Overland Freighting on the Orego

After the establishment of Fort Laramie, the Government was under the necessity of contracting for the transportation of freight to that point. Some of the first supplies were hauled by the Government, perhaps, but the practice of employing private parties to perform this service was always in favor. When Fort Kearny was erected supplies were hauled to that point. The freighters who first took contracts for transporting supplies over the Oregon Trail had mostly gained their experience in this overland business on the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1855 Alexander Majors and William H. Russell, both of Western Missouri, formed a partnership for freighting across the plains under the name of Majors & Russell. This firm carried all the freight to the posts west of Fort Leavenworth that year. Cholera prevailed on the plains, especially between Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. Major A. E. Ogden, Quartermaster at Fort Leavenworth, died at Fort Riley of the disease. Many emigrants died of this scourge, which followed all the trails over the plains. The cholera affected the freighting business, but Majors & Russell made profits amounting to three hundred thousand dollars in 1855 and 1856. This will serve as an index to the volume of the freighting done over the Oregon Trail in those years. For there were many other freighting firms in the business over the trail, transporting goods to Utah. The amount of hauling required by the Government was more than doubled by the Mormon War, though freighting to Utah for the Mormons was stopped for the time.

Majors & Russell added another partner in the spring of 1858, the style of the firm being then Russell, Majors & Waddell (the last name pronounced Wad´-dle, not Wad-dell’). The Government contracted with this company to transport sixteen million pounds of freight over the Oregon Trail for the years 1858 and 1859. To perform this enormous contract it was necessary for the company to purchase thirty-five hundred wagons and forty thousand oxen. This immense outfit was separated into caravans and pushed out constantly from Fort Leavenworth heavily laden. Floods hindered them early in the year 1858. The contract was faithfully performed. Many of the caravans got into the Salt Lake Valley too late to return to Fort Leavenworth. The wagons would not be required for the next year. They were parked on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, where they covered several acres of ground. They remained there more than a year, and were finally sold to the Mormons for ten dollars each, the purchasers breaking them up for the iron used in their construction. These wagons had cost the company more than one hundred and fifty dollars each. The oxen were driven into Skull Valley, where they wintered on the dried grass. Thirty-five hundred of the best ones were selected to be driven to California. They were driven to Ruby Valley, in what is now Nevada, to winter on the dried grass found there in plenty. A heavy snow, however, covered the grass until the cattle could not get to it. They starved and froze to death, only two hundred being saved. This loss footed up about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The Indians stampeded one thousand head of oxen on the Platte the same year. Notwithstanding these losses, the company made large profits on this contract.

These caravans of freighters were called “trains.” Each wagon was drawn by six yoke of oxen—twelve oxen. Twenty-five wagons composed a train. The captains of these trains were instructed to keep two or three miles apart on the trail. If the grass had been eaten closely along the road, or if water became scarce, they were to remain six to eight miles apart. The captains of the trains acted as wagon-masters. There was an assistant wagon-master, and there was a herder to attend the oxen at night. Extra oxen for each train were driven along to replace those who might from any cause become disabled, and there was an attendant for these. There was a driver for each team or wagon. The number of men for each train footed up thirty-one. On the plains these trains were known as “bull-trains” and the drivers were known as “bull-whackers.” Every man was armed for the protection of the trains. The route of this great business followed the Oregon Trail from Fort Leavenworth to Kennekuk, in the northwestern corner of Atchison County, thence by Seneca to the Big Blue, in Marshall County, thence up the Big Blue bearing to the west, entering Jefferson County, Nebraska, near its southeast corner; thence up the Little Blue to the Platte, at Fort Kearny. Mr. Majors said of the Oregon Trail:

“There is no other road in the United States, nor in my opinion elsewhere, of the same length, where such numbers of men and animals could travel during the summer season as could over the thoroughfare from the Missouri River up the Platte and its tributaries to the Rocky Mountains.” At one time, the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell employed in their business seventy-five thousand oxen and used six thousand two hundred and fifty wagons. These wagons were especially constructed for this business according to specifications furnished by Mr. Majors, and they would carry seven thousand pounds of merchandise.

After the Mormon War was over the freighting of the Mormons to supply their own wants was resumed. Their supplies had to come from points on the Missouri River. Many converts passed over the trail every year to settle in Utah—gather in Zion. The population of the Great Salt Lake Valley increased rapidly, and many other parts of Utah were explored and settled. Another event which gave impetus to the business of freighting over the Oregon Trail was the discovery of gold on Cherry Creek, a tributary of the South Platte, in the western portion of Kansas—now Colorado. It was in the fall of 1857, that it became generally known that there was gold to be found in the streams heading under Pike’s Peak. Early in 1858, expeditions left Kansas for these gold fields. Atchison became one of the points on the Missouri from which the parties of gold-hunters outfitted. A citizen of that town sent out a competent engineer to study the best routes to the gold-diggings. It was found that it was six hundred and twenty miles from Atchison to Denver. It was six hundred and eighty-five miles from Leavenworth to Denver. For five hundred miles over this route there was not a house. Various roads were laid out from Missouri-River points to Denver, all branching from some route to the Oregon Trail. The heavy travel finally settled to the one over the trail to Julesburg, on the South Platte, thence along that stream to Denver. The rates per pound for transporting freight to the Cherry Creek region were as follows:


Flour9 cts.
Tobacco12½ cts.
Sugar13½ cts.
Bacon15 cts.
Dry Goods15 cts.
Crackers17 cts.
Whiskey18 cts.
Glass19½ cts.
Furniture31 cts.

On other articles—necessaries of life—the charges were about the same. While many of the gold hunters returned disappointed, others remained as permanent settlers. Denver grew rapidly. It was the county seat of Arapahoe County, Kansas, and the headquarters of the gold-seekers—the point about which the Pike’s Peak gold excitement centered. It absorbed much of the freight passing out over the Oregon Trail, and in a few years was known as the “Queen City of the Plains.”


Radford, Cabot & CoSt. LouisP. M. Chateau & CoKansas CitySalt Lake City3240480812181,587
John M. Hockaday & CoMall ContractorsFirst Supply TrainIndependenceS. L. M. Stations10208023,000
Dyer, Mason & CoIndependenceW. H. Dyer & CoIndependenceSalt Lake City6070720521315,000
S. G. Macon & CoIndependenceE. C. ChilesIndependenceSalt Lake City273535036149,000
Radford, Cabot & CoSt. LouisJ. B. DoyleNew MexicoSalt Lake City384346013198,500
John M. Hockady & CoMall ContractorsSecond Supply TrainIndependenceS. L. M. Stations10188521,000
C. C. BranhamWestonC. C. BranhamWestonSalt Lake City2836380126145,500
C. A. Perry & CoWestonC. A. Perry & CoWestonSalt Lake City911231,080718500,501
R. H. Dyer & CoFort KearneyR. H. Dyer & CoFort KearneyFort Kearney387045647212,800
F. J. MarshallMarysvilleF. J. MarshallMarysvillePalmetto202528013120,000
Irvin & YoungIndependenceIrvin & YoungIndependenceSalt Lake City324038417160,000
Livingston, Kinkead & CoNew YorkIrvin & YoungIndependenceSalt Lake City5259624212234,017
 J. M. Guthrie & CoWeston, MoS. M. Guthrie & CoWestonSalt Lake City506070038252,000
Curtas ClaytonLeavenworthC. C. BranhamWestonSalt Lake City122538011266,000
Reynald & McDonaldFort LaramieReynald & McDonaldFort LaramieFort Laramie9151632649,000
C. MartinGreen RiverC. MartinGreen RiverGreen River712846135,000
Livingston, Kinkead & CoNew YorkHord & SmithIndependenceSalt Lake City40505325159,400
Hord & SmithIndependenceHord & SmithIndependenceDo and Way Points1015232537,400
Bisonatte & LazinetteDeer CreekBisonatte & LazinetteDeer CreekLabonto1320156667,600
Ballord & MoralleMarysvilleJ. S. WatsonMarysvilleMarysville918108345,000
R. H. Dyer & CoFort KearneyR. H. Dyer & CoFort KearneyFort Kearney1320158268,106
John M. Hockady & CoIndependenceThird Supply TrainS. L. M. Stations57606312204,000
Geo. ChorpoeingCaliforniaA. J. SchellPeninsulaCal. & B. L. Stat’s12208021,000
Hockady, Burr & CoSalt Lake CityHockady, Burr & CoSalt Lake CitySalt Lake City1052351,00050200465,500

Freedom’s Champion: October 30, 1858.

As showing the volume of the freighting business from one point on the Missouri River, the statistics of it from Atchison for the year 1858 are copied from the Champion, of October 30, 1858.

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