On the Oregon Trail…

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The Oregon Trail is an American Western history buff’s dream. Film makers have found this subject endlessly fascinating for it is packed with human drama.

However, as genealogists, though we like history, we want to find a record of our ancestors. We want to locate their names somewhere to prove that they were one of those who packed up and went “West.”

The Oregon Trail is one of the great migration stories in American history—and surprisingly, is well documented. For the genealogist the main problem is tracking down the repository that has information about the particular wagon train that their ancestor took “out west.” This research often will take you into historical archives and out of the genealogy collections with which you are familiar.

Researchers must become familiar with what are called the Platte River trails. For it is under this subject you are most likely to find information about your family’s move to the West.

It was in 1841 when the first organized band of emigrants to follow the Platte River across the Plains, the Bidwell-Bartleson expedition, split at Soda Springs, with half going via Fort Hall and the Snake River to blaze the Oregon Trail and half going via the Humboldt River to explore an emigration route to Oregon.

In January of 1848 a small event occurred that changed the destination of many of the western emigrants. It was gold, which was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California.

At least 375 people recorded their frantic journey up the Platte River in 1849—most of them were headed for California, not Oregon. However, anyone researching an ancestor who went West during this time period will want to locate and read some of these fascinating accounts.

In 1850 it is estimated 55,000 to 75,000 people made the jaunt out West—the majority still going to California, but many headed to Oregon and Utah. However, this was a disastrous year largely because of cholera. There were an estimated 5,000 trailside deaths that year, or one out of every 10 or 12 emigrants.

The number of people going West dropped in 1851—down to about 10,000. Then a big revival of overland travel occurred in 1852 when approximately 50,000-70,000 made the trip.

The great migration to the West continued for years, in varying amounts. It is estimated that 350,000 of our ancestors made the overland trek between 1841 and 1866.

So where did the trail begin? And where can you find historical evidence about your ancestors’ trip on the Oregon Trail.


Independence and St. Joseph, Missouri were the major jumping off spots. However, Westport (now part of Kansas City) was an alternate place and appears in many accounts as “West Point.” There were other minor jumping-off points on the Missouri River: One was called Oregon, from which emigrants may or may not have proceeded to Oregon Territory, and another one was known as Savannah or Savannah Landing, not to be confused with the city in Georgia.

Thousands of emigrants, frustrated by the big crowds trying to cross by ferry at St. Joseph, Mo. elected to go north overland to start their trek at such places as Duncan’s Ferry, Oregon, Savannah, a place called Iowa Point, or a point near or opposite Old Fort Kearney. Some even went as far north as Council Bluffs before crossing the Missouri River.

Many genealogists and historians have become confused by Old Fort Kearney (on the Missouri River, which later became Nebraska City), and New Fort Kearny, on the south side of the Platte River, across from the modern town of Kearney, Neb.1 (These places are found spelled many ways).

At Council Bluffs were three distinct ferry crossings of the Missouri River, called upper, middle and lower, which correspond respectively with the approximate location of the present Mormon bridge at North Omaha, the bridge between Council Bluffs and downtown Omaha and the vicinity of present Bellevue, Neb.

Where did the Oregon Trail actually end? Some claim it ended at The Dalles on the Columbia River, where a granite monument makes that claim. But since most Oregon emigrants were trying to get to the Willamette Valley they still had a long way to go. They had two options: Raft or boat down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver (now Washington State) or travel by brute force over the Cascade Mountains. The mountain route came to be known as the Barlow Road. It went along the slopes of Mount Hood, which led to a place called Foster’s Ranch about 15 miles from Oregon City—also a claimant to the title “End of the Oregon Trail.” A third alternative was a rugged pathway along the left bank of Columbia River called the Packer’s Trail.

The Oregon Trail followed the Great Platte River Road from one of the jumping off places along the Missouri River across Nebraska past Scotts Bluff, Nebraska (mentioned in many diaries) into Wyoming to Independence Rock on the Sweetwater River, where the cutoffs to Utah and California occur, onto Fort Hall (Idaho), then up the Snake Valley to Fort Boise (Idaho) and on to the Columbia River (which runs between the now states of Oregon and Washington) to their final destination—usually the Willamette Valley, south of Oregon City.

They usually left the Missouri River in the spring—April or May—in order to make the journey before autumn and the bad weather set in.

“Independence Rock was a bulletin board where every emigrant that had a tar bucket left his name and date,” wrote Al R. Hawk, a 13-year-old, who was one of the six boys who made the trip in 1852. He relates in “Strange Adventures of the Hawk Family in Crossing the Plains in 1852” (Told by the Pioneers, a Washington Pioneer Project, 1937) that there was a jam of about 2,000 squabbling emigrants who waited at the Bluffs (Council Bluffs). The Hawks family became separated from an 80-wagon train and went on their own.

If your ancestors went “West” on any of these trails during the mid-19th Century, find a copy of Platte River Road Narratives, by Merrill J. Mattes. This is a descriptive bibliography of travel over the great central route to Oregon, California, Utah, Colorado, Montana, and other Western states and territories, 1812-66. It was published by University of Illinois Press in 1988. If your local library does not have a copy of it, try a university library.

Platte River Road Narratives will guide you to diaries, newspaper accounts and compiled histories of those who made the famous treks out West. To get the most out of this fabulous bibliography, you should know the names of all the siblings (and their spouses) and extended families of your ancestors. This knowledge will enable you to discover diaries or accounts of your ancestor’s trip. For your ancestor may not have been the one who left such an account—but his/her brother or sister, spouse or another relative may have.

Elizabeth Shepard Holtgrieve was an 11-year-old Iowa girl who made the trip in 1852 with her physician and widowed father, Henry Shepard. A wagon train romance developed between her father and an emigrant woman from another company and they were married on the banks of the Boise River near Fort Boise. Years later, in 1926, Elizabeth was interviewed by an Oregon newspaperman and her account of this trip appeared in the Oregon Journal, and other publications.2

One of Elizabeth’s sisters married one of my Vanderpool ancestors—thus her detailed account of their Oregon Trail trip in 1852 filled in part of my family’s history.3

You may be able to do the same by consulting Platte River Road Narratives. Even if you do not find any reference to accounts left by your family members, check for other accounts of the trip during the time period when your family migrated across the Plains. Many of the adventures are common to all of our families who picked up and went West.

A great guide to other printed matter on the Oregon Trail can be found by consulting P. William Filby’s American and British Genealogy and Heraldry For Oregon Trail pioneers look under both Oregon and Washington topics.

Also consult Directory of Archives and Manuscript Repositories, published by National Historical Publications and Records Commission in 1978. Check under all localities along the Oregon Trail. This fine reference can be found on microfiche at most Family History Centers, or in the reference section of your local public library.


  1. Merrill J. Mattes, Platte River Road Narratives (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 1988).
  2. Washington Historical Quarterly, 19:193-98 (1928).
  3. Fred Lockly, Conversations with Pioneer Women (Eugene, Oregon: Rainy Day Press, 1981), pp. 154-164.