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Making history again on the Oregon Trail.

Scanning the horizon and sniffing the wind for the scent of spring grasses to feed their stock, the untested travelers waited anxiously to begin their journey. They were about to trek beyond civilization and into a wilderness of hardship, hunger, pain--and promise. Finally, in May 1843, they sent out from Independence, Missouri--an estimated 1,000 emigrants in 120 wagons.

Their arrival five months later doubled Oregon's American population and proved that the nearly 2,000-mile journey could be made by wagons--and families. This group was the first big surge to hit the Oregon Trail, a trip eventually dubbed the Great Migration.

This year, the Oregon Trail marks its 150th anniversary, or sesquicentennial. Commemorative celebrations are planned all along the route, but none are splashier than those planned in Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. There'll be wagon train reenactments to watch or join. Forts along the way will recreate the trail's heyday with living history programs. And a host of new exhibits, museum displays, pioneer-diary readings, and even a musical pageant will commemorate the trail.

For many readers of this magazine, the anniversary is also cause for a personal celebration of their own pioneer heritage. Scores of readers have shared their family histories with Sunset, tracing their Western roots back to the trail itself. Many sent copies of emigrants' diaries that record--day by weary day--the landmarks and often fatal mishaps of the journey. Learning why their ancestors risked the trip, and what their migration meant to the West, is part of the thrill of rediscovering the Oregon Trail.

"The Oregon Trail is one of the epic moments of human migration in all history--in part because of its length and challenge," says Stephen Dow Beckham, a history professor at Portland's Lewis and Clark College.

In fact, the Oregon Trail was the conduit for what some historians call the greatest unforced mass migration in history--estimated range from 250,000 to 330,000 emigrants who successfully made the trip between 1843 and the 1860s. In Idaho, thousands following dreams of gold or warmer climes veered off to head southwest on the California Trail; those following Mormon leaders detoured to Salt Lake City.

The first wagon trains made the difficult trek to Oregon in about 169 days (impatient travelers in 1849 shaved it to 129 days), but today you can track much of the route from major highways. You can explore a large section of the route through Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon on a week-long vacation or sample key segments on shorter outings.

Along the way, you may encounter the cool kindness of a prairie day, a scorching sun, or a sudden thunderstorm.

You may be surprised to see how much of the original trail is still visible in these three states, etched deeply into the landscape by iron-rimmed wheels. Step into the narrowly spaced ruts--which are knee-deep in spots--and you can almost hear the soprano squeak of wheels rubbing on rock. On the smooth surfaces of so-called newspaper rocks, you can still read the sometimes poignant messages pioneers carved to be read by following trains. But the best way to get a feel for the trials of the trail is to walk part of it, and many sections have hiking trails running alongside.

You can even travel pioneer-style, by riding or walking (15 to 20 miles daily) with two state-sanctioned sesquicentennial wagon trains that are scheduled to retrace the route. For details, call (503) 223-6191 (Oregon train) or (307) 266-4868 (Wyoming train).


Westerners who want to retrace the Oregon Trail to day are likely to head in the opposite direction of the 19th century emigrants. Since most of us live near the coast, our report proceeds from west to east, describing highlights from Oregon City to the Wyoming-Nebraska border. (For maps, schedules of events, and lodging guidance en route, call the tourism offices listed on page 87.)

For this first segment, you might set up base in Portland or The Dalles.

Abernethy Green, in Oregon City, is considered the end of the main trail, reached by the original Oregon Trail travelers after a journey of more than five months. Arriving in the Willamette Valley in 1846, Virgil Pringle was moved to write, "The handsomest valley I ever beheld. All |are~ charmed with the prospects and think that they will be well paid for their sufferings."

Now Abernethy Green is the site of the new End of the Oregon Trail 1993 Preview Center, built to resemble three canvas-topped wagons. Storytellers here explain some of the reasons that the emigrants undertook such an arduous journey: some were spurred on by land (or gold) fever, economic troubles at home, or illnesses that Western air was reputed to cure; a few answered the compelling American urge to go west. The center is expected to open by early July; for details, call (503) 557-1151.

Nearby is the 1846 Georgian-inspired house of John McLoughlin, known as the Father of Oregon. Now a national historic site, McLoughlin House, at 713 Center Street, is open 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Saturdays, 1 to 4 Sundays; admission costs $3.

Time your Oregon City visit to take in the Oregon Trail Pageant, which includes Oregon Fever, a lively outdoor music and dance show depicting a wagon train journey (with a cast of horses, homing pigeons, and 45 actors). It runs Tuesdays through Saturdays from July 16 through August 7. For ticket information, call (503) 657-0988.

A good place in Portland to get a historical overview is the Oregon Historical Society's Oregon History Center. The exhibit Trails to Oregon, with photographs, interactive displays and some 500 artifacts, is on view through November 7. It's at 1200 S.W. Park Avenue; call (503) 222-1741.

Anyone who has traveled with youngsters can relate to the Portland Children's Museum's show Are We There Yet?--A Child's Life on the Oregon Trail. This hands-on interactive exhibit runs through September 19. It's at 3037 S.W. Second Avenue; call (503) 823-2227.

Across the Columbia River, in Washington, is Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, a key supply post of the Hudson's Bay Company. Emigrants often arrived here starving and penniless. Thanks to McLoughlin, the fort's chief factor, they were able to use credit to stock up on supplies and equipment. You can tour the reconstructed log post and watch living history programs. It's open 9 to 5 daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Admission costs $2 ($4 a family). Call (206) 696-7655 or, in Oregon, (800) 832-3599.

East of Portland, off State 26, you can begin to follow the trail itself across the south shoulder of Mount Hood. The Barlow Road was an alternative route (built in 1845-46) for those who preferred not to raft the final miles from The Dalles down the rapids of the Columbia River, which was a treacherous journey--in the wagon train of 1843, a man and two boys drowned when their craft capsized.

But the ruggedness of the road created a Hobson's choice. "This last part of the Oregon Trail is undoubtedly the most terrible that can be found," wrote diarist Father Godfroi Rousseau, a French Canadian priest, in 1848.

Today, you'll find an unpaved road through a scenic stretch of Mount Hood National Forest; you can hike or drive about 23 miles of it, passing by wagon ruts and grave sites. An easy 3/4-mile hike from Barlow Pass takes you to the Pioneer Woman's Grave (her identity is unknown); a monument marks the site. Or you can picnic at Summit Meadows, where wagons once camped. A map ($2) to Barlow Road sites is sold at local Forest Service outlets, or call (503) 622-3191, ext. 684.

At The Dalles, from May 16 through September 26, you can tour a living history encampment, complete with a Native American lodge and role-playing tour guides, at Crate's Point in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. It's open 8 to 6 daily. Admission costs $4. Call (800) 255-3385.


The sights in this segment are all off Interstate 84, which takes you from Pendleton in arid eastern Oregon through Boise, Idaho, and along the Snake River. You might overnight in Baker City, Oregon, or Boise.

At Pendleton's Round-Up rodeo grounds, you can get an understanding of what the wagon trains meant to Native Americans at a re-created 1840s Indian village set up by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. You might see weaving demonstrations, mat making, and traditional dances from 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Sundays, June 19 through August 29. Call (503) 276-7411.

A must-see museum for trail buffs is the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center at Flagstaff Hill, 5 miles east of Baker City. It is run by the Bureau of Land Management, over whose land much of the trail winds. Impressive videos and photographic murals give you a real sense of how segments of the trail differed, and well-chosen quotes tell the human story. Displays of artifacts, including authentic wagons, complete the picture. Huge windows at one end of the building look out over miles of wagon ruts. Behind the center, you can take an easy 1 1/2-mile hike down to the trail itself.

Each summer weekend here, you can watch a wagon encampment. Demonstrations of Oregon Trail cooking are planned for June 12 and 13; an exhibit called Native American Visionary is set for June 5 through 27. For hours, telephone (503) 523-1843.

Crossing the arid lands of Oregon and Idaho was hard on people and livestock. As one diarist wrote in 1852, "I do not think I shall forget the sight of so many dead animals along the trail. It is like something out of Dante's Inferno."

In Boise, the Idaho State Historical Museum, at 610 N. Julia Davis Drive, tells trail history along with the state's story, using artifacts and an 1853 emigrant diary. For hours, telephone (208) 334-2120.

Southeast of Boise, the trail split--emigrants could travel on either side of the Snake River. The South Alternate passed what's now Bruneau Dunes State Park. You can camp, hike, or picnic by its sculpted tan humps. Call (208) 366-7919.

Of this hot, dry south side of the Snake, pioneer Jane Gould wrote in 1862, "The dust is even worse than Indians, storms, or winds or mosquitoes, or even wood ticks. Dust ... if I could just have a bath."

Near Glenns Ferry, you can watch a wagon train reenact a river crossing at Three Island Crossing State Park August 14 at 11 A.M. For details, call (208) 366-2394 or (800) 446-7275. The Oregon sesquicentennial wagon train is scheduled to stop at the park on July 18 and 19.

In 1865, some boats were available at the crossing, and Mary Louisa Black described the scene in her diary: "The cattle crowded up on the boat and sunk it and came near drowning some of the men. They were till night getting them over."

Today, the crossing is less disastrous, but it's still a tricky endeavor requiring skill and some daring by the costumed participants. The train of wagons rolls down to the banks of the swift-moving Snake, where teams of oxen pulling the wagons are unhitched and swum across. The wagons, their beds sealed and caulked to float, are then pulled across by horse or mule teams or by outriders with ropes. It's a time-consuming process but fascinating to watch.


As you follow this segment, accessible from highways off Interstate 80, consider the question pioneers faced here: to go on or turn back? Fort Laramie was often the turnback point. Those who persevered crossed South Pass, the gentlest route through the Rockies. Every wagon train on the Oregon Trail rolled through this pass.

A detour south off I-80 takes you to Fort Bridger State Historic Site, with military buildings, a museum, and a reconstruction of the 1843 trading post opened by mountain men Jim Bridget and Louis Vasquez to serve the trail. It's open 9 to 5, May 1 through September 30. Call (307) 782-3842.

Pioneers left their marks on Independence Rock, described by diarists as "looking like a great beached whale." Next to the Sweetwater River and green pastures, it became one of the trail's most welcome landmarks--early guidebooks told emigrants that if they reached it by July 4, they were on schedule. There's a path to the site, which is open dawn to dusk.

On the plains, the trail was sometimes ill-defined--wagons spread out so drivers could avoid "eating dust." But at Oregon Trail Ruts State Historic Site, in Guernsey, you can see where all the wagons were forced to follow the same path and their wheels etched deep grooves in a limestone ridge. Straddle the 4-foot-wide tracks and you'll realize how narrow the wagons were.

Just outside Guernsey, at Register Cliff State Historic Site, you can see a newspaper rock. The pioneers' purpose in carving their names on the cliff was often to reassure following family members that the signers had survived the trip so far.

But death dogged every mile of the trail. At least 10,000 travelers died, most by disease (cholera alone killed thousands). Only an estimated 400 were killed by Native Americans in the first 20 years of overland travel, according to historian John D. Unruh, Jr. Recent research by Richard L. Rieck, a professor at Western Illinois University, has turned up the surprising fact that between 1840 and 1860, one's chances of being murdered by other pioneers on the trail were 20 in 100,000--about twice today's national homicide rate.

At Fort Laramie, pioneers made their last resupply stop before the Rockies. Today, Wyoming's Fort Laramie National Historic Site offers an authentic look at the past. Staff members in period dress show you the 11 restored buildings of the fort, including the sutler's store where emigrants could buy sugar (up to 50 cents per cup), or flour (up to $1 per pound). The Wyoming Sesquicentennial Wagon Train is due to arrive here July 2 and stay until July 4. Special events are planned; call (307) 837-2221. The park is open dawn to dusk daily. Admission costs $2. The visitor center, open 8 to 7, has free hourly video shows and three guided tours a day.

At the visitor center, you can pick up a free map to trail ruts not far from the fort. It was here that the trail really began to ascend, and pioneers began lightening their wagons in earnest. Writer Francis Parkman, Jr., who made his Oregon Trail journey in 1846, found the route here littered with tables, chests, and other heavy objects abandoned as oxen and horses tired or died under the burden. Today, the twin tracks snake over a lonely landscape. Looking east, you see the isolated fort and can imagine how pioneers felt taking a last, backward glance at civilization for many miles. Looking west, you see the first risings of the Rockies--a sight that helped inspire the load-lightening.


Books were a luxury on a wagon train, but they're a must for modern travelers. Consider carrying The Oregon Trail, a classic 1846 account by Francis Parkman, Jr. (Penguin Books, New York, 1985; $5.95), or The Plains Across, by John D. Unruh, Jr. (University of Illinois Press, Chicago, 1982; $14.95). We like a plain set of trail diaries published by the Webb Research Group (call 800/866-9721), and we admire On the Oregon Trail, a handsome photographic essay by Jonathan Nicholas and Ron Cronin (Graphic Arts Center Publishing, Portland, 1992; $45).

The Oregon Trail, an interactive software program by MECC (Minneapolis; $39.95 to $49.95; 800/685-6322), lets you learn about the trail and test your survival skills as you travel electronically. It's great fun for ages 10 and up.

For maps to Oregon Trail segments or details on events or wagon trains, write or call the following sources.

Wyoming Division of Tourism, I-25 at College Dr., Cheyenne 82002; (800) 225-5996.

Idaho Travel Council, 700 W. State St., Boise 83720; (800) 635-7820.

Oregon Tourism Division, 775 Summer St. N.E., Salem 97310; (800) 547-7842.

If you plan to follow the trail eastward across Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri, you can call these tourism offices for details on sites and events Nebraska, (800) 228-4307; Kansas, (800) 252-6727; and Missouri, (314) 751-4133. Or call (206) 553-5366 for a free National Park Service map of the entire route, a designated national historic trail.


If you want to find out if your ancestors were among the trail emigrants, several sources can help.

At the Oregon Historical Society's Regional Research Library in the Oregon History Center in Portland, you can attempt to trace your roots to wagon train pioneers who settled in Oregon. The library has a new guide to its 270 trail diaries. Hours are noon to 4:45 Tuesdays through Saturdays (ages under 11 are not allowed in the library). The center's admission fee is $3 adults, $1 students. It's open 10 to 5 Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 Sundays.

The Oregon Trail Project of Idaho will issue Oregon Trail certificates to those with proof of ancestors who traveled the trail. To receive a certificate or for help tracing your roots, write to Idaho Genealogical Society, 4620 Overland Rd., Room 206, Boise 83705.

To help preserve the trail, join the Oregon-California Trails Association ($30 membership); write to Box 1019, Independence, Mo. 64051; or call (816) 252-2276.


Considering how grueling the journey was, it's surprising how many pioneers found the time and energy to keep diaries (at least 2,000, according to Richard Rieck). "The journey was such a rite of passage, a personal test, that hundreds who'd never kept a diary before did so on the trail and left history a fascinating record," notes Stephen Dow Beckham.

Sunset recently queried Northwest readers about their ancestors' Oregon Trail roots. We received more than 75 letters including--photographs of rare Oregon Trail artifacts, pioneer portraits, family genealogical studies, and copies of treasured trail diary entries. A few examples are shown at right.

Reader David Morgan, of Corvallis, Oregon, shared this diary account from the King family, part of the 1845 wagon train that took the disastrous Meek Cutoff (many starved): "Nahum King had planned well bringing plenty of food--and the family fared quite well even on the cutoff. When they reached The Dalles, they built rafts to float down to Portland. Going through rapids, Nahum's eldest son John, his wife Susan, 3-year-old daughter and 8-month old son were thrown from the raft and drowned. One son, Luther, survived."

Marilee Williams Cash, of Vancouver, Washington, contributed a history compiled by Catherine Williams on the Williams family experience on what became known as the Elliot's or Lost Wagon Train of 1853: "The train was lost in the Harney Basin and Lakes region. Once, during the tortuous circling of the lakes, the bewildered immigrants |sic~ stumbled onto a camp they had made two weeks previously. Rushing to pick up shank bones left from their meal of that day, they cracked them and ate the marrow."

Such tales of hardship were common refrains in the diaries. Beyond the faded diary pages, the Oregon Trail's ruts remind us that sheer human will was the most powerful force in settling the West.

Meet Seven Oregon Trail Pioneer Families

SAMUEL MAXWELL DEMENT hit the trail in 1852, taking The Barlow Road. He went on to success in cattle ranching (Dements still ranch in southern Oregon). Dorothy Dement, of Myrtle Point, Oregon, sent this 1853 portrait of her husband's great-grandfather taken by pioneer photographer Peter Britt.

JOHN AND JANE LEMMON went west in 1845. At Fort Boise, Idaho, their wagon train split up, one group following guide Stephen Meek on a "shortcut" to tragedy (lost and starving, at least 50 died). The Lemmons went with the other train. Norman (their great-great-grandson) and Kathryn Brown, of Silverton, Oregon, shared their story.

GEORGE BELSHAW captained a wagon train in 1853. His wife gave birth en route on the banks of the Columbia River and named the baby Gertrude Columbia Belshaw; the infant died 10 days later. George's great-grandson, Marshall Belshaw Shore, of Spokane, Washington, shared his story and picture.

JOHN AND MAHALA WILSON took to the tail in 1851, bringing their 10 children (she later bore 3 more in Oregon). They settled near the Willamettte River. Their 10th child became the great-grandfather of William J. Wilson, of Boise, Idaho, who sent this portrait.

JOHN JOSEPH CALLISON began his trail diary April 6, 1852. On May 31, he wrote, "Nearly half the company down with diarrhea, some very bad." the diary ends abruptly on June 25. On August 23, he died of cholera at age 22, the only one of eight Callison children to die on the trail. Jeanne R. Glur, of Portland, sent a copy of the family diary.

MARY ELIZABETH CONN was born on a wagon train while it crossed the plains in 1854. This picture, taken shortly before her death of tuberculosis at age 39, was sent by her great-niece Mary Peterson Farmer, of Albany, Oregon.

SARAH LINDER SIMPSON, shown here at age 75, came to Oregon in 1853 wit her husband and nine children. Eventually, the family settled in southern Oregon, where a grapevine Sarah planted still grows. Her picture was sent by her great-great-granddaughter, Nina Ingraham, of Tigard, Oregon.
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Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Article Type:Calendar
Date:Jun 1, 1993
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