The history of the Oregon Trail was brought to life by the speaker at our April meeting, writes Phyllis Hughes
Pioneers travelling 3,000 miles across America to make a new life were more likely to be killed by cholera than to be attacked by native tribes.
In fact the native population was initially helpful to the immigrants who tackled a punishing journey of six months in search of a better life on the west coast, members heard on Wednesday.
Speaker Roger Shaw, who lived in America for seven years and has studied the Oregon Trail and its history, drove along the entire route with his wife in 2013 and 2015.
He told members that thousands of immigrants were encouraged by the government to resettle after the east coast of the continent was swamped by an influx of people from Europe. Many were from Ireland which had suffered a devastating famine.
A total of half-a-million people made the journey from Missouri across the Rockies to the coast. They travelled in huge groups in covered wagons pulled by oxen. Each family had to take their own food as there were initally no trading posts along the route.
One wagon train consisted of 1,600 wagons, 10,000 oxen, 30,000 cattle and 60,000 sheep and was 300 miles long. All but young children walked, and many covered the entire 3,000 miles barefoot.
“It was a long, hard slog. People had no idea what they were in for. Ten per cent of them died from cholera. On one trip 57 died in one day alone,” said Mr Shaw.
“Another major hazard was crossing the rivers. A lot of people drowned trying to get from one bank to the other because they could not swim.”
They always had to be within a few days of fresh water, and the wagons were used mainly to transport the water. Sometimes the buffalo would smell the water and stampede, killing many of the migrants.
Mr Shaw said that one route across the Rockies was favoured because herds of buffalo totalling 20-30 million had worn a trail through the mountains.
Although the native American Indians were helpful to the immigrants in the early days, relations soured as time went by. Problems really began in 1847 when half of the Cayuse tribe and all their children were wiped out by a measles epidemic introduced by the Europeans.
The Oregon Trail came to an end when railways provided an easier way to complete the journey.