Origin of the Oregon Trail

The origin of the Oregon Trail was exactly the same as that of the Santa Fe Trail. It was the most direct route from the mouth of the Kansas River to the Northwest, which when taken to apply to a region beyond the present Kansas, embraces all the country to the Pacific Ocean, above the State of California. From the mouth of the Kansas River, the route which came to be known as the Oregon Trail was the shortest road to the Platte Valley. The Kansas River does not rise in the Rocky Mountains, the Platte on the north and the Arkansas on the south interlocking in those elevations beyond the head waters of the Kansas. As the Kansas River led to no gaps, passes nor depressions in the great mountain chain, it was not followed to its source by traders, trappers or explorers until its sister rivers had been some years freely traversed. But both the Santa Fe and Oregon trails began in the vicinity of the mouth of the Kansas, and both followed up that stream in their first stages. It was nature, the conformation of the physical features of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain region, which made this necessary. Up the Kansas and its northern tributaries was the shortest routes to the great Platte Valley from the Big Bend of the Missouri, at the mouth of the Kansas, just as up this stream and its southern tributaries led most quickly to the valley of the Arkansas. And both the Platte and the Arkansas led up to passes in the Rocky Mountains. These physical features gave Kansas the first reaches of the two great trails from the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean.

The first paths from the mouth of the Kansas River into the Platte Valley were made by the wild denizens of those regions before the appearance of even the Indian. These paths were not continuous the whole distance, but led from valley to valley at many places. When man had dispersed himself over the land the most direct of the old animal roads were unconsciously connected and identified as paths from village to village, from tribe to tribe. So were the foundations of the Oregon Trail laid in savagery in the early history of human progress.

The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was organized by William H. Ashley at St. Louis in 1822. In 1823 Ashley followed his partner, Andrew Henry, who had taken out the first expedition in 1822. Both these parties followed the Missouri River. Ashley was attacked at the Aricara towns and driven down the river. But the two divisions of the company were finally united. At the close of the campaign of Colonel Leavenworth against the Aricaras Henry was sent on to the post at the mouth of the Yellowstone. He believed that point unfavorable for his business, and resolved to seek a location higher up on that stream. Having secured a supply of horses from the Crows, Henry sent a party under Etienne Provost to hunt in a southwest direction. While there is no record to that effect, there is every reason to believe that Provost led his party through South Pass—the first white men to cross the Continental Divide there. But as set down before in these pages, lone trappers or insignificant parties of them likely went through this pass many years before the expedition of Provost. Some tradition of it may have lingered in the rude cabins of the coureurs du bois to lead this French captain in that direction. And whether Provost did, in fact, discover the Pass in the fall of 1823, it became certainly known in 1824. Hunt and Crooks traversed that part of the Oregon Trail from the Portneuf to the mouth of Columbia in 1811-13 in command of the overland Astorian expedition. The Astorian leaders passed over some parts of the trail east of Portneuf on their journey back to the Missouri. In the expeditions of General Ashley in the management of his business of the Rocky Mountains he seems never to have passed over that part of the Oregon Trail later to be included in Kansas. He kept to the Missouri and the Platte. At just what time the trapper caravans began to reach the Platte Valley by way of the Kansas River there is no record to tell. Fort Leavenworth was established as a Cantonment in 1827. After that date any party traveling to the northwest would be likely to start from the fort and follow the route of the Oregon Trail, later much used from that point. Perhaps Jedediah S. Smith came in over this part of the trail in 1831, upon his return from the mountains. A letter written by him on this journey is still extant, being in the library of the Kansas State Historical Society. It is dated—”Blue Earth Fork of Kansas, 30 miles from the Ponnee Village, Sept. 10, 1830.” The courier to whom this letter was entrusted was overtaken, and Smith added the following postscript: “P. S. Having overtaken this letter, the 22d of Sept., at the Kansas Fairry, 30 miles from camp Leavenworth, or rather Cantonment Leavenworth; I add we are thus far safe. J. S. S.”

Smith had evidently gone to Fort Leavenworth from the head waters of the Big Blue. It would not have required twelve days to have passed over that distance, so he must have stopped at the fort. The ferry on the Kansas River, where he came up with the messenger to whom he entrusted his letter, was at the trading-house of Cyprian Chouteau, which stood on the south bank of the Kansas River.

When the white man came into these western wilds he, of necessity, followed in the ways of the savage predecessors. And when the white man first came into these Plains and the Mountains beyond no one can now tell. In the subjection of every wilderness there is a preliminary period of individual and largely irresponsible exploration of which no record is ever made. Frenchmen, individuals, and in small parties, wandered, traveled, hunted, traded—all in a petty and insignificant manner—long before the dispatch from any settlement or fort of authorized expeditions. They were long previous to Bourgmont or Du Tisne or Pike or Long. Pike notes their presence at the village of the Republican Pawnees. And so, the pioneer white men to thread the mazes of the Plains by the primitive paths which became the Oregon Trail, are swallowed up in obscurity—never to be known.

The love of property had long been the dominating motive and ruling passion of mankind. It is now the instinct of the individual and the policy of the nation to trade. And the development of trade with the savage inhabitants was the motive of the first excursions into the wilderness of the West of which accounts have been preserved. These excursions assumed sufficient proportions to attract public attention immediately after the return of Lewis and Clark from their famous exploration. St. Louis was the head and center of all commercial enterprise for the Missouri River region of that time. Manuci Lisa organized an expedition in 1807 to fix trading stations about the head waters of the Missouri. On his way up that river on this purpose he met John Colter, one of the expedition of Lewis and Clark. That intrepid backwoodsman was induced to enter Lisa’s service and return to the mountains as guide to the party. He led Lisa up the Yellowstone to the mouth of the Bighorn River, where the first trading-post of his venture was established. This point was in the country of the Crows, and the fixing of the post there angered the Blackfeet—a matter which troubled the traders and trappers much thereafter.

In the same year a party was organized at St. Louis for the purpose of escorting the Mandan chief Shahaka back to his village on the Missouri. He had come down with Lewis and Clark under promise that he should be seen safely home again. The party was so fiercely assailed by the tribes of the Upper Missouri that it failed to reach the Mandan villages, and it returned to St. Louis.

Lisa was the only man of prominence who engaged in the fur trade of that period. In 1808 he returned from the founding of his post at the mouth of the Bighorn. In the winter of 1808-9, he organized the Missouri Fur Company. He ascended the Missouri in the spring of 1809 and transferred his post at the mouth of the Bighorn to the Company, returning that year. He made another journey to the same point in 1810. In 1811 he again visited his post on the Yellowstone, arriving at St. Louis on his return in October. He had established trading relations with other tribes in the mountains, and during the winter of 1811-12 he reorganized his company. He visited his trading-houses in the summer of 1812, but did not return to St. Louis that year. On this expedition he established Fort Lisa, in the Omaha Nation, and formed a connection with that tribe which gave him its trade. He returned to St. Louis in June, 1813. The war of 1812 made it dangerous and unprofitable to trade with the savage tribes of the Upper Missouri. In 1814 Lisa was given the post of sub-Agent to the Missouri River Indians above the Kansas River. In this work he spent a year at Fort Lisa, which was about fifteen miles above the present town of Omaha, on the west bank of the Missouri, and three miles above the mouth of the Boyer River. From this point, in the summer of 1815, he led forty-three chiefs and head men of the tribes of the Upper Missouri to St. Louis to make treaties with the United States. His influence brought them to the side of the Americans and prevented them from joining the British. Lisa continued in this trade until his death, which occurred in St. Louis in August, 1820. The Chouteaus had been associated with him in his transaction on the Upper Missouri. They were members of the Missouri Fur Company together, this company succeeding Lisa, Menard and Morrison by purchase. The company was reorganized in 1819 and continued in business some years. None of its transaction had specially to do with the country which became Kansas. But this brief outline of its business was compiled in the belief that an account of the establishment of the fur trade on the Missouri was necessary here. There were other traders on the Upper Missouri during the time that Lisa and his associates were trading there. Crooks and McLellan were the partners of one company. They later became partners of John J. Astor in his Pacific Fur Company, a branch of the American Fur Company. The Astorians organized an overland expedition from St. Louis in 1811. It did not follow the Oregon Trail, as it was then the custom to follow up the Missouri River. Communications overland could not be maintained over the route, and this was one of the serious disadvantages of the Astoria enterprise. It was reserved for later fur traders to begin the use of those primitive roads which later became the Oregon Trail—the natural route—the Imperial Highway.

Late in October, 1824, General Ashley set out from St. Louis with a party to ascend the Missouri. It seems that this was an overland expedition. James P. Beckwourth was a member of it—his initial trip to the mountains. He says: “We started on the 11th of October with horses and pack-mules. Nothing of interest occurred until we approached the Kansas village, when we came to a halt and encamped.” The site of this village would be difficult to determine now, perhaps. It may have been the Kansas town at the mouth of the Big Blue, though it is scarcely probable that Ashley would take a route so far west in ascending the Missouri. Wyeth found the main Kansas village at a point where North Topeka was laid out, and his second journey was in 1834. Frederick Chouteau said the Fool Chief had his village there in 1830. Some part of the Upper village must have removed to the Topeka site as early as 1824, the time of Ashley’s expedition. The language of Beckwourth can mean nothing else than that when considered in connection with other facts already established.

At the Kansas town it developed that more horses would be required. It is possible that a change of plan was matured there, for General Ashley seems to have changed his course, striking for the Missouri, possibly going along the Indian trail which came out on that stream at the present town of Atchison. Beckwourth and Moses Harris were dispatched to the Republican Pawnee town on the Republican to buy horses. They found the village deserted, and their journey was fruitless. No food was found at the Republican town, and Beckwourth and his companion set out for the Big Nemeha River, which they reached in a famished condition. From the head waters of that river they went to the trading-house of Ely and Curtis, on the Missouri, near the mouth of the Kansas in what is now Kansas City, Kansas. On the journey down the Missouri Beckwourth was employed by G. Chouteau, as he says, to pack furs during the winter, thus abandoning the intention to reach the mountains that year. This Chouteau establishment must have been the same we found under control of Cyprian Chouteau in 1830.

This incident of Beckwourth is mentioned to show that that route afterwards so much traveled by the way of the Santa Fe Trail, Topeka, and the Big Blue River was well known and perhaps much traveled by experienced hunters and trappers very early in the nineteenth century—at least as early as 1824. Beckwourth evidently passed over much of it in company with Harris, an old-time trapper, in that year.

In 1832, Nathaniel J. Wyeth took his first expedition overland. It passed up the Kansas River, and it almost certainly crossed the Kansas River at the site of the future Topeka. The route it followed was more along the courses of the Kansas and the Big Blue than that later used.

Captain Bonneville’s expedition was one of the famed journeys into the Western wilderness. It was organized and carried out with military order and exactness. It was the first to depend on wagons and abandon reliance on pack-horses. It started from St. Louis in the spring 1832. Captain Bonneville left Fort Osage, now Sibley, Jackson County, Mo., early in May. On the 6th of that month he passed the “last border habitation,” and on the 12th he reached the Kansas River, opposite the agency of the Kansas Indians. This agency had its origin in a treaty with that tribe made in 1825, by which the Government stipulated to initiate the Indians into the noble art of husbandry. Three hundred cattle, the same number of hogs, five hundred domestic fowls, three yoke of oxen, two carts, and necessary implements were to be furnished. A blacksmith was provided. In pursuance of the terms of this treaty an agency was established in 1827 on the north bank of the Kansas River about two and one-half miles south of the present Williamstown, in Jefferson County. It was about seven miles northwest of Lawrence. Major Daniel Morgan Boone was appointed farmer, and a brother of Governor William Clark, of Missouri, was made the agent. And it was to this point that Captain Bonneville had come on the 12th of May, 1832. On the 13th he made rafts, upon which he crossed his wagons and all other effects over the Kansas River. He found Chief White Plume residing at the agency, and the visit and conversation with that primitive monarch was both interesting and enjoyable. From the agency Captain Bonneville passed over the future Oregon Trail to the Platte Valley and the Rocky Mountains. His wagons were the first to pass over the trail. The only previous wheeled vehicle was the cannon-carriage taken into the Salt Lake Valley by General Ashley in 1826.

There seems to be no definite record of expeditions in 1833 through Kansas over the ways to be known as the Oregon Trail, but that there were such expeditions there is no doubt whatever. Travel was increasing year by year, and there were certainly individuals and small parties of free trappers—those hunting for themselves and not for fur companies—ever on the trail to the Rocky Mountains.

In 1834 Nathaniel J. Wyeth made his second advent on the Great Plains. He was accompanied by John K. Townsend, who wrote an account of this, his greatest and most extensive venture in the fur business. He entered what is now Kansas on the first day of May, over the Santa Fe Trail. On the third he reached and traveled on the Oregon Trail. The crossing of the Kansas River, at the site later to become Topeka, was made on the fourth of May. The Kansas Indian town was found to occupy both sides of the river, and the ferry so long famous must have been already established in a thriving business, the goods, wagons, and men being taken over in a “long flat-bottomed boat.” Frame houses were found in the Indian town, and a number of white men engaged in farming and cattle-raising are mentioned as living there. The expedition followed almost exactly the future Oregon Trail to the Platte Valley.

The party of Wyeth was immediately behind the large party of William Sublette, then going into the Rocky Mountains on the business of procuring furs.

In the summer of 1834 a Scotchman, Charles Augustus Murray, made a trip over the plains from Fort Leavenworth to the Pawnee villages. He arrived at Fort Leavenworth early in July from St. Louis. At the fort he met a large band of Pawnees and arranged to go back with them to their country.

Sa-ni-tsa-rish, chief of the Grand Pawnees, seems to have been the Indian most depended on for protection and direction. He started in company with the Pawnees on the 7th day of July, going by the way of the Great Nemeha. From that stream his savage company led him to the Big Blue, but to what point on this river can not be made out. It was probably about the present Beatrice, Nebraska. Thence the band struck across the prairies to the Republican, from which they led their guest to the Pawnee towns on the Platte. Several weeks were spent there, when he was escorted back to Fort Leavenworth by a more southern route. Murray did not travel directly over the Oregon Trail, but his tour indicated that the country between the Platte and the Kansas was being gone over in all directions in 1834. Murray wrote a bulky work in two volumes, entitled Travels in North America, describing his trip to the Great Plains with the Pawnees.

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