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Crossing the Trail: What was Oregon Really Like?

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December 9, 2013 by Jen Cudmore

So, what was Oregon really like when the early settlers arrived across the Oregon Trail? I’ve already touched on why I set the series in the Pacific Northwest. Today I thought I would some share some basic facts and how I incorporated them into my Lawmen Series. My goal was to use several different aspects of the life during this time period to make the stories feel more real.

The Great Migration from the east began in 1841. The largest group to cross was in 1949 during the Gold Rush in California. Masses of men (and women) hoping for fortune traversed the path from Missouri to Oregon. My characters were no exception. Most of them (or their families) crossed the trail, but a few sailed by boat down around the tip of South America.

A covered wagon, like the one pioneers used to cross the Oregon Trail. (Photo from City of Tumwater website)

Due to the small space of the covered wagon, they left behind multiple items of value. Unfortunately what little they did bring along was often lost along the way. Tales abound of belongings swept downriver during crossings or abandoned due to weight restrictions when climbing mountains. I read one story where two children shared the same pair of shoes for several months and took turns walking beside the wagon.

The majority of newcomers were men. The first recorded female of white descent to cross the Oregon Trail was Narcissa Whitman, a missionary wife who visited Fort Vancouver in 1936, calling it the “New York of the Pacific Ocean”. In the early 1800’s, the Hudson’s Bay Company spread across Canada in search of furs to sell in Europe and stretched south to cover much of the Pacific Northwest. They built forts along the  coast that served as trading bases. Many of these men took on Native American wives and stayed. Some of my characters descended from these unions.

Since many Native American tribes already inhabited the area, I knew I also needed to incorporate a bit of their history as well. Many Chinook tribes lived along the coast. Yakimas and Klickitats inhabited the inner regions of Washington. My characters interact with all three of these tribes at some time during the series. One of my female protagonists is from a Klickitat tribe. I also included some missionaries hoping to convert the heathens.

And of course, there is the Columbia, or the Great River, as the natives called it. I won’t go into detail here, since I’ve mentioned it before. But this mighty force of nature has a special place in my heart and had to be mentioned in my novels.

Because the population was sparse, and because travel across the trail was so difficult, many items were unavailable to the settlers. Items such as stoves, glass windows, and desks were very rare. Vary basic furniture consisted of chunks of wood took the place of stools and tables, although those gifted in wood-working could construct tables, chairs, and desks. Food choices were very limited. They had very little opportunity to purchase wine, tea, salt or sugar. They lived off what they could grow (if they were lucky enough to have the seeds) and what fish/animals they could find.

There is much more, but I’ll leave it at that, just to give you a basic idea of what life was like for these settlers. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to travel to Oregon back then!

Would you have crossed the Oregon Trail if you lived in the 1840’s?

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