Early settlers in Oregon often arrived aboard ship, a voyage starting on the east coast, rounding Cape Horn, and up the Pacific coast to the Columbia River. That trip often took a year to complete.
Following in the footsteps of the fur trappers, a number of missionary families ventured into the Oregon Territory by overland routes in the 1830s for the purpose of ministering to the native tribes. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman established their mission in the Walla Walla Valley in 1836, an endeavor that eventually ended in tragedy. Early missionaries were important in providing information and assistance to later migrating families.
The Oregon Trail was not a single path to the West, but a series of trails leading to the Columbia River and the Willamette Valley. The point of origination was in Missouri, frequently from Independence and sometimes from Westport and St. Joseph. The main trail pushed across present-day Kansas and Nebraska, following the North Platt River to Fort Laramie.
It traversed the Rockies at South Pass and descended to the Snake River, Fort Hall, and Fort Bridger, then to the Columbia River, Fort Walla Walla, and Fort Vancouver. Some settlers remained along the Columbia, but more pushed on to the Willamette Valley. The trip extended more than 2,000 miles and often required six months to complete.
This journey was a real test of the settlers’ perseverance. Threats were posed by severe weather conditions, both extreme heat and cold; by disease with cholera a particular concern; by deprivation since supplies of both food and water were uncertain; and by other natural disasters such as landslides, flooding, and prairie fires.
Encounters with Indians were rare in the Plains region, however, since the tribes were usually pleased that the settlers were passing through their homelands and not setting up permanent residence.
The first party of immigrants to make the crossing from east to west were led by a pair of farmers, John Bidwell and John Bartleson. They left in May of 1841 and were assisted on the most arduous part of the journey by mountain men who joined them in Missouri and gave them valuable assistance. Near Fort Hall in what is now eastern Idaho, the party split up with some continuing towards the Willamette Valley and others following the California Trail across the desert and mountains to the San Joaquin Valley.
The most intense use of the trail was in the mid-1840s, but wagon trains continued to use this conduit for another 10 years. The coming of the railroads to the West ended the importance of the Oregon Trail as a major transportation route by wagon train.
See also Puyallup, Washington .