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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course United States Migration Patterns  by Beverly Whitaker, CG. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Transportation from the East

During the 1860s roads were built to connect ports between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and later to rail heads and western railroads. It took far less time for Easterners and European immigrants to reach the West than at the beginning of the 19th century. They had numerous routes from which to choose, and the cost was also less. Water routes continued to be popular. The Ohio River and the National Road carried people from Maryland and Pennsylvania into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. From the upper east coast, they could use the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes, and the Wabash Canal. Southerners headed across the Old South for Mississippi River packet boats.

Popular Overland Routes, 1840-1865

Three major overland migration trails Trail opened the West—the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and the Mormon Trail—all leading out from the Missouri River as had the commercial Santa Fe Trail. These three trails went almost as one for the first portion, with the Mormons on the north side of the Platte River, the others journeying along the south side. And although the people looked ahead to different destinations, they all went with dreams of a better life. For some, it happened.

Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail (NIFGS).jpg

Starting points were Independence, Westport, St. Joseph, and Fort Leavenworth. Alternate routes along the way included Sublette’s Cutoff and the Lander Cutoff. After 1846 there was also a choice at The Dalles between rafting down the Columbia River or taking the new Barlow Road across the Cascades.

Recognized landmarks included Fort Kearny, Ash Hollow, Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Register Cliff, Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Soda Springs and Steamboat Springs and Beer Spring, American Falls, Three Island Crossing, Flagstaff Hill, Whitman Mission, The Dalles, Fort Vancouver.

California Trail

California Trail (NIFGS).jpg

St. Joseph, Independence, Council Bluffs, and other frontier towns were jumping-off points to start the main trail overland to California. The trail coincided with the Oregon Trail until it crossed the Rockies. Some went north of the Great Salt Lake, others south, before coming together at the Humboldt River.

The most important stretch of what became the main California Trail was the path of the Humboldt River, flowing from northeastern Nevada some 400 miles across the arid flatlands lying between mountain ranges of the Great Basin. It provided the water and grass that was vital to the emigrant trains.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course United States: Migration Patterns offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 16 September 2014, at 00:18.
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