Wagon Trains To The Old West

By Terry Claypoole

The Oregon Trail: illustration depicting the first covered wagon caravan, led by Smith-Jackson-Sublette, consisting of 10 wagons drawn by five mules each, heading for Wind River Valley near the present Lander, Wyoming. Undated drawing by William H. Jackso

Wagon-train transportation was organized by settlers in the United States for emigration to the West during the late 18th century and most of the 19th century. These wagon trains became the mode of long-distance transportation for people and goods. During the 19th century is when some of the most famous wagon trains developed, including the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, the Smoky Hill Trail, and the Southern Overland Mail route.

The route of the Oregon Trail shown on a map of the western United States from Independence, Missouri (on the eastern end) to Oregon City, Oregon (on the western end). (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail, also known as the Oregon–California Trail, was a trail between Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon. This was one of two main emigrant routes to the American West. This trail was approximately 2,000 miles long (or 3,200 kilometers) and helped hundreds of thousands of emigrants to reach the Northwest between the 1840s and the 1860s. This trail crossed difficult terrain that included large territories settled by Native Americans.

Arrival Of The Caravan At Santa Fe, lithograph published c.1844. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Santa Fe Trail

The Santa Fe Trail was the other of the two main emigrant routes to the American West, leading from Independence, Missouri to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This trail was opened by William Becknell and used as an important commercial route from 1821 to 1880. Native Americans often attacked these wagon caravans between 1864 and 1869, so their drivers began traveling in parallel columns, making it easier to form a circular line of defense. After the United States seized New Mexico in the Mexican–American War, aided in part by the trade of manufactured goods and the silver and fur trades enabled by the trail, usage of the trail increased and even included mail delivery service by stagecoach starting in 1849 until it ended for good with the completion of the Santa Fe railroad in 1880.

Fort Bidwell in 1877 in Modoc County, California, named for John Bidwell. (U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons)

The First Wagon Train To Arrive In California

On November 4, 1841, the first wagon train of Easterners made it to California, led by 21-year-old John Bidwell. Along with his partner, John Bartleson, Bidwell organized the trip and left on May 1, 1841 with 69 people who had never been west of St. Louis, Missouri. The trek spanned 2,008 miles, progressing an average of 12–15 miles a day, over the course of five months. Fortunately, they had some experienced help on hand, including a group of missionaries and mountain man Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick.

Once they reached Idaho, the party split, with Bartleson leading one group toward Oregon and Bidwell choosing California. It was not an easy path for Bidwell's group, who were forced to abandon their wagons in the rugged terrain of northern Utah. They faced the wrath of mother nature, near starvation, and a lack of water before finally finishing their journey on horseback and arriving somewhere close to present-day Tuolumne County.

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Terry Claypoole


Terry is a lover of the beach, history, politics and has a passion for social media and technology. In her spare time, you can find her at the beach (of course) enjoying the sand and sun and listening to music from the groovy era.