California/Oregon Trail

The Overland Trails: Overview

I know what you are all thinking: “Um, Jacinta, you promised us a part two of that AMAZING historical fashion overview…what on earth is this?? I’ve been on pins and needles ALL WEEK waiting to see how fashion changed once it hit the 1850s!”

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten. Part 2 is coming next month. This is just my way of keeping you all interested (and no, you can’t correct me on that – of COURSE you are all as interested in fashion as me!).

But this week, continuing my recent theme of sharing beloved historical things I learn by researching and doing…I’m going back on the trail! (Yes, I hear you groaning–stop pretending! You know you love my trail talk!) Yes, I do love the overland trail. And since I’m still living and breathing it through edits on my book, I’ve decided to take the excuse to do a slower walk through the trail than I did during my 2021 trip when I had only a couple weeks to run through it.

So, as I am doing with historical fashion, I’m going to start with an overview! The issue here is narrowing it down….because there is SO MUCH one could say in an overview. But, I’ll try to take feelings into consideration here and remind myself that, as much as I thought every stop on the trail would be overrun with tourists, it wasn’t, which probably means lighter is better. At least to start with. No promises for later.

Overland Trail Overview

What is the Overland Trail?

Though it isn’t as common a term as the Oregon Trail, thanks to the beloved video game, the overland trail can refer to ANY of the trails that went west. And, yes, there were more than two. Most of them started in one of the many jumping off points in the Midwest (which I’ll talk about in a later post) Here are the bigger ones:

  • The Oregon Trail (shocking, I know): Ended in….wait for it…Oregon! Well, and sometimes Washington. Usually around Portland or Vancouver. About 2,000 miles.
  • The California Trail (clearly): Could end in many parts of California, depending on which branch you took. Most often was Sacramento, thanks to the gold rush, but there were break-offs for lots of parts. About 1,500 miles.
  • The Santa Fe trail: End in New Mexico, usually Santa Fe itself. About 900 miles.
  • The Mormon Trail: Ended in Salt Lake City, Utah. About 1,300 miles, and usually traveled with handcarts rather than wagons!

Any time you go to explore the Oregon Trail, you’ll almost always run into stops for all the above, as well! But for my specific overview, I’m concentrating on the Oregon/California Trial.

What years did the Oregon/California trails function?

This is a little fudgy, but for the most part, it mostly started in the 1840s. The trails were well broken in by mountain men in the 1830s, but the 1840s is when Manifest Destiny took hold – the idea that Americans were meant to expand from one side of the country to the other – and emigrants began making the trek to settle the west, following promises of prosperity. According to Daily Life in a Covered Wagon, they were even told that “pigs ran around ready cooked with knives and forks sticking in them so that anyone could have a slice.”

Most people believe that the trail ended with the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, which is mostly true – a majority of traffic stopped, but technically people continued to cross via wagon all the way into the 1900s.

John Gast, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How many people took it?

This, to me, is an unanswerable question. When I followed the trail myself, I began taking pictures of the interpretive signs that gave numbers because every single one WAS SO DIFFERENT! Some of them said up to 100,000 people took the trails. Others said upwards of 500,000! Between the multiple jumping off points, the people who joined up later in the trail, the deaths, births, marriages, people who stopped, turned back, etc., it is probably next to impossible to tell, and almost any resource I’ve looked at gives different numbers. If you want my opinion, I lean closer to 500,000 based solely on the number of diaries that are still available to be read! If so many have survived the years, can you imagine how many have been destroyed?

Why did people take it?

Why do people do anything? For better lives, mostly. Every person’s incentive could be different from another’s. Gold, a new start, running from the past, finding fortunes, joining family…though during the gold rush years, the incentive was pretty one-dimensional. Never would have guessed, right?

For how long and awful the trip was, a surprising number of people thought that they could make their fortune and return east…or once they were out west, decided to stay there and sent for their family, who then had to cross without them!

Anyway, so that’s my super quick overview….and in case you are wondering, in future trail related posts, I’m planning to cover things like wagons, food, livestock, specific stops, seeing the elephant….all that! I know, I can hear all of your cheering with excitement. Try not to bring down the house.

Actually, it’s okay. You can bring down the house. Meanwhile, pop over to Instagram to find out 19th century ways to stop bleeding, clean decanters, and make perfume!


Maps – Oregon National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service). “Maps – Oregon National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service),” n.d.

Maps – California National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service). “Maps – California National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service),” n.d.

Maps – Santa Fe National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service). “Maps – Santa Fe National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service),” n.d.

Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service). “Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail (U.S. National Park Service),” n.d.

America’s Manifest Destiny | The American Experience in the Classroom. “America’s Manifest Destiny | The American Experience in the Classroom,” n.d.

Erickson, Paul. Daily Life in a Covered Wagon. Puffin Books, 1997.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s