Ms. Genealogist

Monday, September 24, 2012

Wagon trails going West!

I had an ancestor who was living in Joplin, Mo., for whom I could find no death record in either Missouri or Montana where the family later moved. I was able to pin down the period of the death to between 1876 and 1880 and there was a family story that he had worked on wagon trains moving settlers west and had died in an raid on the trail.

This is quite believable because at that time two major wagon train routes originated in Independence, Mo. If a written record was made of the death, it might have been at one of the forts or stopping places along the way.

The Santa Fe Trail was the oldest wagon trail in westward expansion. Individual wagon companies traveled on their own to Council Grove, Kan., where they joined with others wagon companies to Santa Fe. The major posts that it passed through were Fort Larned, Kan., and Bent's Fort a La Hunta, Colo., before reaching Santa Fe. The journey usually took between six and eight weeks.

The Santa Fe Trail became obsolete when the railway reached Santa Fe in 1880 but it was always more of a commercial route than a migration one so it is perhaps more likely that the ancestor worked on the famed Oregon Trail.

This trail opened in 1841 and was heavily used until 1884 when Oregon was linked to the Union Pacific Railway. It was a long arduous and dangerous journey that took five to six months. About 400,000 brave souls traveled the route and estimates place the death toll at 35,000.

The major posts along the route where travelers could obtain supplies, rest and repair their wagons were Fort Kearney, Neb., where the trail blended with the Mormon and California Trails, Forts Laramie and Bridger in Wyoming, Soda Springs and Fort Boise, Ind., and The Dalles, Ore.

The hazards of the trail included sickness, accident and (after 1860) Indian raids. Accidents were by far the leading cause of fatalities and an astonishing number of people were run over by their wagons. People who died on the trail were buried beside it and sometimes their graves would be marked by a simple board inscribed with their name.

The Oregon-California Trails Association has researched these graves and published a book, Graves and Sites of the Oregon and California Trails. The organization also has an email address:

Another website you might want to check out is:

This is a fascinating chapter in American History. The West! Go West, young lads!

I welcome comments, queries, and suggestions at: attn: Ms. Sylvia Evans