The Oregon Trail: Challenges and Conflict

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"Topographical Map of the Road From Missouri To Oregon Commencing at the Mouth of the Kansas." Courtesy the University of Texas at Arlington Library via the Portal to Texas History.

Between 1840 and the 1890s, an estimated 400,000 people used the 2,200-mile Oregon Trail. As use increased, the need for experienced guides declined with the rise of accurate maps and no less important, the well-worn wagon-wheel ruts that new travelers could use to make their way west.

John C. Fremont’s efforts to map the Trail also identified key locations of native populations along the route, including major tribes such as the Cheyenne and the Pawnee. Like other settlements in American history, the push westward brought Anglo migrants and native populations into contact through business and trade, often causing tensions between migrant visions of prosperity and the Native’s own values and beliefs. By the mid-nineteenth century, a number of these encounters led to violence.

Like the Bear River Massacre, the 1854 Grattan Massacre of the Lakota Sioux by the U.S. Army occurred in Nebraska Territory, just one of the many Western regions still being explored, understood, and adequately mapped by white settlers. These conflicts received attention from journalists in the East and demonstrated to travelers the types of challenges they might face along the trail were not only geographical in nature.