By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Rohse: Never forget the travails of the historic Oregon Trail

What a loss it would be if Oregonians were to forget one of our state’s most important events because of mercurial history eroding it away. That event was the Oregon Trail.

Much is being done to keep that from happening but occasionally we should be reminded of the perils of that trail of some 2,000 miles, with progress perhaps of 18 to 20 miles per day and every day starting at 4 a.m. with a bugle call or a shot from a rifle.

At 5 a.m., cattle were gathered after grazing during the night. Children started their breakfast as did the rest of the family. A typical menu included bacon, “Johnny Cakes” made from flour and water, or corn porridge. Plates and mugs were rinsed and bedding stowed in the wagon. A trumpet sounded “Wagons Ho.”

Foods for purchase along the route were unknown, and one food item pioneers greatly appreciated on the trail was jerky. It weighed less than fresh meat, kept well, and was a quick source of protein that could be consumed even while walking. It served as a quick lunch if a woman walked all morning beside the wagon to lessen its load, and was too tired to cook. Meals that included jerky were filling.

If wagon train settlers killed a buffalo, it provided 450 pounds of fresh meat. Extra fresh meat was made into jerky for transport.

And, jerky was the snack of choice. It was especially appreciated by wagon trains that came later when hunting kills had reduced available game.

The mid-day stop called “nooning” provided rest, food and drink for animals and humans. At 1 o’clock it was back on the trail until 5, or when a campsite was found with water and adequate grass for the animals. Wagons were parked in a circle. Families unpacked and made supper. Stories were told around the campfire. Night guards changed at midnight.

This Old Oregon Trail was a route for large-wheeled wagons, from the Missouri River and Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City. In the mid-1800s, thousands of pioneers traveled the dangerous trail made earlier, in part, by fur trappers and traders.

It was a tragic journey for many. It was said that from 12,400 to 20,000 people died enroute. The story was that if those graves had been every 200 yards apart along the trail, they would have extended its entire distance. Nearly one in every 10 migrants did not arrive, and the Trail has been called “the nation’s largest grave yard.“

During the Oregon
Trail’s heyday from the mid-1840s to the 1860s, an estimated half-million traveled those tedious 15 to 20 miles per day, a trip that usually required from four to six months.

It was believed that poor sanitation caused many of the deaths on the trail. Cholera was responsible for many trail deaths and was perhaps the greatest cause. This infection of the intestines was said to be spread through contaminated food and water. Perhaps one of the saddest parts of the Oregon Trail trip was when pioneers said goodbye to friends and family members, knowing they might never see them again. Another traumatic part of the venture was that weight on the wagons had to be carefully controlled to prevent overload for oxen and horses. Every item in the wagon was considered “precious.” Belongings had to be left behind or discarded along the way because of overload. Did a young bride leave behind her wedding dishes or the little rocking chair her father made for her? Was the family Bible or the family album left behind?

The tendency, of course, was to overload and try to bring everything. All along the trail was a vast assortment of discarded “overloads”. Mormon wagon trains that later followed the same route were said to have found wares enough to start a shop on their return home.

The terrain could be described as terrible for much of the way. Weather could be dangerous: hailstones so big they resembled snowballs, strong winds that could blow the “sail” off a prairie schooner.

One of the great dangers of the trail was crossing flooded rivers. Flooding rivers could upset a boat, causing loss of supplies as well as lives. Wheels of wagons had to be soaked in river water before crossings, boat seams had to be recaulked.

In addition to drownings and disease, accidents caused numerous deaths. A little boy was run over by a wagon and died. Shortage of foods and supplies was a constant. When lips of the settlers became dry and split in deep cracks, their only medication was to smear axle grease on their mouths.

Accidents involving animals were frequent. Shortages of food and supplies was a great worry. When a mother died in childbirth and the baby survived, the child was passed from mother to mother for sustenance.

With the arrival of settlers, that vast land of abundance changed. The Willamette Valley became a bread basket for migrants who cleared the lands, started farms, and marketed crops.

In 1812, Fort Astoria was established as the first American-owned settlement on the Pacific Coast, and the hope was it might facilitate trade with China.

Yamhill became one of four original districts. After Lafayette became county seat with a fine court house, McMinnville then won that honor. Boats plied the Willamette and Yamhill rivers and took farmers’ wheat and other crops to market. Twinkling evidence could be seen nightly of little settlements dotting the valley as more and more settlers arrived.

Ramifications of the Oregon Trail are beyond comprehension — good reason for us to never forget the stories of the bravery and courage of those who made that heroic trip. It is a story that should forever be remembered.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at


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