No one can say when it began. A thousand little rivulets of water trickling downhill go unnoticed until they merge into a thundering river. So it was at the beginning of the greatest mass migration of people that this country, or any other, has ever known. There was only one way to go: west. West to farmlands in Ohio, west along the Erie Canal to the Great Lakes, west to the tributaries of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and west to the rolling hills of Kentucky.
By 1825, steamboats were plying the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and the states of Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana were considered settled. Settlers pushed west into Iowa and Missouri until, by 1830, Independence, Missouri, then the westernmost post office in the United States, defined the boundary of the frontier.
Independence was on the very threshold of the frontier, and for more than a decade it remained the focal point for the western march of the pioneers. Independence was ideally situated for such a role. It was three miles south of the big bend in the Missouri River, where, after flowing southeast for 2000 miles from its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains, the great river changed direction and flowed due east to join the Mississippi a few miles north of St. Louis. A few miles to the west began the vast undulating prairies and high plains that stretched unbroken to the distant Rockies.
With the lands east of the Mississippi settled, adventurers, either by choice or compulsion, gravitated to an even newer frontier—the lands west of the Mississippi. Like their fathers, they were traders, trappers, hunters, and explorers—almost certainly not farmers or settlers.
An early lure of the west was the lower Rio Grande, where inexpensive Spanish and Mexican linens and fabrics could be bought from Spanish traders. New England textile merchants smacked their lips at the thought of profits from capturing that trade. Trade with various Indian tribes was also of interest, and by 1825 a regular route across the Kansas prairie, along the Arkansas and Purgatoire Rivers, and across the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, had been established from Independence to Santa Fe, New Mexico. This, the first of the major trails west, was known as the Santa Fe Trail.
By 1830, adventurers had started looking westward to destinations other than New Mexico. In 1831, Joseph Smith, Jr., set out from Independence and, upon reaching what is now Salt Lake City, declared, “This is the place.” Tens of thousands of Mormons followed in his footsteps over the next three decades to escape religious persecution in Ohio and Missouri.
Meanwhile, Stephen Watts Kearney, a determined U.S. Army general, had pushed west over a southern route from Santa Fe through Arizona to San Diego, and other people had extended the northern trails west across the mountains to San Francisco (the Overland Trail) and to Willamette Valley (the Oregon Trail). In addition, steamboats of the American Fur Company had been able to navigate up the Missouri as far as Fort Pierre, South Dakota, while smaller vessels had gotten to Fort Benton, Montana. To cement its foothold, this privately owned company was busy establishing outposts and forts throughout the northern states.
Independence, absorbed with the Santa Fe trade to the south and the fur trade to the north, had paid little attention to the trickle of emigrants who, for several years, had been setting out for California and Oregon. However, as glowing reports began to come back from the early pioneers, the trickle swelled to a flood—900 emigrants left Independence in 1843, 3000 in 1845, and more than 5000 in 1847. These new pioneers bore little resemblance to the traders plying the Santa Fe Trail or to the trappers in the North. They were men of the land, traveling with their wives and children. They were movers, but they had a destination, a promised land called Oregon—about which they knew as little as they knew about the road that would take them there.
Historically, the Conestoga wagon, which originated in eastern Pennsylvania, has always been associated with the great migration to Oregon and is depicted in scores of paintings. The truth, however, is much less colorful. The Conestoga wagon was in fact far too heavy for the long haul across the prairies and mountains, and a flatbed farm wagon, sometimes fitted with high wheels and a tent of waterproof sheeting, was generally the transport of choice. Such a wagon, sometimes called a Murphy wagon, required a team of six to ten mules or oxen to pull it when heavily laden. Most families also had a cow or two, a saddle horse, and a plow lashed to the rear of the wagon.
A bare-bones Murphy wagon cost about $50 to $70; high wheels, a waterproof covering, yokes, harnesses, and spare parts could bring the total cost up to $100. A team of two oxen cost about $25; most travelers bought six to ten animals. Although horse teams could travel faster than oxen, ox teams were sturdy, dependable, and less likely to be stolen by Indians. And if worst came to worst and food ran out, the oxen could be eaten.
A guidebook of the time recommended the following food supplies for one adult for the five- to six-month journey: 150 lbs. of flour, 25 lbs. of bacon or pork, 15 lbs. of coffee, 25 lbs. of sugar, and smaller quantities of rice, beans, dried fruit, molasses, vinegar, salt, pepper, tea, spices, and baking soda. Also on the recommended list were tobacco, soap, whiskey, medicines, and matches.
It was essential that the wagon carry spare parts and tools such as oxen yokes, harnesses, lead bars, open chain links, horseshoes, nails, ropes, hammers, axes, mallets, saws, and spades. Tar buckets were also necessary, some filled with resin and grease to use on the axles, and others filled with tar to seal and waterproof the wagon before fording or floating it across a river.
When they arrived in Independence, most families already had some supplies and clothing. However, tales of harsh weather in the mountains inspired all but the most foolhardy travelers to procure additional warm clothing.
For protection as well as hunting, travelers carried breech loading rifles, Colt revolvers, and a plentiful supply of ammunition. Most also took along mirrors, ribbons, cloth, tobacco, and assorted trinkets for trading with the Indians.
Most families joined others in Independence and made up wagon trains of from four to as many as 100 wagons. Each season, the first of these trains set out as soon as the winter snows melted and was followed by a steady stream of departures throughout the spring and into early summer.
The wagon trains usually went only a short distance the first day, making a sort of trial run. While they were still close to Independence, the men could ride back if necessary to buy supplies that had been forgotten.
The first weeks of travel in the spring were generally very difficult. The men frequently were not experienced at handling teams, wagons, or weapons. The snows had just melted, so the trails were like mud bogs. Most families had no idea how to pack and wound up with dangerously top-heavy or unbalanced loads. Oxen became entangled in their ropes at night and sometimes, breaking free, wandered off.
The first stop for most travelers, usually reached in two or three days, was the Shawnee Methodist Mission only 15 miles from Independence. Once this was left behind, travelers would not see any signs of civilization for many long miles. After leaving the Mission, the wagon trains lumbered over the rolling prairie south of the Kansas River, following the deep ruts of the Santa Fe Trail as far as the present-day town of Gardner, Kansas. There a sign bore the simple legend “Road to Oregon.”
From there on, the wagons kept to the high prairies as much as possible, although there were many streams and rivers to be crossed. The Wakarusa, Kansas, Red Vermillion, Black Vermillion, and Big Blue rivers were especially difficult for the travelers; smaller streams could be forded, but it was a daylong ordeal to cross a river. First, the wagons had to be unloaded and the joints and seams packed with tar. After that, they were let down the bank with ropes and floated across. Supplies were floated by makeshift raft or carried by horse. Frequently tools and heavier provisions slid into the river. After the oxen had crossed, they were taken to the top of the bank, harnessed by long ropes to the wagon, and, with them pulling and all the family members pushing, the wagon inched to the top of the bank.
Indians, particularly the Pawnee in the area of the Red Vermillion river, did not welcome the constant stream of white men crossing their hunting grounds. In 1849, for example, after a cholera epidemic for which the Indians blamed the whites, the Pawnee, Oglala, and Sioux began attacking wagon trains with great frequency. Wagons were particularly vulnerable when crossing rivers, so the Indians often chose fords for their attacks.
In a sense, the Indians were correct about the source of cholera. It had been carried from Asia to the U.S. by sailors and passengers on ships. It reached the frontier by way of New Orleans and the Mississippi and traveled west with the wagon trains. No amount of planning or preparation could save the settlers from this hazard. Afflicted with severe pain, vomiting, and cramps, a person might display the first symptoms in the morning and be dead by noon.
In 1852, Ezra Meeker kept a log and estimated that more than 5000 people had died of cholera on the trail that year.
Living in fear of disease, the emigrants were prone to dose themselves with large quantities of medicine at the first sign of any illness, on the theory that the larger the dose the quicker the recovery that might be expected. In fact, many patients were killed rather than cured by the injudicious use of medicine.
River crossings slowed the journey through Kansas and Nebraska, and most wagon trains took about three weeks to travel the 175 miles to the ford across the Big Blue River in southern Nebraska known as Independence Crossing. About six miles northwest of this crossing, trails from St. Joseph and Fort Leavenworth converged, thence following the Platte River to Fort Kearney. Having reached the Platte, the pioneers could follow its valley west, past Chimney Rock, Scott’s Bluff, and to the last outposts of civilization, Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman.
The Platte River marked the beginning of buffalo country, and few men missed the chance to enjoy some good hunting and to add to their food supply. Unfortunately, most of them had no idea how to preserve the meat. The animals were generally shot in midafternoon and left in the hot sun until sunset, when they were gutted. Perhaps one was roasted that night, but the rest were left unskinned and undivided to rot and provide a meal for the scavengers of the plain.
Along the North Platte River Valley, the wagons could generally make a speed of about two miles per hour, thus covering, in a good day, about 15 to 18 miles. If it had been possible to maintain this speed for the entire journey, the 2040 miles from Independence to Oregon City could have been covered in about 4 1/2 months. However, everything seemed to conspire to slow the trip: river crossings, Indian and bandit attacks, hunting, burying the dead, wagon breakdowns, muddy trails, oxen wandering off, and losing the trail.
Some wagon trains even rested on Sunday, observing it as a day of worship and, more often than not, repair.
Fort Laramie stood at the fork of the Laramie and North Platte rivers in eastern Wyoming. There the traveler had his first opportunity in many weeks to send letters home, buy provisions, and get information about the trail ahead. There, too, was a place to relax a bit from the constant caution so necessary on the march.
After Fort Laramie, the next objective was the Sweetwater River Valley in central Wyoming, the entrance to which was marked by Independence Rock, on which thousands of emigrants carved their names. “The Great Register of the Desert,” Father Pierre Jean de Smet, a Jesuit missionary, called it. If things were going well, most travelers had reached the rock by July 4.
Looking west from Independence Rock, the emigrants could see, six miles in the distance, a V-shaped split in a rocky ridge known as Devil’s Gate. The preferred route skirted Devil’s Gate Canyon, but there was no question that it marked the beginning of a new and more difficult phase of the journey. Although there were many alternative routes to the Sweetwater Valley, all trails converged there for the long ascent to South Pass across the Continental Divide. Even in mid-July, the steep mountain walls often blocked the sun, and snow and ice frequently covered the ground. The ascent from the Sweetwater Valley was long and gradual, and the South Pass many miles in width. Hence the only real hindrances to good progress were the occasional snow and damage to wagon wheels from the rocky trail. The travelers, having left the boredom of the plains and knowing that they had reached the halfway point of the trip, were usually in good spirits as they entered South Pass.
Beyond the South Pass, the trail began a gradual but rocky descent of about 60 miles, across the Green River near the Wyoming-Idaho border. This crossing was an extremely dangerous one; the river was wide, deep, powerful, and ice cold. Those who successfully made this crossing were much relieved to follow the Bear River Valley for a way to Soda Springs, whence they headed northwest for 50 miles to Fort Hall, Idaho, on the Snake River. There they were forced to decide whether to continue on to Oregon or turn south to California.
Fort Hall was a welcome stop for the wagon trains. Originally built by Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth of Boston in 1834, the fort offered needed supplies and protection from the hostile Blackfoot Indians. After leaving the fort, the trail crossed the Portneuf River and Bannock Creek and then passed the American Falls on the Snake River. This treacherous crossing led, a few miles on, to two enormous rocks known as Massacre Rocks because hostile Indians often used them as a place from which to ambush wagon trains.
The trail then followed the Snake River for some 300 miles as it traced its circuitous course across the barren, lava-covered Snake River Plains; it finally broke out of the canyon at the mouth of the Little Boise River near the Oregon border. As they crossed the Snake at Fort Boise, the travelers took their first steps in Oregon.
But one more barrier loomed between the settlers and the Promised Land: the terrible Blue Mountains. Several times during the crossing of these mountains, wagons had to be lowered with ropes from one part of the trail to another, and canyon walls too narrow for the wagons frequently had to be chipped away. Wagons were often abandoned, their occupants continuing the journey on foot. Others, searching for a better route, became hopelessly lost and eventually died of hunger and thirst.
John Kerns, in his diary, recorded this about the Blue Mountains: “…it was the roughest road we have encountered on the journey, being up and down sidling mountains, into the brush and across a creek every 200 or 300 yards, and over stony places enough to hide all despairing sinners.”
Those pioneers who traversed the final obstacle, Deadman’s Pass, saw the trail emerge from the mountains and wind down the bald face of Emigrant Hill from which they were treated to one of the most spectacular views in the world. Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams could be seen in the distance, while in the foreground lay the rolling hills and fertile valleys of the Columbia River Basin.
From Walla Walla, Washington, on, still 250 miles across Oregon to the coastal settlements, most travelers kept going, driven by sheer exhilaration and determination. By all accounts, it was one of the most difficult parts of the journey. As Medorem Crawford, an emigrant traveler, recorded, “From Walla Walla to Willamette Falls (Oregon City) occupied about 20 days, and, all things considered, was the hardest part of the entire journey—what with drifting sands, rocky cliffs, and rapid streams along the Columbia, and the gorges, torrents, and thickets of the Cascade Mountains, it seems incredible how, with our worn out and emaciated animals, we ever reached our destination.” But many did, and they were well rewarded for their perseverance.
J.M. Shively, writer of one of the guidebooks about the trail, closed with the thought, “Be of good cheer—you will find a country in Oregon that will fill your desires, and repay you for all your toil.”
Coons, Frederica B. The Trail to Oregon. Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1954.
Ghent, William J. The Road to Oregon. New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1929.
Meeker, Ezra. Ox Team Days on the Oregon Trail. New York: E. Meeker, 1907.
Morgan, Dale L. Overland in 1846. Georgetown, CA: Talisman Press, 1963.
Parkman, Francis. The Oregon Trail. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1925.
Rawitsch, Dan. MECC Oregon User Manual. Lauderdale, MN: Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium, 1977.
Westward Ho! is a substantial revision of the Oregon Trail program written by Dan Rawitsch and Bill Heinemann in 1972–73 on the Hewlett Packard 2000 timesharing system of the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium. The original Oregon Trail program was subsequently converted to Microsoft BASIC and appeared in Creative Computing magazine in 1977. Play of the game is similar in this new version, but the program has been structured (to some extent), simplified, and shortened by more than 300 lines.
The program consists of a main section, initialization and closing sections with five related subroutines, eight major subroutines, and six minor subroutines.
The initialization section dimensions variables, puts data in them, displays the initial scenario, and asks you for your initial purchases. At the outset, you have $420, the average amount of money that a family setting out on the Oregon Trail had in 1847. A wagon costs $70, and you can spend the rest of your money on oxen, food, ammunition, clothing, and miscellaneous supplies such as medicine, bandages, and repair parts. You can spend all of your money at the outset, or you can save some to spend at forts along the way to replenish supplies when they run low. This is a tradeoff: Supplies cost 50% more at the forts. However, if you lose supplies while fording a river or in a bandit attack, you may not have enough to continue.
Food is important to maintain the strength and health of your family. A guidebook of the time recommends for each adult 150 lbs. of flour, 25 lbs. of sugar, 25 lbs. of bacon, 15 lbs. of coffee, and smaller quantities of other staples. The average family of five (your family in the simulation) eats about as much as four adults. The above commodities in 1850 cost about 10 cents a pound in Missouri; thus an adequate food stock for your family would cost about $60 to $100. Of course, along the way you will hunt for fresh meat and, hopefully, find some edible plants and berries.
Although you are wearing some clothes, most travelers had to purchase additional clothing for the cold weather they would encounter in the mountains. In 1850, $15 would buy several warm outfits; thus an appropriate budget for clothes would be at least $50 or so for your family of five.
You will want to have plenty of ammunition for your rifle to hunt, ward off attacks by wild animals, and defend yourself against bandits and hostile Indians. A belt of bullets costs $1, and in general you can expect to use one or two belts per week on the trail.
A brief explanation of these purchases is displayed in the Sub490 subroutine, and the amounts are accepted as input in the Sub690 subroutine. Note the conditional (IF) statements in this subroutine that do not allow you to buy less than the minimum you need, or to spend more than you have.
The main program iterates through the journey in two-week segments. If you have been on the trail for more than 20 weeks, the program branches to an end-game routine. Under normal circumstances, at the beginning of a two-week trip segment, the date will be printed, injuries and illnesses treated (assuming you have enough money to pay a doctor), the mileage updated, and your inventory of supplies printed.
The expected mileage over the next two weeks is then calculated in LN390. In general, you will travel 200 miles plus some additional distance which depends upon the quality of your team of oxen. This mileage figure is an ideal, assuming nothing goes wrong. If you run into problems, mileage is subtracted from this ideal figure; the revised total is printed at the start of the next trip segment.
You are then asked whether you wish to hunt, continue on, or, if it is an even-numbered trip segment, stop at a fort. In 1847, forts and missions were spaced about 300 to 400 miles apart along the Oregon Trail. On average you will cover about 75 miles a week and thus you can expect to hit a fort about every four weeks (or every other trip segment). Note the function at the beginning of Sub1000 that determines whether or not you are on an even-numbered trip segment; if the integer value of J/2 equals J/2, J is even; if not, J is odd.
If you stop at a fort (Sub1100), you have an opportunity to purchase supplies, but they cost 50% more than at the start. The running total of most items in your inventory is kept in dollars. Your supply of ammunition, however, is expressed as a number of bullets. This makes it easier to calculate ammunition consumption when you use your gun to hunt, fight, or scare off animals.
If you decide to hunt, the subroutine at Sub1200 is called. If you have fewer than 40 bullets, you do not have enough to hunt and you are given the option of stopping at a fort (if there is one on this trip segment) or continuing on. Hunting costs several days of travel (45 miles) and, of course, some ammunition.
Since there is no good way to determine how skilled a marksman you are, the program asks you to rank yourself at the start of the trip (Sub920). From then on, each time you are confronted with a situation in which you must use your rifle, you will be asked to type in a word that sounds like a gunshot (pow, blam, or bang).
The faster you type the word and hit Return, the better luck you will have in hitting your target.
The shooting subroutine is found at Sub3870. When this subroutine is entered, a random shooting word is selected. Then a timer is started. The timer uses the real-time clock of the computer to get a starting time in seconds (S1) in milliseconds. You then type in the shooting word, which is compared to the requested word. If your typing was in error, you are asked to type the word again. This continues until the word is typed correctly, at which time the time in seconds is again calculated. The starting time is subtracted from the ending time, and the resulting elapsed time in seconds less your ranking as a marksman is put into variable BR. A good typist should be able to type a four-letter word in two seconds or less, while a less skilled, hunt-and-peck typist might take four or five seconds.
Control is then returned to the hunting subroutine, and ammunition consumption calculated as a function of the value of BR. The slower you shoot (the higher the value of BR), the greater the probability that you are unsuccessful in your hunting (see function after LN1230).
The eating subroutine is called next (Sub1310). In it you are asked how well you want to eat, and your food consumption is calculated. If you do not have enough food to eat as well as you would like, you must choose to eat at a diminished level.
Next, a subroutine is called to determine whether or not you are attacked by bandits or Indians (Sub1390). The probability of attack is determined by the function at the beginning of the subroutine. Toward the beginning of your journey, especially around 400 to 500 miles from Independence in what is now western Nebraska and Wyoming, you have the highest probability of encountering bandits and Indians. As you get into the mountains, these probabilities decrease drastically (see graph on page 36). The function within the IF … THEN statement increases the probability from 20% at 0 miles (M) to a maximum of 50% at 500 miles and then gradually decreases the rest of the way.
If riders approach, you may choose one of four strategies: run, attack, ignore them, or circle wagons. Each strategy has a different cost in miles and supplies and also depends upon whether the riders were hostile or friendly. If you choose to attack, the program again goes to the shooting subroutine. If you are slow on the draw, you may pick up a flesh wound, which sets the injury flag and requires treatment by a doctor the next time you stop.
The longest subroutine (Sub1800) deals with hazards and special events. A random number selected at the beginning determines which event occurs; the program then branches to the appropriate routine to handle that event. The probability of each event is determined by the difference between successive numbers in the event array (EPArray, established in Sub3700). For example, if a random number between 0 and 6 is selected, event 1 occurs; between 6 and 11, event 2; between 11 and 13, event 3; and so on. Thus we see that there is the highest probability that event 19 (value between 69 and 95) will occur; this event has to do with illness from not eating well.
Most events are handled in a very straightforward manner: A message is printed, mileage subtracted, and supplies used. On the other hand, four of the events are more complicated: cold weather, bandit attack, wild-animal attack, and illness.
The cold-weather routine (starts at LN2130) checks to see if you have adequate clothing to keep warm. If not, the illness subroutine (Sub2880) is called. This routine is also called if you are not eating well enough (starts at LN2560).
In the illness routine, depending upon how well you have been eating, you may contract a mild, bad, or very serious illness. Mild and bad illness can be treated with your own medicine—if you have any left—whereas serious illness requires the services of a doctor (the illness flag, KS, is set) at the start of the next trip segment.
The bandits attack routine (starts at LN2180) is very similar to the attack by Indians routine in the previous section, except that bandits are always bad and you have no choice but to fight them.
The last major subroutine called by the main program deals with travel through the mountains (Sub2640). In the mountains, you are vulnerable to cave-ins along the trail, losing your way, and just plain slow going. In addition, you must traverse the South Pass and the Blue Mountains. The probability is set to 80% that you will get stuck in the South Pass when you first reach it, but a flag (KP) prevents you from being stuck there for the entire journey. Likewise, you have a 70% chance of getting stuck in the Blue Mountains, but you will eventually get through. Blizzards, on the other hand, can occur on every trip segment while you are in the mountains, and there is a good chance that this will happen.
If you do not have adequate food, clothing, ammunition, or medical supplies when you encounter the various hazards of the journey, chances are very high that you will die on the trail (starts at LN3000). If you die, a short message is displayed telling you what happened, how far you traveled, and your remaining inventory of supplies.
It is not known today what percentage of the travelers who set out on the Oregon Trail actually reached their destination. Certainly it was fewer than 50%, and perhaps fewer than 20%. If you are among the lucky few, the program tell you how long it took, and display your remaining supplies, if any.
It is not easy to reach Oregon. Your decisions must be well reasoned, and Lady Luck must be traveling with you. But if you don’t make it, you, unlike actual families in 1847, at least, will get a chance to try again.
A Money spent on animals
AS Money to question (Y or N), user input
B Money spent on ammo, also number of bullets
BR Response time for typing shooting word
C Money spent for clothing
C1 Flag for insufficient clothes
D Total days traveled
DD Days of last month
DM Total months traveled
DADArray[n] Date, n = 1 – 20
DR Shooting expertise level
E Eating quality
EPArray[n] Event probability, n = 1 – 20
EV Event counter
F Money spent on food
GH Riders description (0 hostile, 1 friendly)
GT Choice of tactics when riders approach
I Temporary iteration variable
J Trip segment counter
KB Flag for blizzard
KF Flag for stop at fort
KH Flag for injury
KM Flag for Blue Mountains
KP Flag for South Pass
KQ Flag for not enough ammo to hunt
KS Flag for illness
M Total trip mileage
MA Mileage through previous turn
MP Mileage flag for South Pass
P Amount spent at fort
R Money for medicine and repair parts
RN Random number for choosing events
SD[n] Shooting words, n = 1 – 4
S1, S2 Response time temporary variables
X Choice of action, temporary
X$ Temporary string variable
THE PROGRAM IN SMALL BASIC
‘ Westward Ho! 1847
‘ Original Author: David H. Ahl
‘ Small Basic Version by Philip Conrod
‘ Adapted with permission from David Ahls BASIC Computer Adventures, published by Microsoft Press, 1986.
‘ (c)BibleByte Books, 2010
‘ Find more Small Basic tutorials at http://www.computerscienceforkids.com
TextWindow.WriteLine(“Westward Ho! 1847”)
TextWindow.WriteLine(“(c) David H. Ahl, 1986”)
‘DIM DADArray[20), EPArray[20), MPArray[15), PLArray[15)
‘Put data in variables
TextWindow.WriteLine(“Press Enter when you’re ready to go”)
‘Display the scenario
‘Make initial purchases
‘How good a shot are you?
TextWindow.WriteLine(” Your trip is about to begin … “) ……………………………………………………..