American Westward Migration, beginnings

Before there were trains on tracks, there were carts and wagons on trails

Life and Death on the Trail

  • 30-100 prairie schooners in a caravan
  • 4′ x 10′ size of a prairie schooner wagon
  • 15-20 miles per hour a prairie schooner could travel
  • 2,170 miles of various routes on the Oregon Trail
  • 420,000 pioneers traveled part of the Oregon Trail
  • 80,000 pioneers traveled the entire distance
  • 1,300 miles of Mormon Trail from Illinois to Utah
  • 40,000 unmarked graves on the Oregon Trail, (
  • 60,000+ Mormons traveled by handcart and wagon to the “promised land” in Utah

For centuries, citizens of many nations have been sufficiently dissatisfied with their homelands to migrate to North America with dreams of freedom and greener pastures. Initially, they struggled with the difficulties of settling a brand new nation on the east coast in the thirteen colonies. Then the Louisiana Purchase and stories of gold and abundant land drew them west. The Appalachian Mountains, vast empty central plains, Rocky Mountains, and dry deserts made westward overland travel by single families extremely challenging. It didn’t take long for industrious entrepreneurs to devise a safer, more economical way to cross the continent ~ covered wagon trains.

More than just a line of Conestoga wagons (occasionally) and smaller prairie schooners (commonly), wagon trains were highly organized, if temporary, communities. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “It was in transit westward over the Oregon-California Trail that wagon trains attained their most highly organized and institutionalized character. Meeting in early spring at a rendezvous town,” the article describes, “groups would form companies, elect officers, employ guides, and collect essential supplies while waiting for favorable weather, usually in May.” (See Mormon rules below, for example.) Rarely circling to thwart Native American attacks as popularly depicted in vintage television and film westerns, caravans would form circles to corral livestock, contain children, create a sense of security, and protect the travelers from wind and weather.

In fact, Indian attacks are now reported to have been rare, and it is estimated that more Native Americans were killed by Whites than Whites killed by Native Americans. American Western Migration at identifies disease as a much greater concern on the trail. “Thousands of pioneers died along the way due to disease [cholera, typhoid fever and dysentery] and lack of medical attention.” A sobering statement found at underscores the travelers’ problems on just one westward trail. “The Oregon Trail would come to be called a 2,000-mile-long graveyard, with 40,000 unmarked graves, an average of 20 burials per mile.”

By the time Catherine and Patrick Callaway, and two of the historical figures in Cat’s Cafe Rebecca Mitchell and Henry Dubois, traveled west and ultimately settled in Eagle Rock, much less stressful conveyances were available. The Transcontinental Railroad and its north-south spurs truly opened the West.

Rules of the Road on the Mormon Trail

Click the Rules of the Road link to read the full text on our website under the Posts tab.

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