Weird History

What Life on the Oregon Trail Was Really Like  

Jacoby Bancroft
358k views 15 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.

People Were on the Trail for a Hodgepodge of Reasons
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Photo:  Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons

Maybe it was the thrill of adventure. Maybe it was a chance to start over. Maybe it was the promise of a parcel of land double the size of Disneyland. Whatever the reason, people traveling the Oregon Trail had a goal in mind. It united them through hardship and kept them going day after day. The Homestead Act was a big motivator, which said people could claim 160 acres of land if they promised to grow crops on it.

Imagine life in the mid-19th century: your current town on the east coast was becoming too crowded, and Old Jebediah wouldn't stop talking your ear off about wolf pelts. You decide to embark West because of the promise of vast stretches of land that you can call your own, and all you have to do is grow crops on it. It seems like a no-brainer. A lot of people heeded that call. 

Highly Infectious Diseases Spread Rapidly
Highly Infectious Diseas... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What Life on the Oregon Trail Was Really Like
Photo:  National Oregon Trail Center

Whoever said nature was the best medicine clearly never tried to survive outside. Outside is scary. There's disease out there. Look no further than the Oregon Trail for proof of that. Disease and serious illness caused nine out of ten deaths on the trail. Hopefully most of the adventurous trekkers signed hefty life insurance polices before they left, because the journey was rife with illness.

Small pox, flu, measles, mumps, and tuberculosis could jump through an entire wagon camp and pioneers could do little to prevent it. One of the most dreaded illnesses was cholera. It could infect someone after breakfast and kill them before lunch. Or, an infected person might stave off the quick death and live in agony for weeks before finally dying. 

People Could Only Pack the Things They Needed the Most
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Photo:  Unsplash/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

If you've ever helped a friend move, you know the struggle of deciding what to pack up and what to throw away. Now imagine that, but 1,000 times worse. Pioneers faced this when packing for the Oregon Trail. Through different accounts and letters from already established pioneers, we have a good general sense of what made for a successfully packed wagon. Typically, the pioneers kept their total weight below 2,000 pounds, with 1,600-1,800 pounds of those supplies in food alone.

They brought essentials such as flour, crackers, bacon, sugar, coffee, tea, and beans. They also packed light when it came to kitchen supplies, clothes, and other items. Along the way, animals would start getting tired and hurt (and sometimes become food as a result) and pioneers often ditched broken supplies to save weight as they rode. If you traveled the Oregon Trail during that time, you might see discarded supplies littered all along the side of the trail. Pioneers packed as light as possible so they could make the long journey.

Bacon Was Vastly Different Than the Version You Know and Love Today
Bacon Was Vastly Differe... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What Life on the Oregon Trail Was Really Like
Photo: Sanders Spencer/Wikimedia Commons

And on the seventh day, God said "Let there be bacon" and there was much rejoicing. Everyone loves bacon. Meat lovers love bacon, vegetarians love bacon (even if they pretend they don't), everyone. And pioneers were no different - they brought plenty of bacon along on the trail. But the bacon they brought was very different from the types of bacon we all know and love today. What they called bacon, we might call salted pork.

The pioneers on the road would have huge barrels of brine where they kept a large slab of pork. These were heavy back or side portions of pork that were fatty and unsmoked. If a person wanted bacon, they would remove a hunk of pork, cut off what they needed, then soak the piece of meat for awhile to get rid of the saltiness. It sounds a little offsetting, but let's be honest: bacon is bacon.