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What Life on the Oregon Trail Was Really Like

Updated June 30, 2020 422.4k views8 items

Life on the Oregon Trail was both incredibly boring and extremely dangerous. Pioneers had to exercise extreme caution and a lot of bravado to cross the 2,170 mile stretch of land starting in Missouri and ending in Oregon. Accidents and disease were just waiting around the corner, but a majority of the trip was just spent trudging along next to the wagon. To say daily life on the Oregon Trail was difficult is a vast understatement. It was hard work and required uprooting your entire family and deciding to venture West for new opportunities, but that didn't stop thousands of people from emigrating and making the long journey.

So what was daily life like on the Oregon Trail? It was dirty and cramped, but there also was a prevailing sense of enthusiasm and an adventurous spirit. These pioneers were making a trek into unknown territory and even though they knew the risks, they still decided to face the danger head on.

  • Photo: C. C. A. Christensen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Migrants Were At The Whim Of Weather, Natural Hazards, And Wild Animals

    The Oregon Trail was an arduous path, but it was one of the safest means to travel westwards as long as migrants paid attention to all the potential natural hazards. The whole journey could take anywhere between five months to a year, crossing through the Great Plains, the Platte River, and the Rocky Mountains, each section having it’s own perils and dangers. To minimize the possible dangers most expeditions and caravans left Independence, Missouri, at the end of Winter “with the coming of the first blades of grass.” Leaving at the beginning of Spring made it less likely for travelers to experience terrible winter conditions, but it did present other problems.

    Anyone on the Oregon Trail was required to cross the Northern Platte River in Wyoming. The river, at one of its most popular crossings, was 100 to 200 yards wide and 10 feet deep at its deepest point. Because of the time of year migrants were traveling, however, they would often reach the Platte River crossing in June, when Spring runoff was at its peak. There were ferries that would take people across the river, but they charged for every wagon and every count of livestock.

    Many travelers couldn’t afford the fee or felt they could cross without paying for the ferry. Though it worked sometimes, others weren’t so lucky. Luzena Wilson and her party attempted to cross the river without a ferry, and though they took proper precautions, they couldn’t escape the river’s powerful current. Water poured into their wagon, sweeping away some of their provisions while their livestock drowned. “They went out of sight inch by inch,” she wrote, “and the water rose over the moaning beasts. Without a struggle they disappeared beneath the surface. In a little while the broad South Platte swept on its way, sunny, sparkling, placid, without a ripple to mark where a lonely man parted with all his fortune.”

    Along the trail migrants would run into deer, elk, wolves, and bear, among other animals, some of the most unexpectedly dangerous, however, were the American bison. Bison, also mistakenly referred to as buffalo, travel in small bands across the Great Plains, but they tend to congregate into larger herds during the Spring and Fall. Those herds could come towards migrant camps quickly and unexpectedly, leaving little time to get out of their way. Sarah Byrd, though only a child when she and her family traveled the Oregon Trail, remembered the panic that arose at her camp when they saw bison in the distance.  “It was dusk, an' we'd gone into camp, when, all at once, 'way off in the distance we see a big cloud o' dust,” she said. “It cum near'r an' near'r, an' perty soon somebody yelled, ‘It's buffalo -- looks like a million of 'em, an' they're comin' this way. Mebbe ther wuzn't a fuss then. Everbody wuz shoutin' to everbody else, an' givin' orders, an' rushin' 'round like crazy people. Some o' the men got out on horses, an' some way or 'nother, what with ther yellin' an' wavin' whatever they cud get hold of, they kept the buffalo from comin' thru the camp.” Though a million bison was an exaggeration, the ground still shook as the hundreds of bison were steered away.

  • Photo: Alfred Jacob Miller / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Wagon Trains Had To Create Constitutions To Govern Such Large Groups Of Diverse Individuals

    Independence was the “common rendezvous” for anyone planning to travel the Oregon Trail. According to Francis Parkman, a traveler of the Oregon Trail, the landing was “some miles from the river in the extreme frontier of Missouri.” Opportunity brought people from all over the United States and Europe to the shores of the Missouri River where they waited for the first day of Spring. “On the muddy shore stood some thirty or forth dark slavish-looking Spaniards,” wrote Parkman, “gazing stupidly out from beneath their broad hats. They were attached to one of the Santa Fé companies, whose wagons were crowded together on the banks above. In the midst of these, crouching over a smoldering fire, was a group of Indians, belonging to a remote Mexican tribe. One or two French hunters from the mountains, with their long hair and buckskin dresses, were looking at the boat; and seated on a log close at hand were three men, with rifles lying across their knees.”

    Leaving Independence, people traveled in companies which would range wildly in total population. One of the first major wagon trains was led by missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1843 who lead 1,000 settlers westward. The number, greatly increased by the late-1840s when at least 50,000 people traveled on the Oregon Trail every year. In 1848, the Wanaugh Company left Independence with approximately 20 wagons, which would have extended about a half mile from the first wagon to the last. According to the diary of Riley Root who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1850, it was safest to travel with anywhere between 10 to 25 wagons, though there were definitely cases that exceeded that  number. J Henry Brown’s wagon train consisted of anywhere between 13 to 40 wagons, but they were “a very picturesque sight, the white covers of the wagons and new tents resembled a small village, while the camp-fires shed their ruddy light on the surrounding darkness with its ever changing hues and making the increasing darkness still more impenetrable.”

    It was up to each company how to organize the group.  Some were loosely governed while others were set up with their own constitution or charter, or adhere to the rules set up by the leader or "driver" of the company. According to the personal journal of Captain Solomon Teherow, a Wagon Train Master in 1845, their constitution had listed articles to elect a President, secretary, and treasurer among other positions, as well as articles for the amount of cattle a person could bring, the fees each person must pay, and the resources they must bring.

  • Photo: Frederic Remington / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Emigrants Feared Native Americans But The Fear Was Unwarranted

    One of the greatest fears for many of the migrants were Native American peoples. There were a plethora of different Native American cultures along the trail, including the Sioux, Crow, Shoshone, and Ute, but most of the fear was fueled by stories generated amidst combat in multiple wars and skirmishes, which generalized violent interactions as the norm. When migrant Luzena Wilson first encountered Native Americans she feared for her and her family’s lives. “I had read and heard whole volumes of their bloody deeds, the massacre of harmless white men, torturing helpless women, carrying away captive innocent babes,” she wrote “I felt my children the most precious in the wide world, and I lived in an agony of dread that first night.” These stories, however, proved untrue for the majority of people traveling the Oregon trail. “The Indians were friendly, of course,” Wilson continued, “and swapped ponies for whisky and tobacco with the gathering bands of emigrants, but I, in the most tragi-comic manner, sheltered my babies with my own body, and felt imaginary arrows pierce my flesh a hundred times during the night.“ Her fear proved unfounded.

    Peter Hardeman Burnett had encounters with Native Americans multiple along his travels in 1843. He writes of a Cheyenne chief who he meets at Fort Laramie. The chief boasted “that they had never shed the blood of the white man,” and even faced by provocations and insults of a “foolish, rash young man… he was a clear-headed man.” Other Native Americans whom he wrote of “kept at a distance, and never manifested any disposition to molest [them] in any way.” While others further, like those at Salmon Falls on Snake River, traded with the emigrants.
    Though it wasn’t unheard of for some altercations between emigrants and Native Americans, they were rare and often proved more dangerous to Native Americans than migrants. Between 1840 - 1860 Native Americans killed 362 emigrants while emigrants killed 426 Native Americans. Furthermore, emigrants proved far more problematic towards the Native Americans settlements than the other way around. Emigrants tended to overgraze the prairies, cut down woodlands they came across, and overhunted many of the animals necessary sustain the livelihood of many Native American communities.

  • Photo: Paul Frenzeny and Jules Tavernier / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Death Was Bound To Happen, But There Wasn't Much Anyone Could Do For Those Deceased

    Though the statistics vary greatly, death was nonetheless a common occurrence on the Oregon Trail. Of the 200,000 - 500,000 people who traveled along the trail and estimated 20,000 to 30,000 of them died. Though the causes of death were numerous the most were caused by disease, improper sanitation, and accidents. “Accidents” took many forms along the trail, but it includes drowning, accidental shootings, and injuries from mishandling livestock or wagons. One of the most tragic deaths was recorded in multiple sources. Absolom Harden and J. Henry Brown both traveled on the Oregon Trail in 1847 and both tell the story of an 8-year-old boy, Richard Harvey, who lost balance standing on the wagon tongue while trying to get in. He fell below the wagon’s wheel and killed him immediately. According to Brown, “they consigned him to rest with a boot box for a coffin” the same night, but kept traveling up the Platte River.  

    Beyond the emotional toll that death commonly presents, burial of the deceased posed another problem for emigrants. Statistically speaking, there are 10 burials to every mile of the Oregon Trail. Practically speaking, however, many had to be buried where they passed. Many cemeteries can still be found today. In 2015, archaeologists from the University of Wyoming excavated three skeletons of two women and an adolescent boy. They were found within view of a spring and a stand trees well known to be a resting spot along the trail, buried under earth and a large piece of wood.