Pioneers on the Oregon Trail Shaped the Pacific Northwest We Know


Thousands of pioneers set out from Missouri to find a new life in the west, beginning in the late 1830s. Hundreds perished en route, either from disease, or starvation, or Indian attacks.

Arriving in the Oregon Territory

Having made the arduous journey across land over an average of ten months, immigrants to Oregon would arrive at the Dalles in what is now eastern Oregon. Even today, the area is renowned for its harsh winters and brutal summers. However, they were greeted by the 11,000 foot Mount Hood and the obvious route was to hire a boat from the local Indians and travel via the Columbia to Portland. This was a dangerous and expensive option and in 1842 a party including Sam Barlow refused to pay the fee. Instead he and two comrades traveled south and cut across the mountains south of Mount Hood. Finding success, they built and operated a toll road for several years, which made life somewhat easier for thousands of pioneers.

Sharing land with the Indians

More and more settlers arrived and staked their claim throughout the Oregon Territory. In 1846, Richard Miller arrived with his wife and family and settled in the Silverton area east of present-day Salem. He was a large, gregarious and philanthropic man and soon became a respected man amongst his peers. When news of the Cayuse murder of Dr. Marcus Whitman reached him, he was quick to take up arms and lead a group of men to eastern Oregon in retaliation.Many of the settlers had stayed with the Whitmans on their journey west.

As the women and children were left to fend for themselves, local Molalla and Klamath Indians took advantage by stealing, raping and humiliating. On their return, the men decided to do something, a decision which indirectly led to the so-called Abiqua Indian War of 1848, won by the settlers. Following the two day skirmish, Miller issued an ultimatum to Chief Coosta, which resulted in the settlers being left alone and the tribes leaving the valley forever.

A river to cross

In 1846, Alphonso Boone, a widower, arrived in the Oregon Territory after what may have been a more difficult journey than most. He narrowly avoided the fate of the infamous Donner party and as they passed up the Willamette Valley, they faced severe weather and the wrath of the natives. At last the Boone family settled on adjoining claims of land on the north west bank of the Willamette and before long, Boone spotted a business opportunity.

Pioneers were settling in the valley in their thousands, many of them using the old Indian trails for trade and hunting. They all had to travel as far north as Oregon City in order to cross the river on their way to Portland, unless they had a boat. Not many of them did, which is where Boone saw his opportunity. He built and operated a ferry, and, although he only ran it for two years, his sons George and Jesse continued to operate it until Jesse’s death in 1873. It passed out of the family, but continued to operate until the Boone Bridge was built in 1956. This opened up the area for trade but Jesse Boone did more: he cleared a road wide enough for wagons all the way from Portland to Salem (a distance of about 30 miles) – of course, using the ferry to cross the river. Boones Ferry Road is still in existence today.

The next generation

By the mid 1850s, a need to educate the next generation became paramount. Many one room schoolhouses began springing up, such as the one founded by John Hedges in present-day Tualatin. By 1870, the population of children had grown so much that it was necessary for a new, bigger school to be built.

Settling disputes

It can be imagined that sometimes emotions ran high. The settlers must have been operating under a great deal of stress – would they be able to feed their families? would they manage to avoid the disease that was rife? could they live a peaceable existence alongside the Indians? It is likely that sometimes people did not act well towards each other. Soon it became necessary to appoint leading citizens as judges. Two such men were George Day and John Taylor. The first was an adventurer and philanthropist; the second an astute businessman. Both became prominent figures in the area around present-day Tualatin and both served in the state legislature before becoming Justices of the Peace.

Without these men of courage and vision, present-day Oregon would look very different. They had little to work with, but used what they had to improve the lives of the settlers, attracting more to the area and carving an existence of relative comfort and safety.