F. Ross Peterson, Historian
Utah State University
John Crancer – Please give us a brief overview of the Oregon Trail.
Ross – I think one of the most intriguing things about the Oregon Trail is you have to remember that at the end is free land. You just have to think that that is what they are after. You can talk about religious issues, you can talk about other issues but the idea is that for a lot of these people they are running out of land in the east or in what is the beginning of the Midwest. There’s this huge area of Indian country and then there is free land – where there is water which is another thing of the appeal of Oregon, is the Willamette Valley, the stories that came back from trappers and some of the early people was that there was water there and then you have this great desert in between but it’s all about free land.
And so when people from the time of Whitman and Spaulding in 1836 really until the railroad in the 1880’s the idea is that there is a lot of land. When you have the Homestead Act in 1862 of course that brings more and more people in but the connection between the Nebraska and Oregon is really primarily about land and about moving people across a fairly hostile environment with perceived hostile people to get to this free land. But the lure of the land is what really excited people about Oregon and the Oregon country.
John – How long is the trail and what is considered the beginning and the end?
Ross – From the earliest days it would probably be the western border of Missouri all the way to the Willamette Valley. Later it moves kind of up the Missouri and then Omaha is really the launching part of the trail – both the Oregon Trail and then later the Mormon trail which kind of paralleled it across but I’d say from the first decade Missouri, from the ‘40’s on Omaha with the destination being the Willamette Valley.
John – How long did it take people to move along the trail?
Ross – A good example is if you take the Missouri part, it took Lewis and Clark a year and a half, forty years later on the Oregon Trail about five months, forty years after that by rail four days. Now it’s about three hours and you gain two back. For the Oregon bound pioneers it’s a five month journey really. About five months by wagon.
John – What are considered the prime years of the Oregon Trail?
Ross – Probably the prime years, the time when Parkman wrote his history, I would say probably the 1840’s into the ‘50’s because once you have the transcontinental railroad in the ‘60’s and you begin getting rail traffic out then the dynamic changes dramatically. So, from my perspective it would be the 1840’s into the 1850’s and then of course the Civil War is disruptive in many respects but I would probably put about 1840 to ’54, ’55.
John – But people did travel the trail quite a bit later.
Ross – Yes they did.
John – How late were there still travelers on the trail?
Ross – I’d say until the coming of the railroad, until the 1880’s. A lot of people though after would take the transcontinental to California and then move up into the pacific northwest but as you know, in Washington and Oregon the growth was on the west coast and then back to the east and then Idaho in the 1860’s but I really think that most of the overland traffic really is ending by the 1860’s.
John – What is the historical significance of the Oregon Trail?
Ross – One of the weird things I’d say about the significance of the Oregon Trail is that it created one of the best archives of personal journals comparing an experience that you could ever find. When the Oregon historical society in the 1880’s and ‘90’s decided to gather these babies up it created a great archive of what life was like crossing that trail. So that is one major thing. The other thing is just the lure of the west and the free land and getting out here and having this total experience – for most people thinking they’d never go back. It was the same thing for them as it was for their forefathers crossing the Atlantic Ocean. You make this 1,500 hundred mile, 1, 600 mile journey you are never going back. They did not anticipate rail traffic or riding back quickly like Marcus Whitman did that one time. If you were going to go out there you were gone.
John – What kind of people did it take to take on this challenge?
Ross – A lot of contemporary historians do demography and more quantitative stuff and one of the things is it’s mostly younger people. Its people with their future ahead of them, that they’ve got a life time to take this gamble and make it pay and so people who are set in their ways who already have land, they’re not going to do that very often. It isn’t gold rush, it’s land that they are after and so for the most part it is younger people. It’s people that often because of the division of family land saw no hope in agriculture because their family farms could only be divided so many ways and so it was the only way they could stay in that profession.
There are some of course who came for religious reasons. They felt a call to go out there to work with the Native Americans or what have you but I think most people were young, had their future ahead of them and really felt economically it was the only way they could get ahead and survive.
John – What were some of the bigger challenges of making this trip?
Ross- Always I think, health, animals – the safety and sustainability of the animals which in both cases depends somewhat on good food and water and then of course the perceived more than the real notion of the Native Americans. I think if you read the journals carefully there is always a fear of Native Americans and some kind of attack but in actuality it was minimal. There weren’t very many at all but I think it was always something that people thought about, talked about, wrote about in their journals.
I think primarily the sustenance. A lot of people died. If you got bad water or got any kind of infectious disease your chances were pretty slim. And then the same thing was true with the animals. And if you lost your oxen or your horses your alternatives [were] you would have to combine families, combine belongings, leave stuff behind and still keep this dream and hope going. One of the stories of the Oregon Trail was the grave sites and it took its toll on a lot of people. There wasn’t any kind of real medicine to challenge some of the diseases like cholera and dysentery, typhoid that they contracted along the way.
John – Do you have any general figures on how many people died most of them died from disease versus Indian attack or other things?
Ross – Oh, a lot, lot more from disease. A lot more. There have been some studies done that indicate numerically if people kept a good tally of who started and how many survived. What comes to mind to me was about 80% of those who started made it. That’s pretty good, pretty good success. But they went in groups. There was a protection in numbers. There was also an ability to sustain and help each other more in numbers
John – Do we have numbers on how many made this crossing? Total emigrants?
Ross – It is speculative and you can read some historians who would say as many as 75,000, others would say about 50,000 and then when you add the Mormon pioneers to it, it almost doubles it. But the Oregon bound pioneers it’s probably somewhere between 50,000 and 75,000.
John – And then you add the California travelers.
Ross – Yeah And they of course went up – at least most of them – as far as Fort Hall out to the Raft River before they headed to the southwest so they shared the Oregon Trail most of the way. So at least on the eastern half of the Oregon Trail you are talking well over 100,000 people.
John – Let’s talk about Idaho. Start with a general overview of the routes through Idaho.
Ross – If you go from border Wyoming where Thomas Fork comes into the Bear River and go all the way to the Snake on the other side of the state I think it’s about 460 miles and if you say you could make 22 to 25 miles a day you are talking about three weeks at the best of getting across there in July and August. I remember reading in some of the journals about when they first came in and hit Thomas Fork and they reconnect with the Bear River. All they talk about is the mosquitoes in Idaho, when they first hit Idaho. Being raised there I understand that. I understand I probably got drenched with DDT at nights when they would come through and spray my home town but any way…they talk a lot about the physical problems but for the most part people would stay on that trail from the Wyoming border to west of Fort Hall and then most of them stayed on the Oregon Trail. Some would leave at Soda Springs and come down the Bear River, cut across – heaven knows what they did for water and not very many did it – but then cut across to California. Most would go up the Raft River, up it toward Malta, cut down into Nevada south of City of the Rocks. Took that route, the California Trail. But most of the ones I think followed basically the Snake River to Three Island Crossing and then angled toward the Boise River and down to where the Boise reconnected with the Snake.
There were some variations after Glens Ferry and the three Island Crossing too of different routes you could get to the Boise river so there were alternatives and I’m sure everybody was always looking for the shortest route but the one thing that people realized is that their predecessors, be they the trappers who were guides, the one thing they knew was where water was and that is what you had to base it on I think – is how many days you could go without a water supply. Your animals couldn’t go very far, and how difficult it might be to find a place to water.
John – One thing in the diaries when they get along that deep Snake River canyon and looking at the water down there and that’s the frustration.
Ross – Oh yeah. Totally. It’s one of those weird things about the Snake River Plain is that it isn’t a canyon. You farm almost to the edge of the canyon in some areas and then you go down almost 800, 1,000 feet and that’s where the water is. They just couldn’t visualize any way of moving that water like they did later but you’d get – especially late in the year where the little tributary streams were dry and you could see that big river and no way to get down to it unless of course later they found some different ways but that was always one of the frustrating things I think. Any time they took a short cut that was usually a consideration. How long it would take. If you were going from Three Island Crossing to north of Mountain Home into the Boise River and you know you’ve got to do that within two days because I don’t think there is water in between. I’ve never seen any and I can remember some of the journals, especially I think it was Henry Pritchett’s talking about did we make a mistake, did the people before us make it because they are always following someone else’s route and later on they weren’t guided by people who had been there that much but just an elected kind of captain of the group.
It was a gamble. It was a total gamble even as they became more secure in the route on disease and weather and different things. I don’t think they had very many enjoyable days.
But it always frustrates me still as much as I love Idaho. I never read anything in any of the journals where people liked it. Where people actually saw something there that was attractive. They all wanted to get away from what they were going through.
John – The only positive thing I heard was Thousand Springs.
Ross – Yeah, that’s a good point. You have to think of where they had been before they saw Thousand Springs. That was a Mecca, that was an oasis.
Ross – I like Bear Lake Valley but after you leave and go over to Fort Hall then going across south-central Idaho is pretty dismal until you hit Thousand Springs and that would be like a fantastic oasis. But sometimes late in the year, whether or not the springs had water in it. Of course you have to remember there wasn’t any irrigation upstream then so people weren’t damming and putting it out on the fields.
John – Talk some specifics about the Montpelier area. A little something about Thomas Fork.
Ross – Part of it, they crossed as I’ve looked at it pretty close to where Thomas’ Fork enters the Bear river and there’s kind of a natural back up there and the channel is pretty deep. I actually worked a summer construction job putting a bridge over it on Highway 30 and it is a deep channel. It’s a great fishing place. Thomas Fork is a great fishing stream but they weren’t interested in fishing. They were interested in how you get across that little ford and it was difficult and it wasn’t originally a clean embankment going down. They really went off and it isn’t that wide. It’s at best 20 to 30 feet or at worst. And they hit it at a time of year when it was after the run-off but it still was a very difficult crossing because a lot of them talk about it. It was the first one they had done for a while. They had crossed the Sweetwater but they crossed it really high.
And then of course from there right after is probably their biggest climb in a short distance that they had had on the trail in some respects and that’s when they made a choice and they were guided I think because of the swampy nature around the Bear River to leave it, take a one day journey, go over Big Hill and back down into the Bear Lake Valley and that was a good climb. I think it was really, really hard on them, a tough hill and again because of the journals they describe it pretty clearly that it taxes their animals, it taxes their equipment and even many times their off pushing to help the animals to get the wagons up over that hill.
John – Where would that rank as a challenge along the trail?
Ross – From a personal perspective I think any time you are dealing with water it’s a bigger impediment but insofar as a quick, abrupt climb until they get to the Blue Mountains of Oregon I think it’s the biggest and they had been going downhill quite a while coming across western Wyoming and I think just across that stream then move just a few miles and begin that abrupt climb which is really, unless you walk it you don’t understand how steep that is. Even if you ride a horse up it, it is very steep and you wonder why they didn’t go around the edge. But they chose, that was the path and they all followed it and it didn’t get any flatter. It just continued to plague them.
John – Later up on that hill, what are the real challenges of getting both up and down it? What makes it so difficult?
Ross – I think a big fear going up is are the animals going to be able to hold the wagon. Unless they decide to back down they weren’t going to go anywhere and that is always really, really dangerous if it starts happening so that was always a big concern. And the braking systems they had on those wagons weren’t the best. They were hand held and hand held metal on metal almost. I think it was just the challenge of the climb with animals that were tired and had been a long way and then to get off it and go down is always a challenge on the braking system because you just can’t turn them loose but it’s easier for them but you can’t let your wagon run into the back legs of your livestock and so you have people putting ropes around the wagons and having humans hold them back as it goes down off the hill. And so you get in a wagon train and pretty soon – I think one of the stories is you have to take them up a wagon at a time and a wagon down at a time and then you go help each other.
John – Was another problem the weight and what they were carrying?
Ross – When you stop and think. I don’t know if you’ve looked at the things that were advertized on what you should take. If you’ve ever moved it’s hard to throw a lot of things away but a lot of these people were young so they didn’t have a huge amount of chests of drawers and beds and things like that. They are mostly carrying food and the basic essentials. It’s really hard on them to throw anything out or throw it away but if they don’t carry it over in the wagon they are not going to get it over there so even as heavy as it is – but also they had been on the trail for two and a half months so it was a lot lighter than it would have been earlier in the trip. I just think they had to work with the hand that was dealt them. There you are in July, it’s hot, you’ve got this hill, it’s going to be tough. We’re going to work together and we’re going to take a wagon at a time. It’s going to take us all day to move all the wagons over but that’s our day.
John – Another challenge was the composition of the soil and some of the shale.
Ross – I still think it was more the abrupt nature of the climb rather than the composition but I can remember my grandfather used to herd sheep up there in the little town of Alton and there is a lot of shale which there isn’t many other places in the valley but on the one side there is a lot of shale and that could have made a difference with wagons because you’re not going to rut down. You’re not going to make it as easy because it’s slick.
John – What is the relief of getting over that big hill and getting into the valley?
Ross – The Bear River, the great thing about it is its well watered but from the point of the pioneers the bad thing about it is you are only in it a day and a half or two days. But it was a good resting place and a lot of them did stay there for two or three days before moving on because there was a lot of grass, they could refresh their animals. But these people were of the opinion they had to keep moving, they had to keep moving. And like I mentioned there were a lot of mosquitoes, the area by the river is really, really swampy so they went along the foothills and that is what lead them – but there’s a creek coming out, whether it’s the Montpelier Creek which used to be called Clover Creek or whether it’s one coming out of Benington or George Town Canyons, they are coming toward the Bear river so there is a lot of water. They are pretty small streams, easy to get across and all the way to Soda Springs which again is another well watered area. I think it was a very, very nice interlude for a couple of days.
John – They reason they took the Big Hill is because the area along the river was just not passable?
Ross – Yeah. If you go around the south end where Highway 30 runs now, but if you went around the south end and tried to visualize where that is relative to the river. On the one side, the north slope it is really pretty abrupt and you would have had to have repeated crossings to cross the river and it’s a meandering stream through there and so in between is really damp, bad country and so get stuck a lot. I’m sure they scouted it out and the alternative was to just go over the top.
John – Talk about Clover Creek. Clover Creek is what became the camp and then became Montpelier?
Ross – If you were Brigham Young you could name any town you wanted to and when he came up there in 1864 he just changed the name of Clover Creek to Montpelier. The Mormon settlers had used the name Clover Creek. Some of the earlier pioneers who had gone across had labeled it as Clover Creek. Montpelier was the capital of his home state in Vermont and he just changed it to Montpelier and changed the one six miles north to Bennington, another Vermont town but he had that power and so that’s why it got that name. For most of the pioneer experience early on the Oregon Trail experience they always referred to it as Clover Creek.
John – The area where town is, was that a major camp site?
Ross – I think where the camp site was closer is where Montpelier creek comes down now. They are going along the foothills because down in the valley where the river is, is pretty bad and it’s right near main street up against the hill before they cross the creek. Right below the Montpelier Hill.
John – Where town is now?
Ross – Yeah, it’s where the eastern edge of the town is.
John – We didn’t talk about Peg Leg Smith.
Ross – Peg Leg Smith, he is a carryover from the trapper era and the Bear Lake Valley was a really popular trapping place going back to the French Canadians of 1818, 1819 so that place had been mapped and talked about for a long time and Bear Lake had been a rendezvous place in the 1820’s and late ‘20’s and there had been all kinds of confrontations. It was a pretty well known valley to the trappers. And of course like Miles Goodyear was in Utah, Peg Leg smith was in Idaho and he had developed like Jim Bridger had in Wyoming a little post, a little trading place where the Oregon bound pioneers might be able to get a few supplies.
Now you’ve got to realize I think that in the 1840’s it’s not going to be much. There may have been something they really needed, I’m not sure but he tried to gather a few things that he could trade some of their items for some things that he may have. But he’s a mythical character too. Both the loss of the leg, the other people who were around him, his native American wife or wives but all the pioneers talk about him and that’s the basis of the record. I think it’s important historically to know that even in their own way there were kinds of entrepreneurs along the route who saw that they might be able to fulfill some need.
Now he may have been able to trade some things from Native Americans that he had there that may have been useful to the pioneers. Out there where he was right by the little town of now called Dingle in between Ward burro and Dingle is a location. It’s not very far after they came off Big Hill and it was a good location for him and I don’t think it was any kind of host. It was just a cabin and he was there, another human being, that his experiences and stories were going to add to a lot of the lore of the Oregon Trail as it began its journey through Idaho,
John – As you work your way through Soda you have the California Trail and Sheep rock and the Oregon Trail splitting there. What are the two things emigrants would know?
Ross – Again, the pioneers who came to Oregon, a lot of their journals are measured on the next logical stopping place whether it is Fort Laramie, Fort Bridger, Fort Hall, and Fort Boise. That’s where there’s going to be some sense of civilization. In some cases a military presence, in other cases trading for supplies which most of them legitimate places where they could trade. Fort Hall as you know has trapper origins as does Fort Boise and they are separated by 260, 270 miles with pretty forsaking country in between but it is what kept them going. They knew there was going to be another destination where they could kind of be refreshed to a degree. I don’t think they were looking for showers and that kind of stuff but it was just a destination point that told them we’ve managed this far, now we’ve managed this far. And at various times during the Oregon Trail experience, they took on greater proportions. I think Fort Boise changed dramatically because by the 1860’s gold had made an influx at Idaho City and up in that area and so Fort Boise had a whole different dynamic. But earlier on I think Fort Hall was really one of the premier places along the Oregon Trail. Located there on the Snake and just the beginnings of that trek across but it was really one of the areas where they would say we can feel the end. We’re maybe six to eight weeks from Oregon. And so it’s where they really kind of girded up, re-strengthened, maybe traded for some different horses but it was the last big place where – especially in the 1840’s – they could make a dramatic change.
John – A little different venue. Talk about the changes we’ve seen along the trail.
Ross – I just reflect the changes that have happened in society. I’m amazed though that there are still some places that are virtually the same. In almost every state coming across Nebraska you can probably – Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon – you can find something that would look similar or an area where you could stand, that you could look around and you would see the same things they saw. I think that’s neat, even though you’ve gone from railway, the Union Pacific, the Oregon Short Line followed the trail pretty closely expect it went north of the Snake across Idaho. Interstate 80 which turned into 84 follows it to some degree partway. Highway 30 did pretty closely. You are always going to be flirting with it but it still provided the major artery from the Midwest to the northwest.
John – In southern Idaho all the major towns are still along close to where the Oregon Trail is.
Ross – Oh yeah. And part of that is because of the railway. And then of course the railway brought in the capacity to create irrigation and that changed the magic valley dramatically but I think when they made the decision to move the Union Pacific across Wyoming and then have the Oregon Short Line go from Granger all the way to Portland that kind of cemented that it is going to follow a similar route.
John – Give us some perspective on the relationship between the Oregon Trail and how the railway followed and then the interstates that followed.
Ross – For whatever reason the returning Astorians in 1814, when they made their way back they somehow found the way that everyone is going to follow since if you want to connect the Midwest to the west coast, to the northwest and that is the Oregon Trail- through south pass down to the Bear River, across to the Snake and that’s how they did it and that’s where they built the railroad and that’s where they built the interstates and the highways first. And so whatever they did they did it right even without bridges and all the ferries and the different ways they had to cross that became obviously the best route. Because in none of those areas still did you have to make huge changes in the terrain. It isn’t like cutting through the Sierra Nevadas. It isn’t like cutting through the central Rockies like they did connecting Denver but you just basically followed the streams and then connected the streams and went over the Continental Divide at the easiest possible place and then everybody else did it too. They varied of course across Wyoming. They didn’t take US 30 up to south pass but for the most part it was the best way.
John – How about the significance of the trail today?
Ross – I think the Oregon Trail should be a great lesson to anybody who cares and studies about history or the development of the country on peoples willingness to sacrifice for what they felt was the best thing for their family and that was at the core route of the experience of those people who chose to go to Oregon – that a new kind of terrain could give them the economic prosperity that they wanted for themselves and their children.
The other thing is of course and I keep preaching this as an historian, one of the great lessons of the Oregon Trail – during all the traumas people still wrote and they’d take time every night to write and sometimes it might be two sentences and sometimes it might be when they got through they would write a whole history of their experience but still they wrote and their courage and their sacrifice and their writing is what impresses me.
John – How about the preservation and remembrance of the trail?
Ross – I think the centers that they have established are going to try to do that. I don’t know – a lot of it is on public land, a lot of it has already been destroyed but I think the various centers that have been established whether they are in Oregon, Idaho or Wyoming are going to do that and I think it’s important to do it and it’s important to remember the significant role of that in American history. The negotiations we made to get the northwest from Great Britain in 1846 would not have been done if there hadn’t been twenty or twenty-five thousand Americans living in Oregon. And they wouldn’t have been there if they hadn’t gone on the Oregon Trail
John – What about the significance of the Oregon Trail Center?
Ross – It’s nice to have a center here because again it was an important part of the trail but it’s also a crossroads at US 89, US 30 where people can come, pause for a minute and think of those who came through there 180 years ago and just say thanks.
John – Give us a personal reflection of what the Oregon Trail means to you.
Ross – When you are a child and live in a little town where it was a bustling town at the time because it was a railway town and you had a little monument up there on the east side of town to the Oregon Trail and the Oregon Pioneers it made you proud that you were on the Oregon Trail and it has made me very proud that the people in that community have chosen to make it part of their history now as to commemorate the Oregon Trail with an Oregon/California Trail Center there. I just think it was an exciting part of history and to have your home town be located where both the Oregon Trail and the Oregon Short Line went through it’s just really something that has always excited me about studying history.
John – What should people who don’t know the Oregon Trail take away? What is the Oregon Trail all about for people who don’t care about it? Why should they care?
Ross – If people care about the development of the nation and how the United States came into being and you think about thirteen little colonies with that whole continent in front of them and being smart enough to develop a system where you were temporarily a territory and then brought into equality with the other states and when you think of how you can expand for the most part without war – although the Mexican War was a little different – but for the most part you can expand into this territory it’s just a fantastic lesson in the role of our country and how it grew and developed and how this little part of Idaho can be a major center for telling that story.
We were able to move people peacefully, taking into consideration that native Americans were there and we haven’t always dealt with that in the way we might have but still the transition of moving people into the unoccupied areas and then letting them come in as equal states is magnified by what happened in the northwest.