The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized

Aimee Heidelberg - February 14, 2023

Today the Oregon Trail is a great retro video game where we can laugh when our buddy dies of dysentery. But it was no laughing matter to those brave enough face its hazards in real life. In the 1840s, Oregon and California symbolized hope for the roughly 350,000 people brave enough to face the 2,170 mile long Oregon Trail from 1841 and 1869, with smaller parties making the crossing all the way up to the last documented crossing in 1909. They faced hunger, exhaustion, disease, broken wagons, injury, and death. The Oregon Trail wasn’t just a hardship for many pioneers, for 20,000 to 30,000 people, it was their killer. Each had their own reason to escape the East; according to the Bureau of Land Management, the US was suffering an economic depression in the 1840s. Regardless of reason, the Oregon Trail was a hazardous venture full of tragedy.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
John Jacob Astor, c. 1825. Public Domain

How the Oregon Trail began, early 1800s

The earliest European and American pioneers to make the trek were the explorers, trappers, and traders seeing new raw materials. In 1811, American Fur Company trader John Jacob Astor (yes, related to the Titanic guy) and his associate, Robert Stuart, established trading posts along a pathway that connected eastern cities and western territories. On a return trip, Stuart discovered less treacherous passageways through the Rocky Mountains and paths used by Native Americans during their annual migrations. Stuart’s path, tested by military forces, evolved into the trail used by European American migrants. Missionaries and early pioneers successfully navigated the route. By the 1820s, more supply forts were built for the travelers. By 1846, more than 5,000 pioneers completed the route. Today we know the route as the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Snakes are everywhere. Public domain

Smooth talking salespeople “helped” Oregon Trail preparations

Preparing to head out on the Oregon Trail meant a lot of planning and saving money. The cost for supplies could run emigrants $1,500, roughly two years salary for some of them. They would bring valuable to trade for goods they would need along the trail. But what they hadn’t counted on were unscrupulous sales folks who took advantage of the emigrant’s desire to get to Oregon safely. Some traders would talk emigrants into buying more supplies than they needed, overloading the wagons and stressing the oxen. Emigrants were hoodwinked into buying quack medicines and medical supplies to ensure their “health” along the trail. Emigrants would have to dump these items out along the trail to try to lighten the load for their animals.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Wagons would cross dangerous waters. Glacier Peak Wilderness, WA (2010). Jason Hollinger.

Water could kill them

Water was vital to the emigrants. They needed it to live; dehydration could kill them and they needed it to cook and (occasionally) clean. But water had a dark side, too. While lack of water could kill them, an overabundance of water could kill them, too. If rivers were too high and moving too fast, it could overcome pioneers trying to cross, drowning them. Rain might feel great after the sun beating down on the traveler’s heads, but it was less welcome when it mixed with soil to create mud that could suck down wagon wheels, make a paste that draft animals weren’t able to get out of, or turn riverbeds into quicksand. Tainted or contaminated water could make emigrants sick, and spread illness to others. Water was both a lifeline and a threat.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Charging animals in river crossing at Mara River. Leo Li.

Nature could kill them

Nature knows a million ways to kill someone. Emigrants on the Oregon Trail had to watch their backs all the time. Animals could trample their owners. A tornado might touch down right on their covered wagon, scattering everything they needed to survive. Rattlesnakes could decide to see what an unsuspecting emigrant tasted like. Livestock stampedes could leave emigrants broken, squished, and dead. When fording rivers, oxen could panic, overturning wagons and killing their occupants. Lice infestations could make life miserable for people who were already uncomfortable due to having to ration food and water supplies. Trees might drop branches on their wagons, or on their heads.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Vibrio cholerae bacteria (2000). T.J. Kirn, M.J. Lafferty, C.M.P Sandoe and R.K. Taylor.

Disease could kill them

The U.S. National Park Service estimates that “of the 350,000 who started the journey, disease may have claimed as many as 30,000 victims.” This made disease the number one killer on the Oregon Trail. Medical aid on the trail was limited to what could be carried in wagons and whether the party had a doctor among their numbers. Parties could lose members from cholera, a disease that could kill its victim within twelve hours of its first symptom. Measles was particularly bad among children in wagon trains. Some parties suffered scurvy, smallpox, pneumonia, typhoid fever, colds, and food poisoning thanks to the less than sanitary conditions they endured. And, of course, there was always the threat of dysentery, which wasn’t always fatal, but common and very uncomfortable.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Doctors could easily transmit disease. Halt of the Wagon Train, Harper’s Weekly, 6 February 1864. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Good doctors could kill them

Disease was rampant, and doctors were scarce. Some wagon trains were lucky to have doctors, but this was an era where doctors would kill patients without doing anything wrong. Nobody really understood the stealth nature of microbial infection in the mid-1800s. Lack of this knowledge and lack of good sanitation on the trail meant doctors would transmit bacteria and germs around the wagon train, contaminating the patients they intended to heal. Add this to medical practices that we now know are useless (or worse, deadly), like the presence of mercury or opium in medicines, or “bleeding” a fever out of someone by opening a vein. While many doctors on the Oregon Trail were well-meaning and valuable, there were plenty of quacks, too.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Sanatory Committee, Medical Counsel, New York City, Public domain.

Bad “doctors” could kill them

Historian Bethany Nemec gives two examples of doctors who were dangerously incompetent. She cites a case where an eight-year-old boy had his leg crushed by falling from a wagon. His “doctor” wrapped the leg in linen and put a loose splint on it. Nine days later, his leg was gangrene and being eaten by maggots. The boy died after an attempt to amputate the putrefied leg. But in most cases, people had to serve as their own (and highly untrained) doctors, despite their limited or lack of medical knowledge. Abigail Hathaway King recalls her mother’s illness, “Mrs. Knapp, one of the members of the wagon train, died of cholera, and Mother laid her out. Mother took the cholera. Father didn’t know what to do, so he had her drink a cupful of spirits of camphor. The other people thought it would kill her or cure her. It cured her.”

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Broken axels could lead to injury. Sheba Also 43,000 photos

They could kill each other

Sometimes the greatest threat to emigrants was other emigrants. They shot each other in hunting accidents, or shot not-so-accidentally for looking at someone wrong. There was no law enforcement, and often no doctors. An axle might break, sending their wagon careening down a cliff as they carefully inched their way around the Rocky Mountains. Broken bones and cuts were a common problem as people had to move and maintain their wagons and the massive beasts who pulled them. There was almost no protection from nature, disease, or from other emigrants, so it paid to keep your head low and eyes open.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Emigrants had to stock up in case there were no supplies on the Oregon Trail. Public Domain.

Food had to be carefully planned on the Oregon Trail

Pioneers brought a variety of experiences and ability to the Oregon Trail. Experienced outdoorsy people could turn a lichen into a four-course meal, and there were those who planned for the possibility of delays and brought contingency food. Emigrants brought hundreds of pounds of flour, sugar, spices, lard, coffee, rice, and dried fruit, hunting, gathering, and fishing to supplement supplies. Livestock they brought on the trail provided milk and eggs. Bacon was a popular trail food, used primarily for breakfast, and could be repurposed by using the fat in other dishes. But there were those who didn’t plan well enough, or who lost their food during hazardous river crossings or wagon fires. Even those that planned well rationed their food; they knew delays could dip into supplies. Emigrants who didn’t plan well enough, didn’t plan for delays, or lost their supplies risked malnutrition or starvation.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Buffalo Chips (2003). Shengzhi Li

Cooking with Poop along the Oregon Trail

The pioneers had to cross long stretches of land with no trees. Hauling firewood in the wagons would have added weight, adding to the oxen’s already h load. The travelers found another way to build fires using a source that was all around them: Poop. Wild animal poop, to be precise, preferably from a grass eating animal like buffalo. When feces was dried out in the sun, it was reasonably clean and had no odor. The chewed-up grasses and organic material would burn slowly, like charcoal. One pioneer noted, “Young ladies who in the commencement of the journey would hardly look at a chip, were now seen coming into the camp with as many as they could carry.”

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Today a way to express love, back then carved-tree warnings could save a life. Ethan Doyle White

The Oregon Trail – first social media in the United States

Mail service was nonexistent on the Oregon Trail. If an emigrant headed back home in the East, someone might pass them a letter to send when they got home. They might send letters from a fort along the way. They might meet a scout or other messenger who could pass along information. But none of these were fast or could instantly warn of dangers along the trail. The emigrants would leave messages for future wagon trains traveling after them. They would etch warnings into rocks, post handmade signs on boards, tie papers or fabric strips on trees, whatever they could do to warn of danger or point out other important information. This warned future travelers to avoid certain watering holes, areas with predators, or where hunting was bad. Warnings of disease might also keep people from foraging in the discarded food or possessions dumped out of earlier wagons.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Abandoned wagon (2011). inkknife_2000

Oregon Trail trash

Wagon-hauling oxen felt the effects of the Oregon Trail as much as the humans. While the challenges of the trail increased, the animals became weaker from lack of food and water. Their load became more of a burden. To help the oxen, the pioneers would make the wagon as light as possible. They threw out all but essential items needed for the rest of the Trail and to set up a new life in Oregon or California. This left a lot of trash along the Trail. Along with tossed-out books, clothes, furniture, and other personal possessions, it was common to find dead draft animals, wagon parts, and quickie burial mounds of dead emigrants. 8-year-old Patty Reed of the infamous Donner party rescued her doll from one of these supply purges in the Great Salt Lake Desert, becoming one of the few artifacts and non-essential personal possessions from the Donner Party.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Names carved on Independence Rock. Goretexguy

Permanent damage across the Oregon Trail

The pioneers focused mainly on not dying; more likely that they didn’t give a lot of thought to their impact on the environment. They left debris along the trail, discarded garbage, wherever, they carved their names into “register rocks” and hastily buried fellow wagon train members where they died so the party could move on quickly. Trash was cleared out and bodies decomposed, but emigrants left permanent damage on the landscape. Ruts from wagon wheels still slash through the prairie in some areas of the trail. Grass doesn’t grow in these ruts Names can still be seen on Independence Rock, Register Cliff, and Names Hill in Wyoming, rocks along the Sweetwater River.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
US Army veteran and Oregon Trail pioneer George Washington Bush. Public domain.

The Oregon Trail ends in racist territory

In 1844, African-American U.S. Army veteran and former Hudson Bay Company fur trapper George Washington Bush set out on the Oregon Trail. He and his German American wife dreamed of a new life in the west. Bush knew the terrain well, drawing from his time as a fur trapper. He successfully led a wagon train of five families across treacherous trail. His party faced difficulties along the trail; hunger, thirst, illness, nature, but also had to deal with suspicion and bigotry of others in the wagon train and at trading posts along the way. Unfortunately the racism they hoped to escape back east had already found its way to the west; the provisional government in Oregon had already established laws preventing African-Americans from settling or owning land. Bush and his party moved north to settle in the area across the Columbia River, where the Oregon law had no reach.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Lansford Hastings. Public Domain

Bad Advice for Profit: Hastings Cutoff

Sometimes travelers on the Oregon Trail planned for enough food and water, and still found themselves starving to death. 23-year old Lansford Hastings, a ambitious young man trained as a lawyer, published The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, describing a new route to California. He himself had never taken the route, despite his confident words, and wouldn’t until a year later and during good weather. He hoped that a famous, successful route would attract emigrants, giving him a grand reputation, money, and possibly a political career in the new territory. His cutoff would save three hundred miles of travel for the weary emigrants – but at the price of their safety and health. A few smaller groups had mostly made it through, but it was a horror show, especially as they entered Weber Canyon.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Weber Canyon, c. 1860s. Public Domain.

Weber Canyon

Weber Canyon was free of brush and trees, but it was loaded with boulders and deep water. The ledges were narrow and dead-end canyons. Historian Daniel James Brown describes how one of Hastings’ groups were averaging one mile a day and having so much trouble getting their wagons through that the pioneers had to almost carry them over the boulders. They would use windlasses to drag them up the steep canyon slopes. At Devil’s Gate, one of the windlass ropes broke, sending the wagon, and the poor oxen trying to haul it, down the slope and careening down a precipice and into a bloody heap at the bottom of the canyon. As Brown states, the result was “a heap of splintered wood, twisted iron, and gore.”

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Oregon Trail, showing Hastings Cutoff route (2010). kmusser.

The Hastings Cutoff – Salty problems.

The traditional, well-marked Oregon Trail route would take emigrants up through Idaho. But the Hastings Cutoff brought travelers through Weber Canyon in Utah, Even after the mess at Weber Canyon, Hastings Cutoff emigrants had to slog through Utah’s salt flats around the Great Salt Lake. Wagon trains had to walk eighty miles across a salt desert with no water. When there was water, it turned the flats into a mud trap, sucking in wagon wheels. Salt stung their eyes. They saw mirages. Oxen died of dehydration and exhaustion. Livestock died, threatening the emigrant’s livelihood when (if) they made it to California.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
James Reed and wife Margaret. Public Domain.

Hastings Cutoff – The warnings

Edwin Bryant, a journalist, tried to publicize a warning, but it didn’t reach some wagon trains in time. James Clyman, a mountaineer who had traveled with Hastings, had reservations about the Hastings Cutoff. He ran into an old friend at Fort Laramie. His friend James Reed was determined to take the Cutoff, although Hastings advised Reed to avoid Weber Canyon. Winter was rapidly approaching and shortening the travel by three hundred miles was vital. His friend James Reed was co-organizer of the 90-person strong Donner Party. Hastings had promised to guide the Donner-Reed party but had gone on ahead with the Leinhardt party. Clyman warned Reed to “take the regular wagon track and never leave it – it is barely possible to through if you follow it – and may be impossible if you don’t.” Sometimes the shortest route between two points is not a straight line.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Donner Party winter camps. moni3.

Donner Party: Trapped and starving

When the Donners tried the Hastings Cutoff, not knowing that the trail was nearly impossible, they became the most famous of all Oregon Trail emigrants. They started the trail too late in the season, putting them at a disadvantage. Despite Clymer’s warning at Fort Hall, they decided to take the Hastings Cutoff because it would (apparently) take three hundred miles off their trip, a decision they would regret. After wasting weeks trying to follow Hastings’ advice, they became trapped in the mountains near modern Truckee, California and set up camps for the winter. Food ran out, and there was no game in the area that time of year. They tried to eat the hides of their oxen, shoelaces, their livestock, their pets, but when all of these ran out, they turned to a desperate source of food. They were out of food, and out of hope.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Trees cut by the Donner Party show the depth of snowfall they faced. Public Domain.

The Donner Party’s infamous food source

Discussing the Oregon Trail without talking about the Donner Party is like talking about ancient Egypt and not mentioning the Pyramids. The Donner Party ate members of their party who had died of hunger, exhaustion, or other causes, although the party was suspected of murdering at least two for their meat. It was a matter of survival. While members of their party went on a dangerous trek through the mountains to get help, those left at behind at the camp were running out of time, even with their taboo food source. This survival tactic would haunt survivors for the rest of their lives. Virginia Reed, a 13 year old survivor, warned, “Never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can.” Only 45 of the 81 Donner-Reed party who started the winter in the mountains would survive the most famous of wagon trains.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
“Presents to Indians,” Alfred Jacob Miller, c. 1860. Walters Art Museum

Contact with Native Americans along the Oregon Trail

The “dark” legacy of conflict between early emigrants and Indigenous American tribes is more folklore than fact. For the most part, Indigenous Americans who had settled or camped in the lands around the Oregon Trail routes avoided conflict. They would trade with the pioneers, give them fresh food, sometimes even shoes. Native Americans would serve as guides, and helping them cross rivers during high water periods. The Bureau of Land Management notes that Indigenous People tended to be cautious about what the emigrants might mean to their way of life, but most of the time it was a cautious, but cordial environment. Fights, shootings, theft, and other crimes happened, but most early emigrants and Indigenous people were more focused on their own lives to try to pick fights. Conflict would increase as more travelers crossed the country on the Trail, but most of the encounters were peaceful.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Shoshone tipi, W. H. Jackson (1870). Public Domain.

Tensions rise along the Oregon Trail

While early interactions between emigrants and Indigenous populations along the Oregon Trail were cordial, even friendly. There would be some fights and the occasional tribe that would steal items and livestock from emigrants, and emigrants that would shoot at Native Americans, but this was a rare exception, not a common problem. Most early emigrants were reasonably safe from tribal conflict along the trail. This would change in the late 1850s and early 1860s as government promises to Indigenous peoples were unfulfilled. Increasing numbers of emigrants were hunting the same buffalo the tribes relied on for food. The emigrants brought diseases that Indigenous people had not yet suffered. The emigrants were depleting food sources, especially buffalo. They were carving their names into rocks and leaving debris and garbage as they tried to lighten wagon loads. The land was their home, and it was being trashed.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Journalism fed fears of Indigenous cultures. Frederick Burr Opper (1894). Public Domain.

Fanning the flames of mistrust

The emigrants, many of whom had never met Native Americans, were nervous or suspicious of people whose culture was so different from their own. This sometimes led to emigrants shooting at natives simply out of fear. Some reports even cite emigrants using indigenous people as target practice. Newspapers in the east would report any conflict as “massacres,” which helped increase the distrust and tension as emigrants traveled the Oregon Trail. Historic records show Native Americans killed around 362 emigrants, mainly in the area west of the South Pass, along the Humboldt and Snake River areas, or the southern end of the Willamette Valley. But the records also show that emigrants killed 426 Native Americans.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Monument at the Ward Massacred site. National Park Service.

Ward Massacre

In 1854, a 20-person wagon party made its way west on the Oregon Trail. As they passed through Canyon County toward Fort Boise, a Shoshone war party attacked the party. The spark for this particular fight is unclear, but the Shoshone attacked on They killed the entire party except for two young boys, William and Alexander Ward. The attack promoted military action against the tribes. The tribes fought back, and the resulting conflict left Fort Boise and Fort Hall abandoned. This left emigrants along the route with no trading posts in southern Idaho. The Oregon Trail, from the mid-1850s until larger-scale migration during the 1862 Gold Rush, was considered a dangerous, vulnerable passage unless parties had a military escort.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
A wagon train stops for the night, c. 1860-1865. Mathew Benjamin Brady, Public Domain.

The Utter-Van Ornum Party

The Utter-Van Ornum wagon train, with forty-four people and one hundred heads of livestock, set out on the Oregon Trail in 1860. Encounters with Indigenous tribes had been, in the early years of the trail, peaceful. By 1860, relations were disintegrating as eastern settlers encroached increasingly on indigenous lands, but actual attacks were still rare. On September 8, the Utter-Van Ornum wagon train stopped for the night near Castle Creek, Idaho. Some of their cattle was taken by Indigenous people, believed to be Bannock and Shoshone. Losing cattle on the Oregon Trail was a huge problem; it reduced the emergency food supply. It also meant there was less to help the settlers set up a new life in Oregon. But things would only get worse from there.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Utter-Van Ornum Massacre site near Huntington, Oregon. Ken Lund.

Utter-Van Ornum Massacre

Another attack came the next day. Around two hundred Bannock and Shoshone warriors came for the wagon party. They formed a defensive position to fend off the attack, protecting the livestock. They offered goods to the Indigenous people to avoid future conflict. This seemed to work – until a larger attack, estimated to consist of about one hundred Indigenous people, bore down on them. Three men of the party were killed. The party was attacked again the next day, with another man killed. The Utter-Van Ornum party abandoned their wagons and livestock and fled to hide along the Snake River. Most of them, anyway. Elijah Utter was seriously injured in the attack. His wife and three children refused to flee to safety This doomed all five of them. More members of the party would die before rescuers could reach them over a month later.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Grand Tetons and Snake River. Mountain walrus, photographer.

Hope erodes on the Oregon Trail

After hiding along the Snake River, the party walked about seventy-five miles until they were confident they weren’t being followed. They had almost none of the supplies they needed to survive, having abandoned them during the attack. Weakened by hunger and exhaustion, they camped by the Owyhee River, where they would wait for a rescue. They met some Shoshone, who traded some salmon for the few things the party still had and took their guns. The guns would have been vital for hunting. But the food gave Alexis and Abigail Van Ornum strength to try to seek rescue while others waited at the camp. This group, which included their five children, a man named Samuel Gleason, and two of the Utter boys, found death instead. The adults and older boys were killed by Indigenous attackers, and four surviving children on the expedition were taken to live with them.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
An Englishwoman in Utah – the story of a life’s experience in Mormonism (1880). Fanny Stenhouse, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Public Domain.

The Oregon Trail’s worst menu

The people who stayed back at the camp were starving to death. The livestock was long gone, and pets had already been eaten. Between October 13th and October 21st, four children had died. Like the Donners, they made the difficult choice to eat the dead to save their lives. On October 24, an Army relief expedition from Fort Walla Walla found the camp and rescued the survivors. Army captain Frederick T. Dent wrote a shocking report, “…found on the Owyhee (River) 12 emigrants alive and five dead; those still alive were keeping life in them by eating those who had died.” He described survivors as “skeletons with life in them; their frantic cries for food rang in out ears incessantly.”

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
California army volunteers located a boy they thought to be Reuben from a Shoshone camp. Wikipedia.

Wherefore art thou, Reuben?

Reuben Van Ornum was taken by Indigenous attackers when members of the wagon party left the Owyhee camp. The three girls were not found and likely died in captivity. Two years after the Utter-Van Ornum conflict, California army volunteers located a boy they thought to be Reuben from a Shoshone camp. The Shoshone said he was not Reuben, but the son of a French fur trapper and the chief’s sister. Before DNA testing, it was a “you said, they said” situation, so Reuben’s uncle took the boy to live with him in Oregon. The boy, if he were, in fact, Reuben Van Ornum, could not adjust to this new life. He disappeared after a few months and may have gone back to live with the Shoshone. In the end, only fifteen out of forty-four members of the Utter-Van Ornum party survived the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Naomi Sager, Wikimedia.

Sager Orphans

In 1844, blacksmith Henry Sager, his wife Naomi, and their seven children joined the emigrants along the Oregon Trail. The journey was difficult. Young Catherine Sager broke her leg, and like so many pioneers, her Henry had to set it since there was no doctor in their party. Their daughter Elizabeth became lost for hours when she and a friend walked ahead of the train to find water. They were lucky to catch a glimpse of the train after walking, lost, for hours. Henry died from illness and Naomi, who had never recovered from giving birth on the trail, fell in and died shortly after Henry. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, early Willamette Valley missionaries took the children into their care. Narcissa Whitman was one of the earliest women to cross the Oregon Trail, and proved that women and children could handle the trials of the trail.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
Whitman Mission, site of the Whitman Massacre. Public Domain.

Sager Orphans – Orphaned again

The Sager children would spend three years with the Whitmans. Elizabeth Sager described Marcus Whitman as “genial and kindly,” while Narcissa was the one to keep the children in line. But the children didn’t know that their troubles did not end when they left the Oregon Trail. Tensions between the Whitmans and local Cayuse tribes were high, though. More and more emigrants were encroaching into Cayuse lands over the Oregon Trail. The emigrants and settlers brought diseases and Whitmans refused to pay the tribe for their land. The Cayuse blamed the missionaries for a measles outbreak in their camp. In 1847, tensions peaked and the Whitman Mission was attacked. The Sager children were among fifty-four people taken for ransom. The Whitmans and fourteen people were killed. The attack left the Sager children orphaned again.

The Oregon Trail Legacy Is Even Darker Than We Realized
One of the first transcontinental trains, Central Pacific’s Jupiter, 1869. Public Domain.

The legacy of the Oregon Trail

Wagon trains all but ceased after the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869. The development of the Oregon Trail expanded settlement of the United States to the west coast. It was a mass migration on a massive scale. The Trail was successful in terms of growing the western part of the United States, but that came with a cost. Indigenous cultures had lived there and set up communities, and the Oregon Trail changed their landscape as more and more emigrants made their way westward to chase riches and dreams. The trail also meant the encroachment of settlers on Native American lands that would lead to conflict, depletion of resources, and many deaths on both sides. The Oregon Trail’s dark legacy is still buried in the hundreds of unmarked graves that speckle the American west.

Where did we find this stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Basic Facts about the Oregon Trail. Bureau of Land Management, (n.d.)

Death and Danger on the Emigrant Trails (n.a.). National Park Service. (n.d.)

End of the Oregon Trail. Bethany Nemec, 2 April 2019.

How the Donner Party was Doomed by a Disastrous Shortcut. Erin Blakemore, 19 February 2019.

Inside the Utter-Van Ornum Massacre on the Oregon Trail. Nicholas Vrchoticky, 21 April 2022.

Interesting facts about the Oregon Trail and the pioneers that endured its hardships during their journey. Ian Harvey, Vintage News. 17 February 2017.

The Indifferent Stars Above. Daniel James Brown (2015). Mariner Books.

Patty Reed’s doll: A small survivor of the Donner Party. Penelope Hemingway,, 13 July 2022.

The Utter disaster on the Oregon Trail (Snake Country Series, Vol. 2). Donald H. Shannon (1993). Snake Country Publishers.

Trail Basics – Indians. (n.a.) National Oregon/California Trail Center. (n.d).