It is well to make at this point a summary of the essential events of the Oregon Trail to find if possible what its national import was. It began at Independence in Western Missouri. At that point travel and commerce bound for the Great West left the Missouri River and struck out overland along this famous highway. This royal road traversed the Great Plains, the Great Interior Basin, and the Pacific Slope. It wound its tortuous course over prairie and plain, up and over the Rocky Mountains, through the great interior valleys, and emerged in the Northwest at Fort Vancouver, on the Columbia, two thousand and twenty miles away.
No other American trail covered such a distance or carried such possibilities of empire. The potentiality of Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California lay ready to spring into life under its vitalizing development. Its first influence was exerted on that plain forming the east slope of the great central mountain chain. The physical character of man always conforms to his environment, and we must see what manner of country this immense plain was in the last century.
The line defining the eastern edge of the Great Plains is approximately the western boundaries of Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa, and thence north to the Arctic Ocean. Elevation is a factor in much of its course in the United States. It will be found to follow generally that demarcation indicating an elevation of one thousand feet above the sea. The western boundary of the Great Plains is the crest of the Rocky Mountains. In fixing these limits it is necessary to follow closely the lines laid down by William Gilpin, by far the best authority on this subject.
The Great Plains are not uniform in climate in a given latitude, though they partake generally of the nature of the desert and arid lands of the globe. General Pike thought Kansas might support sheep and goats, and it was the judgment of Gilpin that no plow should desecrate the Great Plains outside the areas which could be irrigated. But even in his day they fell naturally into two divisions:
- The Prairies
- The Plains Proper
A general line north and south through Council Grove and Fort Kearny marked the western limits of the Prairies, the fairest country in America. Beyond this line there was a different land. The buffalo grass prevailed. There was little timbernone away from the streams. In that realm was the last stand of the buffalo. It was the home of the Plains Indian. There it lay, wrapped in solitude. It was grass-grown, but desolate. At the horizon it looked like the sea. The harsh aspects of nature were softened in the dim and hazy distance, and at night the stars were brilliant and seemed to hang just above the earth. That land had its own peculiar lifethe roving, restless and cruel Indian tribe, the buffalo ebbing and flowing with the seasons, the skulking wolf, the prairie dog, the rattlesnake and the owl. In its higher reaches appeared the elk, the antelope, the deer, the panther, the bear, the mountain sheep. Over the peaks soared the eagle, in the pines fluttered bright-plumaged birds, and in the mountain streams swam the beaver. To the man who once penetrated its recesses and heard its irresistible call it was as fascinating as paradise.
In that day beyond the Great Plains lay another country, new and untrodden by civilized man. It stretched to the Pacific Ocean and was traversed by mighty mountain ranges, gashed by bottomless canyons, and watered by some of the great rivers of the earth. Of timber, coal, fish, furs, silver and gold it held unequaled treasure and riches. From the beginning the lines of our destiny ran west, and the entrance and penetration of this unsurpassed empire was by and over the ancient highway which we called the Oregon Trail.
When we fought our Revolution and gained a place among the nations we touched our western limits at the Mississippi. Our country was divided by the Appalachian chain. The dwellers along the seaboard had little thought for the great valleys of the overhill portion of our country. To most of them it was of little consequence. The rich man is usually a sluggish and satisfied man. He rarely troubles himself with exploration and the conquest of the wilderness. The genius and destiny of a country are perceived and carried out by the common people, those who toil and sweat, and with us the strongest men have appeared on the frontierWashington, the Clarks, Boone, Clay, Lincoln, Benton, Gilpin, the Santa Fe traders, and the Rocky Mountain fur trappers who trod the Oregon Trail.
Kentucky was the pioneer in the westward movement. Her people needed the Mississippi River, and when an indifferent government left their demands unheeded, they swore to have it even at the expense of a divided country. To appease them Jefferson bought Louisiana. That was the beginning of our greatness as a nation. The expedition of Lewis and Clark revealed to us the extent and resources of the Missouri and the Columbia and their relations to the Mississippi Valley and the Pacific Ocean. The men of the frontier made preparations to realize on some of the resources of Louisiana and the country beyond it. They penetrated the wilds in search of the bear and the beaver. That was the beginning of the Oregon Trail as known to the white man. The principal characters of that time were Ashley, the Bents, the Subletts, Jedediah S. Smith, Beckwourth, Bridger, Campbell, and, finally, Captain Bonneville. They organized a commerce which yet touches the imagination, and which revealed many of the possibilities of the Great West. Their adventures fill volumes with accounts of the most fascinating wilderness-life known to any literature.
This royal highway had three eras, which, like other divisions based on time, overlapped and blended to some extent, but their bounds were substantially as follows:
- The Romantic Period, which ended in 1834, after which it was unprofitable to trap the beaver.
- The Heroic Period, which ended with the Civil War.
- The Practical Period, in which the Old Trail disappeared to the use of the railroad.
Space will not permit an extended review of any of these periods. Brief mention, however, can be made of them. At this point it is well to call attention to a few dates connected with the Trail.
Captain Bonneville passed out over it in 1832. He took the first wagons through the South Pass.
Fort Hall was established in 1834 by Nathaniel Wyeth, who led an expedition from New England to the Pacific Coast in 1832.
In 1836 two white women, the wives of Whitman and Spalding, went over the Oregon Trail to Walla Walla.
In 1834 Robert Campbell and William Sublette built old Fort Laramie. In 1849 the Government bought it.
In 1842 Jim Bridger built his fort. The Old West was then a thing of the pastwas gone forever, and the new period was well under way. The Mormons bought Fort Bridger in 1853. In 1857 it became an Army Post and so remained until 1890.
The Mormon migration began in 1847. This people founded Deseret and established a Zion in the wilderness.
The Romantic Period of the Oregon Trail was the era of fur-gathering in the Rocky Mountains. Ashley and his adventurous associates and successors threaded the plains and mountains. They found every pass and trapped in every stream. They fraternized with or fought every Indian tribe of all the regions of the West. Caravans had annually carried out cargoes of merchandise suitable for the Indian trade, and had packed back the bales of furs taken in the barter of the wilderness. That gave the old Trail its permanent location. Like all other necessary things, it had its origin in the needs of mankind. The buffalo, the elk, the deer and the bear first marked it. They found the easiest gradesthe lowest gaps. They learned the routes where water could be always found. They were followed by the Indians for ages on foot, but, later, on ponies. This old Trail had been in use ages upon ages before the white man saw America. It was the highway of wild beasts, of savages, of barbarians, and finally of civilized man. What a history it had!
In 1834 it became unprofitable to trap beaver as an organized commercial enterprise. This is a talismanic date in the history of the Oregon Trail and the development of the West. It closed the Romantic Period. And in that connection it may be not unprofitable to recall here the progress made by the United States up to that time. In 1834 there was but one state west of the Mississippithe State of Missouri. Arkansas was admitted in 1836, California in 1850, Minnesota in 1858, Oregon in 1859, Kansas in 1861, Nevada in 1864, Nebraska in 1867, Colorado in 1876. Louisiana, at the mouth of the Mississippi, and on both sides of that river, had been admitted in 1812.
Continuing this generalization it is found that the first railroad in the United States was the Baltimore and Ohio. It had twenty-three miles of track in 1830, and until 1832 it was worked by horse power. In 1830 all the American railroads had forty miles of track. After that date the growth was more rapid. In 1841 there were 3,361 miles. In 1849 there were 7,306 miles and in 1853 there were 14,301 miles. In this year of 1853, the first railroad was built west of the Mississippi Riverthirty-eight miles. The Civil War checked railroad construction. In 1865 there were 3,007 miles of railroad west of the Mississippi and 29,988 miles east of that river.
The Heroic Period of the Oregon Trail began in earnest in 1847 when the Mormons traversed its endless and tortuous course across the Great Plains to escape persecution and find a Canaan. This was the first great movement connected with it. They streamed out over the various branches of the Old Trail on the way to Zion. Their action was called madness, but they succeeded. Mishap, hardship, starvation and death stood in their way, but they built a city in the desert and founded a great state.
Before the Mormons had launched their fortunes on the Great Plains the migration to Oregon over this Trail had commenced. Peter H. Burnett, who became the first Governor of California, as we have seen, took his family to Walla Walla and Vancouver in 1843. Pioneers had gone before him, and many followed him, all using the Oregon Trail from end to end. They were the pioneer settlers of the Great North-west, and from their dreary and toilsome days of small things prosperous states have grown. Green valleys have been peopled, and at the margin of the sea stand splendid cities trading to the ends of the earth.
But the first movement over the Old Oregon Trail to assume an immediate national aspect was the migration to California in 1849. The California Gold Fever was a disease that spread to all the world. It revolutionized America. It produced conditions which precipitated the Civil War. It changed the American from a conservative, contented citizen, satisfied with a reasonable return upon his investment and toil, to an excitable, restless, insatiable person who wished to realize on the resources of the universe in a day. It was the beginning of our national madnessof our insanity of greed. It marks the advent of character decadence and American moral degeneracy. In California a man might wash from a placer more gold in a week than he could accumulate in a life of business. When the placer gold was exhausted he turned to other natural resources, and his greed increased. Today money is the god of the Americans. Perhaps it would not be too much to say that it is the god of the world. For mammon rules. Even the church lies stranded on the sands and shallows of money-madness. Mankind is affected and involved. Europe returns to savagery for slim strips of barren territory. And it is not improbable that other countries shall be embroiled for a similar purpose. And this world movement began in California in 1848. Gilpin said that in a decade the California Gold Fever had transplanted itself from Australia to Pike’s Peak, and adds:
“It had permeated mankind as an electric fluid, to animate, to regenerate, to exalt humanity. Its inspiring democratic genius had, within a quarter of a century, covered the continent with railways, and with telegraphs. It economizes navigation by the establishment of steam ferries upon the ocean and telegraphic cables upon its profound bed.”
All this was projected upon a war and its results. It is curious to note the effects of wars. They exert latent influences never foreseen by those who engage in them. They loose forces not before dreamed of. In the creation and development of our government and its dependencies, wars have moved in a mysterious way. If called upon to designate the event of most far-reaching consequence in our national life the Mexican War of 1846 might well be named. It was not counted as much for heavy battles, though there was fierce fighting. But for our purchase of Louisiana it might never have occurred. It certainly would not have come at the time and in the manner it did but for the controversy over Texas. And Texas was really a part of Louisiana. As a result of that war, in addition to what was our own, we obtained California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and portions of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. In this territory were found the greatest gold fields known to the children of men, and the discovery of which, immediately after the country came to us, turned the world upside down.
Every soldier who had served in the Mexican War who could possibly get there became a placer miner in California in 1849. These soldiers had marched across the deserts under scorching heat in Mexico, and they became the leaders of the crowds and caravans and companies that would across the plains and over mountains to the land of gold.
Great is the year 1849! There it stands to mark a new era in the annals of mankind!
To reach California in that year the thousands thronged the Old Oregon Trail. With following years they still pressed forward over its sinuous windings in ever increasing numbers. Household wreckage strewed its borders as other wreckage strews the shores of the salt and stormy sea. And these pilgrims once arrived at their destination found that their El Dorado did not satisfy them. Gold did not suffice. They could not themselves understand the impulse which moved them. None really knew why they were stirred. The hidden forces of humanity had burst into spontaneous and irresistible action which had increased to this day. It became immediately world-wide. Old China that had slept a thousand years shook off her lethargy. The wisest can not foresee what shall finally be the result of the discovery of gold in California. It may and probably will destroy governments and level monarchieshas indeed already done that. It may wreck our own political structure, and that all our institutions are to be recast is certain. For the spirit loosed in California is democratic and class-destroying.
These are some of the national aspects of the Oregon Trail, or, rather, some of the aspects which had their origin in connection with it. As men toiled over it they saw visions which did not materialize in their day, but the glory of which they transmitted with the promise that they would burst into realization with the coming years. There is no limit to be set to the mind of man. The possibilities of its achievement can not be measured. It is moved first by some concrete example, or desire. But its growth is stimulated and brought to sublime power by the objects of nature. As affirmed before, the genius of a people is carried and fostered, not by statesmen and orators and diplomats, but by the common peoplesuch men as toiled over the Oregon Trail. They see things which the eyes of statesmen can never see. Working through the common mind of the people who labor with their hands, the great natural laws of the universelittle understood by any of usoverturn dynasties, break down nations, elevate to dignity and power new people, new systems, and enthrone new conceptions of duty and all the relations of life. Their judgment is destiny.