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Fall 2014

Hit the Oregon Trail

At the mention of the Oregon Trail, many young Americans will recall fording rivers, crossing plains, and being waylaid by dysentery or broken legs in a popular game played on flickering computer screens. The real Oregon Trail, used by many American pioneers during the westward migration from Missouri to Oregon during the mid-nineteenth century, was far more remarkable.

To pioneer ancestors of many modern Americans, the trail may have evoked nightmares of danger, disaster, and tragedy—including exposure to the elements in the unforgiving American wilderness. The trail also may have conjured images of fortune, opportunity, or hope—reflecting the determined American spirit of exploration, expansion, and perseverance.

With the construction of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869, the trail largely fell into decline. Nowadays, with the conveniences of modern technology and transportation, most would consider the Oregon Trail consigned to history books and low-resolution computer games.

However, to many Americans, the Oregon Trail and its associated landmarks still represent an important part of our heritage. Although the original Oregon Trail is no more, many sites protect the legacy of those early pioneers. Here are five of the more notable historical attractions that everyone can enjoy along this route.

Independence, Missouri

The departure point for many pioneers, the city of Independence is replete with historical significance. Be sure to visit the National Frontier Trail Center, a museum that specializes in the history of pioneers and pioneer treks. Independence also happens to be the hometown of Harry S. Truman, the thirty-third president of the United States. If you stop by the Truman Presidential Library and Museum, be forewarned that the museum may be set up in a complicated maze-like construction, for Truman was known to have said, “If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”

Chimney Rock, Nebraska

For American pioneers, the vast expanse of the West was occasionally marked by intriguing and (likely) mystifying natural wonders. To the east of US Route 26 in western Nebraska stands Chimney Rock, a uniquely tall and skinny rock formation surrounded by Nebraska’s famous cornfields. As prominent as ever, this geological wonder once stood as a natural signpost for pioneers as they trekked westward and is now categorized as a natural historic site.

An image of a sunset
Photo by Tarik Abdel-Monem

Besides staring at the rock, you can enjoy other fun activities here, like taking a tour around the area and visiting the nearby museum. To pioneers, Chimney Rock served as a reminder that, yes, America is beautiful, and, yes, you’ve got a lot of plains left to see.

Independence Rock, Wyoming

Another important pioneer landmark, Independence Rock, is a 130-foot-high, 850-foot-wide natural monument. Most emigrants who left Missouri in the spring attempted to reach Independence Rock by July 4, giving the rock its name and making it a very welcome sight. Accessible today via Wyoming Highway 220, the rock sits near the center of Wyoming and was a well-known milestone for pioneers because of its size and location right in the middle of the trail.

Many pioneers carved their names into the rock, along with messages for the next group, earning it the title “The Register of the Desert.” Some of the messages are imaginative and inspiring, such as “John was here.” Some historians believe that people actually set themselves up as professional carvers here and charged a fee to carve the pioneers’ names and messages in the rock.

Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Characterized by an eerily alien and desolate landscape of caves and “lava forests” that were carved over millennia by very active volcanoes, the Craters of the Moon National Monument and Park is a fascinating place to hike, camp, and explore along the Oregon Trail. It is one of the best places in the world to play “hot lava” . . . or the worst, depending on how you look at it. Be sure not to get lost, though, because the park covers an area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

Fort Vancouver, Washington

An image of a wooden fort in Vancouver
Photo by Alex

The jewel of the Pacific Northwest, Vancouver, Washington, is home to another important historical landmark—Fort Vancouver. Don’t let the name fool you. Fort Vancouver isn’t in Canada; it’s definitely an American city. Located on the bank of the Columbia River, Fort Vancouver was one of the destinations along the West Coast for pioneers, a frequent stop for trappers and fur traders, the western hub of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and a lone ensign of civilization in the vast and untamed wilderness. As pioneers reached this region, they would pick up supplies at the fort before settling on their own new land.

At one point, the fort was the center of trade in the Pacific Northwest. Although the original Fort Vancouver burned down many years ago, a complete replica has been built in its place. You can tour the new fort, which is accessible via Interstate 5.

Even if you don’t follow the complete Oregon Trail from Independence to Fort Vancouver, these sites along the way will always be reminders of the great American westward journey.

—Josh Fulton