The Stunning Length Of The Entire Oregon Trail

If you grew up playing Oregon Trail on your elementary school's one computer, you probably remember shooting buffalo, fixing broken wagon wheels, and your characters continually dying from dysentery, all in the name of education. What didn't come through in the game was just how very long the entire Oregon Trail really was.

Per the United States Bureau of Land Management, the trail first came into use by European and Euro-American settlers around 1812. John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company had established a trading post in what would become the city of Astoria, Oregon and sent his employee Robert Stuart and a team of explorers back East for supplies. Stuart and his company discovered the South Pass in southwestern Wyoming, as reported by Britannica. The pass was a gap in the Rocky Mountain range that allowed for a lower, less treacherous crossing of the Continental Divide. Despite Stuart's later account of the route, the South Pass didn't come into common usage until it was rediscovered by fur trappers Jedediah Smith and Thomas Fitzpatrick in 1824, at which point it became the common route for people passing through the Rockies on their way to the west.

The first group to travel the entirety of what became known as the Oregon Trail was a missionary group led by Jason Lee that left Independence, Missouri in 1834 and joined a group from New England led by Nathaniel Wyeth. In 1841, the first wagon train, led by John Bartleson and John Bidwell, traversed the Oregon Trail to emigrate to California.

Thousands traveled the Trail

In 1842, missionary Elijah White led the second large wagon train on the Trail, the first to include over 100 people. The next year, White returned West with a caravan of 1,000 people, known as the "Great Migration." This was the first of many large groups to head West and use the Oregon Trail to resettle in Oregon country.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were also early travelers on the Trail. In 1844, their leader, Joseph Smith, was murdered in Illinois, which spurred community members to move Westward en masse. Thousands of church members followed the Oregon Trail to the Continental Divide, at which point they broke off toward Utah.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, between 1845 and 1846 over 5,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail. In the late 1840s, the California gold strikes inspired many more to head west, and in April of 1849, over 20,000 people left for California. Per History, over 400,000 people emigrated west using the Oregon Trail. The wagon roads of the Trail — 2,170 miles — stretched from Independence, Missouri to the Willamette Valley of Oregon and passed through what is now Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho, with offshoot trails into modern-day Colorado, Utah, Montana, Nevada, Washington, and California. The route took five to six months via covered wagon, and it was "critical" to leave by April or May in order to avoid heavy snowfall along the way. Nearly one in 10 people who set out on the journey died before reaching its end.