“We’re almost there,” Pa said. He pointed
towards a low sagebrush-covered hill. “It’s just over that rise.”
“How many times have you said that, Pa?” I
said to myself. I shaded my eyes and looked at the dismal landscape. Dusty
sagebrush and clumps of dry grass for as far as I could see.
The year is 1853 and my name is Lizzie. My
family is heading west along the Oregon Trail. It’s not a trail so I don’t know
why they call it that. Some people call it Emigrant Road, but I don’t think
that’s right either. It’s a rough meandering pathway to a new life, that’s what
it is. That’s why so many of us are making this journey, no matter what the
We have traveled nearly 1,600 miles so
far. On a good day we make 20 miles but on most days we travel 10-15. It’s been
five months since we left Missouri.
We came here because of the promise of
free land. If Pa was a single man, he could claim 320 acres; since he’s
married, he and Ma can claim 640 acres. Was it worth it? I sure hope so. Based
on what I’ve seen so far, I don’t think this is “The Land of Milk and Honey”
that everyone said it was.
History of Trail
Many of the nearly half a million emigrants that migrated to the Oregon Country in the years 1840-1870 could have written this account. In the nineteenth century, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Spain claimed parts of this region. Each country eventually gave up its claims. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 ended the joint occupancy with the British and set new boundaries for Oregon. As a result of this action, the U.S. government encouraged settlement of the newly acquired land.
Sensationalized accounts of the “Promised Land” caused the single largest voluntary migration in America. Artists such as Albert Bierstadt presented glamorized versions of the journey along the Trail.
For many of the settlers, the Willamette Valley was the final destination. To read about another wagon route, located near Sisters, Oregon, see my post Santiam Wagon Road.
In 1861, they discovered gold in the Blue Mountains in northeastern Oregon. The gold rush brought even more people to the state. Miners established mining camps in several locations. In 1894, gold was discovered on Flagstaff Hill and a mine was built there. By 1897, three quarters of Oregon’s gold—worth millions in today’s dollars—came from Baker County. One nugget weighed seven pounds!
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, located atop
Flagstaff Hill east of Baker City, introduces visitors to this fascinating era
in American history. Exhibits at the Interpretive Center focus on different aspects
of the journey west, including the experiences of pioneers and native peoples.
Approximately 300 miles of the Oregon
Trail still exist. Much of the 2,170 mile trail has disappeared because of erosion
and development. When traveling on a dirt road, motorized vehicles create two
distinct ruts. In contrast to that, wagons pulled by teams of animals create a
trench-like swale, or wide depression. Hooves pack down the middle of the road.
At the Interpretive Center, you can hike or drive to areas where you can view
actual remnants of the trail.
Covered wagons – Inside and Out
Covered wagons are a prominent part of the
Interpretive Center, both inside and outside. Teams of oxen, mules, or horses
pulled the wagons. Mule teams cost the most to buy. Though mules could be
stubborn, they had remarkable endurance and surefootedness.
Wagon makers often painted wagons blue, with red wheels and undercarriage. The wheels shrank and separated in the heat so the wagon trains went through creeks and rivers to soak them back to size. The emigrants sometimes painted the canvas covers with oil paint for waterproofing.
Every inch of space was used in the wagons. For example, false floors and pockets sewn into the canvases held extra supplies in the interior. They strapped other supplies to the outside or carried them in saddle bags. However, many of the supplies were abandoned along the way because of excess weight. Many wagons went without brakes since this too would add weight. They slowed wagons going downhill with rough locks, wheel shoes, or a tree tied to the wheels.
Emigrants used the wagons for sick rooms,
birthing rooms, and shelter from storms.
Most did not travel inside the wagons on the trail. The rough roads led
to a bone-wrenching ride, so the emigrants walked alongside their wagons. When
the landscape allowed it, wagons traveled abreast to avoid each other’s dust.
Life and Death on the Trail
If several wagons were traveling together,
they often formed a circle at the end of the day’s travel. The area inside the
wagon circle served as a corral for livestock. Exhausted travelers slept in
tents and bedrolls outside of the circle. The day started when the sun rose.
After breakfast and gathering of the livestock, the caravan would travel for
five to six hours. The travelers had limited food supplies so meals might
include such delicacies as Velvet Tail Rattlesnake, Blue Beaver Tail Soup, and
Sometimes the wagon trains camped at noontime
resting spots, but most of the time they pressed onward for several more hours. Women and children collected firewood and men
hunted for game along the way. As evening approached, they would encircle the
wagons again. Evenings were a time for chores, such as repairing wagons and
mending clothing, but also a time to tell stories, sing, and dance.
Quarrels along the trail were common due
to events like wagons getting stuck in the mud or runaway livestock. They took
thousands of livestock animals on the trail for the settlers. The emigrants
lost many because of predators, disease, and accidents.
Many emigrants died on this perilous journey. Some called the trail a “two thousand mile long graveyard.” One estimate suggests there were 10-15 graves per mile from Missouri to Oregon. Provisions gave out and hired hands abandoned their employers. The weak and the sick gave up hope. Cholera caused death within hours and it took the lives of many on the trail. Crossing rivers was one of the most dangerous parts of the journey. Records show that ten percent of the travelers perished.
Sharing the Trail
Emigrants shared the Oregon Trail with
trappers, traders, and native people. The Umatilla, Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez
Perce, and other tribes lived in the area near the Interpretive Center. As
emigrants displaced local people, conflicts such as the Cayuse War of 1847
arose. The old ways of living off the land and using it for hunting and vision
quests had passed. It forced Native Americans to deal with sweeping changes.
Both emigrants and natives learned to
engage in the business of trading. Native people traded horses, local game, and
salmon for cattle, beads, clothing, powder, and lead. Emigrants learned to
differentiate the tribes by their clothing, hairstyles, beadwork, and basketry.
Communication often consisted of hand signals and a few common words.
Visiting the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
After decades of planning, the National
Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center opened in 1992 to commemorate this
period of history. The 23,000-square foot building sits atop Flagstaff Hill
where visitors get a panoramic view of the surrounding territory. The Interpretive
Center includes exhibits, a theater, a café, and a gift store. There are living
history interpretive talks, lectures, and special events throughout the year. Regular
demonstrations include topics such as flint knapping, Dutch oven cooking,
blacksmithing, and black powder firearms. For more information see this brochure.
A network of trails leads you to living history encampments and to ruts left by wagons passing along the trail. You may catch glimpses of eagles flying overhead or pronghorn browsing in the sagebrush. In the spring and summer, wildflowers such as lupine, Indian paintbrush, and buttercups splash the desert with color. Visitors can take part in regular guided nature hikes.
Flagstaff Hill marked where the Great American Desert ended on the journey west. For the emigrants that made it this far, the lush vegetation and abundant game near the hill amazed them. This site symbolized all they had worked so hard for and many returned to the site years later. The Interpretive Center presents the tragedies encountered along the trail, and the joy many felt when they reached their destination.