The First Large Wagon Train Departs For Oregon: May 22, 1843

Oregon Trail Painting
Alfred Jacob Miller – Walters Art Museum

The first large wagon train bound for Oregon from Independence left on this date in 1843. The party was composed of more than one thousand men, women, and children, one hundred wagons, and five thousand oxen and cattle.

Known today as the “Great Migration of 1843,” this wagon train was not the first group of settlers to travel to Oregon together, being preceded by the Peoria Party in 1839, the first party with wagons led by Robert Newell and Joseph L. Meek in 1840, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party in 1841, and another wagon train with more than one hundred people in 1842. However until now, no organized migration taking an overland route to Oregon had been anywhere near this size. Economic depression across the midwest as well as an influx of positive claims about Oregon’s potential for settlement coming from people who had been there earlier led to a massive upswell in people wanting to undertake the journey. Wagon train participants were allowed to join under the guidance of Captain John Gantt and Marcus Whitman for one dollar each.

The party was encouraged to leave their wagons at Fort Hall, Idaho, but under Whitman’s leadership decided to press on with them, disassembling them and floating them down the Columbia River at Mount Hood and building road improvements along the way when necessary. By October, the majority of the participants reached western Oregon safely.

Jesse Applegate, a member of the 1843 party, wrote an account of a single day of the journey titled A Day With the Cow Column in 1843. Subsequent editions of the text also included more of his recollections from the journey.

Now that a passable trail between Independence and The Dalles, Oregon, and in 1846 a road was established that extended the trail to the Willamette Valley. After 1843 another wagon train would depart every year. In 1844 it was smaller than the 1843 party, but the one that left in 1845 had three thousand participants. The trail saw continued use until the Union Pacific Railroad was constructed along the route in 1884.