Routes West
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The Platte River Road:
The Oregon Trail

The beginnings of the Oregon Trail in Nebraska were made in 1813 by the little band of traders from Astoria in the Oregon Territory. The party, headed by Robert Stuart, was returning to St. Louis. They tramped their weary way down the Platte Valley. They left no track deep enough to be followed, but they did make known the way, and fur traders on horseback and afoot soon followed nearly the same route taken by Stuart.

In 1830, Milton Sublette with ten wagons left St. Louis and arrived at the Wind River Mountains. He returned with his wagons loaded with furs. His wagon wheels were the first to cross Nebraska on a branch of the Oregon Trail that originated from the south.

Recreation of Oregon Trail
Recreation of a family on their way west on the Oregon Trail.

Travelers from the southern regions of the country entered Nebraska near present-day Alexandria and followed the Big Sandy Valley where water, wood, and grass were available. After crossing the Big Sandy near Belvidere, the trail proceeded in a southwesterly direction to the banks of the Little Blue. After the establishment of Thompson's Station, a few miles south of Belvidere, the trail followed the Eighteen-Mile Ridge across Thayer County.

Pioneer families carried all of their possessions in wagons that were only about ten feet long and four feet wide. They were called "prairie schooners" because the canvas cover resembled a ship's sail. Most wagons were pulled by oxen which were preferred because they were dependable and inexpensive, costing about $50 each.

A typical wagon in the 1840s could carry a load weighing from 1,600 to 2,000 pounds, depending on the number and condition of the draft animals pulling the wagon. Unfortunately, many of the emigrants disregarded the obvious limitations of their outfits and hopelessly overloaded them with food and belongings. As a result, the trails became winding junkyards fill with items discarded by the pioneers. The litter included everything from cook stoves to bureaus of carved oak.

The rush for California inspired unrealistic fantasies as well as ridiculous claims. A Missouri inventor built a 'wind wagon' equipped with sails designed to whisk the traveler across the plains at 15 miles an hours. Rufus Porter, the founder of the Scientific American magazine, advertised in 1849 that the best way to California would be abroad his Aerial Transport. It was a cigar-shaped steam-powered conveyance slung from a thousand-foot-long balloon. Porter stated that the machine would take 50 to 100 passengers from New York to California at speeds exceeding 60 miles an hour. The minimum fare was to be $50, which included wine. Travel time would be three days. Fortunately for the would-be travelers, Porter's pipe dream never got off the ground.

Wild game became scarce due to the thousands of pioneers who traveled the trails. Thus, food for the trip had to be carried in the wagons. There were no McDonalds or Burger Kings along the way. A typical meal might consist of coffee, bacon and beans. A bread substitute, called fried cakes, was usually served. It was made of water and flour fired in bacon fat. Some times there was a dessert of dried fruit.

The pioneers traveled in groups called trains, but often individual families would strike out on their own. They could average about 16 miles per day. Although there were rare attacks by Indians, a more serious threat was from illness and accidents. By one estimate 20,000 people died on the California Trail between 1841 and 1859 — an average of ten graves for every mile. Disease was the number one killer. A cholera epidemic swept through the trains in 1850, and hundreds died. Other diseases included scurvy, smallpox, and tick-borne fever. There were also an alarming number of accidents, including gunshot wounds, burns, and broken bones. A few people were even run over by wagons since nearly everyone walked beside the prairie schooners.

Contrary to what the dime novelists would have the world believe, Indian attacks contributed little to the mortality rate on the overland trails. Up until 1849, fewer than 50 emigrant deaths were attributed to Indian attacks. But as the numbers of travelers increased, so did the fatal encounters. By 1860 emigrant casualties probably totaled close to 400. However, the emigrants killed even more Indians.

But, why would people follow primitive trails westward across the Great Plains? It took nearly one month for a wagon train to cross Nebraska and four months to make the approximately 2,000-mile trip to either California or Oregon. Yet, nearly 400,000 people traveled a crude network of rutted trails from the Missouri River to the Willamette River. The Oregon Trail was never a clearly defined track. In places wagons passed in columns that might be hundreds of yards apart as the trail shifted with the effects of weather and use.

There were a variety of reasons for the westward movement to Oregon and California. Economic depressions in 1837 and 1841 frustrated farmers and businessmen alike, and the offer of free land in Oregon and the possibility of finding gold in California lured them westward. At the same time, eastern churches viewed the American Indians of the Oregon Country as ready candidates for European ideas of "civilization."

Many simply sought a chance to establish a new life. After all, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

But it was not until 1841 that the first group with serious intent to emigrate to the Oregon area left the banks of the Missouri River and headed west. In 1843 nearly 1,000 completed the trip — an omen of the multitudes to follow.

Most of the pioneer families either followed the Oregon-California Trail or the Mormon Trail. Mormon pioneers began their trek to Utah in 1847 to escape religious persecution. Two years later gold was discovered in California, and thousands of "Forty-niners" rushed across the continent.

Many of Nebraska's highways today, including Interstate 80, are on or near routes used over one hundred years ago by explorers, fur traders, covered wagon pioneers, and many others whose courage and labor laid the foundations for the American West. The Platte River Valley became the site for America's great road west. It provided a natural highway for westward expansion across the continent during the nineteenth century. The famous Oregon, Mormon, and California trails all passed through the Platte River Valley.