Westward Expansion Trails

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The Oregon Trail, by Albert Bierstadt, 1863.

In the American Old West, trails were used by immigrants from the eastern United States, between 1830 and 1870. These colonists began to settle various regions of North America west of the Interior Plains, during the overland migrations of the mid-19th century. Settlers following these 'Westward ways' were spurred by various motives, among them including persecuted Mormons seeking freedom of religion. After the end of the Mexican-American War in 1849, there many new enticing American conquests. Legislation like the Donation Land Claim Act and critical events like the California Gold Rush further incensed colonists to travel overland west.

There were two major wagon networks, one based typically out of Missouri and the other out of Santa Fe de Nuevo México. Three of the Missouri based routes were collectively known as the Emigrant Trails, the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails. Historians have estimated at least 500,000 emigrants used these three trails from 1843–1869, and despite growing competition from transcontinental railroads, some use continued into the early twentieth-century. Three of the major southern routes were the Santa Fe Southern Emigrant and Old Spanish Trails. The trip was arduous, fraught with risks from infectious diseases, dehydration, injury, malnutrition, and harsh weather, with up to one-tenth dying along the way, usually due to disease.

These trail networks have become embedded in the folklore of the United States as one of the significant influences that have shaped the content and character of the nation. The remains of many trail ruts can be observed in scattered locations throughout arid parts of the American West. Travelers may loosely follow various routes of the trail network on modern highways through the use of byway signs across the western states.

Trail choices[edit]

Travelers across what became the Western United States in the 19th century had the choice of several routes. Some of the earliest were those of the Mexicans in the southwest. The Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe, in Mexican New Mexico Territory to Los Angeles, in Mexican Alta California, developed to support the trade of New Mexican wool products for California horses and carried parties of emigrants from New Mexico to Southern California. American trade with Northern Mexico created the Santa Fe Trail between St. Louis and Santa Fe following an 18th-century route pioneered by the Spanish Empire. From Santa Fe American traders followed the old El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro southward to Chihuahua by way of El Paso del Norte.

Following the trails pioneered by fur traders, the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to the Oregon Territory developed crossing the central Great Plains, Rocky Mountains and northern Great Basin. Branching off from that route, some settlers southwestward on the California Trail from Fort Hall, Oregon Territory to Sutters Fort, in Mexican Alta California. Also branching off to the south was the Mormon Trail from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah Territory. During the twenty-five years 1841–1866, 250,000 to 650,000 people "pulled up stakes" and headed west along these trails. About one-third immigrated to Oregon, one-third to California and one-third to Utah, Colorado, and Montana.[citation needed]

Although it is often stated that the Northern trails began in certain cities on the Missouri River, emigrants following any of the three trails typically left from one of three "jumping off" points on the Missouri's Steamboat serviced river ports: Independence, Missouri or Saint Joseph, Missouri, or Council Bluffs, Iowa (Once known as Kanesville, Iowa until 1852; after river dredging in the early 1850s, the latter town at the Missouri-Platte confluence became the most common departure point since it was close in proximity to the River Platte—along which the eastern trails ascend to South Pass above Fort Laramie). The trails from these cities (and several others) converged in the mostly empty flatlands of central Nebraska near present-day Kearney, in the vicinity of Fort Kearney. From their confluence there the combined trails followed in succession the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater rivers westward across the full widths of Nebraska and Wyoming, and crossed the continental divide south of the Wind River Range through South Pass in southwestern Wyoming.

The most common vehicle for Oregon and California-bound settlers was a covered wagon pulled by a team of oxen or mules (which were greatly preferred for their endurance and strength over horses) in the dry semi-arid terrain common to the high plains in the heat of summer. In later years, following the advice of Brigham Young, many Mormon emigrants made the crossing to Utah with handcarts. For all emigrants, the scarcity of potable water and fuel for fires was a common brutal challenge on the trip, which was exacerbated by the wide ranging temperature changes common to the mountain highlands and high plains where a daylight reading in the eighties or nineties can drop precipitously to a frigid seeming nighttime temperature in the low 40s. In many treeless areas, buffalo chips were the most common source of fuel.

The California, Mormon and Oregon Trails.

Following the Mexican American War and the California Gold Rush the routes to California used were increased by the Siskiyou Trail from Oregon and one across what was then northern Mexico until the 1853 Gadsden Purchase. This latter route, not closed to travel in winter, permitted travelers coming to New Mexico Territory on the Santa Fe Trail or the newly developed San Antonio-El Paso Road across West Texas from San Antonio to El Paso to link up to the Southern Emigrant Trail, from Mesilla, (part of Mexico until 1853), to Los Angeles, California. From there the goldfields could be reached by the two routes north, the old El Camino Viejo or by what became the Stockton – Los Angeles Road. Another winter route, the Salt Lake Road between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles developed to avoid crossing the snow bound Sierra Nevada Mountains by linking up with the Old Spanish Trail in southern Utah.

Up to 50,000 people, or one-tenth of the emigrants who attempted the crossing continent, died during the trip, most from infectious disease such as cholera, spread by poor sanitation: with thousands traveling along or near the same watercourses each summer, downstream travelers were susceptible to ingesting upstream wastewater including bodily waste. Hostile confrontations with Native Americans, although often feared by the emigrants, were comparatively rare. Most emigrants traveled in large parties or "trains" of up to several hundred wagons, usually led by an experienced guide. In 1859 the government published a guidebook, called The Prairie Traveler, in order to help emigrants prepare for the journey.[1]

Oregon Trail[edit]

Main article: Oregon Trail

By: Joseanny Bautista Urena

The Oregon Trail, was the longest of the overland routes used in the westward expansion of the United States, was first traced by explorers and fur traders for traveling to the Oregon Country. The main route of the Oregon Trail stopped at the Hudson's Bay Company Fort Hall, a major resupply route along the trail near present-day Pocatello and where the California Trail split off to the south. Then the Oregon Trail crossed the Snake River Plain of present-day southern Idaho and the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon before reaching the Willamette Valley. It was the only practical way for settlers in wagons without tools, livestock, or supplies to cross the mountains and usually thought critical to the colonization of the American West. Some of the first travel the Oregon Trail were Christian missionaries, members of the Methodist Episcopal Church who established the Methodist Mission in 1834. Even though they didn't make many converts, they were impressed by the short amount of time needed to reach the Pacific Coast. Rumors about how the sun always shone there and wheat grew as tall as a man attracted American settlers.

American settlers began following the trail in 1841, with the first recorded colonist wagon traingroup being the 1843 "Great Migration" of about 900 colonists, led by Marcus Whitman. The Provisional Government of Oregon was established by such colonists in 1843, generally limited to the Willamette Valley. The Oregon Treaty divided the Oregon Country between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and the United States in 1846 mostly on the 49th parallel. Established shortly afterwards was the Territory of Oregon in 1848 as over 12,000 American settlers made the journey in that decade.

Families usually began their journey at Independence, Missouri near the Missouri River. The journey in a covered wagon took six months, following a winding trail 2,000 miles (3,200 km) through prairies, deserts, and across mountains to the Pacific Northwest. The journey was a severe test of strength and endurance so travelers often joined wagon trains. Settlers often had to cross flooded rivers. Indians attacked the wagon trains; however, of the 10,000 deaths that occurred from 1835 to 1855, only 4 percent resulted from Indian attacks. Cholera, smallpox, and firearms accidents were the chief causes of death on the trail. Food, water, and wood were always scarce, and the travelers often encountered contaminated water holes. During summer, the trail was crowded with wagon trains, army units, missionaries, hunting parties, traders, and even sightseeing tours. Some travelers complained that they sometimes had to stop early in the day in order to find a good campsite ahead of the crowd. Others spoke of the need to wear masks for protection against the dust kicked up by the heavy traffic. It took from four to six months to cross the entire Oregon Trail and the best time to travel was from April to September. Most wagon trains traveled about 12–15 miles per day.

California Trail[edit]

Main article: California Trail

The main route of the California Trail branched from the Oregon Trail west of Fort Hall, going southwestward into present-day Nevada, then down along the Humboldt River to the Sierra Nevada. The California Trail came into heavy use after the California Gold Rush enticed over 250,000 gold-seekers and farmers to travel overland the gold fields and rich farmlands of California during the 1840s and 1850s, the greatest mass migration in American history. Today, more than 1,000 miles of trail ruts and traces can still be seen in the vast undeveloped lands between Casper Wyoming and the West Coast, reminders of the sacrifices, struggles, and triumphs of early American travelers and settlers. More than 240 historic sites along the trail will eventually be available for public use and interpretation.

Early emigrants once called the California Trail an elephant, due to the difficult journey. If you wanted to get to California in pre-railroad times, you were guaranteed an arduous trek. California emigrants faced the greatest challenges of all the pioneer emigrants of the mid-19th century. In addition to the Rockies, these emigrants faced the barren deserts of Nevada and the imposing Sierra Nevada Range. The travelers of the California Trail often quipped that if you had "seen the elephant," then you had hit some hard traveling.

Santa Fe Trail[edit]

Main article: Santa Fe Trail

William Becknell was a trader who wanted to travel to Santa Fe with goods. He believed that the new settlers in New Mexico would trade well due to lack of goods. It turns out he was right. He traveled on a Mountain path to Santa Fe and traded with the people. When he got back everyone realized that New Mexico was a place where you could get rich. The second time he traveled to Santa Fe he took a wagon and a group of people. But the wagons couldn't go over the mountain pass. He eventually found a cutoff that avoided the steep slopes but went through a deadly desert just south of the original pass. The band of wagons ran out of water but eventually found a stream that let them continue onto Santa Fe. Thousands of people braved the cutoff to make it to Santa Fe every year.

To the present day, the achievement of Becknell may seem tame and lacking in adventurous glamour. The great plains of Kansas are now rich wheat fields. Mile-a-minute express trains carry passengers across this stretch of eight hundred miles. Wide concrete highways permit automobiles to speed over that expanse of country with the comfort and speed unknown to even a King in 1822. Planes now cover in one hour what, 125 years ago, took months.

Old Spanish Trail[edit]

Main article: Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish Trail witnessed a brief but furious heyday between 1830 and 1848 as a trade route linking Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California. During that period, Mexican and American traders took woolen goods west over the trail by mule train, and returned eastward with California mules and horses for the New Mexico and Missouri markets. Between 1598 and 1830, Spanish (1598–1821) and later Mexican (1821–1830), and American (1821–1830) traders connected the native trade routes that started to Old Spanish Trail and completed it.

The Trail left Santa Fe and split into two routes. The South or Main Branch headed northwest past Colorado's San Juan mountains to near Green River, Utah. The North Branch proceeded due north into Colorado's San Luis Valley and crossed west over Cochetepa Pass to follow the Gunnison and Colorado rivers to meet the Southern Branch near Green River. From central Utah the trail trended southwest to an area now shared by Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It crossed southern Nevada and passed through the Mojave Desert to San Gabriel Mission and Los Angeles

Mormon Trail[edit]

Main article: Mormon Trail

The Mormon Trail was created by Mormons who settled in what is now the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The Mormon Trail followed part of the Oregon Trail and then branched off at the fur trading post called Fort Bridger, founded by famed mountain man Jim Bridger. Heading south and following river valleys southwestward to the valley of the Great Salt Lake, Brigham Young led the first Mormons into present-day Utah during 1847. The Mormon Trail is 1,300 miles long and extends from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah. The Mormon Trail was used for more than 20 years after the Mormons used it and has been reserved for sightseeing. The initial movement of the Mormons from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake occurred in two segments: one in 1846 and one in 1847. The first segment, across Iowa to the Missouri River, covered around 265 miles. The second segment, from the Missouri River to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, covered about 1,032 miles.

From 1846 to 1869, more than 70,000 Mormons traveled along an integral part of the road west, the Mormon Pioneer Trail. The trail started in Nauvoo, Illinois, traveled across Iowa, connected with the Great Platte River Road at the Missouri River, and ended near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Generally following pre-existing routes, the trail carried tens of thousands of Mormon emigrants to a new home and refuge in the Great Basin. From their labors arose the State of Deseret, later to become the Utah Territory, and finally the State of Utah.

The Mormon pioneers shared similar experiences with others traveling west: the drudgery of walking hundreds of miles, suffocating dust, violent thunderstorms, mud, temperature extremes, bad water, poor forage, sickness, and death. They recorded their experiences in journals, diaries, and letters that have become a part of our national heritage. The Mormons, however, were a unique part of this migration. Their move to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake was a response to their violent expulsion from Missouri and Illinois.[2] It was also motivated by a desire to maintain a religious and cultural identity it was necessary to find an isolated area where they could permanently settle and practice their religion in peace. This was a movement of an entire people, an entire religion, and an entire culture driven by religious fervor and determination.

Southern Emigrant Trail[edit]

The Southern Emigrant Trail was a major land route for immigration into California from the eastern United States that followed the Santa Fe Trail to New Mexico during the California Gold Rush. Unlike the more northern routes, pioneer wagons could travel year round, mountain passes not being blocked by snows, however it had the disadvantage of summer heat and lack of water in the desert regions through which it passed in New Mexico Territory and the Colorado Desert of California. Subsequently it was a route of travel and commerce between the eastern United States and California. Many herds of cattle and sheep were driven along this route and it was followed by the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line in 1857-1858 and then the Butterfield Overland Mail from 1858 - 1861.

In 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearny and his dragoons with their scout Kit Carson found the route. One year later, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke and the Mormon Battalion followed Kearny’s route establishing the first wagon road. This wagon road became known as Cookes Road, or Sonora Road, until the discovery of gold brought a flood of Americans westward in 1849. From this date on, it was called the Southern Emigrant Trail.

Tied in with the Santa Fe Trail and the route from San Antonio to El Paso, Texas, the Southern Emigrant Trail route ran from Mesilla, New Mexico to Los Angeles, California. It passed westward to Tucson, Arizona, then followed the Gila River to the ferries on the Colorado River near what became Fort Yuma, crossed the Colorado Desert to Vallecito, then up to Warner's Ranch. From Warner's the road then ran either northwest to Los Angeles or west southwest to San Diego.[3][4][5] From either of these towns the traveler could continue north by land to the gold fields on the coast via the El Camino Real or over the Tejon Pass into the San Joaquin Valley by what would become the Stockton - Los Angeles Road or El Camino Viejo. Alternatively they could take ships to San Francisco from San Diego or San Pedro.

See also[edit]

References[edit]