Track Down Your Western Trails Travelers, by Mary Penner

Wagon Train, Tombstone, Cochise Co., AZ.jpg150 pounds of flour–check. Twenty-five pounds of bacon–check. Fifteen pounds of coffee–check. Twenty-five pounds of sugar–check. Don’t forget the salt and pepper and throw in a couple of live beef cattle, too. That’s quite a grocery list, and that’s just for one person.

Those were the kinds of provisions pioneers packed into their wagons for the five-month-long trip from Missouri to Oregon or California.

During the nineteenth century, an estimated 500,000 people traveled across the western half of North America along the Oregon Trail. Some of them took the fork in the road over to California while thousands of others stuck to the trail until they reached Oregon. Most of the emigrants made the 2,000-mile trek between 1840 and 1870, many of them plodding the entire way on foot.

The first huge wagon train bound for Oregon rumbled out of Independence, Missouri, in 1843. With 1,000 people, 120 wagons, and 5,000 head of cattle, you can imagine the dust that crowd kicked up tromping across the Nebraska prairie. Many more wagon trains followed.

The Oregon and California Trails weren’t the only nineteenth century super-highways to the western lands. Other wayfarers ambled along the Santa Fe Trail, the Mormon Trail, the Montana Trail, the Cherokee Trail, and the Overland Trail–to name a few.

Just like Hansel and Gretel, ancestors who traveled on western trails dropped clue-crumbs to help you follow their migration paths.

First of all, start your search for trail-trekkers at the end of the trail. Pinpoint the earliest records for your ancestors in their final western destination. Check census records, land records, court records, and tax records. Then check the same records in their home states. The goal is to deduce a window of time for their journey into the Wild West. After you’ve narrowed down the approximate dates for their big adventure, you’re now ready to tread into trail-related records.

Fortunately for researchers, the adventurous mystique surrounding trail travelers has generated a number of organizations and societies who aim to preserve the trails and their stories. Additionally, thousands of books and websites chronicle the trail migration experiences.

If you’re ready to do some hands-on trails research, visit the Merrill J. Mattes Research Library at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri. They have the largest collection of trail-related documents and books in the country.

The Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) is another good resource for researchers. This organization works to preserve western trails and the experiences of western travelers. The organization’s helpful website features articles about the trails, and it includes all kinds of trail factoids and trivia about a variety of trails, not just the ones to Oregon and California. The OCTA also sponsors an online database listing thousands of trail travelers.

Another tactic for tracking down trail ramblers is to look at eyewitness accounts. Western trail excursions probably generated more travel diaries than any other experience in history. It’s been estimated that one in every 250 people kept a diary or journal detailing the adventures, the tedium, and the perils of their overland expeditions.

Even if your ancestors neglected to chronicle their personal journey, you still might find their names penciled onto pages kept by their fellow travelers. For example, Nicholas Carriger wrote in his diary that Redwood Easton’s wife died on June 21, 1846. He also noted where she was buried: “north side of the road on the second bank of the river not far from Castle Rock.”  When hunting for diaries, focus on the likely trail your ancestors traversed to get from point A to point B, and zero in on the likely time when they hit the road.

Many trail diaries have been published. Take a look at the eleven volumes of Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails, edited by Kenneth L. Holmes. Written by women, these accounts make for compelling reading even if you can’t find any mention of your ancestors.

You can also find some diaries online. Look at the Trails of Hope website sponsored by Brigham Young University. You’ll find digital images of many diaries and letters written by travelers.

You can find reprints of dozens of travel diaries in libraries everywhere. Search your local library for reprints and check college and university libraries for actual diaries in their manuscript collections. Use the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections and WorldCat to help with your library search.

Also visit The Overland Trail website for more online diaries and wagonloads of trail trivia and links to trail-related websites.

Trail research isn’t for the easily deterred; you have to put on your detective hat. There’s no master list or sign-up sheet for people who jumped on the wagons west. You’ll have to use some peripheral records to fill out your ancestor’s travel itinerary. Check historic newspapers where your ancestors lived for clues about caravans forming to head west; local people often traveled together. Peruse historic maps and trail routes to learn which paths they probably followed. And, review that particular trail’s history and bone up on its typical travelers.

Even if you can’t nail down the exact group your ancestors meandered across the country with or when, and even if you can’t find any mention of them in the records, trail research can still be productive. Read about and study the experiences of other travelers and you’ll have a solid sense of what your hearty ancestors endured on their western trail odyssey.

Genealogical writer, researcher, and lecturer Mary Penner resides in New Mexico. She can be reached through her website at

4 thoughts on “Track Down Your Western Trails Travelers, by Mary Penner

  1. The books and diaries you have mentioned are really interesting and were my “winter reading” last year. I highly recommend them-they really fill in the reality of life then, and helps you imagine and relive the experiences of that great endeavor through these women.

  2. Thanks so much for posting this. After finding that my great grandmother’s (Wagoner) sister and brother went from Huntingdon County PA to around Freemont Nebraska on a wagon train in 1870’s I became fascinated with reading stories like this. As a result I began reading historical fiction and nonfiction on this period and have great love for these remarkable pioneers. Thanks for adding some websites and material to my list.

  3. In September 2008 a story kept running through my head about the Covered Wagon families. I started the story and did some researching. I knew I lacked a lot of information, but then your article came on my PC and here is most of the information I need to complete my story. Although it’s a novel, I hope to make it as true to life as possible. Thank you for including it along with other interesting articles.

  4. I just found out that my husband’s gggrandfather was on a wagon train from Ohio to Minnesota. I would like to find out about the trail they took. It was in 1846.

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