Oregon Trail Map the Journey West

The Journey Westward

“Go West, Young man, Go west!” inspired many dreams when this quote was first coined in an 1851 newspaper. A young man’s dream to journey westward would soon become a nightmare. Only if the young pioneer rushed towards adventure without careful planning. 

The only way travelers journeyed west at this time was along the Oregon Trail. Not just a road but a two-thousand mile general route paralleling rivers and using lower elevation gaps or passes through mountain ranges. Geographical landforms were the signposts and only seven rest stops (6 forts and 1 mission) were available for resupply or medical attention on this 6-month journey.

A well-advised traveler would carry extra spokes, pins and bolts for wagon repairs that often occurred with a 2,500 pound load. While Conestoga wagons could easily handle that weight and more, it would never be able to make it over multiple mountain ranges and maneuver through tight paths. The smaller “prairie schooner” was a popular wagon due to its advantages. Its lighter weight improved the odds of your draft animals’ survival. The 4 by 10 foot wagon box could be disassembled from the undercarriage, caulked, and floated across river crossings too deep for fording. The smaller front wheels helped in tight maneuvering, and the price was right- about $75 in 1850.  Yokes of oxen or teams of mules and horses were selected to pull the wagon based on budget, handling confidence and animal suitability to harsh conditions.

What did travelers pack for their journey west?

Choosing the supplies you would pack in the wagon fell into four categories: food for the trip, wagon/animal repair/care,  tools to build a home,  and  farming equipment/seeds.  (Livestock would be driven at the rear of the wagon train.) Prized furniture that might be brought often would be found abandoned along the Trail. Discarding unnecessary items helped conserve the life of the draft animal pulling the wagon. So besides geographic landmarks and wagon wheel ruts, discarded family treasures and graves marked the route.

Belongings travelers might pack for their journey west displayed in the Frontier Museum at WWC

How did groups navigate the journey west along the Oregon Trail?

Families chose to travel in groups for safety. Teamwork was a necessity in crossing rivers, double teaming animals on steep inclines and relying on members’ strengths. Blacksmithing, medical knowledge, or hunting skills were key to travelers’ survival. Although there were also several trail guidebooks published, a large group might hire a wagon master. A wagon master was often an ex-mountain man who was familiar with the geography, weather signs, reliable water, and wary of unfriendly encounters with animal or human. Thomas Fitzpatrick survived the odds stacked against him as an early mountain man and led some of the first wagon trains to Oregon.  Jim Bridger, the first white American to see and report about a Great Salt Lake, established the first trading post on the Oregon and California trails.  

Cowboys at the Chuckwagon Camp getting some grub before their Journey West.

How long was the Journey Westward?

350,000 brave and hopeful pioneers put one foot in front of the other and journeyed west along the Oregon Trail. This 2,170 mile route from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley, Oregon was used mainly from 1841-1869. Most travelers walked the whole distance, trying to lessen the load for the animals. They would also avoid the jarring ride in the springless wagon.  Ten percent, 35,000 pioneers, died along the way. Most died from diseases such as cholera, measles, dysentery or from drowning, accidents, freezing to death. Some had to change their final destination due to running out of supplies, transportation or loved ones.

If you find yourself driving along Route 80 in Nebraska, look to the side and you may still see evidence of the pioneers’ tracks. If you can’t make the journey west, take a short cut on Route 80 to Wild West City, Byram Township, New Jersey.  We have our own prairie schooner and historical guide to share some of the remarkable facts of this country’s Great Emigration.

Learn about the journey west at WWC's chuckwagon camp.

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