also be noted that ten of the eyewitness accounts describe unsuccessful attempts at theft. Thus, while loss by theft was not inevitable, it seems that more than one out of every three parties was very likely to receive the attention of a raiding party." [p. 204]
"In assessing the threat of Indian attack, one more factor must be considered. Of the sixty-six diaries used, twenty-six are records of journeys during which relatively little contact with Indians occurred. Of course, almost all emigrants saw Indians at trading posts and military establishments." [p.2]
[Robert L. Munkres, "The Plains Indian Threat on the Oregon Trail Before 1860." Annals of Wyoming, October, 1968.]
On what part of the Oregon-California Trail were emigrants most at risk from Indians?
Of the emigrants who were killed by Indians, about 90% were killed west of South Pass, mostly along the Snake and Humboldt Rivers or on the Applegate Trail to the southern end of the Willamette Valley.
[John Unruh, Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60, p. 185.]
Were any white wagon train emigrants ever massacred by Indians?
"... John Unruh identifies only four pre-Civil War trail massacres which have sufficient historical documentation to substantiate them as being clearly attributable to Indians. These were the Bloody Point massacre of 1852 at Tule Lake, California; the Ward Party massacre near Fort Boise on the Snake River in 1854; the Holloway Party massacre on the Humboldt River in 1857; and the Otter-Van Orman Party massacre near Salmon Falls on the Snake River in 1860."
[ Thomas H. Hunt, "Anatomy of a Massacre: Bloody Point, 1852" Overland Journal, Vol. 7, No. 3/1989.]
How many emigrants were killed by Indians and vice versa?
For the time period 1840-1860, very tentative figures, which are probably low, indicate that 362 emigrants were killed by Indians and 426 Indians were killed by emigrants.
[John Unruh, Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60, p. 185. See Unruh's footnote # 52 on page 457 for a description of the qualifying factors which entered into his calculation.]
Many emigrant diaries note the sighting of buffalo. Does anyone know just how many bison actually did exist before whites penetrated the American west?
Not exactly! You have your choice of estimates. Francis Haines says there were about 40 million head occupying almost half of the North American Continent. Charles M. Robinson indicates that some estimates run as high as sixty million and E. Adamson Hoebel and Ernest Wallace report estimates of at least 100 million.
[Francis Haines, The Buffalo: The Story of American Bison and Their Hunters from Prehistoric Times to the Present, p. 3] [Charles M. Robinson III, The Buffalo Hunters, p. xiii] [Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains, p. 55.]
Timber was noticeably absent on the Platte-Sweetwater route. Just how effective as fuel were the buffalo chips most emigrants used as a substitute?
It took two or three bushels of chips to heat a meal because chips burned so rapidly.
[Merrill Mattes, The Great Platte River Road, p. 57.]
Emigrants traveling the south side of the Platte River through central Nebraska had to ford to the South Platte somewhere beyond the forks of the Platte. In terms of present towns, where did they cross?
There were three crossings, or fords, of the South Platte during the years of heaviest travel. The Lower Crossing was located a few miles west of the city of North Platte, across the river from the town of Hershey, Nebraska. The Middle Crossing was a few miles east of Ogallala, and the Upper Crossing was a few miles west of Brule, Nebraska.
[Merrill Mattes, The Great Platte River Road, p. 265.]
What kind of a load did the average wagon carry? What kind of provisions, daily menu and fuel predominated on the trail?
"Recommendations for an ideal wagon load varied from 1,600 to 2,500 pounds."
"Lansford Hastings, one of the earliest guidebook writers, advocated that each emigrant be supplied with 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 pounds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. The basic kitchenware was a cooking kettle, fry pan, coffee pot, tin plates, cups, knives, and forks."
"Charles Tuttle describes the daily menu of a typical emigrant: 'for breakfast, coffee, bacon, dry or pilot bread; for dinner, coffee, cold beans, bacon or buffalo meat; for supper, tea, boiled rice, and dried beef or codfish'.
Since timber was scarce or non-existant through western Nebraska and Wyoming, buffalo chips were utilized as a replacement fuel.
[Merrill Mattes, The Great Platte River Road, pp. 42,46, 48, 57.]
"The staples of the typical emigrant diet were bread, bacon and coffee. A number of travelers made a point of carrying along citric acid, vinegar, pickles, dried fruit and vegetables as antiscorbutics. Others prepared salads from wild fruits and vegetables along the way. Those who neglected to bring antiscorbutics and did not utilize the fresh vegetation might succumb to scurvy in the last third of the trip because of vitamin C deficiency."
[Peter D. Olch, "Treading the Elephant's Tail: Medical Problems on the Overland Trails." Overland Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, 1988. Pp. 25-31.]
How frequently did crime occur on the trail? What kinds of crime?
Number of Diaries, Letters, Reminiscences Examined: 91
Accounts reporting at least one killing: 18
Accounts reporting multiple instances of killing: 5
Henry Allyn (1853): 2
E.W. Conyers (1852): 2
Polly Coon (1852): 3
Francis Sawyer (1852): 2
Abigail Jane Scott (1852): 3
Total number of murders reported [includes one suicide]: 24
Number of people executed: 10
Results of trials:
Conviction and execution: 10
Execution by hanging: 7
Execution by shooting: 1
Method of execution not specified: 2
Defendent convicted and "bound over on good behavior": 1
Accused being held for trial; outcome not reported: 1
Total number of people dead by violence [including those whose killers were acquitted on grounds of self-defense as well as the one suicide reported.]: 36
Accounts of those who had direct evidence of killing: 5
[Two of these accounts were those reporting acquittals.]
Reports of seeing information about killings on grave markers: 6
Accounts of killing based on second hand and/or hearsay evidence: 11
Cause of killing (where known):
Fighting over a woman: 1
Murdered for his money: 1
Relationship between killer and victim (where known)
Member of same party/wagon train: 7
Employer/employee or partner: 3
Traveling companion: 1
Member of family (brother-in-law): 1
Instances of theft or attempted theft reported: 7
Reports describing various types of physical confrontation: 5
[Robert L. Munkres, "Crime on the Oregon Trail: 1838-1864," The Tombstone Epitaph, March, 1995.]
What types of non-hostile interactions took place between the Indians and emigrants? If they traded, what were some of the things that they traded?
"Plains tribes generally had sufficient quantities of three types of goods that they could readily trade to the passing emigrant trains ̶ moccasins, bison (buffalo) robes, and food." P. 42
"Because the plains tribes they encountered along the Platte River Road were not primarily agriculturalists, emigrants rarely purchased vegetables and other food stuffs from them. Tribes of the Great Bain and Pacific Northwest, however, specialized in trading a greater variety of foods beyond the usual bison, deer, and antelope meat." P.45 Tate also cites diarists who reported trading for honey, wild ducks, fish, and meat from mountain goat.
In the Pacific Northwest trout and salmon were very frequent trade items. Needles and thread, as well as mirrors and inexpensive jewelry (rings, etc.) were also favored trade items as well as items of clothing, cloth and ribbons. Many of these types of items were the same as those brought initially by Lewis and Clark on their journey of exploration in the early 1800’s.
Besides items of apparel, American Indians placed a high priority obtaining processed food items, which wagon trains carried in significant quantities. Chief among these were flour, sugar, and coffee, supplies that could not be adequately stocked by western fur trading posts or delivered on a consistent basis by Kansas City traders or government annuities contractors."
"Tobacco was also a highly prized trade item among American Indians, not merely for recreational smoking but also because it occupied a central place in many spiritual traditions and ceremonies." P. 51.
"At the apex of the trade network along the Oregon, California, and Mormon trails stood the mutual exchange of horses and mules." P.53 (It should also be noted that raiding or stealing stock also happened and emigrants were very concerned about it.)
"A great many Indians wished to acquire firearms and ammunition through trading; most emigrants, however, were unwilling to enter into such transactions." P 56-7
Michael L. Tate, Indians and Emigrants: Encounters on the Overland Trails, Chapter 3, was the source for the quoted information.
Regarding the other types of non-hostile interactions another excellent source is John Unruh, Jr. The Plains Across. The late Professor Unruh, among a great many other points, notes that Indians with some frequency assisted emigrant trains in river crossings. His chapter 5, "Emigrant-Indian Interaction", is a cornucopia of information. Other examples of interaction can also be found on this website, see People & Places, Trail Stories (Indians & Emigrants).