Understanding Your ...

Understanding Your Immigrant Ancestors:
Continuing Westward

Many immigrants stopped in New York City, making this their home. However, many more continued westward. Of course, not only new immigrants made the trip west. Many people who had called the U.S. home for generations also decided to take their chances on the new land out west. The sections below contain information about who went and what their journey was like.

The Trail

The trail that became known as the Oregon, Mormon, or California Trail had been used for thousands of years. (The Oregon and Mormon trails were basically identical, although on opposite sides of the Platte River, until travelers reached western Wyoming) Animals and Native Americans were the first to follow the Platte River. Fur trappers, mountain men, and explorers came in the early 1800s, but only in small numbers. Then missionaries, hoping to convert the Indians, followed suit. Not until 1841, did the first group of people intent on migrating west set off across the faint tracks. One thousand migrants completed the trip in 1843, and the numbers continued to grow throughout the 1840s.

Then, the floodgates opened in the 1850s as gold fever drew scores of people west. Between 1840 and 1860, three hundred thousand people followed these trails. Fifty-three thousand went to Oregon, mostly in hope of finding fertile farmland. Two hundred thousand headed for California, often in search of riches. Forty-seven thousand sought religious freedom in Utah.

Heavy traffic left its mark on the trail in other ways besides etching ruts in the ground. Discarded belongings littered the sides of the trail for miles. Travelers sometimes found their wagons too loaded down, and deposited the “extras” as they walked. Pioneers saw food, stoves, cooking tools, dead animals, and a long list of other items that earlier travelers had thrown aside. One traveler wrote that if she were to prepare for the journey again, she wouldn’t buy a thing -- instead she would just pick up what she needed by the roadside as she went along.

Making the Trip

Before departing, travelers carefully packed their wagon. Packing the wagon was a slow and careful process. Travelers had to wedge everything in tightly to reduce the chance that the jolting of the wagon would throw anything overboard. They stacked the items they wouldn’t need on a regular basis in the middle of the wagon, dividing the wagon into two parts, then tied kettles and other cookware to the bottom.

Travelers encountered numerous trials along the way. Monotony and tedium presented one of the biggest challenges. Each the day, the travelers rose early and walked mile after mile. Only the very old, very young, and the disabled or sick rode in the wagons. Wagons carried provisions, not people. Some travelers, particularly those with poor shoes, developed bleeding feet from the miles of walking.

Other problems met the groups going westward. Sickness periodically struck. People died during the journey, giving their families little choice but to bury them along the trail. Lost or injured oxen were major problems since the group could not continue onward without them. Travelers also often encountered Indians, which for many was a startling – and sometimes frightening sight. Sometimes the Indians asked for food, but in general were friendly.

Crossing Iowa and Nebraska, the travelers mostly encountered flat plains. Soon after passing Chimney Rock, not far from the Nebraska/Wyoming border today, the endless flat plains came to an end. The uneven land that follows slowed travel for wagon trains. Travelers had to struggle both to pull the wagons up steep inclines. The real challenge was going downhill though. Groups chained the wheels of the wagon and then exerted all their strength to keep prevent the wagons from racing out of control.

Also near the Nebraska/Wyoming border, the travelers also lost the guidance of the Platte River. Instead, they relied on the bending, winding Sweetwater River. Following all its curves would have added many days of travel to the trip. To avoid this, they took shortcuts, often leaving the river’s side for a little while, and then crossing over it time and time again as they pushed forward.

Weather presented continual challenges. They had no way to escape the rain, heat, wind, or cold. The weather changed with the terrain. The rising elevation and approaching autumn (for those on the Mormon Trail – those on the Oregon and California Trails left earlier and arrived in Wyoming in mid-summer) both brought cooler temperatures, particularly at night.

Landmarks on the trail were well-known to the travelers and they watched for them. Some of the major landmarks and stations included Fort Kearny, Windlass Hill, Ash Hollow, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, Rocky Ridge, and South Pass. After this point, the trails parted ways as the Mormons turned south to Utah and the Oregon trail continued west.

Completion of the Railroad

In 1869, a monumental event for overland travel occurred. The transcontinental railroad was completed. Now, people desiring to travel westward could accomplish in days what it had taken earlier travelers months to do.

Still, train travel had its problems – although conditions were improving by the time the railroad was completed. Those desiring to continue on boarded trains in New York City. Traveling by rail was no luxury, especially for emigrants who traveled in the cheapest cars, known fittingly as “emigrant cars.” These crowded, uncomfortable train cars provided few eating or sleeping accommodations. They had plenty of noise, strong smells, dirt, lice, and soot, but little in the way of sanitary facilities or drinking water. The passengers jerked and bounced with the train for mile after mile.

Still, emigrants preferred these to sheep and cattle cars, which they sometimes had to take, particularly during Civil War times when many passenger cars were burned and damaged. In the sheep cars, passengers often didn’t dare to sit down because of the filth around them.