WHEN, in 1810-11, Wilson P. Hunt, Ramsay Crooks, Robert McLellan, Donald McKenzie, and their party of trappers, voyageurs,and Indian traders were on their way from the Missouri to Astor’s fur-collecting post at the mouth of the Columbia, what would they have thought if somebody had told them that they were laying the foundation of a great national highway? Yet such was the fact. For more than a thousand miles these partners and attachés of Astor’s Pacific Fur Company traversed a course which was to become the Oregon Trail. In one degree or another that thoroughfare was to touch the current of the history of several nations. Without a suspicion of the political importance of their mission, Hunt and his associates were on the skirmish-line of the Americans’ battle for empire on the Pacific.
At the outset Spain, Russia, England, and the United States laid claims to what was vaguely called the ’Oregon country,’ covering all the territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific, from the northerly line of Spain’s province of California to the southerly end of Russian America, the Alaska of the years since 1867. This comprised not only the present states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and portions of Wyoming and Montana, but much of the British Columbia of to-day.
Spain’s claims were based on the voyages, at various times between 1543 and 1775, of Gabrillo, De Fuca (for whom the strait is named), Heceta, and others up the Pacific Coast to Russian America, but she did not occupy any of the coast north of California. By the treaty of 1819, in which Spain ceded Florida to the United States, she also handed over to us such rights as she had to all the territory on that coast except California.
Russia’s title was based upon Behring’s discovery of Alaska in 1741, and upon the discovery of territory further south by others of her navigators subsequently, such title in her case being strengthened by occupation by the Russian Fur Company, not only of Alaska but, for a few years, of spots in the Oregon region. By a treaty of 1824 Russia agreed to make no settlements south of latitude 54° 40́, which is the southerly point of Alaska; and the United States promised to make none north of that line. Thus Spain and Russia stepped out of the controversy, leaving England and the United States as the only claimants to the territory between California and Alaska.
England based her title on Drake’s glimpse of Oregon when he was on his voyage round the globe in 1580; on Cook’s visit to points along the coast in 1778; on Vancouver’s explorations of part of it in 1793; and on the establishment of fur-trading posts therein by the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest companies; though those posts which were south of the forty-ninth parallel, or the present boundary-line between the United States and British territory, seem, until the third decade of the nineteenth century, to have been only temporary.
The claims of the United States were founded chiefly on the discovery of the Columbia River in 1793 by Captain Robert Gray; on the exploration of that stream along its entire length, and of some of its tributaries, by Lewis and Clark in 1805-06; and on the planting of the fur-trading factory at Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia, in 1811, by John Jacob Astor.
Except that the record for Spain and Russia, in this narrative, has been carried forward a few years beyond that date, this was the situation in the Oregon country when Hunt and his companions left St. Louis in 1810, pushed up the Missouri to the territory of the Arickaras, in our South Dakota, and made their way overland to the Pacific reaching Astoria in 1812. From near the point where the Portneuf flows into the Snake River, in the southeastern part of the present Idaho, onward to Astoria, Hunt passed along what was to be the Oregon Trail of the later days. Robert Stuart, Crooks, McLellan, and others of Astor’s men, on their return overland from Astoria to St. Louis and New York in 1812, traversed that and other parts of the trail.
As a well-marked highway, with its eastern terminus at Independence, Missouri, and with South Pass, the point at which it crossed the continental divide, midway on its course, the Oregon Trail was still to be laid out. The trappers and immigrants, however, who were to be its explorers and path-breakers, were soon to begin work. When, during the War of 1812, Astoria was sold by some of Astor’s faithless partners to one of his rivals, the Northwest Company, to save it from capture by the British sloop-of-war Raccoon, which was on its way up the coast to seize it; and when, because Monroe refused to give him the protection of the government, Astor declined to reoccupy it after the British handed it back to the United States by the peace treaty of Ghent, and abandoned his field on the Pacific, some of his associates were out of employment for a few years. Meanwhile two of them — Ramsay Crooks and Russell Farnham — entered into affiliations through which they exerted some influence in shaping affairs on the great western sea.
In Washington, Crooks and Farnham interested several members of Congress, among them John Floyd of Virginia, in the Oregon region, and told them of its resources and capabilities. In 1818 a treaty was entered into between England and the United States which fixed the forty-ninth parallel, from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains, as the northerly boundary of our country, but left all the territory west of that range open for ten years to the settlers and vessels of both nations on equal terms.
Many Americans were angered at this surrender of the territory on the Pacific to England by Monroe’s administration. Right here the counsel of Crooks and Farnham, supplemented by that of Hall J. Kelley, a Boston school-teacher who was an Oregon enthusiast, began to make itself felt. In 1820 Floyd introduced a bill in the House for the occupation and settlement of the territory along the Columbia. Thus the Oregon issue made its advent in Congress. A House committee, of which Floyd was chairman, reported that America’s claims to the disputed territory were clear and decisive. Congress took no action. Except a few persons here and there, the country was indifferent. The average American was not yet willing
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound
Save his own dashings.
At this juncture,and for the moment, the Oregon issue entangles itself with the Holy Alliance, and is the innocent cause of the formulation of the policy which became known as the Monroe Doctrine. It also delayed the operations of the trail-makers across the continent. An edict of Alexander I, which was handed to Monroe’s Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, in February, 1822, by the Chevalier Politica, the Russian minister at Washington, asserted Russia’s sovereignty over all the region from Behring Sea south to latitude 51°, and shut out everybody except Russian subjects from trading in that locality. This called forth a protest from Adams, brought up a measure in the House of Representatives in 1823, on the lines of the Floyd bill of the preceding Congress, — which, like its predecessor, failed of passage, 舒 and incited an unavailing attempt, by Benton of Missouri, to induce the Senate to declare for the immediate occupation of Oregon.
On July 23, 1823, Baron Tuyl, who had just succeeded Politica at Washington, called on Adams, and was told by him that ‘we should contest the right of Russia to any territorial establishment on this continent, and that we should assume distinctly the principle that the American continents are no longer subjects for any new colonial establishments.’ The policy was proclaimed by Monroe in his message to Congress five months later, and was directed against the suspected plottings of the Holy Alliance — Russia, Prussia, Austria, and the France of the restored Bourbons.
At the moment when Adams was outlining to the Russian minister the germ of the hands-off-the-Americancontinent warning, the allies were crushing liberalism in Spain.
A few days before the capture of Cadiz, Canning, the British Secretary for Foreign Affairs, informed Rush, the American minister at London, that the allies purposed, as soon as Ferdinand was restored to absolute sway, to hold a congress which was to deal with Mexico, Peru, Chili, and the rest of the colonies in the New World which had broken away from Spain. According to rumors current at the time, this meant that these colonies were to be divided among the intervening powers. Rush immediately sent this startling intelligence to Adams, who communicated it to Monroe, and the declaration of continental independence in the message of December was Monroe’s response. This led to the treaty of 1824, already mentioned, by which Russia agreed to make no settlements south of Alaska.
The list of the claimants of Oregon was thus narrowed to England and the United States. Being unable to reach a definite agreement, the two countries, in 1827, extended the joint occupation of Oregon indefinitely, with the proviso that either nation, on giving twelve months’ notice, was at liberty to abrogate it. In all those years the attitude of the British government toward Oregon was, in a large degree, dictated by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which wanted to keep the Americans out, and to preserve it as a great fur-bearing field.
But here a factor stepped in which, after a long struggle, balked British plans, and, in 1846, gave the most valuable part of the disputed region over to the United States. This was colonization. Samuel J. Wyeth and his trading-company were the first in the colonization field, and they were followed shortly afterward by several missionaries — Jason and Daniel Lee, Samuel Parker, Marcus Whitman, and Henry H. Spalding. Wyeth, a native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of a prominent family, had made a small fortune in the cutting, storing, and exporting of ice, when his imagination was fired by Hall J. Kelley’s Oregon tracts. He planned to establish fur-trading posts in the valley of the Columbia, as Astor did twenty years earlier, though on a smaller scale; and he had in mind the erection of salmon-fishing plants on the coast, and the shipment of the fish by way of Cape Horn to the eastern market. Enlisting the coöperation of the Boston firm of Henry Hall, Tucker and Williams, the brig Sultana was sent from Boston in 1831 to the mouth of the Columbia with supplies. This vessel was to take the furs to China, which was the best market in the world at that time.
Starting from Boston on March 11, 1832, with twenty men, all well-armed and equipped, and traveling by way of Baltimore, where he obtained four recruits, Wyeth pushed across the Alleghenies to Pittsburg, took the steamboat there, and, by changes of boats at Cairo and St. Louis, reached Independence, Missouri, in the latter part of April. Many of the fur-traders used Independence as an outfitting-point in their expeditions to the upper waters of the Missouri, and across the continental divide into the valley of the Columbia. South Pass, the gateway of the mountains, which was traversed by trappers, fur-traders, explorers, and immigrants of the after day, was discovered by Etienne Prévost, a member of William H. Ashley and Andrew Henry’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company, in the winter of 1823-24. Wyeth himself was soon to establish another landmark on the trail, that of Fort Hall, on the Snake River, in Idaho.
On May 12, Wyeth and his party, which had now been reduced by six desertions, left Independence, in company with sixty men of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, under command of William L. Sublette, who were on their way to their rendezvous at Pierre’s Hole, in Wyoming. They went through South Pass about the middle of June, celebrated the Fourth of July on the Snake River, and reached Pierre’s Hole on July 8. There seven of Wyeth’s men left him, started eastward with a few returning hunters, and one of them and two of the hunters were killed by the Blackfeet.
With the eleven men who were still with him, Wyeth left Pierre’s Hole on July 17, in company with a party of trappers under Milton G. Sublette, William’s younger brother, encountered a large band of Blackfeet, and, after receiving reinforcements, fought and defeated the band. Pushing on again, Wyeth parted with Sublette at the headwaters of the Humboldt, in northern Nevada, and reached Fort Vancouver, then the headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company in the Northwest, on October 29. From there he went to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post of Fort George, Astor’s old station at Astoria, where he learned that the Sultana had been wrecked at the Society Islands. This meant disaster for his plans. Wyeth was back at Fort Vancouver on November 19, and there the remainder of his men left him.
Baffled in his hope to establish a fur trade which could make any headway against the rivalry of the Hudson’s Bay monopoly, which occupied the best of the strategic points in the valley of the Columbia, Wyeth now made a close study of the general resources of the region, and, determining to combine salmon-fishing with fur-trading in his next venture, he started eastward in February, 1833, and immediately began to prepare for his second expedition. Wyeth was the first American who crossed the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He was the first man who traversed the Oregon Trail from Independence to the mouth of the Columbia.
When Wyeth and William L. Sublette passed through the mountains westward in 1832 they met Captain Benjamin L. E. Bonneville, then on leave of absence from the army, conducting a large and well-equipped party to Oregon, with the hope of establishing a profitable fur trade; but he, after an experience of three years, failed as completely as did Wyeth. The story of his expedition is told in a delightful way in Irving’s Adventures of Captain Bonneville.
Organizing the Columbia River Fishing and Trading Company with the capital which he obtained in Boston and New York, Wyeth sent out the brig May Dacre from Boston for the Columbia, with articles suited to the trade in that locality, and started on his second overland journey. Leaving Independence on April 28, 1834, with sixty men, including J. K. Townsend, a young ornithologist, who told the story of the expedition, Thomas Nuttall, the botanist, and Jason and Daniel Lee, Methodist missionaries, and accompanied by his old friend Milton G. Subletteand a party of trappers, Wyeth reached the rendezvous of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, on the Green River, on June 17, and there met with one of his many disappointments. A large stock of merchandise which that company contracted with Wyeth to bring to them, and which he delivered at the stipulated place and time, was refused.
Without indulging in vain regrets, however, Wyeth went on to Snake River, which he reached on July 14. There, a few miles above the mouth of the Portneuf, and one hundred miles north of Great Salt Lake, he erected Fort Hall, which was named for the senior member of his trading company. He intended this to be his interior depot for the collection of peltries. As a post on the Oregon Trail it figured prominently in the annals of the immigration to the valley of the Columbia in the after time, though it soon passed into the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company. After raising the stars and stripes on Fort Hall on August 5, 1834 (and this was the first direct and practical promise of the coming American domination in the disputed territory), he placed a small garrison in that post, and resumed his march to the Pacific. He reached the mouth of the Columbia in September, met his vessel, the May Dacre, which arrived about the same time, and erected a salmonfishery.
Ill luck, however, beset him at every turn. The Indians, at the instigation, it was charged, of the Hudson’s Bay Company, persecuted him and killed many of his men. While the officials of that monopoly were personally polite and considerate to him, they refused to sell supplies to him, and prevailed on most of the Indians also to refuse. The company also erected a tradingpost named Fort Boisé on the Snake River, near the mouth of the Boisé, on the western border of Idaho, in territory which he expected to be tributary to Fort Hall; whereupon his enterprise collapsed.
Wyeth was daring, energetic, and resourceful, but the odds against him were too great to be overcome, in the absence of any support from the government.
Just as Wyeth was entering the mountains in 1832, four chiefs of the Flathead tribe arrived in St. Louis from the present state of Washington, went to General William Clark, Lewis’s old partner in the exploration of 180406, then Superintendent of Indian Affairs, and asked him to send the Bible to their people, with men to interpret it. The missionaries Daniel and Jason Lee, with three lay brothers, who accompanied Wyeth on his expedition in 1834, were the response which the Methodist Church made to this appeal, which the entire country heard. The Lees, who were the first missionaries from the United States to the Pacific slope, established posts on the Willamette and in other parts of Oregon, and these became rallying-points for immigrants who were then beginning to cross the continental divide.
Rev. Samuel Parker and Marcus Whitman, a physician, were sent out by the Presbyterians in 1835 to look over the missionary field. Parker returned to the East in that year, by way of Hawaii and Cape Horn, and Whitman came back overland. Marrying in 1836, Whitman and his wife went to Oregon in that year, accompanied by Rev. Henry H. Spalding, a young Presbyterian clergyman, also newly married. The wives of these two were the first white women who ever crossed the Rocky Mountains. Spalding started a mission among the Nez Percés, on the Clearwater, one hundred miles northeast of Walla Walla, while Whitman established a post at Waiilatpu, twenty-five miles east of Walla Walla, among the Cayuse tribe. From that time until his death Whitman was an active worker in the interest of the missions and of immigration, and there was sorrow throughout the territory when, in 1847, he, with his wife and eleven other whites, was massacred by the Cayuses.
A missionary whose name traveled farther even than Whitman’s entered on his work in Oregon in 1840. This was the Jesuit Father Peter John De Smet. He established churches and schools among the Flatheads and other Indians of the Northwest until his death in 1872, and wielded an influence among his red constituents such as was not wielded by any other American religious teacher. With the advent of the Lees, Spalding, Whitman, De Smet, and their associates of the various denominations, the work of colonization of Oregon began in a practical way.
The question of the boundary now became pressing, and the politicians at Washington became as active as the trail-makers in fighting Oregon’s battles. The politicians at London also began to take an interest in that issue. Here one of the judgments of Lieutenant Zebulon M. Pike, on the imagined barrenness of the Trans-Missouri region, intervened to impede his countrymen.
‘ These vast plains of the Western Hemisphere may become in time as celebrated as the sandy deserts of Africa; for I saw in my route, in various places, tracts of many leagues where the wind had thrown up the sand in all the fanciful forms of the ocean’s rolling wave.’
These words are from Pike’s report, which was published in 1810, describing some of the region through which he passed on the exploration of 180607, which carried him from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains, and down into New Mexico and Mexico. Here, in Major Stephen H. Long’s account of the country traversed by him on his exploration between the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains in 1819, and in Irving’s Astoria, published in 1836, is the origin of the myth which projected itself over a large portion of the oldtime maps of the region between the Missouri and the Pacific under the name of the ‘Great American Desert.’
In the long fight which was made by Floyd of Virginia and Baylies of Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, and by Benton and Linn of Missouri in the Senate, and by a few others in each chamber, the ‘desert’ constantly obtruded itself. ‘Between the Missouri and the Pacific, save a strip of cutlurable prairie not above two hundred or three hundred miles wide, the region is waste and sterile, no better than the Desert of Sahara, and quite as dangerous to cross.’ Thus spoke Edward Bates of Missouri in the House of Representatives in 1829 — the Edward Bates who was one of the aspirants to the presidential candidacy in the Republican Convention of 1860, and who became Lincoln’s first attorney-general.
Captain William Sturgis, who had less excuse for such expressions than most of those who uttered them in Congress, for he had been on the Oregon coast as a trader, said in a lecture in Boston in 1838, ‘Rather than have new states formed beyond the Rocky Mountains, to be added to our present union, it would be a lesser evil, so far as that union is concerned, if the unoccupied portion of Oregon Territory should sink into Symmes’s Hole, leaving the western base of those mountains and the borders of the Pacific Ocean one and the same.’
As late as January, 1843, McDuffie of South Carolina exclaimed in the Senate that, for agricultural purposes, he would ‘not give a pinch of snuff for the whole territory’; and added, ‘I thank God for his mercy in placing the Rocky Mountains there.’
By publication in the newspapers these expressions were carried all over the country. In 1843 the Edinburgh Review said that the region between the western border of Missouri and the Rocky Mountains was ‘incapable, probably forever, of fixed settlement,’ while west of that range ‘only a very small portion of the land is susceptible of cultivation.’ The literary bureau of the Hudson’s Bay Company, moreover, took especial pains to collect and republish everything derogatory to Oregon which was said on either side of the Atlantic, but particularly on the American side. From 1800 to 1846 it pursued the same policy in Oregon which it had practiced in Canada for two centuries. For the protection of the beaver it used all its power to keep settlers out.
Many well-known persons, however, went into the Trans-Missouri country about this time, and some of them published books which helped to correct Pike’s and Long’s errors. Nuttall and Townsend, already mentioned, went out to the mountains with Wyeth in 1834, and wrote accounts of the trip. In the same year George Catlin, the portrait painter, traveled up to the Mandan country, on the upper Missouri, in the American Fur Company’s steamboat Yellowstone. Maximilian, Prince of Neuweid, made a still longer trip along the same stream in 1833, and recorded it in his Travels in the Interior of North America, which was published in 1843.
The testimony of these intelligent, unbiased observers went far toward removing the impression that the TransMississippi region was difficult to traverse, and was not worth traversing; and this testimony was aided by the fact that wagons had crossed the continental divide.
In the interest of immigration the government at Washington began to move at last. In 1842 Tyler’s Secretary of War, John C. Spencer, sent Lieutenant John C. Frémont to explore the country between the Missouri and the Rocky Mountains, to ascertain the best route to traverse, to find the most advantageous crossing-place over the mountains, and to report immediately.
Frémont’s report, which was published in the early months of 1843, pointed out the best camping-places for wood and water on the trail, gave the distances between them, and declared, as Wyeth had done seven years earlier, that the tales of Sahara barrenness were exaggerations. Like Wyeth, Frémont also cited the fact that the immense herds of buffaloes which were on the plains assailed the notion of an absence of vegetation there. The newspapers of the principal cities printed extracts from the report, and thus an immediate impetus was given to immigration.
Frémont’s work in 1842 aroused so much interest throughout the country that he was sent out with another expedition in 1843. In the same year Jim Bridger, who began his career in 1822 as a member of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, and who, later on, drifted into Astor’s American Fur Company, built Fort Bridger on Black’s Fork of the Green River, near the western border of Wyoming, as a trading-post and general outfitting-point, and it quickly became one of the most familiar stations on the trail. Bridger thus rendered a tribute to the immigrant, who had now superseded the trapper and fur-trader as a path-breaker of the wilderness. And the wave of immigration which Bridger foresaw made its advent in that year. This gives 1843 its claim to distinction as a great date in the battle for Oregon.
Westport, around and over which Kansas City, Missouri, has grown, was a point of national interest during the spring of 1843. Concentrating there in May of that year was by far the largest gathering of immigrants which the exodus to Oregon had yet seen. They came in response to liberal donations of land which congressmen promised to settlers. They were also the answer to appeals for colonists who would rescue the Northwest from England.
Meetings to promote immigration were held in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and other places in the early months of the year. In the New York Tribune, the Boston Journal, the Cincinnati Commercial, and other papers, those meetings received prominent mention. Marcus Whitman, who, in the winter of 1842-43, made a daring ride from his post on the Willamette across the mountains and prairies to the East, in the interest of the missions and of immigration, was an object of much interest in Washington, New York, and the other centres which he visited. Many papers mentioned his exploit. Some of them gave special emphasis to the fact that he was to return with the caravan which was soon to start from the banks of the Missouri for the Pacific slope.
All this explains why 1843 saw large parties of immigrants from many quarters converge at the mouth of the Kaw as soon as the grass began to peep out at the sunshine. They came from the shores of the Hudson, the Ohio, the Connecticut, the Tennessee, and the Wabash. Assembling at that point were descendants of men who fought against Canonchet and King Philip; who marched with Boone and Harrod through Cumberland Gap; who assisted Manasseh Cutler, Rufus Putnam, and Samuel Parsons in planting the colony at the mouth of the Muskingum which laid the foundation of the old Northwest Territory; who were with ‘Tippecanoe’ Harrison and Richard M. Johnson when they overwhelmed Tecumseh and the British General Proctor and his troops at the battle of the Thames, in the War of 1812.
An enumeration of the names of some of the persons who gathered at the starting-point — James W. Nesmyth, Jesse Applegate, Daniel Waldo, John G.Baker,Thomas G. Naylor, and Peter H. Burnett — would be a roll-call of some of Oregon’s most distinguished citizens of the after day. For effective direction and for safety, especially in going through the Indian country, which would soon be encountered, and which would have to be traversed for a thousand miles and for many weeks, a semblance of military organization was adopted. The wagons were divided into platoons of four each, the leading platoon of to-day to drop to the rear to-morrow. A stated number of wagons comprised a division, with its quota of officers. Scouts and buffalo-hunters were selected from among those who had no teams or cattle to drive, the former to watch on front and flank for Indians, and the latter to furnish the caravan with meat. A council, consisting of some of the most intelligent and alert men at the rendezvous, was chosen to settle controversies, and, after the expedition started, to act as legislature and judiciary. Out in the region to which they were to travel the government had not extended its authority. From the decisions of the council there was to be no appeal. A veteran plainsman and mountaineer was chosen as guide and pilot, and his place was at the head of the line. Marcus Whitman was to join the caravan at the point where the trail struck the Platte, and to remain with it until it reached Fort Hall. Peter H. Burnett was in general command.
A rifle-réveillé from the sentinels at four o’clock in the morning on June 1, 1843, awoke the camps on the Kaw, and the bustle of preparation for the march began. Fires were lit, breakfast cooked and eaten, the cattle and horses at the outskirts collected, and the oxen yoked. At seven o’clock the bugle sounded the advance, the various divisions filed into the positions which had been assigned to them, and the column, stretching itself to several miles in length, broke away from Westport and the Missouri, and headed for the sunset. It was
Shall roll a human sea.
Men, women, and children were there to the number of nearly a thousand, with two hundred wagons drawn by oxen. With them were several thousand horses and cattle, and also household furniture, ploughs, and seeds. It was the kind of army that never retreats. It was a nation in transit. And the objective point, across rivers, deserts and mountains, and through an Indian-infested region larger than France and Germany combined, was two thousand miles away.
‘The Road to Oregon.’ The signboard with this legend which greeted them near the present town of Gardner, Kansas, on the second day out from Westport, told the immigrants that they had reached the parting of the ways, and that they must now leave the Santa Fé Trail. Their own road lay before them plainly marked by the transit of fur-traders, explorers, and desultory parties of immigrants. It was now to receive a far deeper impress.
For convenience the column divided into two sections at the crossing of the Big Blue, in Northern Kansas, the two keeping, however, within supporting distance of each other. And, six or seven hundred miles farther, when danger from Indian attack diminished, other subdivisions of the caravan were made. Thus, diversified by occasional rushes of vast herds of buffaloes across the trail, or by menaces of attack from Indians hovering near in large bands, the days, weeks, and months passed. At night, when the weather permitted, as it usually did, there were singing and dancing by the young folks. Births, marriages, and deaths, took place on the march. The Platte, Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Fort Hall, Fort Boisé, and other halting-places were greeted and left behind. From their lookouts on ridges and in mountain-gorges the Sioux, Crows, and Blackfeet, seeing white women and children for the first time, read their own doom in this vast migration of a great people.
At the end of 1842 there were only five hundred American settlers west of the Rocky Mountains and north of California. When, in September, 1843, the column led by Burnett and Applegate filed across the Cascade Mountains, and down into the valley of the Willamette, a thousand were added to this population-roll, and the first corps of the American army of occupation arrived in Oregon.
‘After twenty-five years the American population has begun to extend itself to the Oregon. Some hundreds went a few years ago; a thousand went last year; two thousand are now setting out from the frontiers of Missouri; tens of thousands are meditating the adventure. I say to them all, Go on. The government will follow you and give you protection and land. Let the immigrants go on and carry their rifles. Thirty thousand rifles on the Oregon will annihilate the Hudson’s Bay Company, drive them off our continent. The settlers in Oregon will also recover and open for us the North American road to India. This road lies through the South Pass and the mouth of the Oregon.’
These words by Benton in the Senate on June 3, 1844, showed that the immigrants were compelling the political leaders to take action. A convention of Benton’s party held in Baltimore a week before Benton spoke, which nominated Polk for President, declared in favor of the ‘reoccupation of Oregon and the reannexation of Texas, at the earliest practicable period’; but the Whigs, who held their convention in the same city four weeks earlier, and nominated Clay, evaded both the Oregon and the Texas questions. From Jefferson’s days to those of Pierce and Buchanan — during the period which spanned the annexation of Louisiana, Florida, Texas, and Oregon, and which saw attempts to buy Cuba, and demands for the seizure of Cuba if Spain should refuse to sell — the Democracy was the party of national expansion and imperialism, as the Republican party has been in our time.
The Democrats’ campaign slogan of ‘Fifty-four-forty or fight,’ which meant that we should take the disputed territory up to 54° 40', or almost to the northerly line of the present British Columbia, even if we had to fight England for it, strengthened them in the North and West. Their demand for the ‘reannexation of Texas,’ which implied that that locality had been surrendered to Spain by the Monroe administration in the Florida cession treaty of 1819, won tens of thousands of votes for them in the South.
Polk’s election was interpreted as a popular mandate for Congress and the national administration to take decisive action on the Texas and Oregon questions. The Whig Senate and the Democratic House passed a Texas annexation bill, which Tyler signed just before he left the White House on March 4, 1845; and Texas became the twenty-eighth state on December 29 of that year, ten months after Polk entered the presidency. With Texas we inherited her boundary dispute with Mexico, Texas claiming all the territory to the Rio Grande, while Mexico said that that state’s western verge did not extend beyond the Nueces. Polk immediately sent General Zachary Taylor to occupy the disputed region, and when he reached the Rio Grande, the collision came, on April 24, 1846, with General Mariana Arista, Santa Anna’s commander there, which brought on the Mexican War.
While these events were taking place, immigrants were pouring across the mountains and into the valley of the Columbia. If the Democratic platform ultimatum of ‘Fifty-four-forty or fight’ were insisted on, it would mean war, for England was beginning to arm. Buchanan, Polk’s Secretary of State, offered as a compromise the forty-ninth parallel from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific; but England, while willing to accept that parallel as far as the easternmost branch of the Columbia, insisted on making that river the boundary down to the Pacific. This would have given to England most of the present State of Washington. Polk rejected this proposition, and appealed to Congress to allow him to give the year’s notice to England required in the treaty of 1829, and thus terminate the joint occupancy, as a preliminary to the assertion of exclusive jurisdiction over Oregon by the United States.
War feeling was beginning to run high in the United States and England by this time, and a conflict seemed inevitable. But after some bluster in Congress and Parliament, and some boasts by the leading newspapers of both countries, Sir Richard Pakenham, Victoria’s minister at Washington, on June 6, 1846, accepted the American proposition. This was just as the first of the caravans for that year was leaving the Missouri for the promised land. Polk signed the treaty on June 15, the Senate ratified it, and Oregon, as far north as the United States had any legitimate claim by occupation, comprising the present states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming, came under the stars and stripes.
England’s acceptance of America’s terms was opportune. At that time Zachary Taylor, having defeated Arista at Palo Alto on May 8, and at Reseca de la Palma a day later, had crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico, and was preparing for that victorious march into the interior which culminated at Buena Vista on February 2, 1847, and was to be supplemented by Scott’s still more brilliant campaign in that year, which carried the American troops to the City of Mexico; General Stephen W. Kearny, with the Army of the West, was about to advance from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fé to make the conquest of New Mexico; Colonel John C. Frémont was directing the Bear Flag revolt against Mexico in California; Commodore Sloat was about to raise the flag over Monterey, the capital of California of the early days; and the general chain of events was pushing the United States boundary to the Pacific.
When England abandoned the region below the forty-ninth parallel, the trail had done the work which its founders had marked out for it. It had won Oregon. But its task was far from being finished. In the years which were immediately ahead of it parties of immigrants in steadily increasing numbers, crossing the Missouri at St. Joseph, Council Bluffs, and other points, and striking the trail in the valley of the Platte, reinforced the main stream which came from its original terminus at the mouth of the Kaw, and made the trail busier than ever before. Darting by the lines of ‘prairie schooners,’ which were seldom out of sight, were Ben Holladay’s stages which made their appearance soon after the annexation, while the pony mail-carriers, beginning with 1859, swept past the rest of the procession, on their way from St. Joseph to San Francisco. On all of them — immigrants in their oxteams, stage-coach travelers, and ponyexpress riders — the Cheyennes and Sioux made sporadic but resolute war.
Then came the transcontinental railway — the Union and the Central Pacific in 1869, and the Northern Pacific in 1883. This was the end of the trail. For stretches of hundreds of miles along that old thoroughfare to-day run the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, the Union Pacific, and the Oregon Short Line. From the car-windows at many points the furrows made by the wagons more than forty years ago can still be traced.
Attempts are being made to raise funds to erect markers along this old national highway, as was done in the case of the road to Santa Fé. Either by the government at Washington or by the states through which it passes, some sort of memorial of the heroic and tumultuous days of the past ought to be set up. In larger measure than any other thoroughfare in the United States the Oregon Trail, from the mouth of the Kaw to the mouth of the Columbia, participated in the march of empire.