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The Emigrant Trails were the northern networks of overland wagon trails throughout the American West, used by migrants from the eastern United States to settle lands west of the Interior Plains during the overland migrations of the mid-19th century. The term specifically applies to the overlap of three interrelated routes: the Oregon Trail (from the 1830s), Mormon Trail (from 1846), and California Trail (from 1841). A separate route was the Santa Fe Trail from 1822.
Settlers following these 'Westward ways' were spurred by various motives, among them including persecuted Mormons seeking freedom of religion, settlers seeking the acquisition of new western lands in the Oregon Territory and the lands opened by the settlement treaty ending the Mexican-American War of 1846 in the new U.S. territory of California (and then fueled by the 1848 discovery of gold). 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. 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.
Although it is often stated that certain 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.
- On the western side of the continental divide, the Migrant Trail proper ends at the fur trading post called Fort Bridger founded by famed mountain man Jim Bridger because the Mormon Trail split off to the south from the westward continuing Oregon and California Trails, following river valleys southwestward to the valley of the Great Salt Lake into present-day Utah. Brigham Young led the first Mormons to Utah in 1847, and the traditional eastern end of the Mormon Trail is placed at Kanesville, Iowa.
- The main routes of the Oregon-California Trails went northwest into present-day Idaho, to Fort Hall, a major resupply route along the trail near present-day Pocatello.
- 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 discovery of gold in 1848.
- The main route of 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. Although each trail had a main route, there were many cutoffs and alternative routes, some of them notoriously ill-chosen, but others that resulted in a significant savings of time and effort. The Oregon Trail is the oldest component, having been pioneered in the early 1810s and used by the first wagon train, led by Marcus Whitman in 1843.
The journey to Oregon or California would take approximately six months in good conditions. Most Oregon and California-bound parties left the Missouri River in the late spring and attempted to reach their destinations by mid October.
Up to 50,000 people, or one-tenth of the emigrants who attempted the crossing, 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.
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 trail network has 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.
- Southern Emigrant Trail — across southwestern U.S.
- Emigrant Trail in Wyoming
- Great Platte River Road
- Donner Party
- "Westward the Women" — book of the trail.