Wagon Trains To The Old West

Oregon Trail: Illustration shows the first wagon caravan led by Smith-Jackson Sublett. The caravan consisted of ten of his wagons, each pulled by five of his mules, heading for the Wind River Valley near present-day Lander, Wyoming. Undated Drawing
by William H. Jackson
Wagon Train Transport was organized by US settlers for immigration to the West during the late 18th century and much of his 19th century. These wagon trains became a means of long-distance transport of people and goods. The 19th century saw some of the most famous wagon trains, including the Santa Fe Trail, Oregon Trail, Smoky Hill Trail and the Southern Overland Mail Route.

Route of the Oregon Trail shown on a map of the western United States from Independence, Missouri (eastern end) to Oregon City, Oregon (western end). (Author unknown/Wikimedia Commons)

Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail, also known as the Oregon-California Trail, was a hiking trail between Independence, Missouri and Oregon City, Oregon. This was his one of two major immigration routes into the American West. The road is about 2,000 miles (or 3,200 kilometers) long and helped hundreds of thousands of immigrants reach the Northwest from the 1840s to the 1860s. The road traversed difficult terrain, including vast areas of Native American settlement.

The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail was the other of the two main emigrant routes to the American West, leading from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This trail was opened by William Becknell and used as an important commercial route from 1821 to 1880. Native Americans often attacked these wagon caravans between 1864 and 1869, so their drivers began traveling in parallel columns, making it easier to form a circular line of defense. After the United States seized New Mexico in the Mexican–American War, aided in part by the trade of manufactured goods and the silver and fur trades enabled by the trail, usage of the trail increased and even included mail delivery service by stagecoach starting in 1849 until it ended for good with the completion of the Santa Fe railroad in 1880.

The First Wagon Train To Arrive In California

On November 4, 1841, the first wagon train of Easterners made it to California, led by 21-year-old John Bidwell. Along with his partner, John Bartleson, Bidwell organized the trip and left on May 1, 1841 with 69 people who had never been west of St. Louis, Missouri. The trek spanned 2,008 miles, progressing an average of 12–15 miles a day, over the course of five months. Fortunately, they had some experienced help on hand, including a group of missionaries and mountain man Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick.

Once they reached Idaho, the party split, with Bartleson leading one group toward Oregon and Bidwell choosing California. It was not an easy path for Bidwell’s group, who were forced to abandon their wagons in the rugged terrain of northern Utah. They faced the wrath of mother nature, near starvation, and a lack of water before finally finishing their journey on horseback and arriving somewhere close to present-day Tuolumne County.