Frequently Asked Questions About the Oregon Trail

Q: When did the travel on the Oregon Trail begin?

A: The first major migration came in 1843.

Q: How long was the journey from the Missouri "jumping off" place to California or Oregon?

A: About 2,000 miles.

Q: Where did the trail begin and end?

A: Officially it began in Independence, Missouri (a "jumping off point") and ended in Oregon City, Oregon. It really depended on the family though. Some families got on in smaller towns in Missouri. Other families just left their old homes in Illinois or Missouri and met up with the Oregon Trail later. A families journey ended when they claimed a stop of land somewhere in Oregon Country.

Q: What does "jumping off point" mean?

A: Those are the major cities where people got on the Oregon Trail. The major one was Independence, Missouri.

Q: How long did the trip take on the average?

A: It varies because of weather, accidents, etc, but on the average, a wagon train would expect to be "on the road" 4 and a half to 5 months. If you made it in 5 months, that was considered making good timing.

Q: What is meant by "Oregon Country?"

A: Oregon didn't become a state until 1859. In 1848 though, it was a region made up of what we know as Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and the western part of Montana. It was called the Oregon Country because it was not part of the US yet.

Q: Why did people go west?

A: Some families kept moving west every 5-10 years. Others left to find opportunity. Oregon have free land, good farm land, large forests, and free of diseases. Others left for religious reasons.

Q: How much money did it take to go west?

A: It cost about $1000 for an average. That was a lot since families only made a few dollars a week.

Q: What if they ran out of food or other materials along the way?

A: There were many forts along the trail. When people got there, they could buy and trade items that they needed.

Q: How much "stuff" fit into a wagon?

A: An "ideal" wagon had about 1,600 to 2,500 pounds inside.

Q: What was recommended that the travelers take with on the trip?

A: An early guidebook suggested they have 200 pounds of flour, 150 pounds of bacon, 10 ponds of coffee, 20 pounds of sugar, and 10 pounds of salt. The basic kitchenware was a cooking kettle, frying pan, coffee pot, tin plates, cups, knives, and forks.

Q: What was the typical eating pattern of the travelers?

A: For breakfast, they usually ate bacon, bread, and coffee. For dinner, they usually had coffee, cold beans, and bacon or buffalo meat and boiled rice.

Q: How many travelers followed the trails to California and Utah?

A: It's estimated about 200,000 did.

Q: How many people died on the Oregon Trail?

A: About 20,000 people died on the Oregon Trail.

Q: What kinds of illnesses did people get while traveling?

A: Typhoid, Mountain fever, cholera, the flu, measles, and smallpox.

Q: What other things happened that caused people to die?

A: Some people had milk that came from a cow who had eaten poisonous weeds. Some people fell from the wagons. Others were killed by Indians.

Q: How many travelers were killed by Indians and vice versa?

A: From the time period 1840-1860, figures show that 362 travelers were killed by Indians and 426 Indians were killed by travelers.

Q: Did everyone ride in covered wagons?

A: Because most travelers overloaded their wagons, few could ride inside. Instead, most walked - many made the entire 2,000 mile journey on foot.

Q: Did everyone take the same type of wagon?

A: No, the most common type of wagon was called the "prairie schooner." They were farm wagons with a flat bed. It was made of hardwood and covered with canvas. The wagons had no brakes or springs, so the ride was bumpy. Before that though, there were "Conestogas" which were large wagons used by the first people to go west. The people found out they were too heavy for the distance and mountains. They were also too big for their oxen to pull. In later years, the wealthy went in fancy carriages with stoves build in. Some were even two stories tall. Some people even built wooden handcarts (like large wheelbarrows) and they were pushed or pulled.

Q: What is a wagon train?

A: A wagon train were large groups of wagons.

Q: Why did people go in groups?

A: The trip was safer if they went in large groups. They started off small, but grew larger after 1849. No one wanted to cross the unknown prairies alone. This also meant families could help one another in emergencies. Going as a group also meant they could hire a scout.

Q: Who were scouts?

A: A scout is another word for guide. This was usually an old mountain man who could find the trail and who could select good spots to camp each evening. He would also give advice when problems arose.

Q: Were there rules they had to follow along the trail?

A: Once they left town, there were no police or sheriff to enforce the law. The officers and judges of the train were responsible for maintaining order and punishing those who broke the rules.

Q: Did people travel with family members or friends?

A: Most families that went West in wagon trains traveled with other relatives who were going west too. Sometimes neighbors decided to sell their farms in the East and go together. They planned to settle next to each other in a new place. Some groups went together because they belonged to the same church. Even a few small towns picked up and moved west together.

Q: Did everyone take the Oregon Trail to Oregon?

A: No, there were many trails that branched off from the Oregon Trail. The biggest was the California Trail. In 1849, the Gold Rush started in California and people took that trail to get there. That split off at Fort Hall.

Q: Why was it so important to leave at the right time of the year?

A: If people left too early, there wouldn't be enough grass for the oxen and other livestock to eat. If you left too late, it might be getting close to winter when you got to Oregon. That could mean snow in the mountains. Plus, you needed time to build a house once you got to your destination. If it was going to snow soon, you would have some problems building and gathering materials. It was suggested that people leave in early spring.

Q: How long was the Oregon Trail in use?

A: It was in regular use from 1843 until the 1870s. When the Union Pacific completed the railroad in 1869, people started taking the train to San Francisco and then north to Oregon by ship. Wagon trains could still be seen as late as the 1880's.

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