What It Was Like on the REAL Oregon Trail?

Family History
8 August 2014

Oregon Trail
[Photo credit: Shutterstock]
Whether you were addicted to The Oregon Trail on your Apple IIc as a kid, got hooked on it on Facebook as an adult, or just have an affinity for old Westerns, you probably think you have an idea of what life was like for our pioneer ancestors who made the journey to the Pacific in the mid-1800s.

But what was it really like? Did everyone get dysentery? Were they constantly fording rivers? What did they eat all that time? Here’s a bit of the real story about the Oregon Trail:

They All Had Oregon Fever

The U.S. experienced an economic depression in 1837, and many Americans began hearing tales of the fertile lands to the West. Men in particular began coming down with “Oregon Fever,” which was not a deadly disease — just an urgent desire to head west.

We Still Don’t Know How Many People Went

Settlers didn’t exactly register anywhere when they set out, so estimates vary from 250,000 to 500,000 between 1843 and 1860, according to Susan G. Butruille’s Women’s Voices From the Oregon Trail. That’s a lot fewer than the estimated 100 million people who’ve played some version of The Oregon Trail game at least once in their lives (according to the game’s official Facebook page). Most of the real-life Oregon trailblazers were families looking to farm. (Single often opted to turn south for the promise of gold in California.) In 1840, only about 13 people took the trail, but by 1852, 10,000 would set out during the year. You can search Oregon records on Ancestry to see exactly who made it.

First, They Saved and Sewed … a Lot

Before starting their journeys, they had to save up money — a lot. The cost of supplies for the 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to Oregon was about $1,500, or about two years’ salary for the average worker in the 19th century, according to Mel Friedman in The Oregon Trail. Women, meanwhile, had to do things like spin enough thread to weave a cover for their wagons, not to mention pack. While they did this, their other female friends sometimes made “friendship quilts” embroidered with messages so they wouldn’t forget those they left behind. Sniff!

Packing Was a Pain

They weren’t driving those huge Conestoga wagons you might be thinking of, but smaller versions, called “Prairie Schooners,” which typically measured about 4 feet by 10 feet. They held about 2,000 pounds, and most of that was food. Often, after heading out on the trail, travelers realized their loads were too heavy for the oxen, so they tossed otherwise valuable objects.

Oxen: The Original Fuel-Efficient Transportation

Unlike horses, oxen (which, for the nonfarmers among you, are usually castrated bulls) can live on prairie grass. Unfortunately, they also walk at only 2 miles an hour. Some emigrants (that’s what they called themselves, not pioneers) used mules, which were faster but, as the saying goes, also pretty stubborn. Before setting off on the trail, the emigrants had to stop in towns like Independence, Missouri, literally waiting for the grass to grow long enough to fuel their trip (around late April or early May).

Fresh-Roasted Coffee and All the Bacon You Want

Here’s the typical grocery list for an Oregon-bound wagon trainer: flour, bacon, coffee, sugar, salt, rice, chipped beef, dried beans, dried fruit, pickles, herbs and spices, and for the really lucky, a couple of chickens and a cow (though many of those died along the way). They’d bring the coffee beans green to roast and grind as needed along the way. (Maybe that’s how the people of the Pacific Northwest came to be such coffee connoisseurs.) As you can imagine, this limited diet grew pretty dull over the course of six months. “One does like a change and about the only change we have from bread and bacon is to bacon and bread,” Helen Carpenter wrote in her diary in 1857. By the way, women had to cook their meals (and bake their bread) over a hot fire fueled by buffalo chips after walking 15-20 miles all day.

Hottest Fashion of the Day

Women’s skirts at the time were floor length, which meant that not only did they get super dirty on the trails, but they were hazardous around wagon wheels and cooking fires. They were pretty handy for privacy when it came to relieving themselves, though. For three years during the great migration, some women daringly wore “bloomers,” but then they reverted back to their proper skirts.

Guidebook Fail

Yes, believe it or not, many of the travelers read guidebooks for their journey, the most popular being Lansford W. Hastings The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. Unfortunately, Hastings hadn’t actually taken all the trails listed in the book, and one of his suggested “cut-offs” to California led to the Donner-Reed Party disaster, in which emigrants got stuck in a snowstorm in 1846. More than half of their group of 87 died, and the survivors had to eat their dead.

Pit-Stop Party

If they were making good time, the emigrants would get to Independence Rock, Wyoming (50 miles south of Casper), by July. If they got there by July 4, they’d get a much needed chance to unwind and celebrate. You can still see hundreds of names carved into the rock today.

OK, So How Did They Really Die?

An estimated 5-10 percent (depending on how many actually went) of the travelers on the Oregon trail perished along the way . The No. 1 killer was cholera (via dehydration), with particularly bad outbreaks in 1849, 1850, and 1852. Dysentery, diphtheria, and typhoid were also common on the road. All of these were spread rapidly through polluted water supplies, which was made much worse by all those people who had no idea what “germs” were at the time. Other big causes of death included wagon wheel accidents, drowning during river crossings, and accidental shootings. Not so deadly were the encounters with the Native Americans at the time, who were much more interested in trading (bigger conflicts happened after the 1860s). In order to deter grave robbers and scavenging animals, many of the dead were buried in unmarked graves right on the path, so that the wagons would pack down the earth and hide them from view quickly.
—Sabrina Rojas Weiss

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