Origins of the Oregon Trail

In the 1700s, ships had begun sailing from the West Coast of North America across the Pacific Ocean to China. The ships left North America loaded with furs of beaver and sea otters. These goods were then traded for Chinese tea, silks, and spices, which were brought to Boston for sale. French and English frontiersmen began searching for a Northwest Passage, a possible river route across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.

Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, President Thomas Jefferson sent the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery to the region. Their goals were to map the newly acquired territory, to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, and to establish an American presence in the Northwest. Lewis and Clark failed to find a river route to the Pacific.

In 1812, Robert Stuart and a group of fur traders took a difficult northern route through the mountains to Fort Astoria, located at the mouth of the Columbia River in what is now Oregon. Fort Astoria was the first American settlement on the Pacific Coast of North America. It served as a trading post for the Pacific Fur Company. On his trip back east, Stuart searched for an easier path through the mountains. He and his men found a wide path across the Continental Divide. This route became known as the South Pass.

Stuart’s group followed a path along the Platte River through what would become Nebraska. They blazed a southern path that stretched all the way from the Columbia River in what is now Oregon to St. Louis, Missouri. This path eventually became the Oregon Trail.

In the 1820s, the fur trapper Jedediah Smith followed the South Pass across the Continental Divide heading west. Smith wrote a letter describing his journey to the U.S. Secretary of War in 1830, making the location of the South Pass public knowledge. Smith’s reports spurred the growth of the Pacific Northwest, especially the fur trade. Americans became interested in securing the Northwest territory for the United States.

To the Native Americans, this western exploration was an invasion. They had already lived in the region for hundreds of years. As the United States expanded westward, thousands of Native Americans died due to conflict and disease. Thousands more were displaced by the U.S. military and the white immigrants.

When furs went out of fashion in the mid-1800s, many fur traders became Army scouts or guides for the pioneer wagon trains arriving from the east. A wave of immigrants arrived via the Oregon Trail.

Source: Origins of the Oregon Trail

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