"On 22 May 1843, the first wagons started on the trail, at first over lush prairie with no danger from Indians. Eight miles from Elm Grove a solitary post on the barren plain bore the legend 'Road to Oregon'". Wagons West, Frank McLynn, p132
Emigrants Crossing the Plains by Albert Bierstadt,1867
The Oregon Trail
In 1840 the population of Oregon has been estimated at 150. Beginning with the “Great Migration” of about 1,000 people in 1843 numbers of those who journeyed down the trail to start a new life grew, 1,475 in 1844, and 2,500 in 1845. When gold was discovered in California in 1848 more travellers chose to head off on the south western fork from Fort Bridger, hoping to “get rich quick”. But still a steady stream of emigrants took the route north west into Oregon. Between 1841 and 1866 about 350,000 people traversed the Oregon Trail, so many that the wagon wheels wore away
deep ruts in solid rock which can still be seen today.
From Independence, Missouri, where the Missouri met the Mississippi just downriver from Kansas City, to Fort Vancouver in Columbia River country was reputed to be 2,000 miles. A few miles further and the travellers were at their destination, the Willamette Valley. At first following the course of the Platte River, after Fort Laramie the trail veered off towards the Rockies. It was a well established route of the fur traders who ventured westwards from St Louis to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains where they set their traps or traded with the native Americans for pelts.
As early as 1834 Fort William, which was later to become Fort Laramie in 1849, was built by fur traders Robert Campbell & William Sublette where the North Platte and Laramie rivers meet. It served as a trading post where native Americans and trappers could take their beaver pelts and trappers could obtain essential supplies such as ammunition. The following year Fort William was purchased by Thomas Fitzpatrick, Jim Bridger and Milton Sublette, who sold out to the American Fur Company in 1836 but continued trading in furs until the whole trade collapsed in 1841.
Four years earlier, in 1837 the economic collapse had had great effect on many easterners, falling prices of produce and in the value of land led to poverty, deprivation, unemployment and bankruptcies. The situation was exacerbated economically by the demise of the fur trade and by adverse weather which affected the harvest.