THE OREGON TRAIL

The Oregon Trail was one of many routes West used by early pioneers and it is one of the most famous. The trail began from points in both Missouri and Iowa and ended in Oregon. At South Pass, Wyoming, a South fork began the California Trail which terminated in Sacramento, California.

Settlers started the trek West from either Council Bluffs, Iowa, St. Joseph, Missouri, or Independence, Missouri. The two Missouri legs merged in Kansas at a point South of the Nebraska line, then turned North and merged again, with the Council Bluffs leg at Ft. Kearney, Nebraska. From there the trail reached West through Pawnee country to Ft. Laramie, Wyoming. As travelers crossed the Wyoming line they were exposed to Cheyenne and Sioux Indians from the North and Arapaho from the South but it is a myth that wagon trains were in constant danger.

Many today had their first history lessons through the movies, where emigrants traveling West were represented as intrepid pioneers looking to conquer a new land, and Indians were often portrayed as villains, committing unprovoked violence against countless innocent white families. The fact is that movies -- and many of our history books -- were mythic creations to justify Westward expansion. The real story is more complex.

Violence did occur, but not as often as movie-makers would have us believe. The more common occurrence is that Indians would come into a wagon camp to trade or ask to be paid for the use of their grazing areas. And many times the encounters were tense. But in the vast majority of cases the outcomes were positive.

The movies have pounded into our subconscious the myth that the wagon trains were often 20 or 30 wagons long. In fact they were usually only two or three wagons in a train. A few long trains did exist but only in the very early stages of the Westward migration.

In the early 1840's, people were encouraged to travel in large groups for protection but soon disputes over leadership or arguments about whether to travel on Sunday broke up the trains. The norm was two or three wagons belonging to a few families, or to extended families traveling together.

The reality was that there was little need for the protection of large numbers. Of the 350,000 to 500,000 people who traveled along the Oregon Trail, relatively few experienced violent encounters with Indians. What they did experience, however, was boredom, drudgery, sickness, fatigue, and lots of plain hard work.

Good movies, expecting to draw crowds and make a profit, must avoid dwelling on what life was really like living out in the elements. The routine was to get up early and cook breakfast, prepare the oxen for traveling, walk 15-20 miles, stop and fix broken wagon wheels, find water and grass, and deal with illness and death. Then, the next day, do it all over again. Such monotony lasted for months.

The writings of those who experienced Oregon Trail life indicate that each family member had his or her duties and responsibilities. The men, most of whom were farmers, kept the wagons in repair, worked with the oxen, and scouted for water and good grazing land. As the migration increased in numbers game animals moved well away from the trail. Most of the men weren't experienced hunters but carried guns that resulted in a significant number of accidental injuries and deaths.

Women receive little credit in history books but were linchpins of trail society. Their normal duties -- homemaking, childcare, cooking, etc. -- were complicated by the awkwardness of living on the trail, caring for the sick and injured, and the necessity of traveling every day. Many became pregnant or gave birth on the trail which may seem shocking today, but was an accepted fact of 19th century migration.

Once the emigrants arrived in Oregon their task was to claim land and build a home. They made a living and existed in a culture very different from the one left behind -- a new set of rules, needs, politics, hostilities, and dangers. The U.S. government had only recently acquired the territory from Britain and had not yet made treaties with the Indians who considered it theirs. Several decades of conflict ensued. Then, as the nation became embroiled in the Civil War, Oregon became only a remote outpost, far removed from the mainstream of American society.

Life was difficult and the settlers came to feel the need to memorialize their experiences from the Oregon Trail. In the late decades of the l9th century, they formed the Oregon Pioneer Association in an effort to preserve the memories. Those stories and memories, magnified through time, formed the basis of the many myths that have been inherited about this chapter in America's history.

The California Gold Rush (1849 - 1852)

On January 24, 1848, workers found gold while cutting lumber at Sutter's Mill on the South Fork of the American River, a few miles Northeast of Sacramento. The discovery led to the gold rush of 1849, when thousands of "49ers" made their way West seeking fortunes. At first the vast majority went by sea around Cape Horn but later many crossed the Isthmus of Panama. About 30,000 headed overland, following the routes forged in 1841 by the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, and by subsequent travelers including Lansford Hastings and the Donner-Reed parties of 1846. However, many overland emigrants took other routes, including the Old Spanish Trail that crossed New Mexico, and the California Trail -- the South fork from the Oregon Trail at South Pass, Wyoming.

Many Cherokee Indians, living in Oklahoma because of the forced relocation over the Trail of Tears in 1838, also headed West. They were experienced gold miners from their earlier years in North Carolina and Georgia and were unhappy with conditions in Oklahoma. They pioneered the Cherokee Trail across Oklahoma, through Colorado, and into southern Wyoming before linking up with the California Trail at South Pass.

Migration started in 1848 with peak overland travel in 1852 -- the same year as a severe cholera epidemic in the eastern United States. In all some 400,000 people traveled to California in search of gold.

Many families never reached their destination. Some had bad luck, others died or were killed by Indians, but many simply found what they really wanted and stayed in Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, and Nevada.

Early pioneers were trail blazers, pointing and carving the way. Others came later and for different reasons. Less than fifty years passed before such attractions as ranching, large scale farming, dairy farming, need for roads and bridges, and building construction, lured others westward. About 1890 two bridge building brohters, descendents of James Hicks Laughter, headed West and some of their travel was over the old Oregon Trail.

Others Take to the Oregon Trail

James Hicks Laughter was born at Chimney Rock, North Carolina, in 1810 and married 12 year old Nancy Hill in 1830. When the gold rush to California started in 1849 the couple had nine surviving children, ages 2 to 14. Perhaps so many young children dampened their spirit for adventure or maybe the uncertainty of the times kept them close to home. Whatever the reason, James and his family remained in the mountains of North Carolina, an area that generally refused to acknowledge North Carolina's secession from the Union in 1861.

Sons of James Hicks Laughter did not respond to the call to arms and were among many from the mountains of Western NC and Eastern TN that were conscripted into service. Their distant cousins from eastern North Carolina were among the first to join the Confederate Army and some of those produced exemplary war records.

After the war, those who had served returned to the mountains of North Carolina. By the 1890's James' son, Baylus Edney Laughter and two of his sons, James Butler Laughter and Robert Erwin Laughter, had become experienced bridge builders. When opportunities arose the brothers and their father headed West. It may never be known how they traveled or on which trail they started, but it is known that they reached the point on the Oregon Trail where Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah join at the Northern slope of the Wasatch-Cache Mountains. Beyond the Bridger-Tetons they found Bear Lake, a 23 mile long natural body of sparkling water spanning the border between Idaho and Utah. The nearby community of Montpelier, nestled at the foot of 10,500' Meade Peak, had been settled by Swiss-Germans that welcomed them as new citizens. Whether it was the friendly settlers or the imposing vistas, at least one Laughter had found his Eden.

In 1894, James Butler married Lena Egli, a Swiss immigrant and together they had eight childen. Robert Erwin moved on to California where he died in 1921. The father, Baylus Edney, lived near Bear Lake for several years but in his declining years suffered from poor health and returned to the milder climes of North Carolina. He died in Edneyville, Henderson County, North Carolina in 1922.

The children of James Butler and Lena Egli grew up near Montpelier, Idaho, married and had their own families. Later, some descendents moved to Utah and became Mormons while others moved to California, Oregon and Washington state.

Today, descendents of James Butler Laughter reside in Bear Lake County, Idaho; Brigham City and Salt Lake City, Utah; Sacramento County, Calif.; and in the Mojave Desert of California. Such is the legacy of the Oregon Trail.

Philosophos Historia

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See The History Professor, for timeline-oriented original documents and factual materials of historical figures and events that led to the founding of America, the evolution of the Constitution, and the political system of the USA.


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