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Letter from Elk City: On the Oregon Trail

By Staff | Jul 10, 2009

This is one of the murals in downtown Vale, Ore. EDN photo by Michael Tidemann

ELK CITY, Ore. – If you travel in the Northwest, sooner or later you’re going to come upon portions of the Oregon Trail.

While little remains of the Oregon Trail through the croplands of eastern Nebraska, the further west you go the more you’ll see of it. In some seldom-traveled parts of Wyoming, you’ll find large sections of rutted paths that have changed little since the first settlers traveled over them well over 150 years ago.

Even though it’s been well over a hundred years since covered wagons traveled the Oregon Trail, scattered grooves and ruts remain sheerly due to the number of people who traveled the route – 500,000 according to most estimates – considered to be the biggest voluntary mass migration in history.

Vale, Ore., a community of just under 2,000 in the eastern part of the state, prides itself in its Oregon Trail heritage. Canvas signs in front of downtown businesses state they were “Born and Raised on the Oregon Trail.”

A total of 28 murals are painted on the sides and fronts of businesses throughout Vale depicting scenes such as the fur trade, gold miners, Basque sheepherders, branding, and, of course, the conestoga wagons wending their way west.

While most of the western sojourners in the 19th century were headed for the Williamette Valley in Oregon or the Walla Walla area of what is current-day Washington, all traveled on a least some portion of the Oregon Trail.

There are variations on the Oregon Trail, of course. They include Goodale’s Cutoff, an Oregon Trail route that slices the top of a panoramic view east of Mountain Home, Idaho, the Parting of the Ways where travelers had to choose between going to California or Oregon, or South Pass, first known to white men after Jed Smith traveled the route – something far more practical than the much more northerly route that Lewis and Clark took through the Bitterroots.

After traipsing across vestiges of the Oregon Trail through eastern Oregon and Idaho, I pushed on to a campground along the Hoback River southeast of Jackson, Wyo. Between the heavy mist, dead flashlight batteries, and firewood that wouldn’t light, I basically had to pitch my tent by feel.

I slept the sleep of the dead, though, listening just a short while to the roar of the Hoback River just feet away. I awoke in the morning and poked my head from my tent to see snowcaps on both sides. It was June 13.

Back on the road, I thought how a trip on the Oregon Trail when it first opened in the 1840s was dangerous at best. Cholera and smallpox were common. So were heat exhaustion and starvation. Indian attacks, something depicted in movies for generations, actually seldom happened. It was far more likely that a traveler would panic and fire upon one of the natives along the trail.

Travelers usually had the choice of starting out in the rain and mud and flooding of early spring or braving the heavy snows of late winter. Many ‘wintered over’ through part of their journey before continuing.

Heroes of the Oregon Trail are many. They include Jed Smith, Bill Subtlette, Marcus Whitman, Joe Meek, and many others too numerous to name. Often, like Meek, they were former fur traders who looked for something to do when fashion whims turned from beaver to silk hats and the beaver started to play out. So they took to guiding wagon trains or working as scouts or hunters.

By the late 1870s, the Indian wars were approaching an end except for isolated skirmishes with the Apache in the Southwest. When Chief Joseph’s band was finally cornered in Montana, the nomadic way of life of the Indians of the High Plains was at an end. And for the most part, so were the long lines of conestoga wagons going from one part of the horizon to the other.

Today, routes such as Interstate 80 criss-cross the Oregon Trail. There are still portions visible, though, a reminder of the sacrifices and contributions of those who built the West.