PORTLAND, ORE. — `Here we are at last in Oregon City, that long looked for place!'
- Esther Belle McMillan Hanna, 1852
THIS year marks the 150th anniversary of the Oregon Trail, a defining element in United States history and folklore.
The trail - actually a network of overlapping trails that included major portions of the route to gold fields in California and the Mormon trek to Utah - opened up much of the American West to immigration from back East. And it accelerated the closing of the frontier - loosely and irreverently defined by University of Colorado historian Patricia Nelson Limerick as that place on the map where people of European descent "got scarce and got scared."
As an inevitable and, in some ways, tragic consequence, westward expansion along what is also known as the "Overland Trail," hastened an official policy that ended a nomadic way of life for Native Americans. They had been here for more than 12,000 years and, at least in the early years of the trail, were much more likely to help the settlers than to resist them. But for the most part, they were seen by the more-powerful newcomers as irrelevant, if not an impediment, to progress and "Manifest Destiny" bec ause they neither planted crops nor built things that established a claim to property.
In the three decades or so between the first organized groups of Oregon-bound settlers and the completion of rail lines to the West, more than 300,000 people crossed some 2,000 miles of territory. Most came by wagon train and horseback. Some pulled handcarts, others walked the full distance beside their oxen and mules in ruts still visible today. Into the first decades of the 20th century, those who couldn't afford autos or train tickets continued to travel the trail in what Lillian Schlissel, director o f American studies at Brooklyn College, calls "one of the great migrations of modern times."
While the later fortune-seekers and gold-hunters were mostly single men, the emigration to Oregon was largely a movement of families. Traveling with six or seven children was not unusual, and some 20 percent of the women were pregnant. While couples relied on each other for support and often their lives, husbands and wives tended to have very different views about this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
For men, it was a chance for adventure and free land in the fertile Willamette River valley. But for women aboard or alongside the jolting, dusty wagons that headed out from Independence, Mo., it was another uprooting, a separation from family and friends back home. Many felt like Agnes Stewart, who wrote in 1853: "I am weary of this journey. I long for the quiet of home where I can be at peace once more."
For all, the journey was dangerous. By some accounts, 10 percent perished along the way - most from accident and disease. This was a fatality rate much higher than that for US servicemen in Vietnam.
While they had much to bear along the way and the prospect of grinding work once they arrived, most emigrants also sensed that they were taking part in an event that was important both historically as well as personally. Thousands scratched their names and a date into rock walls along the way. And at the end of the day, they wrote in their diaries or composed letters.
"No other event of the century except the Civil War evoked so many personal accounts as the overland passage," writes Dr. Schlissel in her book "Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey." The accounts - some rough, some eloquent - are illuminating and often poignant. More than 800 have been published or cataloged, according to Schlissel, and many more remain in private family collections.
And what of the Oregon Territory today, that vast landscape comprising an area larger than Britain, France, and Germany combined? Many descendants of those native Oregonians who survived Manifest Destiny are on Indian reservations along the Oregon Trail - Wind River in Wyoming, Ft. Hall in Idaho, Umatilla and Warm Springs in Oregon - and more likely to be poor than the descendants of pioneers.
Although there remains a sense of spaciousness along the route (at least away from the cities), the impact of settlement has brought significant change. The major rivers of the Columbia Basin have been dammed for irrigation and power-generation. Much of the original forests have been cut. Mining and cattle-grazing have affected the environment. The remnants of cold war bomb-building make an area just north of the Columbia River one of the most-toxic spots in North America.
Such changes might amaze those first industrious settlers of a century and a half ago. "I'd like to see some of those people's reactions to what we've done to the country today," observed Joe Vogel from the back of his horse, as he led a Nebraska group retracing the trail this summer. "Some of it's not too good."
Still, there is a sense of possibility and hope here now, as then. Thousands of Americans (often from crowded California) are pulling up stakes and heading for the "livable cities," small towns and rural areas of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. They are the new immigrants along the Oregon Trail.