There were diary accounts made at the time and shortly thereafter, but even still, details about that group vary widely. Some say as many as 1,000 people began the trek; others say it was between 500 and 700 people in 113 wagons, with as many as 5,000 livestock along for good measure.
What’s clear is that the U.S. government encouraged people to make the journey, hoping that a greater population of Americans in the Oregon Territory would help wrest control of the disputed land from the British.
Politicians were determined to expand the United States “from one ocean to the other,” but individuals were looking for a better life after economic woes hit during the 1830s, said Kelly Burns, supervisory park ranger at the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City.
But there was more to it than that. The sense of adventure and the monumental challenge of traveling so far and so long into mostly uncharted territory shows determination.
Cassie Whitlock, dressed in period garb, talks about 19th century life on the Oregon Trail. Whitlock is a tour leader at Philip Foster Farm in Eagle Creek, Ore. The farm was an important rest stop for travelers on the trail. (Lori Rackl/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Credit: Lori Rackl
Credit: Lori Rackl
More than 400,000 pioneers traveled west on the Oregon Trail, which turns 175 years old in 2018. Modern-day travelers in Oregon can retrace history at numerous spots along the legendary trail.
“We can all understand the idea of leaving something you love for the goal of getting something better, and the whole trail thing, the opening of the West, the infinite possibilities,” Burns said.
It took between five and six months to make it to Oregon City, the end of the trail, where in later years a man could file papers to claim 320 acres of land — 640 if he was married.
Roughly 400,000 people are estimated to have made the wagon-train journey. About 10 percent died along the way. The peak year was 1850, when some 55,000 traveled the route. The caravans started trailing off in the 1870s when train travel became an option.
What’s striking to a visitor is how near the history of the Oregon Trail seems, not just in physical terms but in time. It’s not really all that long ago.
For example, Baker City winemaker Travis Cook, 33, is a descendant of one of the last families to travel the trail, in 1894. His great-grandfather was born shortly after the family arrived in Oregon.
Cook said the spirit of the pioneers — one based on hard work and striving for a better life — is still part of the culture around Baker City.
“Every day, we look forward and try to make our dreams happen,” he said.
For lovers of American history, a visit to Oregon is a way to follow in the footsteps of the pioneers. Outside Baker City, in the eastern part of the state, is the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a 23,000-square-foot facility atop Flagstaff Hill that overlooks the well-preserved ruts from the 19th century.
Engaging exhibits include short movies, dioramas and a spot where children can stock a wagon, deciding on what is most important to bring when packing for a new life. But exploring the outdoor spaces and the actual ruts in the valley might be the most evocative activity.
On the other side of the state, in Oregon City, is the End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, a smaller, but similarly well-done facility that also documents the history of the trail.
Today’s travelers can visit both spots over the course of a couple of days with stops along the way for rest and refreshment, sometimes driving along the original route that took the pioneers about a month to traverse. You’ll be able to restock your provisions, but instead of making history, you’ll be retracing it.
(Terri Colby is a freelance writer.)
IF YOU GO:
End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: The Oregon City facility is a short distance from Portland, so it’s an easy day trip from there. Open daily. Adult admission is $13, less for children.
Philip Foster Farm: About 17 miles east of Oregon City, this living history site in Eagle Creek was a key rest stop for travelers on the Oregon Trail. The farmhouse and barn are still here, and replicas of a store, blacksmith shop and other structures have been built on the property. Open May through October. Admission is $5 a person, $20 per family.
National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center: Located 5 miles east of Baker City, the center is about 300 miles from Portland. A road trip offers interesting stops along the way, many with Oregon Trail connections: Mount Hood, The Dalles, Pendleton. Open daily in spring, summer and fall. Adult admission is $8, children 15 and under are free. This is where you can easily see the wagon trail ruts. The center’s annual Labor Day Weekend Wagon Encampment is one of its biggest events, with costumed volunteers helping visitors understand the story of the trail and its travelers.
Baker City: Stay at the Geiser Grand Hotel, originally opened in 1889, to soak up some historic elegance. Prices for the least expensive rooms begin at $109 a night. Oregon is noted for its beer, and Barley Brown’s brewpub is a good place to have some, along with decent food.