The Oregon Trail was blazed by a long series of Native Americans, fur trappers, missionaries, and military scouts. The first wagon trains left the banks of the Missouri River in the early 1840s, and more than 400,000 pioneers ventured west by the time the transcontinental railroad made the trail obsolete fewer than 30 years later.
Photograph by James L. Amos, National Geographic
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    On May 16, 1842, a group of more than 100 pioneers left Elm Grove, Missouri, on the 3,500-kilometer (2,200-mile) Oregon Trail. Pioneers had been trickling into the Oregon Territory for decades, but this was the first major wagon train to embark on the famous route.
    The Oregon Trail stretched from the banks of the Missouri River to what is today western Oregon. The route had long been established by fur traders, missionaries, trackers, and military scouts. It crossed what are today the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.
    Pioneers packed up all they could in covered wagons, as well as on pack animals such as horses, donkeys and, crucially, oxen. Travelers had to be prepared for flat plains, steep mountains (the Rockies), and dry deserts (the Great Basin) before reaching the fertile valleys of Oregon. Many pioneers feared attacks by hostile Native Americans, but weather, landscape, and disease were much bigger threats.
    Wagon trains to Oregon usually departed in spring, and took about four or five months to reach their destination. The settlers of 1842 arrived in September. More than 400,000 people migrated west on the Oregon Trail before the transcontinental railroad made it obsolete in 1869.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    bank Noun

    a slope of land adjoining a body of water, or a large elevated area of the sea floor.

    crucial Adjective

    very important.

    decade Noun

    10 years.

    depart Verb

    to leave.

    desert Noun

    area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

    Encyclopedic Entry: desert
    destination Noun

    place where a person or thing is going.

    disease Noun

    harmful condition of a body part or organ.

    embark Verb

    to leave or set off on a journey.

    establish Verb

    to form or officially organize.

    fertile Adjective

    able to produce crops or sustain agriculture.

    fur Noun

    thick hair covering the skin of an animal.

    Great Basin Noun

    enormous watershed region in the western United States with no drainage to the ocean, including most of the state of Nevada, and surrounding areas in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah.

    hostile Adjective

    confrontational or unfriendly.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    migrate Verb

    to move from one place or activity to another.

    military Noun

    armed forces.

    obsolete Adjective

    useless or outdated.

    pack animal Noun

    domesticated animal used by humans for transporting goods.

    pioneer Noun

    person who is among the first to do something.

    plain Noun

    flat, smooth area at a low elevation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: plain
    route Noun

    path or way.

    tracker Noun

    person or animal that follows the traces (tracks) of another person or animal.

    transcontinental railroad Noun

    railroad that spans an entire continent.

    valley Noun

    depression in the Earth between hills.

    wagon train Noun

    group of pioneers traveling in covered wagons, often those emigrating to the American West in the 1800s.

    weather Noun

    state of the atmosphere, including temperature, atmospheric pressure, wind, humidity, precipitation, and cloudiness.

    Encyclopedic Entry: weather