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General History/Oregon Trail Historical Interview

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QUESTION: I am involved in a rather intensive research project known as History Day, it is a competitive research paper competition and I am entering the Regional level in March. To prepare, I am doing many revisions to my original paper( I had to turn one into school, I'm a tenth grader). Would it be possible to conduct a interview with you concerning my topic of the Oregon Trail and it's impact on transportation. I would hugely appreciated your time and expertise as finding interviews with registered historians at museums has proved impossible. I wish to get certain questions answered so I may have focused quotations and information with a variety of sources.

If you would be willing to help please post a response with a manner in which to contact you or if I should conduct my interview through questions on this site. I am flexible!

Thank you so much for lending your knowledge~!

ANSWER: Hi F,
Go ahead, send your questions as a response to this message. The Oregon Trail isn't really my subject, but I can probably help in some way.

I know the Oregon Trail benefited from experience gained on the earlier Santa Fe Trail. For instance, the decision to use oxen instead of horses to pull wagons because horses can not survive on a diet of prairie grass while cattle can, came from the Santa Fe Trail. So did the practice of circling the wagons each night to form a fort against Indian attack.

Many wagon masters and guides on the Oregon Trail were experienced plainsmen and mountainmen from the earlier Sante Fe Trail and the fur trapping days of the early 1800s.

The Oregon Trail was later followed by the Union Pacific Railroad at least part of the way, up the Platte River Valley to South Pass and over the Rockies. Later, Interstate 80 would follow the same route up the Platte Valley.

If you ask me some questions about your specific interests in the Oregon Trail, I can probably give you some more info.

C.M.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: What issues in transportation made travel west drastically less common before 1840, or before the mass migration along the Oregon Trail? What issues/dangers were specific to the Great Plains? The Rocky Mountains?

What environmental dangers were present before the Oregon Trail (in regard to travel)?

What environmental dangers were eliminated or lessened by the Oregon Trail and the effects it had? To clarify, by effects I mean a larger knowledge base of the area, forts, bridges/ferries over rivers, etc. How did the Oregon Trail and its effect eliminate or lessen these dangers?

What social issues (if any) prevented Americans from traveling west before the mass migration on the Oregon Trail? How did the Oregon Trail eliminate or lessen these issues?

Are there any other dangers/issues/limitations for travel before the Oregon Trail that it solved? If so, How did the Oregon Trail (and itís effects) solve/lessen these?

How did the huge masses of people traveling the Oregon Trail make it a more viable path of travel? What factors can this be contributed to? Safety in numbers? More knowledge flow? Do you have any specific examples of how the amount of people travel made the Oregon Trail a more successful transportation method?

How did the Oregon Trail offer new lives to those who traveled it?

Why was it important to the government that people move west? Also, What reasons did the government have for passing the Homestead Act?

How did a guide increase a group of emigrants chances of a successful journey west? In what manners did they do this? What dangers of travel, environmental, social, or otherwise did a guide lessen or eliminate?

How greatly did the word of mouth through travelers increase their safety or perception of the journey west? Did the masses of people who travel spread information through word of mouth in a notable amount?

In what ways did guidebooks shape the success of the Oregon Trail as a transportation method? What dangers did a guide book offer protection from (through educating its reader about them)? Were guidebooks concerning travel common before the Oregon Trail? Do you know of any notable guide books specifically that could be used as primary sources?

How did the introduction of ferries/bridges along the route of the Oregon Trail increase a emigrants chances of survival? How common was drowning during river crossings without bridges or ferries? Were bridges/ferries in the western area of the North American Continent common before the Oregon Trailís use?

How did the use of well known campsites and landmarks change the successfulness of the Oregon Trail? How did they do this? How common was it for an emigrant to use a landmark or common campsite?

How did forts along the Oregon Trail change the outcome of the transportation method? What did forts offer? What dangers of the western area did the forts lessen? What were the most notable forts along the Oregon Trail route?

How did the route the Oregon Trail fell on, especially the closeness it often had to rivers and the South Pass, change the successfulness of the trail? What did this specific route allow for emigrant or grant emigrants as far as resources or opportunities?\

Do you have any knowledge of the Transcontinental Railroad being discussed prior to the Oregon Trail? I had information stating this but cannot find further information supporting it.

What powerful political figures supported a Transcontinental Railroad before the Oregon Trail? After?

What new types of people were able to travel west after the Transcontinental Railroad was built?

Thank you so much for agreeing, all help is greatly appreciated.

Answer
Hi F,
1. Before 1840, the trail was only a trail, usable only by pedestrians or horses, not wagons. Over time, the trail was eventually widened into a road that wagons could use. Before 1840, the army was not deployed on the plains in sufficient strength to protect immigrants from Indian attack. Around 1840, European fashion moved away from the beaver hat. This put many fur trappers out of work, and many subsequently found employment as guides for wagon trains. Dangers of the Great Plains - attack by Native Americans. Dangers of the Rocky Mountains - getting lost without a guide.

2 & 3. Probably the greatest environmental threat to travelers on the Oregon Trail was river crossings. Eventually fords were located, places where the rivers were shallow enough and the current slow enough for wagons to safely cross. Later came ferries and eventually bridges.

4. Before the late 1830s, most of the eastern US was still unoccupied, so people in search of land had no need to journey west. The Panic (economic depression) of 1837 threw a lot of people out of work or into bankruptcy so that they needed a fresh start in life. There was no internet back then or credit reporting agencies, so a person really could hide their financial failures. Prior to 1846, Britain still claimed Oregon as a part of Canada, so no one really knew if moving to Oregon might result in loss of US citizenship and becoming British or Canadian.

5 & 6. So many people traveled the Oregon Trail that it split the Native American tribes living on the Great Plains in two: well north of the trail or well south of the trail. By the 1850s, few Native Americans lived in the Platte River Valley any more.

7. See my comments above about how a person could escape from their own past by moving west. In California in 1899 a poem circulated:
What was your name in the states?
Was it Johnson or Thompson or Bates?
Did you murder your wife?
And run for your life?
What was your name in the states?

So many people had moved to California in the Gold Rush that everyone was a stranger. No one knew anyone. The man standing next you may have changed his name. He might be a wife-killer. No one knew anything about anyone.

8. See above about Britain's rival claim to the Oregon country. In 1846, Britain gave up its claim to Oregon because so many Americans were moving there, and the British knew they would never hold onto Oregon.

The Homestead Act was passed in 1862 as an anti-slavery measure. The thinking was that if the west filled up with small family farms, then plantation-style agriculture could not take root there. Like many laws, by the time the law was passed, the underlying problem was pretty much solved already. Within a few months of the Homestead Act, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, effectively ending slavery in America. Nevertheless, the Homestead Act remained on the books until the 1970s. The offer of free land did encourage western migration, sometimes too much migration. In the 1910s and '20s, free land encouraged the over-farming of the Great Plains which brought on the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

9. Guides not only knew the way, they could ease relations with the Native Americans, they knew which tribes were hostile and which were friendly, guides knew how to find food and water, they knew how to construct rafts for river crossings, they knew tricks like burning buffalo droppings where there was no firewood, etc.

10 & 11. Word of mouth and information from a guide were probably more useful than guidebooks. Guidebooks were published, but they were not always accurate. Any written document can be misinterpreted. You can ask clarifying questions of a guide or fellow traveler but not from a book.

12. Bridges and ferries are always preferable to fords. I suspect few bridges and ferries were built prior to the transcontinental railroad and once the railroad was built, most travelers went by rail.

13 & 15. Especially early on, the trail was faint and often faded out. There were no maps, so landmarks were crucial. There is a reason the trail followed the Platte River, the Sweetwater River, South Pass, then the Green River and eventually to the Columbia River. These landmarks do not move and are the same year after year. Common campsites often resulted from the fact that oxen can only pull a wagon ten or twelve miles a day. Some obstacles, like river crossings, might take a whole day just to cross, so the different wagon trains were pretty much forced to use the same campsites. Often, there would be no water or grazing grass between the campsites, so there was no choice but to use the same campsites. Sometimes it happened that after several wagon trains used a campsite there was no more grass for subsequent travelers until it grew back. Campsites could be smelly from human and animal waste left behind by previous campers. Disease often ran rampant along the Oregon Trail often passing from one party to another because they used the same campsites.

14. Forts served the purpose of driving away the Native Americans. Native Americans usually avoided forts. The most famous forts were Fort Kearny, Nebraska and Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Forts would often be co-located with trading posts which gave the immigrants an opportunity to resupply along the way.

16. I do not think a transcontinental railroad was seriously discussed prior to the 1850s, long after the Oregon Trail was established. In 1840, most of the eastern US did not yet have rail service, so any thoughts of a western railroad were only someone's pipe dream.

17. One politician supporting a transcontinental RR was Stephen Douglas, senator from Illinois. His desire to see a RR cross Nebraska was his motivation to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. He thought the RR would follow the settlement patterns, so he organized Nebraska Territory to encourage settlement of the Platte River Valley.

18. The railroads made it possible for people who were older, sick, weak, or for any other reason were unable or unwilling to camp outdoors or otherwise undertake a difficult journey.

Good luck with your paper,

C.M.

Like Michael Troy said, for an academic paper, you probably want a more established source than me, but you can probably find the ideas I listed above in books and periodicals.  

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C.M. Aaron

Expertise

My interests are pretty diverse: military history, technology, and social trends for most historical eras, general U.S. history, European history, especially Roman and early medieval history but also the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, European colonialism in Africa, a little bit of Asian history, especially as it relates to European and American imperialism. I'm also pretty good with presidential history.

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I've read hundreds of history books on various subjects. I've also been writing historical fiction for about twenty years. Story development drives my research. I am also a tour guide at a local museum.

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Bachelor's degree in history and geography.

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