In May of 1843, hundreds of would-be emigrants assembled in Independence, Missouri and prepared to set off on a 2000-mile journey to Oregon.
They were all suffering from an insanity rampant in America of the 1840s: Oregon Fever.
It was not a sudden malady; it had been building since the Lewis and Clark expedition. Oregon developed a reputation of having a perfect, disease-free climate that could make it the breadbasket of the West. Hopeful merchants like Nathaniel Wyeth, crackpot propagandists like Hall Jackson Kelley, and government agents like Lt. William Slacum had all written books extolling Oregon’s virtues and encouraging settlement there. Fur traders had books written about their adventures out west.
The first person to follow the entire route of the Oregon Trail was Robert Stuart of Astoria in 1812-13. He did so in reverse, traveling west to east, and in the process discovered the South Pass, so named because it was south of the pass Lewis and Clark followed over the Continental Divide.
In 1834 New England merchant Nathaniel Wyeth and Methodist-Episcopal Missionary Jason Lee left for the Willamette Valley. Wyeth had made a trip to Oregon in 1832, and on his overland return he had contracted with trappers at the Rocky Mountain Rendezvous of 1833 to bring back supplies to sell at the next Rendezvous. He made good on his deal and at the same time guided Lee to the site of his proposed mission. The Wyeth-Lee Party was the first group of settlers to follow the entire route of the Oregon Trail. They were convinced by employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company to leave their wagons at Fort Hall and continue on to the Willamette Valley by pack animals, an inconvenient but successful tactic.
A similar trek was completed in 1836 when Captain Benjamin de Bonneville conducted Marcus Whitman and Henry Spalding to their missions. They were likewise convinced to leave their wagons at Fort Hall. Part of the historic significance of this party was the presence of the first white women — Spalding’s and Whitman’s wives — to reach Oregon by the overland route (a handful of others beat them to Oregon by a few months, but they arrived by ship). The Whitman Mission would figure prominently in the Oregon Trail story for the first few years it was in widespread use, as the Trail went past the Whitmans’ front door from 1843 until the deaths of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in 1847.
Starting in 1841, Senator Lewis Linn of Missouri annually introduced a bill to Congress to extend American jurisdiction to Oregon and offer free land to white settlers and “half-breed Indians.” The prospect of 640 free acres of prime Willamette Valley farmland, as opposed to paying $200 for 160 acres in the States, was very enticing. The Donation Land Act finally passed Congress and was signed into law in 1850. For Linn’s efforts, he was rewarded with a namesake town in Oregon: Linn City, originally called Robins Nest and later renamed West Linn when a fire devastated Linn City’s business district and the town was rebuilt on higher ground a short distance west of its original location.
Another major milestone occurred in the spring of 1841, when the Western Emigration Society left Missouri for the Pacific coast. Led by John Bidwell and Captain John Bartelson, their intention was to go to California. However, at Fort Hall half of their number instead opted to head for Oregon.
The next year missionary Elijah White, newly appointed Indian Sub-Agent to Oregon, led 112 emigrants to Oregon. Their wagons were cut down to two-wheeled carts at Fort Hall, as it was generally believed at that time that wagons could not make the journey over the rough terrain of the intermountain West. Missourian Philip Edwards, who wrote a pamphlet in 1843 to discourage emigration, was correct in his observation that no one had yet taken wagons all the way to Oregon.
Two events occurred in the winter of 1842-43 that greatly changed the status of wagons on the trail. The first was Marcus Whitman’s dead-of-winter trip from Waiilatpu to Boston to plead his case before the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, which had ordered some of its Oregon missions to be closed. This successful trip put him in Independence on his way back to Oregon in the month of May, 1843. The other event was the Senate passage, 24 votes to 22, of Linn’s Oregon bill. Although it was eventually killed in the House, it came close to passing and encouraged hundreds of people to head to Oregon that year.
Whitman met a large party of emigrants in Independence and promised to join up with them somewhere along the Platte River after conducting business in Westport and Shawnee Mission. With his encouragement, the pioneers decided that there were enough of them to push their wagons all the way through to Oregon. Though the emigrants succeeded in getting some of their wagons into the Oregon Country, Whitman later convinced them to abandon their remaining wagons along the Columbia River, build rafts, and float downstream to Fort Vancouver and the Willamette Valley. It would not be until 1846, with the opening of the Barlow Road, that the first wagons rolled into the Willamette Valley.
On May 22, 1843, the party left Elm Grove, twelve miles out of Independence. After a shakedown trek of 100 miles to the shores of the Kansas River (the site of modern-day Topeka) they elected officers. The mule trains left first, afraid they would get stuck behind the slower, ox-drawn wagons. At least 120 wagons and 875 people with over a thousand head of livestock left for Oregon within days of one another. Over 700 people and a somewhat depleted herd of livestock arrived safely in Oregon that fall. Thirty of their number turned south and set out for California at the Malheur River.
The Great Migration to Oregon was underway.