On our way from Colorado to Oregon, we stumbled upon a wonderful campground in Idaho that is an area of historical significance. The Three Island Crossing State Park is located near a key point of the Oregon Trail. The three islands that are aligned in the Snake River near the current town of Glynns Ferry provided a possible river crossing. That possibility, however, resulted in a difficult decision for the early emigrants. The travelers could cross the river here to find better grazing for their animals or they could continue south of the river through harsher drier terrain. The challenge was that the river crossing was perilous in itself and many pioneers lost their lives or possessions in an instant.
We really enjoyed staying at the beautiful Three Island Crossing State Park and visiting its small museum. We even took the gravel road up to see the Oregon Trail ruts that overlook the river valley. The dry desert area is interrupted now by green irrigated farms, but you are still able to visualize the barrenness and challenges that the emigrants faced.
The Three Island Crossing State Park museum is dedicated to telling the story of the emigrants who left their country hoping for a better life. Their story peaked my interest as we too made our way to Oregon.
I knew nothing about the Oregon Trail save the experience with the famous early computer game of my youth. I knew it was difficult and involved covered wagons but that was about it. I surely did not know anything about the many thousands who made this 2000 mile plus journey or how it shaped who we are as a country.
During our extended stay in Portland, OR we visited the famous block-long Powells Bookstore where I noticed that Rinker Buck’s The Oregon Trail is a best seller. The book is a fascinating story of history and humor by modern day travelers who traveled the historic trail. Buck, with his brother, provide detailed history of the famous pathway along with their own mule-driven covered wagon trip. I was struck by the fact that a key part of their adventure was the people that they met along the way.
The Oregon Trail began about two decades before the Civil War. Before it was over, more than 400,000 people had trekked westward toward the Pacific from the Missouri River. It is considered the largest single land migration in history. Spurred on by harsh economic times, religious yearnings, an opportunity to new start in life, or the sense of adventure; thousands of families left the States in the iconic covered wagon. The pioneers faced many hardships including breakdowns, desert heat, sick animals, difficult trails, and the most deadly – cholera.
The earliest of these wagon travelers were missionaries to the Indians from the state of New York. In fact, Marcus Whitman’s wife Narcissa was the first white women to cross the Rockies. Her letters back home inspired skeptics who previously assumed that what she had just accomplished was impossible. That was in 1836 and within a few years “Oregon fever” took hold and thousands were hoping to make the crossing.
The Oregon Trail is not just one trail but comprises many short cuts and variants that the pioneers made. There is also the Mormon, Santa Fe, and California trails; but the Oregon Trail is the longest and is rightly associated with the period of history that greatly shaped our country.
The “official” terminus of the Oregon Trail is in Oregon City, just south of Portland. There is a museum at the location of a historical marker. The town had the only land office on the west coast and land tracts as far away as California were processed there.
I made a day trip to the “End of the Trail” Museum in Oregon City that offers interactive exhibits and a docent led tour. The three large buildings of the Museum are supposed to have canvas style coverings but only the “hoops” remain as the material used in the original installation did not hold up to the weather.
At the Oregon City Museum I learned of the importance of Fort Vancouver just across the Columbia River from where we are staying. The fort was a part of the British Hudson Bay Company and managed the territory from Sitka, Alaska to California which was known as the “Columbia District.” The British and Americans had agreed to “coexist” in the region because it was so sparsely populated. Encouraging American families to emigrate west could be beneficial to tilting the population in the US favor.
From Fort Vancouver, the Superintendent of the Columbia District, John McLoughlin, helped the beleaguered pioneers as they finished the trail, but this was in defiance of his British superiors. When the French-Canadian superintendent was relieved of his position, he moved to Oregon City and opened a general store. Becoming an American citizen, he is now remembered as the “Father of Oregon.”
I spent some time at the wonderful site of Fort Vancouver with its beautiful view of Mount Hood. The National Park Service has restored multiple buildings and fortunately knowledgeable docents give their time and expertise to visitors.
There is also a beautiful garden that had surprisingly numerous blooms this time of year.
The blacksmith shop is especially impressive.
The Visitor Center highlights John McLoughlin’s legacy. Under his leadership he oversaw 34 outposts and over 600 employees. The Hudson Bay Company focused on the profitable fur trade to satisfy the demand for beaver hats in Europe.
To my surprise there is also a small aviation museum on the grounds adjacent to the fort. The Pearson Field and Air Museum has enthusiastic docents who seemed genuinely excited for my visit.
We always love visiting our 33rd state and it has been fun learning about some of its early history.