In the 1840s, the United States had a population boom that led to the question: where would all the people live and work? The vision of John L. O'Sullivan – Manifest Destiny – seemed to provide a solution and the Oregon Trail provided the roadway for Americans. Manifest Destiny was the idea that Americans had the duty and right to expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. This expansion would lead to greater commerce, new inventions and advancements in technology, and an opening of the West to American citizens in greater numbers.
The original territory of Oregon Country – the perfect place for people to move – had the Pacific Ocean as its border on the West, the Rocky Mountains bordering it to the East, the 42nd parallel to the South, and Russian Alaska provided a border in the North. Both the United States and the United Kingdom wanted the Oregon Country and each nearly had an equal claim. Only a handful of fur traders and mountain men had made the journey along the Oregon Trail in 1820s so there was not a large number of American, British, or Canadian citizens.
The first wagon trains set out from Independence, Missouri in 1841 along the Oregon Trail and the history began – along with a tradition for elementary-aged students playing an Oregon Trail-themed game of the 1980s and 1990s (although I only got to play it once or twice in school).
On this journey westward along the Oregon Trail, emigrants would encounter Plains Indians – Sioux, Cheyenne, Shoshoni, Arapaho, Kiowa, Wichita, and Comanche – who led nomadic, "warrior-like" lives dependent on the herds of buffalo. The Emigrants felt threatened by the Native Americans and requested protection so the government built a series of forts along the Oregon Trail.
The journey on the Oregon Trail took about 6 months to traverse the 2,000 miles. The emigrants would only travel about 15 miles a day and faced the following challenges at different points in their trip:
- Food shortages
- Freezing temperatures
- Dangers of everyday life – cooking, hunting, childbirth
Because people were moving permanently out West, the items they packed for their journey along the Oregon Trail were many and varied. Items included the supplies they would need along the trail in addition to what would be needed as people started their homestead or farm. (People needed fewer supplies if their destination was digging for gold or other minerals.)
Items might include – depending on the size of the family journeying – the following:
- 200-600 pounds of flour
- 150-300 pounds of salt pork or bacon
- 20-100 pounds of sugar
- 25-60 pounds of coffee
- 10 pounds of salt
- Beans and rice
- Dried meat
- Dried fruit
- Water for drinking
- Sewing kit, cooking utensils and pots and pans
- Wax and candles
- Tools like plow, shovel, rake, hoe, saw, axe, mallet, and plane
- Seed for farming
- Livestock – such as a cow, a pig, or goats
- Toys for children
Everyone had many chores on the journey including the children. They might help with washing dishes, collecting water, milking the cow, collecting buffalo chips, and maybe even hunting for fresh game.
This is such an interesting time period in American history and there are many great resources available to help you learn more.
History.com's Oregon Trail Facts and Summary page
National Park Service Oregon National Historic Trail