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The Oregon Trail and Its Pioneers

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Life on the Oregon Trail was a strenuous experience for over 400,000 pioneers who were in search of a new life on the West Coast. The 2,000-mile route took travelers from Independence, Missouri, to the undiscovered territory of Oregon. The most prominent trailblazers of the time were missionaries who were spreading Christianity across the frontier. People like Nathan Wyeth and Marcus Whitman, Henry Spalding, and many more were among these brave explorers. However, many other pioneers were looking for a better life. There were many significant events and trailblazers that shaped the Western side of the United States into what it is today.

The Oregon Trail began with the help of traders and fur trappers. From 1811-1840, the route could only be traveled by horseback or on foot. However, by 1834, a new group of travelers was making their way across the frontier. Led by Jason Lee and New England merchant Nathaniel Wyeth, the first pioneer missionary group headed West. They made their way to the Snake River where Wyeth built Fort Hall, a post near present-day Pocatello. This post was later bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company and became a major supply outpost for future pioneers. One of these pioneers includes Marcus Whitman, who, the next year, started West.

The doctor and Protestant missionary, Marcus Whiteman, traveled the Oregon Trail on horseback in 1835. Intending to spread Christianity to Native Americans, Dr. Whitman set out to prove that the trail could be safely traveled across the county. He was joined by another missionary, Samuel Parker who later on became the first Presbyterian missionary in Oregon. The two men explored the frontier in search of a mission site. They found an interest in the Flathead, Nez Percé, Cayuse, and other native tribes. He then returned to New York, where he married Narcissa Prentiss and soon set out West.

Another family on the wagon train was Henry and Eliza Spalding. Narcissa and Eliza became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide. In 1836, the Whitman family founded a mission in Waiilatpu, six miles west of present-day Walla Walla. This mission was among the Cayuse Indians. The Spaldings settled in Lapwai, Idaho establishing, the mission among the Nez Percé. However, at the Whitman mission, a measles epidemic broke out where both Caucasian and Indian children were affected.

Even though the family cared for both equally, many Indian children died because they did not have immunity to the disease which created tension between the missionaries and the native tribes. This strain led to an attack on November 29, 1847. The Whitman Massacre ended in the deaths of 14 people, including the Whitmans, and the kidnapping of 52 women and children. Their attack brought national attention to the struggles of the pioneers heading west and led to the passage of a bill to organize the Oregon Territory in 1848. Whitman’s legacy led to more emigrants taking the chance to go West.

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