May 14, 2019

Oregon Trail Interpretive Center

The Willamette Valley is a 150-mile long valley in Oregon and was the terminus of the Oregon Trail. Some made it, others settled along the way, some branched off and went to California in search of gold, others died, and some were born on the trail.

I have always been fascinated by the Oregon Trail. It was a 2,000 miles trek from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City and was used by hundreds of thousands in the mid-1800s.  People from the East Coast first had to make the arduous journey to Independence.  Some used the Erie Canal.

I always wondered how the family discussion went before they set off. “Lydia, pack up the children and everything we need into the wagon and remember we need farm equipment, seeds, food, and provisions for a four-month trip.”  Often it was much longer. W. Barlow wrote
“Oregon City only eight months and four days from Illinois.” A typical wagon was 12-feet long and 4-feet wide.  I find it hard that a wife said, “Yes, dear, that’s a good idea. We will leave our home and friends to travel through the unknown to a new place.” 
Each wagon train had about 80 wagons divided into three units with a total of 140 people. The conversations along the way when it was blistering hot and the wheels sunk into two-feet of mud must have been fiery.  In fact one lady refused to continue, left her husband, and returned to set his wagon on fire. 

On my recent trip to Portland I booked the Oregon Trail Trip which
included a visit to the Oregon Trail museum.  The building is designed to bring to mind the covered wagons.  Each step to the entrance has a stop on the Oregon Trail such as Chimney Rock and Scott’s Bluff.  In fact, the Willamette Valley today is a prosperous wine growing region.  The museum has an excellent video and many displays plus demonstrations.  

I best recall the story of the Sager family.  They started out with mom, dad and six children.  The oldest, John, was 13 and a baby was born along the way.  The parents died on the trail and John led the other children to Oregon.  Sadly, only the three girls lived to adulthood.  Catherine wrote a book about the journey which is one of the best accounts of the trip. 

Several years when John and I were in Kansas we spent a couple
nights with a covered wagon train.  It turned out to be one of my favorite trips.  The wagons went through the Tall Grass Prairie so there were no houses, fences, telephone poles or other hints of civilization.   I decided to walk since that was what most of the people on the trail did, mainly to lighten the load for the animals pulling the wagon.  They said not to worry about snakes because the vibration of the wagon wheels frightened them away but the ground was so bumpy walking was difficult so I decided to hop on the wagon.  It too was bumpy.  

A couple years ago I was in Nebraska at Scott’s Bluff and Chimney Rock where there is also a museum.  Both were major landmarks on the journey west.  Our Manifest Destiny to extend from ocean to ocean is a reality but I think Westward Movement is still continuing as more and more people move westward from the East Coast.