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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: Hello,

I am happy to help. But please keep in mind that I am an amateur historian with no degrees for formal credentials in the field.  My knowledge comes only from personal reading that I do on various subjects out of personal interest.  Citing me as a resource in an academic paper is not going to impress any academics.  If you want someone with a credential, you might want to try the history department at a college or university.

That said, if you want to pose any questions on the subject here, I am happy to try to answer them as best I can and to entertain whatever follow-ups you may have.

- Mike



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

QUESTION: Frankly, I have so many primary sources already I don't think the judges will be questioning my research choices, but thank you for the concern. Also, I've already tried contacting them and none have responded.

Here are my questions :)

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?

Answer
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?

One of the biggest dangers that people don't think about much today is that people simply did not know where they were going.  Much of the mountain west had not been explored by Americans yet and much of the area had not been well mapped.  If you just started moving west, you never knew where you were going to run into an impossibly tall mountain range, and impassable river or lake, a desert, hostile indian tribe, etc.  Not having an exact plan made it much more likely that you could die of starvation, exposure or attack.  People could not carry all the food and water they needed for such a trip, so they had to count on collecing it along the way, through hunting or trade.

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

Impassable mountains, impssable rivers and desert areas with no water were some of the biggest.  Anything that delayed a trip could lead to people running out of resources or getting stuck through the winter when snows made travel impossible.


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?

The trail at least provided a known passage that migrants could use.  They had a better idea about how long the trip would take and the route.  This decreased the risk of great delays caused by detours.  Over the years, road improvements, or the addition of ferries or bridges, helped to make the travel faster for wagons, which faced less delay as a result.


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?

The biggest human dangers were from hostile Indians.  Many tribes were relatively friendly and willing to trade with tavellers.  But some were hostile and benefitted from attacking wagons, killing the people and stealing their stuff.  Others killed in revenge of some issue caused by earlier travellers.  So one never new if a hostile attack was waiting.  A specific route ensured that travellers would encounter the same tribes on a regular basis and there could be an ongoing effort to stay on good terms.  At least part of the route had military forts where soldiers could provide at least a little protection if there was some issue with the natives.  There were also issues with other settlers.  In a land where law enforcement was almost non-existant.  There were many other people who benefitted from robbing or killing travellers who made their way through the territory.


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?

There were always great dangers from mechanical problems, disease or weather that might force a wagon train to have to stop or delay.  The Trail, by making the trip faster at least reduced these dangers.  If some wagons had to break off from the train there might be some fort, waystation, or village that could provide some protection.  Being left alone in the wilderness was often a death sentence.  The Trail, at least gave one a slightly better chance.


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?

Because many people traveled the Trail, the roads became better.  Trees or rocks were cleared, which made travel easier for those who came behind.  As more people traveled, it encouraged some settlement along the trail, leaving people with homes or businesses who could help travellers.

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

The point of the trail was to offer people an opportunity to get to new lands, where they could obtain property, build a farm and start a life for themselves.  For people who did not have the money or resources to do that where they lived, this westward travel offered a chance at a better life.

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

The West coast was claimed by several countries.  Spain, later Mexico, actually had the best claim to most of the land along the West coast and mountain region based on claims going back several centuries.  But those claims were extinguished after the Mexican American War.  Britain, based on its Canadian lands also had some claims, as did Russia (which at that time owned Alaska and had made attempts at settlements further south).   The best way to establish your claim was to have your citizens occupy the land, which would help support a military presence as well.  In other words, you needed many of your own people just to be there on the land.  Spain's failure to get population out there is the biggest reason it's claims did not last.  By getting Americans to settle this land, the US government could make the strongest claims to holding it.  The Homestead Act was the incentive the government used to get Americans to settle the land for the country.

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?

A guide who knew the territory was absolutely critical before there was a trail since you needed to know where you were going.  Even after the trail was established, it was not always well marked.  A guide helped keep the people on the trail.  A guide also knew the best places to camp or where they needed to push through quickly.  Guides often had some knowledge of local settlers or Indian tribes who might cooperate in trade or at least tolerate travelers.

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 the early west, virtually all information passed by word of mouth.  There was certainly no Internet, and not even many local newspapers.  Even maps or paper guides people bought before a trip were often inaccurate or out of date.  Talking to people along the way was the best way to find out about possible dangers or helpful tips.  Wherever possible people would speak with locals or with other travellers along the trail to get information about what was ahead.

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?

Some earlier travellers had written guide books which were more than just maps.  They would warn travellers about certain areas which might present dangers, land marks that might help them stay on path or other tips learned through experience.  The problem was that many things could change on the trail over time.  Also, some people wrote and sold "guides" who had never been on the trail.  They merely spoke to others or simply made up things to sell the guides.  Therefore, guide books might be of some help here and there, but could also be misleading or useless in others.  Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any guidebooks from the period that are accessable today.

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?

Rivers provided a major obstacle for early travellers.  Wagons could not pass through more than a few feet of water and travellers might spend weeks trying to find a place to ford a river.  If they could not, some travellers had to break up their wagons and essentially make rafts out of them to get them across the river.  Getting the animals (usually horses and oxen) across was another great difficulty.  Many people could not swim and could drown if they fell in the river.  Even for those who could swim, a swift current could take them miles down stream or dash them against rocks.  Crossing a river was a great danger and could also lead to great delays.  Established ferries or bridges could virtually eliminate this risk.

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?

Landmarks were important to help make sure travellers stayed on the right trail.  Using regular campsites used by others helped ensure they were good sites that had the resources needed for camping.  It also increased the chances that local settlers or Indians would leave them alone because they were not trespassing on someone's property.

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?

Forts helped to reduce the danger of attacks by Indians or criminal gangs.  Encamping in or near a fort was probably one of the safest places to spend the night.  In addition, civilian towns often around forts provided an opportunity for trade or purchasing suppllies.  You can find a pretty complete list of Oregon Trail forts here:  http://fortwiki.com/Category:Oregon_Trail_Forts

Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, and Fort Hall are probably among the most well known.

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?\

Travellers needed regular access to water, since it was so heavy and difficult to carry much.  Making sure there was regular access to good drinking water every day, for both people and animals was an important consideration to the trail.  Having to carry water for days meant travelers could carry fewer of other supplies, so that was much avoided if possible.  Being near water also usually ensured a great abundance of wild animals available for hunting.

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.

Until there were established settlements on the west coast, the economic demand for a transcontinental railroad really did not exist.  There probably was discussion about such a railroad, but until the economic incentive was there, it had little chance of being build.  One of the earliest proposals I know of that reached Congress was one by Asa whitney in 1845, which did not gain much support.  Once the US acquired what is today the Southwest after the Mexican American war ended in 1848, western settlement became much more likely.  Discovery of gold in California in 1848 really set off westward migration.  It was really only at that point that a transcontinental railroad became a possibility.

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

I'm not aware of any powerful political figures who showed much interest in a transcontinental railroad prior to the development of the Oregon trail.  In the 1830's, the US was still focusing on settling the midwest and not giving much thought to areas further west.  By the time Oregon trail was well established in the 1850's, a railroad begain to get more support.  As you might guess, California politicians were among the strongest supporters since they wanted to secure trade and better immigration routes to the rest of the Country.  Gov. Leland Stanford was among these supporters. President Abraham Lincoln was another major supporter, although he could not focus on such a project due to the demands of the Civil War.  Congressman Grenville Dodge was also a part owner of a railroad.

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

Before the railroad, travel to the west took months and carried a fair amount of risk.  Pretty much the only people making the trip were immigrants who planned to live there.  The railroad made it possible for people simply to make trips to the west or to travel back and forth.  Wealthier people who did not want the discomfort or wasted time of a wagon trip could also choose to go via railroad.  This helped to establish better business ties between the west coast and the rest of the US.

I hope this helps!
- Mike

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Michael Troy

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My specialties are 17th through 19th Century history, especially in the Americas and Europe. I also have a fair knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman History, and some knowledge of Medieval European history. My expertise is focuses on Military and political history, but I`ll take a crack at anything.

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I have been a guest lecturer at George Washington University. Mostly, I have just read hundreds of books about world history.

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http://unlearnedhistory.blogspot.com/

Education/Credentials
J.D. Univ. of Michigan B.A. George Washington University

Awards and Honors
Truman Scholar

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