The History of the Oregon Trail: Destinations & Disease

One of the largest peacetime migrations in US history occurred between the 1840s and 1870s. During this time hundreds of thousands of people headed west to the newly acquired lands of the US. Most of these people were in search of new opportunities and the American west was an area with the climate to provide.

A large number of people traveled west utilizing the path now known as the Oregon Trail. While the Oregon Trail has been thoroughly engrained in American history, there are some common misconceptions surrounding it.

Firstly, despite the title, most people traveling the Oregon trail did not end up in Oregon. Of the ~400,000 settlers who traveled, only ~80,000 actually ended up in Oregon. A vast majority (~250,000) settled in California, after taking an offshoot path called the California Trail.

An additional ~70,000 people migrated to Utah taking the Mormon trail blazed by Brigham Young. More settlers ended up in other western territories (Montana, Idaho, Washington, etc) though no definitive numbers exist.

The History of the Oregon Trail: Destinations

The History of the Oregon Trail Destinations chart

Why did so many more people settle in California over Oregon? A big reason is due to the 1849 Gold rush. Hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Northern California when gold was discovered in Sutters Mill. Many of these “forty-niners” ended up taking the overland route along the Oregon Trail, and then took the offshoot to reach their ultimate destination.

After the gold rush subsided, California was a more known commodity than Oregon was, leading to further settlement. Most gold seekers ended up staying out west, and California sprung a robust agricultural and consumer economy. With the population boom of the California gold rush there were many opportunities to attract settlers to the region.

Oregon and Utah were much less developed comparatively. Most of this land was unsettled by Americans and Europeans. Free or cheap land was given out to settlers who Mande the journey in the hopes that they would improve the land and contribute to the development of the region. While this is what many settlers were looking for, the more concrete opportunities in California is likely what attracted more settlers.

After the completion of the Panama railroad in 1855, use of the trail declined. It was much faster to sail to Panama, take the train across the isthmus, then sail up to Oregon than it was to take the Oregon trail.

With the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, traffic on the trail virtually vanished. The cost was much cheaper and travel times greatly reduced, leaving the remnants of the Oregon trail obsolete.



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