What Life on the Oregon Trail Was Really Like

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: Smithsonian American Art Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

  • Many Risked Their Lives Because The West Offered A Chance For A Better One
    Photo: Albert Bierstadt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many Risked Their Lives Because The West Offered A Chance For A Better One

    Those who traveled through the Oregon Trail hailed from a range of different backgrounds, but most had a singular reason: opportunity. Though there was no guarantee of riches in the West, there was a chance anyone could make it big. In the mid 1840s, early westbound emigrants found gold in California. Stories flooded into the east promising “the El Dorado of the west,” sparking a surge in emigration beginning in 1849, properly named the California Gold Rush. Both men and women were caught up in the excitement. Luzena Wilson, a woman who traveled the Oregon Trail with her husband and two children wrote, "The gold excitement spread like wildfire, even out to our log cabin in the prairie, and as we had almost nothing to lose, and we might gain a fortune, we early caught the fever."

    Others caught the "Oregon Fever" for other reasons, too. Apart from the Gold Rush, there was continuous promise of a better life and land. In 1850, the US congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Act to encourage more migrants to move west. Under the act every individual would be granted 320 acres of free land, it was such an incentive to travel that some people made the trip, got their land, then moved back east.

    In his book The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life, historian and writer Francis Parkman accounted his hunting trip across the first part of the Oregon Trail. He met many different people at the journey’s beginning. The migrants ranged from “persons of wealth and standing” to “some of the vilest outcasts in the country.” Most notably, however, were “three old fellows… zealously discussing the doctrine of regeneration.” Everyone had a new chance of life outside the East’s long established social structures where they some could potentially atone for the troubles in life they had and caused. Whatever the specific reasons may be many found the ends were well worth the risk of the journey.

    “I have often perplexed myself to divine the various motives that give impulse to this strange migration,” Parkman wrote, “but whatever they may be, whether an insane hope of a better condition in life, or a desire of shaking off restraints of law and society, or mere restlessness, certain it is that multitudes bitterly repent the journey, and after they have reached the land of promise, are happy enough to escape from it.”

  • People Could Only Pack What They Needed And Had To Leave The Rest

    To travel lightly and efficiently on the Oregon Trail, most migrants had to let go of many of the possessions they owned and leave with only the necessities. Many accounts reveal that people left the homes they built, the land and businesses they owned, and the luxuries they possessed; they upended their lives, put would they needed in a 14 foot long by 4 foot wide prairie schooner wagon, hoping they would be the lucky few who would make a fortune. “The spring of 1852 ushered in so many preparations, read work of all kinds,” wrote Harriet Scott Palmer in her memoirs. “I remember relations coming to help sew, of tearful partings, little gifts of remembrances exchanged, the sale of the farm, the buying and breaking in of unruly oxen, the loud voices of the men, and the general confusion." Palmer was only 11 years old when she and her family left their Illinois home and their dog. “We looked back and saw our dog (his name was Watch) howling on the distant shore [of the Illinois River]… he never ate afterwards, and soon died.”

    It wasn’t always clear from the beginning which items to take and which to leave. In her account, Luzena Wilson wrote, “It was a strange but comprehensive load which we stowed away in our ‘prairie-schooner’, and some things which I thought necessities when we started became burdensome luxuries, and before many days I dropped by the road-side a good many unnecessary pots and kettles, for on bacon and flour one can ring but few changes, and it requires but few vessels to cook them.”

  • Food Was Plentiful If Migrants Packed And Portioned Properly
    Photo: Albert Bierstadt / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Food Was Plentiful If Migrants Packed And Portioned Properly

    Many families and migrants brought a stock of non-perishables and preserved foods. An emigrant from Missouri headed to San Jose, California, Newton G. Finley, wrote, “Our supply of food was bountiful and of the best grade also of great variety consisting in part of: cornmeal, flour, buckwheat flour, ham, bacon, sausages, dried beef, beans, peas, potatoes, rice, coffee, tea, sugar, honey syrup, milk, butter, dried fruits, apples (green), walnuts, hickory nuts, hazel nuts, etc.” Others, however, were capable of having foods unavailable to most. Luzena Wilson wrote, “One luxury we ha which other emigrants nearly always lacked--fresh milk. From our gentle ‘mulley’ cow I never parted.”

    Some emigrants made use of their own hunting abilities. Sarah Byrd, who was only a young child when she made the trip across the Oregon Trail with her family, recounted in an oral history interview, “I c'n remember it all ez plain ez day, seein' them buffalo tear by, with their tails up an' ther heads close to the ground. Ther must 've ben a hunderd or more. That's a long way from a million, but the ground jest shook as they went by. Some o' the men got some good shots, an' we had plenty o' buffalo meat for awhile… Meat wuz roasted by putting a big piece o' tin in front o' the fire. It wuz a sort o' reflector; the meat wuz put between it an' the fire, an' you never tasted anythin' better then meat roasted that way.”

    If any of those supplies ran out, however, there were trading posts where emigrants could get more food, or even trade their food for luxuries that were unavailable to them or their party. In his diaries which covered his entire journey from Ottawa, IL, to California, Alonzo Delano was excited by the change of menu available to him when he reached Fort Laramie, a trading post in Wyoming. “On Joining them, I was offered a piece of pie and cheese. Ye gods,” he wrote. “Pie - veritable dried apple pie, which Charlie Lewis made with his own hands! - and although his own mother might hav turned up her nose at it, too use who had literally fed on the ‘salt’ of the pork barrel for weeks , with pilot bread for a dessert, it was a perfect luxury.”

    Food wasn’t readily available for everyone, however, especially since not everyone packed well nor prepared and portioned their food for a 2,000 mile journey. Peter H. Burnett traveled from Missouri to Oregon, but he was part of a group who struggled to adapt to their new lifestyle. “ Our emigrants, of the first portion of the trip, were about as wasteful of their provisions as if they had been at home,” he wrote. “When portions of bread were left over, they were thrown away; and, when any one came to their tents, he was invited to eat.”

  • Highly Infectious Diseases Spread Rapidly
    Photo: Charles Christian Nahl / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Highly Infectious Diseases Spread Rapidly

    “On July 24th my father died,” wrote J. Henry Brown in his autobiography. “He had about recovered from the attack of fever caused by getting wet in the Platte, but caught cold and suffered a relapse without any hope of recovery. There was no physician in our or any available train. We were compelled to travel, and having no spring wagon along, the roughness of the road, with the heat of the weather greatly aggrevated [sic] the disease, and its progress was rapid. He died about midnight and was buried at sunrise in the morning…”

    Disease was the top danger along the Oregon Trail. Of the approximate 350,000 people who traveled westward, an estimated 6 - 10 percent died due to disease. The prevalent form of illness was cholera, resulting from stagnant and polluted water. The disease was virulent and there was no cure; it would quickly attack a person’s intestinal linings, cause diarrhea and vomiting, and usually kill the victim within the day they showed their first symptoms. The disease, however, was not unique to the trail. The world was facing a global cholera epidemic, and no-one (including those not on the trail) knew that increased sanitation could prevent major outbreaks.

    Dysentery was another common disease, also caused by paltry and unsanitary conditions. Unlike cholera, however, there was a cure and catching it wasn’t a certain death. A person could have survived if they were treated with castor oil. Other diseases also plagued the trail including: measles, mountain fever, scurvy, smallpox, food poisoning, and pneumonia. But they were not nearly as problematic or deadly to the Oregon Trail migrant as cholera or dysentery.

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

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