In 1776, the United States had occupied a broad strip of land along the Atlantic coast; by 1840, the nation had expanded halfway across the continent. In 1845, magazine editor John O’Sullivan put into words what many Americans had been thinking: it was obvious that the United States should expand to fill the borders of North America between Canada and Mexico, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. He referred to this concept as “manifest destiny”:
The American claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty. . . .
In 1846, President James K. Polk signed an agreement with Britain, dividing Oregon Country along the present U.S.-Canadian border. The British moved north of the line and the United States took control of the southern portion, renaming it Oregon Territory; it would eventually become the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. The rights of the Indians in that area were, as always, irrelevant as far as the U.S. government was concerned.
When Americans began moving west to Oregon, they were able to follow trails blazed by the Indians and the fur traders. African American explorer James Beckwourth, attempting to find his way across the Sierra Nevadas, dis- covered a route to California that was later traveled by thousands of pioneers heading west. Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, missionaries who planned to build a school for the Cayuse Indians who lived in the territory, became the first white family to settle permanently in Oregon in 1836.
Seven years later, the first wagon trains undertook the trek along the Oregon Trail. Families traveling west would wait in Independence, Missouri, until a large group of families had gathered. The wagons would then set off together. This ensured that no pioneer family would be without help if people fell ill or a pregnant woman went into labor. A large group of wagons was also less vulnerable to attack by thieves or American Indian raiders.
The map on the following page shows the route the pioneers traveled. There were so many of them that the ruts their wagon wheels dug into the Great Plains are still visible today.
Travelers left Independence in May so that they would be sure to get across the mountains by October, before the annual heavy snowfall made travel impossible. This meant traveling twelve hours a day. The pioneers faced many obstacles. The weather was capricious: sometimes stiflingly hot, sometimes pouring with rain for days on end. Covered wagons provided little shelter. Illness, when it frequently came, spread quickly from one family to another in the close conditions of the camps. Women who were pregnant when the journey began had to give birth out in the open along the trail; since there were no hospitals or doctors, many of them died of complications from the birth. The Whitmans were only one of many families to adopt children who had been orphaned on the Oregon Trail. Apart from replenishing the stock of fresh water and shooting game to cook and eat, it was not possible to restock any supplies during the journey. If people had not brought along what they needed, they had to find ways to manage without it.
However, the pioneers were on the whole a tough and enduring group of people. Thousands of them reached Oregon safely between 1840 and 1860.
Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:
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