Women on the Overland Trail

Westward Expansion

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Across the Plains, Deserts and Mountains: The Oregon and California Migrations
2.1. Land Rush and Gold Fever
2.2. Oregon – California Migrants
2.3. Motivations of Going West

3. Women Accounts of the Overland Trip
3.1. The Start: Preparing for the Long Journey
3.2. Trail Occupations and Responsibilities
3.3. Hardships and Concerns
3.4. Frontierswoman - Indian Interactions
3.5. The Western Nature and Landscape
3.6. Light at the End of Tunnel: Fulfillment of Expectations

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

. . . I, like every other pioneer,

love to live over again, in memory those romantic months,

and revisit, in fancy, the scenes of the journey.[1]

The nineteenth – century migration to the Pacific Coast opened a significant page in the history of the settlement of the American West. It is also said to be the greatest migration in American history. Americans migrated to Oregon, California and Utah [White 1991: 189]. This paper concentrates exclusively on the settlement of the Oregon and California territories, known as the Oregon – California Trail Migration.

Going west was the national adventure. Young and old, men and women and even children made their move to the frontier. They crossed perilous rivers and steep mountains, feared Indian attacks and saw the deaths of their families and fellow travellers. It was an intimidating experience. Despite all hardships, pioneers moved resolutely to faraway lands they had only read or heard about. They seemed to understand the uniqueness of their trip and took to writing their day-to-day experiences and impressions. They kept their diaries and journals in jolting wagons on rainy and chilly days. Occasional misspelling, poor punctuation or lack of capitalization in travel narratives shows that their writers were, in the main, ordinary and barely literate people. Nearly 800 narratives of the overland journey had been written by men, women and teenage travellers [Faragher 2001:11]. These diaries, journals and letters became a valuable contribution to the country’s history. Some of these writings were published in the heyday of migration and served for future travellers as the information source on shortest routes, water and grass quality, weather conditions, desert and river crossings [Schlissel 1982: 11]. Other trail accounts appeared in the form of reminiscences many years later after migration.

The aim of this paper is the study of the westering undertaking documented from the perspective of pioneer women. The paper is divided into two chapters. The first chapter gives a general review of the trans-continental migration to Oregon and California. It describes the beginning of the movement, names the reasons for going west, and presents a short characteristic of emigrants. The second chapter is devoted to the analysis of female experiences along the overland trail. The first three parts of this chapter speak about concerns and fears emigrant women had to deal with on the journey, show dangers and hardships they went through and speak about challenging activities and responsibilities they had to handle. The fourth paragraph centres on the female encounters with the American natives. The next subchapter gives some portrayals of the western nature and scenery. In conclusion, the diarists summarize their arrival and the start of the new life in the promised lands of the Far West.

2. Across the Plains, Deserts and Mountains: The Oregon and
California Migrations

Between 1840 and 1867, the peak migration years, over 350.000 people left their settlements in the east and wended their way to the Far West [Jeffrey 1979: xi]. How the mass migration to Oregon and California started and why these once unknown regions suddenly drew attention of many emigrants is the focus of this chapter.

2.1. Land Rush and Gold Fever

Before the Oregon-California migration began, the overland route had been used as a fur trade network between the eastern states and the Pacific Coast. Lonely trappers, hunters and Indian traders occasionally traced wild and distant treks of the west. Gradually the road conditions for traveling had improved. And in 1830 the American Fur Company sent for the first time provision wagons to its outposts in the west, breaking new trails through prairies and mountains [Faragher 2001: 5-6]. This first overland crossing by a vehicle marked the beginning of migration propaganda to the West Coast. The economic depression of 1837 [Lazzerini 2006:1], the congested areas and exhausted land resources of the East Coast and the Midwest facilitated promotion of the westward migration [Faragher 2001: 5-6]. The Far West promised mild climate and abundance of free and fertile lands. These prospects appealed to many Americans and they would leave their homes for the alluring West but the whole endeavour was viewed with scepticism and fear. A dangerous 2,000 mile journey predisposed emigrants to think, as the journalist Horace Greeley said, it was “palpable homicide to tempt or send women and children over this […] precipice and volcanic sterility […]” [White 1991:190]. Emigrants’ doubts about the feasibility of the overland venture melted away as soon as in 1836 the missionaries Narcissa Whitman, Eliza Spalding and their husbands crossed the continent in a canvas covered wagon and safely arrived in Oregon. Their epic trip opened family wagon migration to the Pacific Coast [Faragher 2001: 6].

The West as vision of a better life was the main topic discussed by young and old. Pamphlets, lecturers and correspondents disseminated enthusiastic records about the West Coast. Yet the secondhand reports of strange people were not as convincing as real experiences of the kinsmen and neighbors. Letters sent back home, traveling journals published in newspapers and stories of countrymen returning from the other side of the continent had a great impact upon overlanders’ decision to head west [White 1991:190]. The Federal Government interested in the expansion of American areas and growth of the patriotic spirit encouraged the settlement of the western territories. To enhance the pace of migration it adopted in 1850 The Donation Land Claim Act. The act granted every American citizen of full age who settled in the Oregon country between 1850 and 1853 (and later in California) 320 acres of land if single and 640 acres if married - “one half to the husband and the other half to the wife in her own right”[2]. The enacted bill had a powerful influence. A flood of humanity rushed west and its number was quickly increasing. “This migration [of more than a thousand persons in one body to Oregon] wears an aspect of insanity", [Lavender 1980: 28] wrote newspapers. Indeed, the westward movement became contagious as a malady. The Oregon-California Trail “turned into a highway several miles wide” [Jeffrey 1979: 27] with a “vast army on wheels” [Holmes 1995: 237] marching along it.

Every new start has its difficulties and the westward movement was not an exception. In the early years of migration the greenhorn travelers felt fear and uncertainty before the ensuing venture into the wilderness. They had no route maps, no experience and no proper outfit. Merchants, guides and entrepreneurs along the Missouri towns wanted to make profit of the migratory stream to the West and offered their services to the inexperienced travelers. Consequently pioneers hired knowledgeable mountain men and fur traders to pilot them en route [Unruh 1994: 108] and tried various ways to travel. Wind-wagon, airship, express pioneer line, handcarts were the first modes of travel advertised to the westering passengers. The traveling firms assured a secure and above all a speedy conveyance to the west. The experiments however failed, ending as a rule either in accidents or prolonged and tedious trips [ibid: 100-101]. The conventional vehicle of the pioneer remained over years the four-wheeled wagon. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 [Faragher 2001: xi] marked the end of most covered wagon journey.

Unlike Oregon, California did not represent a particular interest at the beginning of the westward migration. But the winter of 1848 had all changed that. On January 24th, 1848 James Marshall, employed by a Swiss entrepreneur John Sutter, had found gold nugget while working on the American river in California. News of gold discovery gradually percolated eastward. “California Gold”, “The Prospects of California” [Caughey 1975: 39] highlighted the first pages of national newspapers. Yet idle stories of California gold were too unlikely to be believed. Finds of gold needed a confirmation. And probably rumours about the gold-bearing rivers of California would remain just vague stories if one day the president Polk hadn’t made an official declaration: “It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief […]” [ibid: 42]. This announcement aroused a most stunning excitement. Americans got feverish about the idea of making a quick fortune, ‘yellow metal’ made them insane. While prior to 1848 most westbound settlers set off for Oregon, dreams of riches in California changed the course of the transcontinental migration. The wave of gold hunters flocked over the plains and mountains to the glittering fields of California. The gold mania had disrupted many eastern families, communities and regions. By 1849 the California migration reached the apex of its boom [White 1991: 191]. The argonauts called themselves forty-niners and the wondrous trail to gold was associated with ‘seeing an elephant’ as an exotic adventurous experience. The number of emigrants to California grew rapidly and figured nearly 180.000 in 1860 in comparison to 40.000 in 1850 [Levy 1990: xv-xvi]. California became the first and most attractive mining frontier in the American West.

After having learnt about the glory years of the Great Migration, I shift the focus to its participants. Who were they? Where did they come from? The next paragraph is going to introduce these undaunted travelers who entered the American history.

2.2. Oregon – California Migrants

Americans migrated to Oregon and California from the Midwest (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Missouri), upper South and the eastern states (Virginia, New York, Ohio,) [White 1991: 186].

The westbound settlers were ethnically diverse. The greater part was native-born Americans. The minority emigrants, foreign-born citizens, came from Germany, Norway, Ireland and Canada [ibid: 190].

Most of those who decided to trek west tended to be young [Faragher 2001:18]. There were singles, the newlywed, still childless and families with several children. They had different backgrounds and occupations: from educated teachers, lawyers, editors to common carpenters, blacksmiths, coopers. But the overwhelming majority were engaged in agriculture. The statistics estimates that six out of ten emigrants were farmers [ibid: 16].

The overland undertaking was not for poor people. To start such a trip one needed at least 500 to 1,000 dollars [ibid: 21]. Not everyone could afford it. The most expensive outfit was wagon and draught animals. To pack traveling requisites emigrants normally required more than one wagon and several yokes of mules or oxen to haul it. Other organizational costs included provisions, household staff and clothes. The travel expenses didn’t end here. At arrival in Oregon or California, frontiersmen needed initial funds to keep their families and establish new homesteads. Land – hungry Oregon emigrants and California fortune seekers who couldn’t finance their trip hired themselves to family parties. These penniless trail followers were usually young single men. On the trail they provided their help and services in exchange for free board and lodging [ibid: 36]. Emigrants heading for Oregon differed to some extent from their fellow travellers to California [ibid: 35]. Oregon – bound emigrants travelled chiefly in kin groups and intended to stay in the new country. California gold rushers were predominantly male (at least in the early years of California migration). Few of them yearned to settle in California [White 1991:189]. Their ardent desire was to make a quick fortune and return home rich. Women were rarely present on the mining frontier. On the way to California in 1850 one diarist remarked in her journal: “There are but few women; among these thousands of men, we have not seen more than ten or twelve” [Holmes 1996: 55]. Some sources mention that in 1850 California numbered over 90 percent of male inhabitants [Jeffrey 1979: 109]. Gold Rush historians dispute over the scanty numbers of women in California, asserting that they were many more than it is generally considered [Levy 1990: xvii].

2.3. Motivations of Going West

The reasons that took people west were various. A few of them had been already named earlier. To sum them briefly up, it was financial straits and barren soil that impelled easterners and midwesterners to leave their homes in search of better life conditions. Oregon and California were places of new opportunities that offered plentiful productive lands and easy riches at the gold mines. In addition to bad economy, the Midwestern climate was difficult to endure. Extremely cold winters frustrated the farmers who had to lay forage in stock and shelter the cattle during the whole season [White 1991: 191]. Wet winters and dry summers of the West could save farmers’ work and expenses. Not the least important motive of migration was health. During 1849, ’50, ’52 and ’53 various epidemics plagued people throughout these regions [Faragher 2001: 31]. Following the outbreaks of influenza, malaria and cholera many Americans fled the Eastern country and made their way to the ‘salubrious’ West. Acquisition of property and favorable healthy weather were the major motives that appear frequently in emigrants’ records of travel.

There are also other reasons to name. Some of them seem to be banal, other rather curious. For instance, newly married couples associated the overland trip with a romantic honeymoon (for instance, the Hauns and the Parsons). Yet, this motive usually used to be secondary in conjunction with the main profit motive. Other travelers claimed to be following their kin and kith that had migrated earlier. There was a specific group of overlanders who went west for religious purposes. These ‘spiritual’ missionaries were convinced it was their duty to bring the light of Christianity to the “benighted” Indians living in darkness [Limerick 1987: 41].

Some scholars [Unruh 1994: 90] assumed that the westbound flow was the consequence of pioneers’ restlessness and desire for adventure. The theory is grounded on belief that man has an inborn instinct to be in constant movement and pursuit of life’s improvement.

No matter whether it was one definite reason or a combination of several reasons that made Americans to emigrate, those who took this decision believed that the fabulous future ahead of them was worth a long and venturesome travel.

3. Women’s Accounts of the Overland Trip

The westbound trip engraved itself deeply in women’s memories and hearts. Even many years later they recalled the westering experiences as clear as yesterday’s events.

This chapter is an attempt to take close examination of a few diaries and reminiscent letters documented along Oregon – California trail between 1845 and 1862. The authors of the selected writings were housewives, mothers and teenage girls[3]. The next pages of this paper deal with thoughts, sentiments, anxieties and fears of these pioneer women from the outset of the journey till its end.


[1] Catherine Haun. California emigration of 1849.

[2] The Donation Land Claim Act, 1850. Available via: http://www.ccrh.org/comm/cottage/primary/claim.htm

[3] Anna Maria King. Oregon emigration of 1845.

Tamsen E. Donner. California emigration of 1846.

Elizabeth Dixon Smith. Oregon emigration of 1847.

Catherine Haun. California emigration of1849.

Louisina Strentzel. California emigration of 1849.

Sallie Hester. California emigration of 1849.

Lucena Parsons. California emigration of 1850.

Sarah Davis. California emigration of 1850.

Lydia Allen Rudd. Oregon emigration of 1852.

Amelia Stewart Knight. Oregon emigration of 1853.

Jane Gould Tourtillott. Oregon emigration of 1862.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Women on the Overland Trail
Westward Expansion
Dresden Technical University
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
578 KB
women, overland, trail, westward, expansion
Quote paper
Dina Drechsel (Author), 2010, Women on the Overland Trail, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/188953


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Women on the Overland Trail

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free