A long, difficult journey, pioneers who set out along the Oregon Trail faced a 2,000 mile trek that killed one out of every 10 brave enough to begin. A route that had previously been used by fur traders, the Oregon Trail was first used by settlers in 1836. Beginning in Missouri, the Oregon Trail crossed territory that would become the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon. By 1868, more than half a million settlers had traversed the trail to start a new life out west. While the route would be greatly improved over the years, settlers still had to contend with crossing rivers, mountains, valleys and plains as part of their historic journey.
The Oregon Trail followed the Platte River to its origins, then crossed the mountains in Wyoming and Idaho, before reaching Oregon. Originally beginning in Independence, Missouri, the Oregon Trail evolved over the 30-plus years the route was used by settlers. The trail became better defined by repeated use, with more shortcuts discovered with every expedition. Enterprising entrepreneurs began establishing toll roads and ferry services to aid in the crossing of difficult or dangerous rivers. Journey by sea to Oregon was possible, but the trip took close to a year to complete, and was too expensive for most settlers to afford. Unbelievably, most settlers would walk barefoot the entire length of the journey. This, coupled with slow moving wagon trains, made travel along the trail slow and arduous. By 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was built by Union Pacific and Central Pacific, bringing an end to most travel along the trail.
The most frequent geographic obstacle encountered by settlers, river crossings presented unique challenges at each encounter. Settlers who began their journey east of the Missouri River, could hire a ferry to take them as far as Omaha, Nebraska. From there they would forced to cross numerous rivers and smaller creeks. The Sweetwater River had to be crossed nine times alone. Like a major highway, settlers would follow the trail and make camp at the same suitable spots. This practice of common camping led to an outbreak of cholera along the Platte River that killed thousands between 1849 and 1855.
Mountains and Valleys
For settlers who started out from Independence, the first mountain they faced was Mount Oread in Lawrence, Kansas. More of a large hill than a mountain, Mount Oread would be considered tame in comparison to crossing the Wasatch, Salt River and Bear River Mountains later in the journey. The most difficult crossing wasn't even technically a mountain. Big Hill, as it was named, was a detour that occurred at a point where the Snake River became impassable due to a bend in the river. Big Hill was so steep, wagon teams had to be doubled up, requiring multiple trips to get all the wagons to the top if not enough oxen were available. Valleys were not as difficult to cross as mountains, but steep descents, followed by steep ascents, served to slow travel.
While the flat plains of Kansas could be easily navigated, the plains of Nebraska were not as accommodating. Tall grass could obscure all but a settler's hat on horseback. As most pioneers walked the trail, navigating the plains was similar to wandering through a maze. Fierce wind, rain and lightning would also assault settlers along the plains. The plains did provide plenty of food, however, as thousands of migrating buffalo gave settlers a chance to stock up on dried jerky.
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