Heritage Gateways

Official Sesquicentennial K-12 Education Project
sponsored by the Utah State Board of Education, the BYU-Public School Partnership and the Utah Education Network

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Western Migration Highlights (1800 - 1869)

Description: Painting by John Gast showing America's sentiment about settling the west.
Image courtesy of: Smithsonian: 150 Years of Adventure (1846-1878), Exhibit: Bright Lamps, Bold Adventure: 1846-1878 discusses what was happening in the United States during the time the Mormon Pioneer Trail was in use.

Historical Notes - Western Migration
1800 Spain ceded Louisiana to France by secret treaty.

1802 The United States found out about the secret treaty.

1803 Pres. Jefferson purchased Louisiana, land west of the Mississippi River, and from the east border of Texas to the east border of Idaho (roughly) and to the Canadian border. Mexico claimed the land to the west (including Texas and California and land in between). The British claimed the Oregon territory (Washington, Idaho, and Oregon). The southern border (now Canadian border) was fixed by treaty in 1846 at 49 degrees latitude (current border).

1804 Lewis (a personal secretary to Pres. Thomas Jefferson) and Clark went up the Missouri River to explore the territory between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. They were gone two years.

1822 Ashley, a Missouri politician, and Henry, a former fur trader, entered into a fur-trading partnership. Henry led men to the mouth of the Yellowstone River and began construction of a fort. Ashley sent $10,000 worth of supplies, which were lost in a boat wreck. Fur traders began combing the Rocky Mountains. Among those employed by Ashley and Henry in 1823-1827 were James Clyman, Jedediah Smith, Bill Sublette, Tom Fitzpatrick, and Jim Bridger. Such mountain men explored and made a living in the land west of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean for the next 25 years.

1837 A financial panic and banking collapse similar to the Great Depression of the 1930's dried up the money supply. People were out of work, out of money, out of markets for their goods. Stagnation and dislocation persisted throughout the 1840's and added pressure on people to move or take a chance somewhere else.

1840 - 1846 Emigrants began heading from the U.S. to Oregon. People emigrated in family groups, extended families (relatives) or belonged to emigration societies (usually neighbors from the same town). Young families or newly-weds were looking to make a fresh start and older, poor families were looking to better themselves on farms or orchards. Both were enticed by the possibility of free or inexpensive land of good quality. Protestant missionaries were also part of the early emigrant mix heading to Oregon. Those accustomed to hard work considered the trail experience as something to adjust to and get along with. Complaints were common among those not accustomed to such hard work, claiming they were reduced to working like "hired hands."

The demand for beaver pelts evaporated about 1840. Experienced mountain men hired themselves out as guides over the trails.

The first emigrant train to California (Bidwell-Bartelson) arrived in 1841. California was sparsely settled by cattle ranchers, not farmers. Mexico expected emigrants to become Mexican citizens and join the Catholic Church. This did not appeal to most US citizens. Oxen were castrated bulls. It was recommended that an ox be 3 to 5 years of age and be previously yoked to be the most successful. Some wagons were pulled by a single yoke (pair) of oxen, others had as many as 4 yoke pulling.

1842 John C. Fremont, son-in-law to Senator Benton from Missouri, one of the best educated, most powerful senator of the time and an unabashed promoter of Oregon settlement and Manifest destiny, went on his second mapping and measuring expedition of the Rocky Mountains for the US Government. Kit Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick were his guides and mentors. Senator Benton, of course,got him his assignment. His wife helped write a book of his adventures which were romanticized and caught the public's imagination. Maps were also published.

Lansford Hastings, from Mount Vernon Ohio, went to Oregon with Elijah White's caravan.

1843 The "Great Migration" (about 1,000 persons, the first really large emigrant train went west) which dates the "beginning" of the Oregon Trail.

Hastings found no work in sober, conservative Oregon for his talents and so went to California. He liked what he saw, wrote a prospectus rhapsodizing California.

1844 James Clyman, erudite mountain man, guided a wagon train to Oregon, wintered there and did some exploring. Hastings went east.

1845 Hastings' prospectus was printed in Cincinnati as "The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California. " recommended a more difficult but shorter route to get there. He had never been over the route, but no problem, others had (none by wagon). Hastings indicated that in Calif. stock require neither feeding nor housing, nor other care, nor any expense. He said he had seen oats ½ an inch thick through the stalk and 8 feet high, thousands of acres at a stretch. Clover grew to 5 feet, covering the hills with natural hay. A single stalk of wheat forms 7 heads and the grain runs 4 pounds to the bushel heavier. 70 bushels to the acre, often up to 120 - and next year 61 bushels spontaneously, with no sowing at all. Two crops per year, 60 bushels of corn per acre, the best fruit, the largest, the most delicious, peaches blossoming in January, and such grapes as you cannot believe in. (Hastings was a promoter, or more accurately, a "con" man.) To those suffering from the financial collapse in 1837 or those living in harsh northeast climates or enjoying little return from unproductive or overused land, this was all the push they needed to make a break with the past and take a chance on a better future.

James Clyman went to Calif. from Oregon and did some more exploring, met Lansford Hastings, and wrote Fremont.

Fremont left St. Louis for his third and last mapping trip and made it to California. PresidentPolk knew that California was volatile and probably wanted the presence of military personnel in California, more than he needed further exploration in the Rocky Mountains. Fremont's men did follow a route south of the Great Salt Lake, later followed by the Donner Party and promoted by Hastings. Kit Carson sent him a signal from Pilot Peak tat he had found water (hence the name today). Fremont also renamed the Mary's River the Humboldt River.

1846 Hastings and Clyman came west to east over the "Hasting's Cutoff" (really Fremont's trail in 1845). Hastings went east to Ft. Bridger (and sent helpers as far east as South Pass to catch people before "Parting of the Way" at the "Sublette Cutoff") to persuade overlanders to take his cutoff to California. Notable converts were the Lienhardt and Donner-Reed parties.

James Clyman continued east and met his old army (Black Hawk War) acquaintance, James Frazier Reed, at Ft. Laramie and advised him to not take the cutoff.

War began with Mexico. Texas was annexed from Mexico. Troops were sent to California.

Oregon and California emigration societies were still forming, sharing information, or setting in motion emigration plans.

The northern boundary of the Oregon Territory was fixed at the 49th parallel (current border between Washington and Canada).

Mormons were being evicted from Nauvoo.

The nation was on the move as never before. Perhaps 20,000 persons were heading west. The largest, of course, were about 15,000 Mormons. There were 2,500 other Americans emigrating to the west coast. Soldiers were heading to California and Texas. There was also additional movement within the U.S. to the western frontier to replace those leaving or looking for business opportunities provided by the increased traffic.

Henry David Thoreau was living in his little shack on Walden Pond, trying to make sense of a nation shifting from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Utopian and/or communistic societies were experimenting with ways to cope. 1847 Brigham Young and 2,000 Saints arrive in Salt Lake valley.

1848 Jan. 24th, gold was discovered at Sutter's Fort. (John Sutter, from Switzerland, had a unique arrangement with the Mexican government. He owned a large area, which he called New Helvetica, which meant New Switzerland. He granted legal documents like a separate country would do and had great power over emigrants and Indians. There were even Indian tribes in the Rocky Mountains that had been granted papers indicating their friendliness, and granting them certain privileges from Sutter.)

Feb. 2, Calif. became part of the U.S. (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), and as state, Sept. 9, 1850. Oregon became a US Territory, and a state in 1859.

1849 Gold rush "Forty-niners" alter emigration patterns. Emigrants are now mostly young males heading to California. Family emigrants still chose Oregon. Trail services (trading posts, forts, bridges, and ferries) increasingly enter service to provide protection, service, and necessities. Travel is becoming easier. The trail is so well travelled that professional guides are no longer necessary. Neither are maps for the most part. Toll bridges and ferries will cost the traveler a significant amount (about $5 per wagon average, but sometimes as much as $18) but also offered relative speed and/or safety.

1850-60 Older, richer persons travelled, some with carriages and hired hands to cook, drive, care for the animals, etc. There were always the poor, the young, and lots of Mormons, but other emigrants could afford better equipment and more supplies. Sickness, especially cholera in the early 1850's, cared nothing of social class. Each year in this decade, amenities improved. The Utah War slowed emigration for a short time, but the need to supply a large army force in the west added large freight wagons to the trail in back and forth movement and forced trail improvements at government expense. New trails were also pioneered by army engineers, especially the pony express and overland stage route. Killing of the buffalo, killing Indians and forcing them onto reservations increased pioneer-Indian conflicts.

1857 President Buchanan dealt with Federal Judge Drummond's accusations against the Mormons in Utah by appointing Cummings of Georgia the new Governor for the Territory of Utah and sent Johnston's Army to quell the alleged Mormon uprising and insurrection, subjugate polygamy, and make sure there was no insubordination to Gov. Cummings or other federally appointed legal officers. The episode became known as the Utah War or "Buchanan's Blunder."

1860 The pony express began operation.

1861 The telegraph connected the west coast with the east. The Civil War began.Troops at Camp Floyd, now numbering only a few hundred, returned to the east and Camp Floyd disbanded.

1865 The Civil War ended. The transcontinental railroad was reconsidered. Overlanders began to have less distance to travel and more and more services available along the route.

1869 The transcontinental railroad was completed. Overlanders were no longer "pioneers" in the true sense of the word (meaning they had to walk part of the way).

The almost universal feeling of the 350,000 to 500,000 pioneer emigrants was that the trip was one of the hardest things they had done in their lives, but was also one of the most memorable, most rewarding, most cherished, and, for some, the most fun experience of their entire lives.