What Wagon Train Was My Family On?

by Stephenie Flora




1. Researching Wagon Trains:
Almost the first question I am asked is "Do you know what wagon train my ancestor came on?".  Although many wagon trains started out quite large, they seldom stayed that way for long.  In 1843, 100+ wagons headed out for Oregon.  The emigration of that year was a blueprint for years to follow and they learned very quickly that traveling with a company that large was almost impossible.  One of the first things they did was to divide into two companies to compensate for those who needed to travel slower due to herds of cattle they were bringing with them.  As soon as danger of Indian attack was thought to be over, the train divided into small groups of immediate family and friends.  By the end of the journey there was two weeks difference between the first wagons arriving and the last wagons arriving.  This was to be repeated throughout the following emigration years.  The problems of providing feed for large groups of cattle, the dust stirred up by trains that were too large and conflicts created by human nature in general made it impossible to sustain a large train.
    Members of a wagon train moved forward and fell back between the various trains due to a number of circumstances.  Some pulled off for births and deaths; some wanted to respect the Sabbath and some did not; some made it across a river crossing just before a rain storm brought its level to an impassable height which could last for several days, leaving part of the train on one side of the river and part on the other side. And finally, the hardship of the trail tended to bring out the best and the worst of those dealing with it.  
There were several references to this during the 1843 emigration and, once again, it held through for following emigrations:

May 22 1843 comment by Peter Burnett
"Our long journey thus began in sunshine and song, in anecdote and laughter; but these all vanished before we reached its termination.... A trip to Oregon with ox teams was at that time a new experiment, and was exceedingly severe upon the temper and endurance of people.  It was one of the most conclusive tests of character, and the very best school in which to study human nature.  Before the trip terminated, people acted upon their genuine principles, and threw off all disguises.  It was not that the trip was beset with very great perils, for we had no war with the Indians, and no stock stolen by them.  But there were ten thousand little vexations continually recurring, which could not be foreseen before they occurred, nor fully remembered when past, but were keenly felt while passing. At one time an ox would be missing, at another time a mule, and then a struggle for the best encampment, and for a supply of wood and water; and, in these struggles, the worst traits of human nature were displayed, and there was no remedy but patient endurance.  At the beginning of the journey there were several fisticuff fights in camp; but the emigrants soon abandoned that practice, and thereafter confined themselves to abuse in words only.  The man with a black eye and battered face could not well hunt up his cattle or drive his team."

July 22 1843 comment by James W. Nesmith:
“The company discontented, and strong symptoms of mutiny.  Some anxious to travel faster, some slower, some want to cross the river here, some want to go ahead, and others want to go any way but the right way.  This will always be the difficulty with masses of emigrants crossing these plains.  While every man's will is his law, and lets him act or do as he pleases, he will always find friends to support him.  In order to obviate this difficulty and maintain good order in large companies, the presence of military force, and a declaration of martial law is highly necessary.  Then emigrants will travel in peace, harmony and good order.  They have the elements of their own destruction within themselves."

2. Understand the trail and the cutoffs for the year you are researching
The final issue that created separations was the option of "shortcuts".  Many of the years became known for tragedy due to cutoffs that some of the family members elected to take, while others in the group chose the traditional trail.  Most noted of these are the 1845 Meek Cutoff, the 1846 Applegate/Southern Route and the Lost Wagon Train of 1853.  If you find an indication that your family arrived after October in any given year then start researching to see what caused the delay.  It may have been a "shortcut".
To understand the trail, its routes and its cutoffs, I recommend the following publications:
The Oregon Trail Revisited: by Gregory M. Franzwa
Maps of the Oregon Trail:
by Gregory M. Franzwa

3. Researching members of the train that accompanied your family:
To research who accompanied your family members you need to know as much about the family as you can.  Most trains were made up of family and friends with a few single men hired as drivers.  (Often these single men married into the families they were accompanying.) The last place of residence indicates the possible jumping off place.  Know who the oldest member of the family was and document family members from that person down including siblings of that person, husbands and wives and children of those siblings.  Check census records before emigration as well as after arrival.  The birthplace of children in the census can narrow down the year of emigration and census records can indicate neighbors, family and friends that might have accompanied the primary family. Check for trail diaries information readily available at http://www.paper-trail.org.  Searches are free but membership is required for additional information on a particular diary.

4. "Firsts" and Family Legends
Many family legends refer to an ancestor as being the "first" minister, "first" white child, etc.  Research these legends carefully.  Anyone who came to Oregon after the early 1840s may not be a "first".   The first minister to Oregon was Rev. Jason Lee who came in 1834.  He was followed closely by Dr. Marcus Whitman, missionary to the Cayuse, who arrived in 1836. There were children born in the Oregon territory as early as the 1770s that were the result of white traders who arrived by ship and the women in the local Indian tribes.  Rev. Marcus and Narcissa (Prentiss) Whitman were the parents of Alice Clarissa Whitman who was born 14 Mar 1837.  Rev. Jason Lee and Anna Maria (Pittman) Lee had a son who was born 23 June 1838.  Neither of these children lived to adulthood resulting in "no descendants".  During the later 1830s other children were born to the various missionary families.   It is thought by some that the term "first white child" in family legends came from the family referring to the naming of their "first child born in Oregon" and it was then carried into later generations to mean the first "white" child.  Whether they were "first" or "last", they were all an important link in the history of Oregon.  
    In addition to this, almost every family story I hear has a version of "the Indians came to trade ponies for "a mother, sister, aunt, etc etc" and were turned away by their father, husband, etc etc".  I have yet to find any mention in any diary to substantiate any of these claims.  This story cropped up in reminiscences of later years and while it may have happened occasionally I would not put much stock in it unless you can find reference to it in an actual diary written at the time.  The story has taken on a life of its own and for the most part is just that, a story without any basis or verification.

5. A Final Word
Do not accept as gospel information from ANY web site or source until you research it thoroughly yourself.  My website is a tool.  I am working with many names and many sources of information and as a result there are bound to be errors.  When I discover them I make corrections immediately but it is an ongoing problem.  That is true of every source out there.  Consider the source, the person providing the information and the likelihood that the information is correct.  Then research, research, research!!


OregonTerritory History Resources:

 Note:  those references with a year in parenthesis (ie. 1843) at the beginning of the reference indicates the source is focused on that emigration year.

General Resources:
A Century of Coos and Curry; History of Southwest Oregon by Emil R. Peterson; Binford & Mort, Portland, OR 1952
A History of Oregon Methodism by Thomas D. Yarnes, D.D.; edited by Harvey E. Tobie, The Parthenon Press
Adventurers of Oregon, A Chronicle of the Fur Trade by Constance L. Skinner; New Haven, Yale University Press, 1921
Adventures of The First Settlers On The Oregon
by Alexander Ross, edited by Milo Milton Quaife, Citadel Press Inc, 1969
Champoeg: Place of Transition by John A. Hussey;  Oregon Historical Society 1967
Children of the Fur Trade by John C. Jackson; Mountain Press Publishing Co, Missoula, Montana, 1995
Equality on the Oregon Frontier, Jason Lee and the Methodist Mission 1834-1843 by Robert J. Loewenberg; University of Washington Press, 1976
French Fur Traders & Voyageurs in the American West edited by LeRoy R. Hafen; University of Nebraska Press, 1997
How Marcus Whitman Saved Oregon by Oliver W. Nixon; Star Publishing Company, 1895
The Far West and the Rockies Historical Series Vol III by Leroy and Ann Haven; published by Arthur H. Clark Co, Glendale, CA 1955
The Grains by Margaret Jewett Bailey; edited by Evelyn Leasher and Robert J. Frank, Oregon State University Press, 1985
The Great Command by Nard Jones; Little, Brown and Company, Boston-Toronto, 1959
A Small World of Our Own compiled by Robert A. Bennett; Pioneer Press Books, Walla Walla, WA 1985
An Illustrated History of the State of Oregon by Harvey K. Hines; The Lewis Publishing Co, Chicago, IL 1893
An Illustrated History of Baker, Grant, Malheur and Harney Counties; Western Historical Publishing Co,  Spokane, WA 1902
An Illustrated History of Central Oregon, Embracing Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Wheeler, Crook, Lake and Klamath Counties; Western Historical Publishing Co, Spokane, WA 1905
An Illustrated History of Umatilla County and Morrow County by William Parsons and W.S. Shiach; W.H. Lever, Spokane Wa 1902
An Illustrated History of Union and Wallowa Counties; Western Historical Publishing Co, Spokane, WA 1902
Barlow Road compiled by Clackamas and Wasco County Historical Societies
Building A State: Washington, 1889-1939 Vol III edited by Vernon Carstensen; Washington Historical Society, Tacoma, WA 1940
(1843) Blazing A Wagon Trail To Oregon, A Weekly Chronicle of the Great Migration of 1843 by Lloyd W. Coffman; [Echo Books, Anaheim, CA]
Catholic Church Records of the Pacific Northwest Compiled by Harriet Duncan Munnick in collaboration with Mikell Delores Warner
Champoeg: Place of Transition by John A. Hussey;  Oregon Historical Society 1967
Conversations with Pioneer Women, The Lockley Files edited by Mike Helm; Rainy Day Press, Eugene, OR
Conversations with Bullwhackers, Muleskinners....The Lockley Files edited by Mike Helm; Rainy Day Press, Eugene, OR
Covered Wagon Women Vol 1-11 by Kenneth Holmes
Dr. Owens-Adair: Some of Her Life Experiences by Bethenia A. Owens-Adair, Mann & Beach Printers, Portland, OR 1906
Encyclopedia of Northwest Biography; The American Historical Co, New York, NY 1941-1943 Vol 1-2
First Three Wagon Trains by John Bidwell, Hubert Howe Bancroft, James Longmire; Binfords & Mort Publishers, Portland, OR
Genealogical Material Available in Oregon Donation Land Claims; by Oregon Genealogical Forum [5 vols]
History of Benton Co, Oregon by David D. Fagan; A. G. Walling Printing, Portland, OR 1885
History of Klamath County, Oregon by Rachel Applegate Good; Klamath Falls, OR 1941
History of Oregon by Charles Henry Carey; The Pioneer Historical Publishing Co, Chigaco, IL 1922 Vol 2-3
History of Portland, Oregon by Harvey Whitefield Scott; D. Mason & Co, Syracuse, NY 1890
History of Southern Oregon Comprising Jackson, Josephine, Douglas, Curry and Coos Counties by Albert G. Walling; A.G. Walling Printing, Portland, OR 1884
History of The Bench and Bar; Historical Publishing Co, Portland, OR 1910
History of The Columbia River Valley from The Dalles to the Sea by Fred Lockley; S.J. Clarke Publishing Co, Chicago, IL 1928 Vol 2-3
History of The Pacific Northwest, Oregon and Washington; North Pacific History Co, Portland, OR, 1889 Vol 2
History of the Silverton Country by Robert H. Downs
History of The Willamette Valley by Herbert O. Lang; Himes & Lang, Portland, OR, 1885
History of The Willamette Valley, Oregon by Robert Carlton Clark; S.J. Clarke Publishing Co, Chicago, IL 1927 Vol 2-3
Illustrated History of Lane County, Oregon by Albert G. Walling; A.G. Walling Printing, Portland, OR 1884
(1843) Into The Eye of the Setting Sun by Charlotte Matheny Kirkwood
(1843) It's A Long Way to Oregon, The Westward Saga of The Keizur (Keizer) Family by Jerry McGee, Esjay Press, Keizer, OR
Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West by Dale L. Morgan; University of Nebraska Press, 1964
Juggernaut, The Whitmans Massacre Trial, 1850 by Ronald B. Lansing; Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society, 1995
(1844) John Minto, Man of Courage, 1822-1915 by Beverly Elizabeth Lowe; Kingston Price and Co, 1980
(1847)Lorinda Bewley and the Whitman Massacre by Myra Sager Helm; Printed by the Pacific Northwest National Parks and Forest Association
(1847) Lorinda Bewley--Pioneer Woman, Victim of Violence by Philip Mulkey Hunt, 2000
Memoirs of My Life by John Charles Fremont, Cooper Square Press, New York, NY, 2001
Men of Champoeg by Caroline Dobbs; Metropolitan Press, Portland, OR 1932
(1844) National Genealogical Society Quarterly reprint of "Some Emigrants to Oregon, June 1844" from the Boonville, Mo., Register, 11 Jun 1844. Article donated by Lois Powell of Benton City, WA.
(1851) On The Oregon Trail In 1851 by Albert Edward Belanger
Oregon Folks by Fred Lockley
Oregon For The Curious by Ralph Friedman
Oregon Geographic Names by Lewis A. McArthur; OHS Press
Oregon Historical Society Quarterly and it's predecessor, Transactions of the Oregon Pioneer Association; Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Avenue, Portland, OR 97205.
Oregon Native Son; Native Son Publishing Co, 1899-1901 Vol. 1-2
Oregon's Golden Years by Miles F. Potter
Overland Passages : edited by Kris White and Mary-Catherine Cuthill. A guide to journals, diaries, letters, reminiscences in the Oregon Historical Society collection.  Oregon Historical Society
Oregon Spectator: first newspaper published at Oregon City
(1846) Overland in 46, Vol. 1-2 by Dale Morgan; Bison Book, 1993
Overland Passages: published by Oregon Historical Society, it is an index of names in manuscripts and journals held in their collection.  It is available at most research libraries
Pen Pictures of Representative Men of Oregon by Frank E. Hodgkin, Farmer and Dairyman Publishing Co, Portland, OR 1882
Pen Pictures of Santa Clara County, California edited by H.S. Foote
Pictorial Oregon, the Wonderland; Portland Press Club, Portland, OR 1915
Pioneer Days of Oregon History, Vol. II by Samuel Clarke
Pioneer History of Coos and Curry Counties, Oregon by Orvil Dodge; Capital Printing Co, Salem, OR 1898
Platte River Road Narratives by Merrill Mattes
Political and Official History and Register of Oregon, Appendix to 20th Biennial report of Oregon Secretary of State 1897-8, Salem, OR
Portland, Oregon, Its History and Builders by Joseph Gaston; S.J. Clarke Publishing Co, Chicago, IL, 1911 Vol. 2-3
Portrait and Biographical Record of Portland and Vicinity; Chapman Publishing Co, Chicago, IL 1903
Portrait and Biographical Record of The Willamette Valley; Chapman Publishing Co, Chicago, IL 1903
Portrait and Biographical Record of Western Oregon; Chapman Publishing Co, Cicago, IL 1904
Remembrances of Marion County Pioneers 1840-1860 by  Sarah Hunt Steeves, , Portland, Oregon, The Berncliff Press, 1927
(1844) Remininscences of 1844; Oregon Statesman, May 22, 1885
Republican League Register, A Record of the Republican Party in the State of Oregon; The Register Publishing Co, Portland, OR 1896
(1844)Seven for Oregon by Cornelia Shields; Cream Springs Press, Dayton, WA, 1986
(1847) Shallow Grave at Waiilatpu: The Sagers West by Erwin N. Thompson; Press of The Oregon Historical Society. 1985
Ten Years in Oregon by Daniel Lee and Joseph Frost; reprinted by Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, WA, 1968
(1845)Terrible Trail, The Meek Cutoff By Keith Clark and Lowell Tiller; Maverick Publications, Inc 1993
(1846)The Applegate Trail To Oregon in 1846 by Bert Webber; Webb Research Group Publishers, Medford, OR 1996
The Beginning of the West by Louise Barry; published by Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka, KS
(1841) The Bidwell-Bartleson Party, 1841 California Emigrant Adventure; edited by Doyce B. Nunis Jr, Western Tanager Press, Santa Cruz, CA 1991
(1845) The Brazen Overlanders of 1845 by Donna Wojcik Montgomery
The Centennial History of Oregon, 1811-1912 by Joseph Gaston; S.J. Clarke Publishing Co, Chicago, IL 1912 Vol 2-4
The Discovery of The Oregon Trail; Robert Suart's Narratives of His Overland Trip Eastward From Astoria in 1812-13; edited by Philip Ashton Rollins; University of Nebraska Press 1995
(1846) The Donner Party Rescue Site, Johnson's Ranch on Bear River by Jack and Richard Steed; Pioneer Publishing Company, Fresno, CA 1988
The Far West and the Rockies Historical Series Vol III by Leroy and Ann Haven; published by Arthur H. Clark Co, Glendale, CA 1955
The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West by LeRoy Reuben Hafen; A.H. Clark Co, Glendale, CA, 1965-72 Vol 1-9
The Overland Migrations; Dept of the Interior
The Plains Across by John D. Unruh Jr.
The Prairie Traveler by Captain Randolph B. Marcy; originally published 1859 by The War Department, republished by Applewood Books, Bedford, Mass.
The Trail West by John M. Townley, A Bibliography - Index to Western American Trail, 1841 -1869. Lists known diaries, reminiscences by surname. Includes indexes by Chronological, Subject and Trail.
The River West by Frances Fuller Victor; Brooks-Sterling Company, Oakland CA 1974
(1847) The Whitman Massacre of 1847 by Catherine, Elizabeth and Matilda Sager; reprinted Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, WA, 1986 
The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft: History of Oregon by Hubert Howe Bancroft, The History Co Publishers, 1886.
(1846) The Year of Decision 1846 by Bernad DeVoto; Houghton Miffin Company, Boston, Mass, 1942 
(1844)This Emigrating Company, The 1844 Oregon Trail Journal of Jacob Hammer by Thomas A. Rumer; Arthur H. Clarke Co, Spokane, Wa, 1990
Traders' Tales by Elizabeth Vibert; University of Oklahoma Press, 1997 
Visionaries, Mountain Men & Empire Builders by Fred Lockley; compiled and edited by Mike Helm; publised by Rainy Day Press
(1844) Wagon Train of `44 by Thomas A. Rumer; Arthur H. Clark Publishing, Spokane, Wa 1990
We'll All Go Home In The Spring by Robert A. Bennett
Willamette Landings; Oregon Historical Society
Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel
Women's Voices From the Oregon Trail by Susan G. Butruille

Indian Heritage:
America's Fascinating Indian Heritage: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc; Pleasantville, NY
An Account of the Origin And Early Prosecution of the Indian War in Oregon: by Lt. Col. Charles S. Drew; Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, WA
Chief Joseph Country, Land of the Nez Perce: By Bill Bulick, The Caxton Printers, Ltd, Caldwell, ID, 1994
An Arrow In The Earth, General Joel Palmer and the Indians of Oregon: by Terence O'Donnell, Oregon Historical Society Press, Portland, OR
Chief's & Change in the Oregon Country, Indian Relations at Fort Nez Perces 1818-1855 Vol II: by Theodore Stern; Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR
Indian Wars of the Pacific Northwest: by Ray Hoard Glassley; Binford and Mort, 1972 (aka Pacific Northwest Indian Wars, 1953)
Myths and Legends of the Pacific Northwest: By Katharine Berry Judson; A.C. McClure Co, 1910, Chicago; reproduction 1967 by Shorey Book Store, Seattle, WA
Native American Encyclopedia, History, Culture and People by Barry M. Pritzker; ; Oxford University 2000
Native Peoples of the Northwest: By Jan Halliday & Gail Chehak in cooperation with the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indian; Sasquatch Books, Seattle, WA
The Cayuse Indians by Robert H. Ruby and John A. Brown

 Online Resources:
Paper Trail: 
http://www.paper-trail.org a compilation of names in overland journals researched and put on a CD by OCTA (check their web site for more information)
Oregon Trail Emigrant Resources available at Oregon State Library  
http://www.oregon.gov/osl/GRES/docs/OregonTrailBibliography.pdf compilation of diaries, letters, articles related to early Oregon residents
BLM Land Records:
http://www.glorecords.blm.gov/ provides information on land purchases by surname and location
Oregon State Archives Online Databases
http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/records/genealogy/index.html  provides a list of records available by surname 
US GenWeb:
http://www.usgenweb.org/ information on resources, cemetery listings, biographies

Historic Oregon Newspapers: free search of early Oregon newspapers up through 1922  
University of Oregon Newspaper Project  
http://library.uoregon.edu/guides/newspapers/papers.html lists newspapers available in Oregon for the various communities; houses largest collection of early newspapers in Oregon
University of Oregon: Historic Online Newspapers by County
Library of Congress: Newspapers, free http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
Online Historical Newspapers https://sites.google.com/site/onlinenewspapersite/Home
Oregon State Library Newspaper Index
Genealogy Bank:
http://www.genealogybank.com/gbnk/  "for a fee"
Newspaper Archives  
http://newspaperachive.com/  "for a fee" website that features early newspapers nationally

Book Store Resources:
Arthur H. Clark Company: http://www.ahclark.com/ features historical publications and journals for sale
Fetch Book:
http://www.fetchbook.info/ does a search of over 60 bookstores for the author or title you are seeking and lists the locations and prices for comparison
Google Books:
http://books.google.com/ provides online books as well as books for sale on all topics
Higginson Book  Store:
http://www.higginsonbooks.com/ specializes in genealogies and local histories for sale
Oregon California Trail Association Book Store focuses on trail, emigrant and Indian related publications 
http://www.rootsbooks.com/shop.php  books for sale that pertain to a specific geographic region 

Books Online:
Alex Catalogue of Electronic Texts: http://infomotions.com/alex/ features online books in full original form
Archive.org: features books on early Oregon including biographies http://archive.org/details/texts
Google Books: http://books.google.com/ provides online books in full original form as well as books for sale on all topics, most early Oregon biography books are available for download
The Online Books Page: http://onlinebooks.library.upenn.edu/

Published Biographies: 
Oregon Biographical Index:  In 1976  Oregon State University published an index of 47 historical volumes containing biographies.   
http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/handle/1957/3505  Note: most of these biographical books are now available for free download at Google books or archive.org
Oregon Blue Book:
http://bluebook.state.or.us/notable/nothome.htm notable Oregonians and their biographies
Christian Churches and Pioneer Ministers:  
http://ncbible.org/nwh/orhistmenu.html this website provided by Charles Dailey contains information on early christian churches and the biographies of the early pioneer ministers that became know throughout Oregon
Oregon WPA Life Histories

Special Collections:
Genealogical Forum of  Oregon http://www.gfo.org/  houses one of the larger genealogical collections in the state.  Its collection covers most states with a large part devoted to Oregon. There is a small daily fee to use the collection for non-members.
Oregon Historical Society
http://www.ohs.org/  houses manuscripts and trail journals as well as individual family information
Oregon GenWeb:  http://www.orgenweb.org/ collection of online information on early Oregon residents.  Free.
Oregon State Archives:
http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/banners/genealogy.htm features online searchable database for early Oregon records, copies of which can be ordered for a fee
Oregon State Library
http://oregon.gov/OSL/GRES/genealogy.shtml  The genealogical room houses numerous publications for the various counties in Oregon as well as other states
Oregon State Library Photo Website:
http://photos.lib.state.or.us/  features online searchable database for early Oregon photos
Salem History Project:
http://www.salemhistory.net/ includes online biographies, local history and photos
Ancestry.com  http://www.ancestry.com  a "for a fee" site that supplies online primary records.  It also features “Family Tree” information supplied by researchers.  Use the family tree information with caution!  They can be full of errors and while useful as a starting point, should never be used without further research
http://www.footnote.com  a "for a fee" site in partnership with National Archives, Footnote, features all types of online primary record information but are now specializing in military records.