Oregon Trail Overview

Oregon’s history is deeply tied to its trails. The routes followed by American explorers stretched across the Oregon Country a full 50 years before the Oregon Trail migrations of the mid-1800s.

Until the late 1700s, the western regions of the continent were populated exclusively by a wide variety of tribal groups with distinct cultures and traditions. Although an occasional hunter of trapper may have moved through the country, experiences with whites were few and far between.

During the age of exploration, American and English sailing ships skirted the west coast of North American. Captain Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792, giving the United States first claim to the title of the territory by right of discovery. Several ships entered the mouth of the Columbia following Gray’s expedition and traveled far enough upriver to see Mount Hood in the distance. Lewis and Clark followed the Columbia River from the east to their winter camp on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, having crossed overland from St. Louis to Oregon in 1804-05. The explorers and traders who traveled into Oregon following the Lewis and Clark Trail helped shape Oregon today.

Early explorers quickly and correctly assessed the region’s rich natural resources. Beaver and other fur bearing animals were treasured in the early years of the Nineteenth Century, valuable commodities in Europe and the rest of the world — they were abundant in the West.

American businessman John Astor was the first to establish a fur trading post in the Oregon Country. Astor founded the American Fur Company and sent an expedition to Oregon to establish the commercial settlement of Fort Astor (now known to us as the city of Astoria) in 1811. The English, under the flags of the North West Company and, later, the Hudson’s Bay Company, were also in a hurry to take advantage of the land. From a port on the west coast, the HBC could trap furs for a worldwide market and ship the goods either by ship or overland to the HBC posts on Hudson’s Bay; the British could also trade with the Orient through Hawaii.

When America and Britain went to war in 1812, it took time for the news to travel to the West. The Astorians learned of the war in January, 1813. In March, they learned that a British frigate was en route to “destroy everything that is American on the Northwest coast.” The Astorians took it upon themselves to sell all they could — pelts and the post itself — to the British traders. The HBC rechristened the trading post Fort George.

The War of 1812 was very unpopular in England and America, and both sides agreed to negotiate a quick end. Americans were infuriated by the engagement, and some states considered seceding from the Union over the war. The British were distracted by European allies and adversaries on the Continent and elsewhere. The treaties that ended the war included a boundary agreement between the United States and Britain that extended the line from Lake Superior west to the Oregon region and included a joint occupancy agreement for the Oregon Country.

Although the initial boundary agreement spanned 1818 to 1828, the years between signing and implementation held their own tensions. In 1816, Astor successfully lobbied the US Congress to pass a law prohibiting foreigners from participating in the American fur trade except in subordinate capacities.

Nonetheless, by 1821 the HBC had forced out all viable competitors, including Americans. They held a monopoly on the fur trade and the trading relationships with the local tribes. The HBC’s carefully-controlled power was wide reaching and eventually settled into every aspect, save religious activities, of everyday life for many native persons. In the 1820s, the HBC’s network of trapping and trading operations reached from Russian Alaska to Spanish California (between the Fraser River and Oregon’s California border) and from the summit of the Rockies west to the Cascade’s summit — 670,000 square miles.

The hub of the HBC’s western division, known as the Columbia River District, was Fort Vancouver, established in 1824 on the Columbia River 100 miles inland from the river’s mouth. Fort Vancouver was designed to be self-sustaining. Orchards and crops were planted and harvests were plentiful. Livestock grazed on tall grasses, and the fort’s blacksmith shop and lumber and flour mills kept the HBC’s network of western outposts well supplied.

Trade expanded from the United States west into both the Oregon Country and Spanish California. As trade in Santa Fe and Taos grew in significance, a number of American trappers and traders ventured southwest from Missouri toward Mexico. Among the handful of trappers who worked the western creeks and streams were Jedediah Smith and Ewing Young, who traveled the trade trails into Spanish California and then into Oregon from the south in the late 1820s. Smith and Young both found temporary shelter under the long reach of the HBC.

The Americans and British were, of course, not the only people trading in the Pacific Northwest. For 10,000 years before the arrival of whites, native peoples gathered at the great trade center located at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, a central location connected to a vast network of trails that connected the entire Pacific Northwest region. The Klamath Trail was used as a trade route between the Klamath Lakes region and the Columbia River. Further trade and communication was accomplished through the western branch of the Klamath Trail which crossed the Cascade Mountains and merged with the Molalla Trail, a major north-south route along the Western Cascades.

Many of Oregon’s trailblazers traveled west-northwest from St. Louis into the Rockies, crossing the Wind River and Green River ranges trapping and trading, and making note of the topography and resources along the way. Word spread about the rich resources Oregon offered: tall trees, plenty of wildlife, good soil, and the “free” land. Word spread about the wonders of the Oregon Country — and soon the media joined in the promotion.

Oregon’s accolades were sung by many who ventured here, but no one was more fervent in their promotion of Oregon than Hall Jackson Kelley, an eccentric Massachusetts school teacher who had read Lewis and Clark’s journals but had never really been to the Oregon Country, himself. His enthusiasm, coupled with the promotion of the place in contemporary newspapers, inspired men like Nathaniel Wyeth and Benjamin Bonneville to explore all of the West that they could.

It is important to note that John McLoughlin, the HBC’s Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, was not entirely against the Americans. As trappers and traders came through the post, he did what he could (within the limits of protecting the Company’s monopoly) to help the newcomers. He welcomed the religious influences and efforts of missionaries such as the Reverend Jason Lee and his brother Daniel, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and Henry and Eliza Spalding.

When masses of emigrants followed in the decades after the missions were built, McLoughlin and the HBC made goods and services available to many Americans. HBC posts en route provided food and supplies when possible and boats and guides were available for a fee. Over the years, McLoughlin grew increasingly supportive of the American settlers and their commercial efforts in Oregon, and he encouraged settlers to move south of the Columbia River. In time, the HBC governors came to believe that McLoughlin’s loyalties were muddied and that he could no long effectively represent the HBC in the Oregon Country. They forced his resignation in 1845. McLoughlin settled near Willamette Falls in Oregon City, and the HBC moved their base of operations from Fort Vancouver to Victoria Island.

Through the years, the joint occupation treaty between the United States and Britain was extended. When Ewing Young died in 1841 without a will, but with extensive property to be disposed of, the area’s residents (former HBC employees and American emigrants) joined to establish a “probate government” to determine the disposition of Young’s estate — an important first step toward self-rule for Oregonians. In 1843, American settlers pushed the issue of sovereignty to the fore and began convening public meetings to discuss the issue. When the question of self-rule was put before one of these meetings, the Americans won by one vote and established the provisional government which ruled Oregon until it was formally annexed by the United States.

From 1841 to 1843, overland emigration increased, and the first major wave of Oregon Trail emigrants arrived in 1843, doubling the American population in Oregon. Most of the emigrants followed the Whitman Mission Route, the original route from the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River by way of the Whitman Mission, where emigrants bought goods and necessary services. From there, they followed the Upper Columbia River Route westward down the river corridor to the Willamette Valley.

The Applegate family was among the emigrants of 1843. After watching two young boys, cousins and sons, drown in the Columbia, the Applegate brothers joined several others in 1846 blazing a southern route into the Willamette Valley. Later called the Applegate Trail, the route avoided the dangerous canyons and river cataracts of the Columbia River, but it had dangers of its own, including vast reaches of open desert, little water, and difficult canyons to negotiate. It also provided Oregonians with a ready route to the gold fields of California in 1848.

With all the interest and activity here, the Army directed Lieutenant John C. Fremont to reconnoiter Oregon. He followed the Oregon Trail through Oregon in 1843, visiting the Whitman Mission, The Dalles, and Fort Vancouver before turning south to explore central and southern Oregon. With strong civilian claims and the demonstrated ability to bring troops to Oregon by land from the East, the US held the cards needed to win the land from the British. In 1846, Britain and the US agreed to divide the Pacific Northwest at the 49th parallel — the present boundary between the US and Canada — and Astor’s law of 1816 at last limited the HBC’s influence south of the international line.

Regardless of the HBC’s influence and explorations, American emigrants followed a variety of routes of their own making into the Oregon Country. Interested in saving time and effort, some sought out shortcuts from the main route of the Trail. Occasionally a cutoff effort, most notably the Meek Cutoff, led to disaster. Other routes, such as the Cutoff to the Barlow Road, really did save days of additional travel. Still others, like the Free Emigrant Road, were established as cost-saving options that enable emigrants to travel without paying tolls. As Oregon’s population grew and the settlements expanded, additional routes such as the Santiam Wagon Road were established to meet the needs of commerce and trade.

With farms came fence lines, and the settlers began closing lands that had always been accessible to the native people. Pressures exerted on the Indians by whites, who had little understanding or appreciation of existing cultures and traditions in Oregon, created explosive tensions.

During the 1870s, the Wallowa Band of the Nez Perce tribe were forced to leave their traditional homelands in the Wallowa Country and move to a reservation. The group’s exodus deteriorated into a running battle with the US Cavalry called the Nez Perce War. The Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail traces the route the Wallowa Nez Perce followed in their unsuccessful flight to Canada.

Today we travel many of the routes established in the early and mid-1800s. Although the routes are not exact, they often approximate the trails followed by Jed Smith, the Applegates, or Stephen Meek and his lost wagon train. The trails of the Nineteenth Century are the foundation of Oregon’s modern transportation system.