History

What was life like on the Oregon Trail?

I look back upon the long, dangerous and precarious emigrant road with a degree of romance and pleasure; but to others it is the graveyard of their friends.

So were the reflections of Loren Hastings upon his days on the Oregon Trail. The journey from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City is a quintessential chapter of frontier history. Much in line with Hastings' recollections, it’s a chapter that lays claim to timeless romanticisms of perseverance and ambition on the trail, but one which is also known for the toll it took upon its travelers.

The trail

Aerial view of covered wagon on a dusty Oregon Trail road
Credit: Russ Heinl / Shutterstock

The trail from Missouri to Oregon ran about 2,000 miles through Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho before reaching its final destination in Oregon. As more and more settlers set out Westward, the trail became more accommodating with ferries and systematized routes as well as the remnants of the trailblazing settlers. “Leeverites” was the term for the abandoned belongings of settlers along the trail cast aside to spare the efforts of exhausted oxen pulling the wagons.

Timing for the trip was a matter of life and death as an improper departure date would expose settlers to fierce winters. The journey took five to six months. As such, April or May was the right time to leave with any hope of reaching Oregon before the elements made it impossible. However, even to those who left at the right time, devastating hail showers, tornadoes, and high winds all threatened the safety of passage.

The perils

Stagecoach wagon covered in snow and ice in the middle of winter
Credit: ChuckSchugPhotography / iStockPhoto

However, the elements weren’t the biggest threat to settlers on the Oregon Trail. Rather, the two most significant causes of death were disease and accidents such as misfiring of weapons or getting caught under wagon wheels. Settlers almost always traveled in larger parties with multiple wagons. Among them were many who were inexperienced in frontier travel – a level of inexperience that often proved fatal. More troubling still was the cholera outbreak that ravaged settlers making the journey Westward in the mid-1800s. It wasn’t uncommon for a member of the party to wake up spry, show symptoms in the afternoon, and be dead by dusk. Estimates place mortality rates of the settlers of the Oregon Trail at 10%.

Life on the road

Covered wagons move across the plains with large rocky hills in the background
Credit: Sue Smith / Shutterstock

In spite of the many dangers that families faced as they made their exodus West, it wasn’t all grim and foreboding. It was hard work on a daily basis, but people went the through the motions of life and embraced levity and respite whenever possible.

Parties or companies banded together for protection and proceeded in an organized fashion. Usually, there would be a more experienced traveler serving as an officer or leader of the party. Before outset, parties would establish regulations for camping, marching, and settling disputes. Some even went so far as to draft up constitutions. One way or another, there was an understanding of a schedule to stick to and rules to follow.

The average schedule

Evening sunset overlooking tents set up for overnight wilderness camping
Credit: Buckshot243 / Shutterstock

An average schedule started at the crack of dawn to repack the wagons from the previous night’s camp and round up any cattle that were grazing. An hour or so later, women and children would prepare breakfast, such as porridge or bacon and johnnycakes. By 7 a.m., the wagons were packed, and the march began with men riding ahead to clear a path for the wagons if necessary. At “Nooning Time,” there would be a stop for rest before setting out again an hour later. By 5 p.m., the march was done for the day, and a campsite would be set up. The rest of the day would involve supper, chores and partying. Young people danced, members of the party entertained one another, and oftentimes budding romances would come into full bloom. Weddings were a cause for celebration, and almost every party had expectant mothers at some point along the trail.

Life for settlers on the Oregon Trail was taxing and unpredictable, but like countless other journeys throughout history, the humanity of its travelers held strong. The trail was marked with arduous labor and sacrifice as much as it was decorated with the small joys of human life.