Overland Journeys: Travels in the West, 1800-1880
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To bring the lives of these settlers into focus, consider the Western land itself -- the vastness, the boundless plain, and awesome mountain barriers. The Great Plains were a challenge to "Easterners" and European emigrants.
The Oregon Trail is the oldest component, having been pioneered in the early 1810s and used by the first wagon trail, led by Marcus Whitman, in 1843. Brigham Young led the first Mormons to Utah in 1847. The California Trail came into heavy use after the discovery of gold in 1848. It is estimated by historians that up to half a million settlers crossed the West on these trails from the earliest wagon trains to the building of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The journey across overland trails took settlers 2,000 miles and around seven months to complete.
Up to a one-tenth of the settlers who attempted the crossing died during the trip, most from disease such as cholera. Hostile confrontations with Native Americans defending their homelands, although often feared by the wagon trains, were actually comparatively rare. Many made the journey to California and Oregon because they saw these new lands as a place of endless opportunity.
Once the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the wagon train era ebbed because settlers could now journey to the west coast safely in a fraction of the time.
The western trails have become embedded in American folklore as one of the significant influences that have shaped the content and character of the nation. The remains of many trail ruts can be observed in scattered locations throughout arid parts of the American West.
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