Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 3. By the Missouri to Oregon

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XIV. Travellers and Explorers, 1846–1900

§ 3. By the Missouri to Oregon

While the Santa Fè Trail linked the Missouri with the Rio Grande as early as 1822, there was for a long time no overland highway to the Oregon country, the usual route being up the Missouri first by keelboat and then by steamboat. Audubon travelled that course in 1843 in the steamer Omega as far as Fort Union, and he kept a full journal. This was mislaid and fifty years elapsed before it was given to the world in Audubon and his Journals by his granddaughter, Maria R. Audubon. His son, John Woodhouse Audubon, in 1849–50 made a journey from New York to Texas and thence overland through Mexico and Arizona to the gold fields of California, which is recorded in John W. Audubon’s Western Journal (1906), edited by Frank H. Hodder.

The literature connected with the route up the Missouri River is voluminous and it is vital to the historical annals of the West. A great deal of it falls before 1846. H. M. Chittenden gives a History of Early Steamboat Navigation of the Missouri River. Life and Adventures of Joseph La Barge, Pioneer Navigator and Indian Trader (1903); and with this title may be coupled an important paper on the subject read by Phil. E. Chappel before the Kansas State Historical Society (1904) and printed in the Society’s Publications (vol. ix), with the title “A History of the Missouri River.” He writes from personal knowledge and adds a list of the steamboats.

A change was coming in this direction. Notwithstanding the phenomenal scepticism as to the value of Oregon displayed in Congress, the “common people” were learning by word of mouth from trappers and explorers that good homes were to be had there for the taking. They saw a vision of being landowners—a vision that became a life-preserver amid the discomfort, danger, and disaster which befell a large proportion of them in the journey to the land of promise. Presently, from the same Independence that saw the wagon track vanish south westward with its caravans for Santa Fè another track faded into the plains to the north-west and hammered its devious sagebrush course over mountains, over valleys, through difficult canyons, across dangerous rivers or deserts of death to the Columbia River, to Oregon, to California. This was the path that Francis Parkman, just out of college, followed in 1846 as far as Fort Laramie; an experience which gave us The California and Oregon Trail (1849). Ezra Meeker travelled it in 1852 and back again in 1906, and in The Ox-Team, or the Old Oregon Trail (1906) he relates what befell him in this long, wild journey with an ox-team—a real “bull-whacker’s” tale.

Mrs. Ann Boyd had experiences on this difficult highway in the late forties, and she presents the record in The Oregon Trail (1862). A rare volume on the same road is Joel Palmer’s Journal of Travels Over the Rocky Mountains to the Mouth of the Columbia River (1847). For those desiring to identify in detail the route and distances of the Oregon Trail of early days there is a complete exposition in the masterly work by H. M. Chittenden, History of the American Fur Trade in the Far West (1902).