'A Nation in Transit' on the Oregon Trail

Eleanor Stackhouse Atkinson
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In the May 1910 issue of The Atlantic, Charles M. Harvey described a thrilling scene from 173 years ago today:

A rifle-reveille from the sentinels at four o’clock in the morning on June 1, 1843, awoke the camps on the Kaw [River near Westport, Missouri], and the bustle of preparation for the march [to Oregon] 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. ...

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.

If you grow up in Oregon, as I did, you can’t escape the romance of the Oregon Trail. It’s an origin story as powerful as that of Paul Revere or Alexander Hamilton, the kind of deeply American dream of work and reward that promises if you’ve made it this far, you deserve to be here.

Museums and landmarks across the state feature recreated wagons covered in canvas, and small towns have tourist strips decked out in frontier fonts. At my elementary school in Portland, we went to Oregon Trail camp and made “pioneer crafts,” coloring quilt patterns and shaking cream into butter in baby-food jars. From first to fourth grade I checked out every pioneer story the school library had to offer, wrote book reports with the plot summary “endured many hardships on the prairie,” and learned early how to spell “perseverance.” At recess, where other kids might play house, we played covered wagons.

It’s not just Oregonians, either; a generation of American kids grew up on the Oregon Trail computer game, shooting bison and dying of dysentery all across the prairie. Today, the pixelated icon has become an app, and adults can participate in a live-action version, as Emily Grosvenor reported for us in 2014:

Emily Grosvenor

Teams of 2-4 people, many in pioneer garb, build a wagon out of paper and dowel rods before tackling 10 challenges inspired by the computer game—things like floating the wagon across a kiddie pool, shooting at game with nerf guns, competing in a three-legged dysentery race to an outhouse. Instead of finding shelter, we built a tarp tent while volunteers sprayed us with water. We survived being pummeled with pool noodles by roller derby girls at the Platte River station. …

On the trail, as in the game, if you killed a bison, you could only carry 200 pounds of meat with you. In the live-action game, participants face the task of pushing 200 pounds of meat up a hill—in this case, a 200-pound man in a wagon regaling the crowd with meat facts. …

The nostalgia is intense, the group bonding quotient is high, the survival rate is through the roof. And luckily, the chances of dying of dysentery? Next to none.

You can sign up here. But a look back at Harvey’s 1910 account reveals a much less innocent side of the great migration west. His language is military—the wagon train is an “army” that moves in columns and wakes to reveille—and that’s no accident, since the settlers’ presence is partly an act of war:

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. … The Platte, Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, South Pass, Fort Bridger, Fort Hall, Fort Boise, 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 1848 there were only five hundred American settlers west of the Rocky Mountains and north of California. When, in September, 1843, the column … 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.

Oregon’s pioneers weren’t only propelled by the simple motives I learned as a child—hope, bravery, wanderlust, the desire for something better. That’s part of the story, but as Harvey explains, “They were also the answer to appeals for colonists who would rescue the Northwest from England,” staking a claim for American empire by settling in contested territory. More grievously, their mission was to colonize what Harvey calls “an Indian-infested region,” and the “vast migration” that began with the wagon train in 1843 did indeed spell doom for Native American tribes. As Weston put it recently,

This was Manifest Destiny, and there’d never be enough room for Native Americans and white settlers. In treaty after reneged treaty, the land granted to the tribes of the Great Plains shrunk. The U.S. wanted them docile, to take up farming on the reservations and stay put. … The Army planned to slaughter all buffalo and starve the tribes into submission.

Which leaves the Oregon Trail story—where? It’s a marvel, and a tragedy, the story of a nation’s progress and of other nations’ loss. It’s a story of people who set out to build new lives for themselves, of people whose lives were destroyed in the process, and of something more human than Manifest Destiny, a story of change and of harm and of hope.