In the 1830s some American politicians began to argue that the United States to absorb all of North America. Lewis Linn, the senator for Missouri, called for the British to be pushed out of Oregon. In an attempt to persuade Americans to settle in Oregon he introduced a bill into the Senate granting free land as a reward for those prepared to travel across the Rocky Mountains to claim it. Other politicians argued that this legislation would result in a war with Britain and the bill was defeated.
There were several reasons why people were willing to risk the long journey to California and Oregon. Emigrants stressed the importance of escaping from the fever-infested swamps of Missouri and Mississippi. Early visitors to the west coast pointed out that the health of people living in this area seemed to be good. Antoine Robidoux claimed that he had never seen anyone in California with the fever or ague.
Francis Parkman, who interviewed a large number of emigrants and claimed that many mentioned a desire to escape from unpleasant weather conditions: "The bad climate seems to have been the motive that has induced many of them to set out."
Stories also circulated about the high quality of the crops that could be grown in California and Oregon. Potential emigrants were told that wheat "grew as tall as a man, with each stalk sprouting seven kernels", clover was so dense that the "farmer could barely get into the field to harvest it" and turnips were "five feet tall".
Another commentator claimed that: "The motives which thus brought the multitude together were, in fact, almost as various as their features. They agreed in one general object - that of bettering their condition." They were spurred on by the comments of Richard Henry Dana. In his book, Two Years Before the Mast, he claimed that people living in California were lazy. He wrote: "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"
The overland journey from the Mid-West to Oregon and California meant a six month trip across 2,000 miles of difficult country. It was also an expensive enterprise. It was estimated that the journey cost a man and his family about $1,000. He would also need a specially prepared wagon that cost about $400. The canvas top would have to be waterproofed with linseed oil and stretched over a framework of hoop-shaped slats. Although mainly made of wood, iron was used to reinforce the wagon at crucial points. However, iron was used sparingly in construction since it was heavy and would slow down and exhaust the animals pulling the wagon.
The wagons were packed with food supplies, cooking equipment, water kegs, and other things needed for a long journey. These wagons could carry loads of up to 2,500 pounds, but the recommended maximum was 1,600 pounds. Research suggests that a typical family of four carried 800 pounds of flour, 200 pounds of lard, 700 pounds of bacon, 200 pounds of beans, 100 pounds of fruit, 75 pounds of coffee and 25 pounds of salt.
The wagon also had to carry a shovel and cooking utensils. Some emigrants took furniture but this was often abandoned on the trip. There was little room in the wagon for people and so only small children or senior citizens rode in the wagon. The rest of the party walked beside the slow moving vehicle or rode on the back of a horse.
The four wheels of the wagon were made of wood (strengthened with iron). The front wheels were usually smaller than those at the back. The wagon train would travel at around two miles an hour. This enabled the emigrants to average ten miles a day. With good weather the 2,000 mile journey from Missouri to California and Oregon would take about five months. However, heavy rains would increase this by several weeks.
These wagons rarely had springs. This was not a major problem for the passengers as the wagon travelled very slowly. Nor did the wagons have brakes and this caused serious problems when travelling downhill. One solution was to use chains to lock at least one wheel. Another strategy was to cut down a tree and haul it behind to supply drag.
The emigrants used horses, oxen and mules to pull their wagons. The most popular animal with emigrants was the ox. It was cheaper, stronger and easier to work than horses or mules. They were also less likely to be stolen by Native Americans on the journey and would be more useful as a farm animal when you reached your destination. Oxen were able to exist on sparse vegetation and were less likely to stray from camp. The main argument against oxen was that they could become reckless when hot and thirsty and were known to cause stampedes in a rush to reach water.
In 1840 John Bidwell established the Western Emigration Society and published news that he intended to take a large wagon train from the Missouri River to California. The idea was very popular and soon the society had 500 names of people who wanted to take part in this momentous event. Missouri shopkeepers, fearing a rapid decline in customers, decided to mount a campaign against the idea. Local newspapers published stories about the dangers of travelling overland to California. A great deal of publicity was given to Thomas Farnham's Travels in the Great Western Prairies. In the book Farnham described in detail the hardships people would face on the journey.
Bidwell later admitted that the party included no one who had ever been to California: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge." So when Bidwell heard that a group of missionaries, led by Pierre-Jean De Smet, and guided by the experienced Tom Fitzpatrick, were also intending to travel to Fort Hall, it was decided to wait until they arrived at Sapling Grove.
Fitzpatrick agreed to take Bidwell's party to Fort Hall. Bidwell later claimed that was a most important factor in the the party's survival: "it was well we did (wait for Fitzpatrick), for other wise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience". Even with Fitzpatrick's leadership the wagon train suffered considerable problems on the journey and of the 69 people in Bidwell's party who set out from Sapling Grove, only 32 people reached California.
Between 1840 and 1860 more than half of the animals used to pull the wagons were oxen. Probably the major reason for this was that an ox cost $25 in the 1840s whereas mules were $75. During the early stages of this migration, mules were the second most popular animal with the emigrants. Later, horses replaced mules as the second choice for pulling wagons.
When the party stopped for any length of time the wagons were arranged, end to end, in a circular or square compound. This served both as a corral for the animals and as protection against a possible attack from Native Americans.
Emigrants to the West assembled at various outfitting towns in Missouri such as Independence and St. Joseph. Each party would elect a captain who commanded the wagon train and maintain law and order on the journey. Most wagon trains employed guides who knew the journey to California. This usually meant mountain men such as Kit Carson, Tom Fitzpatrick, Jim Baker, Stephen Meek, Joseph Walker, James Bridger and William Sublette.
Many writers warned against the dangers of going overland to California and Oregon. In 1843, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune wrote: "It is palpable homicide to tempt or send women and children over this thousand miles of precipice and volcanic sterility to Oregon."
Accidental shootings was the main cause of death on the overland trails. The second major problem was drowning. More than 300 people died in this way between 1840 and 1860. Nineteen emigrants drowned crossing the River Platte near Fort Laramie in 1849. The following year forty-nine emigrants drowned at North Fork.
In the years between 1840 and 1848 an estimated 11,512 migrated overland to Oregon and 2,735 to California. One survey showed that only about 50 emigrants returned home before reaching their destination during this period. The main reasons given for this was poor health and fear of Native Americans.
It has been estimated that in 1846 around 250 wagons and 1,500 people assembled at Independence to journey to California and Oregon. This was also the year of the Donner Party, the worst disaster in wagon train history, when forty-two emigrants and two Indian guides died on the journey.
About 3,000 African Americans reached California by 1850. However, the passing of anti-black legislation made them into second-class citizens and most decided to move on to Canada.
In March, 1857, Alexander Fancher and his wagon train left Fort Smith, Arkansas, for California. The party included 50 men, 40 women and 50 children. On 7th September, Fancher's party was attacked by local Native Americans. Fancher corralled their wagons and were able to defend themselves against these attacks. Mormons approached the Fancher party and offered to lead them to safety. However, it was a trick and all the party, except for 17 infants, were murdered. John D. Lee, the Mormon leader, was eventually executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
In 1862 Congress passed the Homesteads Act. This legislation stated that a head of a family could acquire land consisting of 160 acres, settle it, and cultivate it for five years. At the end of the five year period the head of the family was granted the land. The Homesteads Act had a dramatic impact on persuading people to migrate to California and Oregon. By 1890 all available federal land had been settled by these pioneers.