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Oregon Trail

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Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was a treacherous and rocky journey that took 6 months to complete. If you've ever played the Oregon Trail video game, you've probably struggled to keep people and oxen alive against disease, starvation, and a harsh climate. So why did people travel on the long and dangerous Oregon Trail? Keep reading to find out how America settled and gained the northwest.

Oregon Trail History Timeline

1818An agreement between the British and American governments allowed citizens of both nations to settle in the Oregon area.
1835Marcus Whitman began traveling the Oregon Trail.
1843The Great Migration to the north-west began.
1850The Oregon Donation Land Law was passed. Settlement in Oregon sped up.
1869 The Transcontinental Railroad was completed. The Oregon Trail's popularity started to decline.

Oregon Trail Definition

The Oregon Trail was a 6-month journey that took settlers from Missouri westwards to Oregon. Between 1840 and 1880, 400,000 people traveled the trail and went west.

Map Oregon Trail StudySmarterMap of the Oregon Trail. Source: Gorilla Jones CC-BY-SA-4.0. Wikimedia Commons.

Oregon Trail Background

Oregon was neither American nor British in the early 1800s. It was home to around 60 indigenous tribes. The wealthy Hudson Bay Company, a British-owned company that dealt in the fur trade, had some outposts in Oregon.

Before 1818, there was disagreement between the British and American governments about who owned Oregon. In 1818 both governments agreed to allow residents of both nations to settle in the Oregon area. Citizens of either country could settle in Oregon and claim land. This agreement ignored Native American claims to the land.

Oregon Trail Missionaries

Narcissa Whitman Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Missionaries were responsible for opening up and popularizing the Oregon Trail. The most notable missionary was Marcus Whitman. In 1835 Whitman traveled to the northwest so he could convert Native Americans to Christianity.


A religious teacher who traveled to convert others to Christianity.

Whitman wanted to prove that the Oregon trail could be traveled safer and farther than before. Whitman made a second trek west with his wife Narcissa and another missionary couple. They journeyed across the Rockies using native American trails and guides from the Hudson Bay Company.

Why were the Whitmans' journey important? Narcissa's account of the trip was published back on the east coast. It proved that both men and women were capable of traveling west. The path they took became known as the Whitman Mission Route. It became a stopping point along the Oregon Trail.

Oregon Trail Rising Interest

The Great Migration in 1843 saw a large volume of pioneers (the first settlers) crossing the Oregon Trail. Around 1,000 people took the trail and settled in Oregon. In 1846 the US Navy published a positive report on the harbors in Washington state. Interest in the northwest began to rise. 'Oregon fever' began soon after.

In 1850, the Oregon Donation Land Law came into existence which made the Oregon Trail even more popular.

The Oregon Donation Land Law of 1850

Usually settlers had to pay the US government a fee to claim land. There was often a minimum number of acres required which made purchasing land expensive.

The Oregon Donation law allowed people to claim land in Oregon for free. Some settlers could claim up to 320 acres of land for free. This law attracted numerous settlers and made the Oregon Trail even more popular.

It is important to note that this law was passed without permission from the indigenous tribes in Oregon. American settlers claimed around 3 million acres of land in just five years. Hundreds of Native Americans were killed in land disputes or from diseases brought by the new settlers.

Oregon Trail Experience on the Road

The Oregon Trail was a 5 or 6-month trek by wagon or by horse. Travelers had to leave in the spring or else they wouldn't arrive in Oregon before the winter came.

Pioneers battled floods and dust storms. They could get injuries from falling off horses, drown while crossing the river, or catch diseases like cholera or smallpox. It is estimated that about 20,000 pioneers died along the Oregon Trail.

End of the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail's popularity began to wane as the popularity of the Transcontinental Railroad came to replace it in 1869. It was faster and more convenient to travel by train than by wagon or by horse.

Transcontinental railway trains Oregon Trail StudySmarterTranscontinental railway. Source: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

The National Park Service decreed The Oregon Trail as a National Historic Trail in 1981.

Did you know?

The Oregon Trail was popularised in a children books series The books were unique as they allowed readers to choose what the narrator did and had 20 different possible endings. The Oregon Trail video game was also released and became a hit within schools.

Significance of the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail was significant for speeding up American expansion west. The Oregon Trail gave pioneers an established route to travel and the Oregon Donation Land law increased the number of settlers.

While expansion west had a positive impact on settlers, it had a devastating impact on indigenous peoples. Not only was their land claimed by these pioneers, but they were also exposed to damaging amounts of disease and violence.

Key takeaways

  • The Oregon Trail was a long route spanning from Missouri to Oregon. It took settlers 6 months to cross from end to end.
  • It was full of dangers like disease, floods, dust storms, and dangerous river crossings.
  • Religious missionaries blazed the trail. Marcus Whitman guided many groups across it. Narcissa Whitman's publication normalized the Oregon trail for women.
  • The end of the Oregon Trail came when the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869. It was faster and more convenient than the worn roads of the Oregon Trail.

Frequently Asked Questions about Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail is a 2,000-mile overland route through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon that pioneers traveled to settle in the West. 

The Oregon Trail began in Independence, Missouri. 

Pioneers used the Oregon Trail in the 1840s and 1850s. 

About 20,000 people died on the Oregon Trail. 

The Oregon Trail was a land route that helped people migrate to the west coast of the United States. 

Final Oregon Trail Quiz


_____________ is a land route that pioneers traveled to settle in the West 

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The Oregon Trail 

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What group of people are credited with blazing the Oregon trail? 

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Show question


True or false: The Whitman's journey along the Oregon Trail was significant because it proved that women were able to make the journey west. 

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What word describes one of the first people to travel to an area?

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Gold miner

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What does the term Great Migration describe?

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Large amounts of fur trappers heading west in the early 1800s 

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Where did pioneers organize and gather prior to heading off on the Oregon trail? 

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Show question


How long did it take the pioneers to travel the Oregon Trail

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3-4 months

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By 1860, approximately ______ people had crossed the Oregon Trail? 

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True or False: The 1850 Oregon Donation Land Law discouraged new settlers in the area. 

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What new development signaled the end of the Oregon Trail? 

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The printing press

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