Oregon Trail FAQ’s

Where can I find the list of all the pioneers?

Migration over the Oregon Trail involved a huge number of people, moving to different locations for different reasons. In a free society, emigrants were not required to sign a roster to leave, or to present a passport at borders, or sign in anyplace upon arrival. There is no comprehensive list of all the pioneers. A few organized wagon trains had rosters of members, but frequently these only included adult males. Some locations along the trail, such at Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, and Fort Henrietta, kept registers where some wagon train members voluntarily signed. Most of the available lists of pioneers have been compiled by historical societies and genealogical organizations by soliciting information from pioneer descendants, and combing historical documents such as journals, letters and pioneer society records for names. Names have been recorded from Independence Rock and other “register rock” locations along the trail route. Currently, the OCTA Census of Overland Emigrant Documents can run a name search through their database of over 48,000 names, and the Oregon Genealogical Society and Idaho Genealogical Society can locate names from their Pioneer Certificate programs.

How many people came over the Oregon Trail?

It’s difficult to estimate the numbers due to the nature of the large scale emigration. People on the move, in sometimes large groups, with varying destinations are difficult to count. The emigration lasted over several decades. People were born and people died during the typical five month journey. Some historians have made estimates based on diary accounts, newspapers reports from the time, and from registers and wagon counts kept at Fort Laramie and Fort Kearney. Historian John Unruh estimated 296,000 traveled to Oregon, California, and Utah from 1840 to 1860. Merrill Mattes estimated 350,000 overland travelers from 1841 through 1866, and later expanded his estimate closer to 500,000 for all travelers on western trails during that time period.

Why did people come West?

A variety of incentives led people to attempt the 2,000 mile journey west. Many in the 1840s sought a new beginning following a widespread economic depression in the late 1830s. Some hoped to escape the political strife preceding and during the Civil War. A few settlers had patriotic motives, to ensure American possession of territory jointly claimed by the U.S. and Great Britain in the Northwest, or occupied by Mexico in the Southwest. Some religious groups wished to establish missions and communities. Some moved to join family members. Many emigrants made the trip seeking adventure and new opportunities. The majority of emigrants had as their main reason either land or gold. In Oregon, various land acts, most notably the Donation Land Act of 1850, provided free land, up to 320 or 640 acres, to settlers. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 lured nearly 150,000 people west over the trail in five years. New gold discoveries in Oregon, Idaho, Colorado, and other western states led continuing migrations of fortune seekers to all regions of western America.

How many pioneers died making the trip?

It’s estimated perhaps 10% of the people making the trip died en route (about 20,000 – 30,000). Cholera, a bacterial disease that causes severe diarrhea and vomiting, claimed a great many lives. Most victims died from the resulting dehydration within hours of contracting the disease. Large scale cholera epidemics swept the trail population in 1849, 1850, and 1852. The disease spread due to poor sanitation, and could have been avoided by boiling water, but discovery of the cause and prevention was years away, and emigrants unknowingly spread the disease by using polluted water at common campgrounds. A second leading cause of death was accidents with wagons, firearms, and drowning at river crossings. Many of the emigrants – inexperienced at handling wagons – met their fate falling under wheels or coping with runaway livestock. The trip required several treacherous river crossings and many emigrants drowned trying to maneuver wagons and livestock through swift currents. Nervous emigrants – fearful from stories about Indians and wild animals – were heavily armed, and carried loaded guns with no safety devices in jostling wagons. Accidental shootings were not uncommon. Inexperienced hunters shot wildly while pursuing antelope and buffalo, and weary guards sometimes mistakenly shot their comrades believing they saw a thief, a rustler, or a wild animal in the shadows around a wagon camp. Fatigued from the rigors of daily travel and poor nutrition, many emigrants succumbed to diseases such as typhoid, food poisoning, and “mountain fever”‘ or circumstances such as childbirth that they might otherwise have survived. “Mountain fever” is believed to be tick fever, which causes flu-like symptoms.

Although popular culture raised the dramatic image of frequent deaths from homicide, fights, and altercations between Indians and emigrants at wagon camps, historical records indicate these were a minor contribution to emigrant fatalities – less than one percent of the total number of pioneers. Those that died during the journey were often buried in hastily made graves alongside the trail. Though some were buried in wagon boxes or other improvised caskets, a shortage of wood meant most had a shroud of a blanket or quilt, if anything at all. Frequently unmarked to thwart grave-robbers, the graves were sometimes made right in the path of the trail, where the passing of wagon wheels could pack down the soil and obliterate evidence of the burial to prevent digging by wild animals.

What’s the difference between a Conestoga wagon and a Prairie Schooner?

Large boat shaped Conestoga wagons were widely used for freighting, but were too long, heavy, and cumbersome to be practical for a long journey over the Oregon Trail. Emigrant wagons were smaller and lighter, and did not require as many draft animals. There was no single design for emigrant wagons – some were smaller, lighter versions of the boat shaped Conestogas, and some were custom designed and built with double decks or special storage features. Generally, the canvas topped “Prairie Schooners” had wagon boxes about four feet wide by nine to eleven feet long and two feet high, with rear axle clearance of about two feet. Boxes and running gear were made of well seasoned hardwoods, and reinforced with iron hardware. Wheel spokes and rims were made of Osage orange, hickory, oak, or other very strong hardwoods, with iron tires. In early years, wheels were attached with linchpins, but by the 1850s, thimble skein axles and lug bolts were becoming the preferred method. Slightly smaller wheels in front provided greater turning capability. Wagons were sometimes brightly painted, sometimes in colors to coordinate and identify all members of a train traveling together. Wagon covers were made of cotton or linen canvas or osnaburg cloth, either made commercially or hand woven and sewn at home. Canvas was frequently waterproofed with oil base paint or linseed oil, and sometimes slogans were painted on the long white sides. When loaded, the wagons weighed up to 2,500 pounds, and required two to four yoke of oxen or pairs of mules. Some wagons had braking devices, but these were inadequate on steep declines, and chain locks, rough locks, shoe brakes, log drags and windlasses were employed on downhill grades. Uphill pulls required winches and double teaming. Lubricants made from animal fat and pine tar had to be frequently applied to axles, and wood shrinkage in dry, arid climates caused many problems with wheels.

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