“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The wonder is that anyone went at all. In 1846 the western third of the continent was a largely unexplored, largely foreign wilderness to which white Americans had little or no legal claim and about which they had very little accurate knowledge. Pundits of the day entertained serious doubts whether transcontinental travel was practicable at all, and the men and women who made their way West did so against the grave admonitions of innumerable newsprint Cassandras, convinced that migration to Oregon and California was complete folly.

“What do we want with this region of savages and wild beasts,” Sen. Daniel Webster demanded in 1845, “of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs? To what use could we ever put those endless mountain ranges? What could we do with the western coast line three thousand miles away, rockbound, cheerless and uninviting?”

“It is palpable homicide,” Horace Greeley warned the readers of the New York Tribune in 1843, “to tempt or send women and children over this thousand miles of precipice and volcanic sterility to Oregon.” The Edinburgh Review likewise flatly asserted that “Oregon will never be colonized overland from the Eastern United States”—an oddly categorical statement in a year that saw more than a thousand emigrants safely through to Oregon by covered wagon, but one with which, three years later, many Americans still agreed. Thus the Newport Herald of the Times could declare as late as 1846, “We might as well attempt to march an army to the moon, as to march one overland to Oregon.”

Lunar analogies crop up frequently in editorials of this kind, and in 1846 transcontinental emigration did seem to most people like going to the Moon. In our own time, when travel between Independence, Missouri, and San Francisco, California, has dwindled to three hours, it may be impossible to grasp the magnitude of the journey any other way.

The distance alone was mind-boggling: two thousand miles in all, not counting however far you had to go to get to Independence, where the wilderness began. Once beyond Independence, you were stepping off into the unknown. All that most of the emigrants knew was that the long and dangerous journey to Oregon or California would take them over a vast windswept plain—ominously labeled “Indian Country” or “Great American Desert” on most maps—three great mountain ranges and half a dozen scorching deserts, broken only by a handful of isolated trading forts scattered here and there in the wilderness. Most overlanders would be crossing the continent on foot, walking beside their ox-drawn wagons at the rate of one mile an hour, hour after hour, day after day—making perhaps sixteen miles on a good day—four, five, sometimes six months in all, over some of the most astonishingly beautiful and frighteningly dangerous geography in the world.

The grueling trip couldn’t begin until the spring rains had subsided, and it had to be over before snow blocked the heights. In the 1840s the routes themselves were still being established and tinkered with, and each year new trails—new cutoffs and shortcuts that promised to shave time or miles or toil from the journey—were promoted by rival boosters for Oregon or California, who competed fiercely for the emigrant traffic.

In the end going to the moon probably conveys a pretty fair idea of what heading West felt like in the 1840s—how completely the emigrants felt they were leaving behind a world they knew, how unknown was the one they were traveling toward.

And yet they came. By 1846—despite the Great American Desert, despite burning wastes, howling tempests, savage Indians, and towering mountains, despite Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, and the Edinburgh Review —families had been making the overland journey to Oregon and California in covered wagons for five years. The crash of 1837 and the deep depression that ensued had something to do with it. So did outbreaks of cholera and malaria in the Midwest and a general feeling that the Mississippi Valley was filling up. For a decade word had been filtering in from missionaries and traders of the fertile soil and mild, salubrious climate along the coastal valleys of the Pacific Far West.

Then, in 1843, the explorer John C. Frémont—part “Pathfinder,” all public relations man—published his Topographical Report with its vivid depiction of the wonders of the Far West and its breathtaking revelation that the Rocky Mountains could be surmounted at South Pass with no “toilsome ascents.” Fremont’s Report took Congress and the country by storm, and ten thousand copies were soon in print. Josiah Royce, the son of an Indiana farmer, remembered his father reading passages from it out loud at night after the chores were done. He was, he wrote, “inflamed with a love for action, adventure, glory and great deeds away out yonder under the path of the setting sun.”