The Oregon Trail had its beginnings in 1843 beneath the wagon wheels of the Oregon Emigrating Company, a group of disparate Americans with a common goal: to seek a new land and make it their own. The trail met its end in 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railway. Western Passage is a detailed account of the Oregon Migration of 1843 in a “historical fiction” setting. In this context, the reader can enjoy the adventure as a participant, rather than as a student or scholar.
During its twenty-five year history, the Oregon Trail essentially changed every year. From its rough beginnings grew an organized route. By 1846 ferries serviced most of the major river crossings, and fully-stocked supply depots awaited hungry travelers. Due to all the livestock driven west, the trail became a mile-wide swath of trampled ground, providing an easy road with no need for a guide. During the summers of 1849 and 1850, over 100,000 miners also followed the Oregon Trail, enroute to the California gold fields. By the 1850s, Mormons were using the trail as a source of income, supplying emigrants with food and equipment. As the railroad extended further west, many people took the train as far as they could before switching to the trail.
Only the 1843 migration held the true adventure of entering an unknown land. Guides were needed to show the way; dangerous river crossings taxed the courage of everyone; the existing fur trading posts were unable to supply necessary food and other equipment; and the first emigrants had to build their own road because the Oregon Trail did not yet exist. Wagons had never been taken all the way to Oregon, and it was entirely possible that this great experiment might end in tragedy. It is this migration, 1843, to which we often attribute the adventure and romanticism of the Oregon Trail.
While researching this book, I found information to be both scarce and scattered, requiring many months to form an outline of the complexity of this event. The popular myth of western migration, championed by film and television, depicts a wagon train of smiling emigrants, traveling down a well-worn road and fighting Indians at every turn. The truth is considerably different.
Research sources included the Oregon Historical Society, several Oregon historical libraries, the Oregon State Archives, numerous probate records, military discharge papers, newspaper clippings, trail diaries, and cemetery headstones. I suspect that other sources of information are hidden away in the attics of various descendents, information that is essentially not available to the public. Appendix A provides a listing of the known emigrants that were part of the 1843 Oregon Emigrating Company, along with some brief biographical data. This appendix is nonfiction, providing new knowledge to the scholarly community and, it is hoped, inspiring other researchers to help fill in the gaps.
The Oregon Migration of 1843 was a watershed moment in American history. It marked the end of the trapping era and the beginnings of civilization on the Western frontier. You are about to become part of that experience. Enjoy the journey!
T. J. Hanson July, 2001