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Oregon Trail's Geography: An Introduction

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CROSSING THE Great Plains

The Oregon Trail was an overland emigrant route in the United States from the Missouri River to the Columbia River country, was the way to travel back in the 1840s through the 1860s. In 1843 the Great Emigration began and the west would never be the same after the out set of the travelers. The pioneers by wagon train did not, however, follow any single narrow route. In open country the different trains might spread out over a large area, only to converge again for river crossings, mountain passes. In time many alternate routes also developed. They originated at various places on the Missouri, although Independence were favorite starting points, the routes taken along with the wagon trails are the key points in which made it possible to travel west.

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Those starting from Independence followed the same route as the Santa Fe Trail for some 40 miles, then traveled to the Platte and generally followed that river to the North Platte and then the South Platte. Crossing the South Platte, the main trail followed the North Platte to Fort Laramie, then to the present Casper, Wyo. and through the mountains by the South Pass to the Colorado River. The travelers then went to Fort Bridger, from which the Mormon Trail continued to the Great Salt Lake, while the Oregon Trail went northwest across a divide to Fort Hall, on the Snake River. The California Trail branched off to the southwest, but the Oregon Trail continued to Fort Boise. From that point the travelers had to make the hard climb over the Blue Mountains. Once those were crossed, paths diverged somewhat; many went to Fort Walla Walla before proceeding down the south bank of the Columbia River, traversing the Columbia’s gorge where it passes through the Cascade Mountains to the Willamette Valley, where the early settlement centered. The end of the trail shifted as settlement spread.

The mountain men were chiefly responsible for making the route known, and Thomas Fitzpatrick and James Bridger were renowned as guides. The first genuine emigrant train was that led by John Bidwell in 1841, half of which went to California, the rest proceeding from Fort Hall to Oregon. The first train of emigrants to reach Oregon was that led by Elijah White in 1842. In 1843 occurred the Great Emigration of more than 900 persons and more than 1,000 head of stock. By 1845 the emigrants reached a total of more than 3,000. Although it took the average train about six months to traverse the 2,000-mile route, the trail was used for many years. Travel gradually declined with the coming of the railroads, and the trail was abandoned in the 1870s. Many trail sites are now preserved in the Oregon National Historic Society.

As the people traveled across the Great Plains and into the deserts they had some great obstacles to over come? But what kept them going was the new life they were ready to embark on, and embrace with open arms. All the hard work and effort that the Oregon Trail travelers put in would go down in history with America.

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