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The early 1840s were a time when the Oregon Trail became a popular emigration route, with the publication of Thomas Farnham's Travels in the Western Prairies and Hall Kelley's General Circular for prospective emigrants. Poor economic conditions in the Mississippi Valley and episodic outbreaks of disease drove thousands of people to leave their homes and set out for the Oregon Territory. The Oregon Trail attracted adventurous and determined individuals who chose to ignore naysayers in favor of embracing the challenge. The motto "to see the elephant" was a motivating factor in the lives of many pioneers who embraced the challenge of life on the road.
The Oregon Trail has a unique history. Before the cattle drives of Texas, the trail was used to transport livestock. People drove their sheep and cattle from the midwest to the various towns along the trail. The vast majority of the Oregon Trail's fatalities were caused by disease and accidents. Thankfully, the path is well-known today for its incredible historical significance. Today, the Oregon Trail is a tourist destination where travelers can tour re-enactments and explore the history of the Oregon Trail.
The first wagon train on the Oregon Trail carried over 1,000 pioneers and kicked off a two-decade expansion into the west. The wagon trail soon became a western highway. As the first transcontinental railroad reached the Pacific Ocean, the Oregon Trail was made even more difficult. This meant that many settlers stopped short of Portland, but they made it to Fort Hall, where they settled. This commerce paved the way for local economies and helped establish early settlements.
One of the many dangers of the Oregon Trail was disease. Cholera was the number one killer on the trail. It was most likely spread by water that was contaminated, and those who contracted it quickly died. Even John Clark, who chronicled the journey, described the pain and suffering caused by cholera. Read the book Tyrant's Road to learn more. Here are the dangers encountered by early settlers on the Oregon Trail:
Wagon accidents were common. People often fell off their wagons or were pinned under their wheels. The lack of medical care, sanitation, and nutrition all contributed to the high rate of deaths. Gunshots were also common, but they were usually accidental or a result of carelessness. Fortunately, few grave sites are marked. Most victims were buried in mass graves. Other graves were dug in the trail itself and left unmarked to avoid grave robbers.
The first European settlers in the Oregon Territory began arriving at Fort Vancouver in 1841. Initially, overlanders used the Hudson's Bay Company posts as a base of operations for their journey. Eventually, three pioneering families set up small fur trading communities, including Michael Simmons and John Jackson. Peter Crawford and Thomas McLoughlin followed, settling in the Cowlitz River valley in 1844 and Kelso in 1847. The three men opted to go north instead of south, as they had an African American in their wagon train. The Oregon Provisional Legislature had recently banned Black resettlement in Oregon, and they were part of a political movement to separate the Washington Territory from the rest of the state.
The Oregon Trail was a long and treacherous journey, and the settlers were often killed in accidents and illnesses. Many of them were accidentally shot, crushed under wagon wheels, and drowned during perilous river crossings. Fortunately, a number of sources exist today that can help identify these pioneers. Some of these sources will even help identify where they came from. This can be helpful in learning the history of the early settlements on the Oregon Trail.
Some of the earliest pioneers to the Pacific Northwest were African Americans. While the majority came as free people, some were enslaved. These people were not welcome in Oregon due to its anti-slavery laws and racist attitudes. As a result, a small number of Black people emigrated to Oregon during the 1840s and '50s. A few Black people arrived to Oregon as slaves. However, despite this, the Oregon Trail did not have many enslaved Black people.
Although many scholars have focused on the experiences of African Americans in the urban West, Moore's book focuses on these early trailblazing journeys. She analyzes census data, maps, and government documents to give voices to the largely anonymous black trailblazers. Her findings reveal important details about their experiences on the Oregon Trail, including how they hid their slaves in floorboards and in their wagons. The book also includes a wealth of primary sources and educator resources.
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