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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 ($).

Bound for Oregon, Utah, California and Texas

By acquiring Oregon, the Southwest, and California, the United States virtually doubled its territory and extended its boundaries to the Pacific. In 1841 the first large group (48 wagons) emigrated to California, traveling over the emerging Oregon-California Trail, crossing the Humboldt River, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to reach Sacramento. The next year a party of 130 people in 18 wagons headed forthe Oregon Territory from Independence, Missouri. In 1843, a thousand Easterners left from Independence, Missouri, to settle in the Oregon Territory, marking the beginning of a huge westward migration. During the period from 1846 to 1869, about 60,000 Mormon pioneers crossed the prairies. The Mormon Trail stretched nearly 1,400 miles across prairies, sagebrush flats, and steep mountains. Other routes led to Texas. Enough people settled in Texas by 1845 to allow it to become a state soon after it had gained its independence from Mexico.

Probably 75 percent of all western pioneers passed through St. Louis and crossed the Great Plains and the mountains over Overland Trails or later used the railroad that also followed that route. Even though St. Louis was the dividing point between East and West, most of the wagon trains formed up many miles west of that city. They generally turned either north or south at St. Louis. Some moved into the Southwest along the Santa Fe Trail. Others boarded Mississippi river boats and made their way up numerous streams that emptied into the Mississippi or followed the Missouri River to its head or to ports in between. After leaving the rivers, they continued westward by any available transportation, but most used farm wagons. These were smaller than the Eastern Conestogas, which could also be used over the Santa Fe Trail, but not through the rugged mountain ranges faced by pioneers migrating the Overland Trails to Oregon, Utah, and California. Even after the railroads came along and followed these same routes, depositing settlers along the way, wagon travelers continued to trek into the Far West, moving into areas not yet reached by the railroads.

The Oregon Territory

When the 19th century began, four nations claimed ownership of the Oregon country—Spain, Russia, England, and the United States. Missionary desire to convert the Indians brought the first Americans to the area; more came in order to be involved in the fur trade.

In 1844, Britain sent an official to Vancouver to seek information on the relative strength of the American and British elements. His report was that there were only about 750 English, compared to nearly 6,000 Americans in the Oregon Country. The American settlements were confined almost entirely to the Willamette Valley, south of the Columbia River.

A treaty with the British in 1844 set the boundary at the 49th parallel. Oregon was made a territory in 1848 at which time the population there numbered approximately 9000. The Oregon Territory was divided in 1853, with the northern half given the name Washington. Oregon was admitted as a state in 1859; Washington’s present boundaries were established when Idaho was made a territory in 1863.

The first emigrants to Oregon went by ship before an overland trail was established. Even after the Oregon Trail migrations began, ships continued to travel to Oregon, but they were not popular among the pioneers. Few pioneer families could afford the fare for the long sea journey to Oregon. Also, most Oregon-bound pioneers came from the central states—far from any sea port. Then too, the pioneers were eager to reach their destination, and the sea journey often took up to full year versus four to six months by wagon.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who made the trip in 1836 were the first emigrants to go to Oregon overland in a covered wagon. However, the big wave of western migration did not start until a combination of economic and political events in the late 1830s to early 1840s converged to start a large scale migration west. In 1843 nearly a thousand pioneers made a five-month journey with 120 wagons and 5,000 cattle. Over the next 25 years more than a half million people went west on the Trail. Between 1841 and 1850 alone, nearly 10,000 pioneers outfitted their wagons, secured teams, said farewell to friends and family, and in April and May gathered at “jumping-off” points along the Missouri River frontier to set out over the Oregon Trail.

Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Idaho and Utah would probably not be a part of the United States today were it not for the Oregon Trail because it was the only feasible way for settlers to get across the mountains. The entire route of this trail was determined by the location of an easy pass through the Rocky Mountains which came to be known as South Pass.

The Oregon Trail ran west from Missouri towards the Rocky Mountains to the Willamette Valley, generally following the Platte River to its headwaters. Then it crossed the mountains. A trail to California branched off in southern Idaho. The Mormon Trail paralleled much of the Oregon Trail, connecting Council Bluffs to Salt Lake City. The Oregon Trail followed the Snake River until it reached the Columbia River which flowed into the Pacific.

Those who went to Oregon found it to be an incredibly difficult journey of approximately 2000 miles; and there were many who walked the entire way. One in ten died, occasionally at the hand of Indians but more often due to poor sanitation and disease, especially cholera. Accidental gunshots took their toll also.

Over the next thirty years, military posts, trading posts, shortcuts and spur roads sprang off the Oregon Trail. And then the railroad reached the Far West. The Central Pacific Railroad connected California to the rest of the continent in 1869. The Oregon Shortline finished a railroad in 1884 from Portland, Oregon, to the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming. Wagon trains gave way to modern transportation, and the trail became a route for eastward cattle drives. Now the Oregon Trail is considered part of a historic and picturesque past of covered wagons and heroic pioneers.


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 at We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.