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The Oregon Trail

The migration along the Oregon Trail was an adventure shared by nearly half a million pioneers. These brave but common people faced the dangers of the west and moved their families across 2,000 miles to a new life in Oregon. It still isn't completely understood why so many decided to take the journey, but their courage helped shape the west into what it is today.

In the late 1830's, America was experiencing an economic depression and many Americans looked westward for a new life. Before 1836, though, Oregon was a land controlled by British fur trading companies. However, under the wary eye of the British, American explorers and missionaries were laying the trails later pioneers would soon follow. When the British finally relinquished their claims to Oregon (all land below what is Canada today), land was there for the taking.

In 1848, a group of American and French-Canadian settlers and retired fur-trappers living in the Willamette Valley voted to make Oregon a territory of the United States. One year later, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California, and the Gold Rush began. Both events were an invitation for Americans to come west.

When the pioneers coming west reached western Idaho, the trail split. One fork continued on to Oregon, but a southern fork lead to California. After 1849, most of the wagons turned toward California. Still, the Gold Rush also meant economic growth for Oregon because of the miners' demand for food and other staples.

Growth for the western territories continued, and in 1859 Oregon entered the union as the 33rd state, two years before the Civil War erupted. Soon after the war, the west was already demarcated along its current state boundaries. The number of wagons along the Oregon Trail dwindled.

When the transcontinental railroad connected both coasts in 1869, it made travel by wagon unnecessary. A few families still made the difficult trip, but the great wagon trains were a thing of the past.

For more information about the Oregon Trail, visit In Search of the Oregon Trail on PBS Online.


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