I’m about to take off on a major RV road trip out through the western states. I’ve been planning this trip for the past 8 months and it’s a big one. As some may know, I like history and visiting historic sites. On this trip, I’ll be mostly on back roads following the Oregon Trail from Missouri to Oregon.
Last fall, I began reading a book about the Oregon Trail from a guy who followed the route in 2015. Rinker Buck and his brother Nick didn’t take a car or RV or any black top roads. They did it in a covered wagon with a team of mules. They followed the original trail just like the pioneers did it in the 1850’s. Rink wrote a book about their journey called: The Oregon Trail – A New American Journey. It’s a fascinating book and it’s what got me hooked to doing my own journey to follow the trail.
The Oregon Trail is not just a collection of a few places where you can see historical landmarks out on the prairie. It represents a period in our history where over 400,000 people picked up and migrated thousands of miles to a new unseen place. They didn’t take trains, cars, or buses. Most walked over 2,000 miles hoping to find a better life. Some historians say it was one of the largest migrations in history.
Oregon Trail History
Here’s a little bit of interesting history about the trail:
- The trail stretches 2,170 miles from the Missouri River to the Oregon Valley. It started out as a foot path used by Native Americans and early fur traders.
- The first wagon train to use the trail started out in 1836. The greatest migration occurred between 1845 and 1869. The peak years were 1852-54 when 100,000 people followed the trail.
- It took 4-6 months to follow the trail. Most walked besides their wagons and traveled 15 miles per day. They started in Independence, MO because that’s as far as the river boats could run up the Missouri River. They started in the spring when the grass on the plains was high enough for the livestock to feed on and hoped to arrive in Oregon by October.
- Why Oregon? The Indian Non-intercourse Act of 1834 defined all lands west of the Mississippi, that were not within the boundaries of Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana, as Indian Territory. That land was unsettled and reserved for Native Americans. People were allowed to travel across the territory but no one could settle in that area (essentially what is now Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakota’s, Wyoming, and Idaho) unless they had approval from the federal government. In the 1830’s, Oregon was a territory shared between Great Britain and the United States. The US politicians wanted to occupy that area and so they encouraged migration. In 1846, Britain and the US signed a treaty setting the boundary at the Columbia River. Essentially all the land in Oregon was now part of the US and free for the taking. You just had to travel across the Indian Territory and claim your piece of it.
- The Mormons followed the trail in their migrations that began in 1847 as did the Californian Gold seekers in 1849. The Mormon Trail dipped south in Idaho and terminated into the Salt Lake Valley
- Traveling on the trail was an arduous journey. Many died on the way to Oregon and Utah. I read a statistic that about one out of every seven adults who started out died on the trail. It was worse for children. About one out of five died on the trail. It’s estimated that about 65,000 people died trying to make the journeys. The biggest causes where disease and accidents. Cholera was the biggest killer.
The Oregon Trail route is still well-marked and there are many famous landmarks and monuments to see. Wagon ruts are still visible in several areas. Many of the stop over points where the people camped are now preserved as state parks. I’ve done a fair amount of research and have my route and stop overs planned out.
But the Oregon Trail is really a people story. Thousands of people packed up there lives into a 4 ft by 10 ft farm wagon, spent all their money, and stared out on an unknown journey. For most, there was no trail guides or books showing them where to go or where to stay. They just headed out following the sun, rivers, and tracks of others who had gone before them.
I want to see where the people walked. The hills they had to winch their wagons up and down, the places where they forded the rivers, and the memorials that have been built to commemorate their efforts. I want to get a better sense for the struggles they undertook as they walked the route driven by a dream for a better life.
My journey won’t take 4-6 months. I’m planning to go from Independence, MO to Pendleton, OR over the course of about 24 days. I will probably drive about 100 miles on most days, which will give me plenty of time for stops. I’ll be posting trip reports and doing vlogs of the interesting things I see and learn on my journey. In fact, here a quick video with some more details.
Please subscribe to my blog and my YouTube channel so you can follow along.
PS: As for how I’m returning, that question will be answered later on.