OTCC Interpretive Kiosk

Ontario: Eastern Gateway to Oregon's Oregon Trail

Interstate 84 closely parallels the route of the Oregon Trail across the state of Oregon and allows today's motorist to cross in a few hours the same terrain that required weeks of back-breaking labor on the part of 19th century emigrants. Although Ontario is not directly on the route of the trail, its central position near several important trail sites, and its location along Interstate 84 make this community the eastern gateway to Oregon's Oregon Trail.
          Oregon Trail emigrants entered today's State of Oregon by crossing the Snake River south of Nyssa. The story of Fort Boise and the Snake River Crossing is interpreted at an Oregon Trail kiosk that is easily found a short drive south on Hwy. 201. Emigrants headed northwest from the Snake River over Keeney Pass to the Malheur river at Vale, and the driving tour closely follows the emigrant route through this portion of the trail. The Bureau of Land Management interprets the trek through Keeney Pass at a wayside located near the junction of  Highways 20 and 26. From Vale the emigrants continued northwest through Alkali Springs and Birch Creek to the Snake River at Farewell Bend. Interpretive displays at the Alkali Springs and Birch Creek campsites are provided by the Bureau of Land Management. Farewell Bend is today a state park where another interpretive kiosk provides an excellent account of the arduous journey through this region.

Oregon FeverOregon Fever

Westward emigration was motivated by more than clever slogans; some people sought relief from a depressed economy, some were evading the law; others were simply nomads in search of new horizons. Many emigrants were lured west to what Charles A. Brandt, emigrant of 1851, called "the promised land" by the prospects of up to 320 acres of free farmland. Oregon fever was a common complaint with as many causes as there were hundreds of would-be Oregonians.

"The Oregon fever is raging in almost every part of the land. Companies are forming in the east, and in several parts of Ohio, which added to those of Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri will make a pretty formidable army. The largest portion will probably join companies at Fort Independence, Missouri and proceed together across the mountains. It would be reasonable to suppose that there will be at least five thousand Americans west of the Rocky Mountains next Autumn."
Niles National Register; Ohio, May 6, 1843.

Evolving Trail

Westward emigration on the Oregon Trail was an annual event and every year the trail experience was unique. Early emigrations were small with overlanders blazing trails, establishing routes across mountain ranges, and living off the land. Later emigrants found a well worn path to Oregon, but as their numbers increased, emigrants like Franklin Longworthy in 1852 would report that "The road from morning till night, is crowded like Pearl Street or Broadway." Evolving Trail Emigration peaked in 1852 with 10,000 overlanders heading for Oregon, and 50,000 going to California. Wagons were reported traveling twelve abreast from St. Joseph, Missouri, and on the trail many emigrants along with Abigail Scott "found but little grass. . .the first emigrants having taken it all. " Without grass it was difficult to keep weary oxen healthy, and many in the 1850s were forced to lighten their loads.

". . .we came across many mute evidences of the jaded condition of the cattle in the trains preceding us. Feather beds, cook-stoves, chairs, tables, bedsteads, dishes, abandoned wagons and many other kinds of household furniture and utensils, all in good condition, strewed the ground for some distance. It was truly pathetic to see such awful waste... left to decay and rust among the lava rocks, the careless playing of the elements, the coyotes and rabbits...." Esther M. Lockhart, emigrant of 1851 (Recollection)

Oregon's First TrailblazersOregon's First Trailblazers

Joel P. Walker's family joined a fur trade caravan in 1840 and became the first non-missionary emigrants with Oregon as their avowed destination. Others followed, and the "Great Migration" of 1843 was the first to bring wagons from the Missouri River to the Columbia River. In the twenty years between the Walker emigration and Abraham Lincoln's election to the Presidency, nearly a quarter of a million overlanders had worn trails westward so deeply that the ruts are still visible.

     Indians and Emigrants

10,000 years ago an ancient people lived in caves along the banks of the Columbia River and near great lakes that occupied the southern part of interior Oregon. By the time emigrants arrived, native villages occupied the mouths of nearly every coastal stream and at numerous locations in the valleys of the western ranges wherever fish, game, and water supported life. the Indians of the Northwest perfected hunting and gathering to a fine art, and the land provided for all their needs. Indians & EmigrantsOregon Trail emigrants, however, were strangers in a strange land, unable to recognize the bounty surrounding them. Harriet Loughary, emigrant of 1864, when offered salmon by Indians exclaimed, "we, having never seen a salmon, refused it because of its color...." Nevertheless, a brisk trade soon developed between emigrants and Indians.

"Our camp was about three miles from the Indian village, and from the Indians we purchased corn, peas and Irish potatoes, in any desired quantity. I have never tasted a greater luxury than the potatoes we ate on that occasion. We had been so long without fresh vegetables, that we were almost famished ; and consequently we feasted this day excessively. We gave the Indians, in exchange, some articles of clothing, which thery were most anxious to purchase. When two parties are both as anxious to barter as were the Indians and ourselves, it is very easy to strike a bargain.
Peter Hardeman Burnett; October 6, 1843

The Literary Oregon Trail

Approximately 500,000 emigrants trekked westward along the Oregon-California Trails during the covered wagon era: 1841-1866. Deep wagon ruts and scars are still visible at many sites along the overland route. They provide silent, but stark evidence of the arduous journey. Considerably less mute and far more poignant, however, are the more than 2,000 emigrant journals that comprise the Literary Oregon Trail. Literary Trail These diaries reflect both the personalities and varied backgrounds of their authors -- determined, strong-willed individuals who gave up everything to start anew in the wilderness. Although some diarists were more eloquent than others, all recorded powerful accounts of the Oregon Trail.

"From Sulphur Spring, the road ascends rapidly to its highest point, a mile or two farther on, where the country can be viewed for a considerable distance all around. Reflecting upon such a wonderful scenery as is here on every side displayed, the mind can hardly appreciate the amount of dynamics adequate to displace and disrupt the surface of the earth so immensely. It appears like a great harrow, fit only for Herchles to use in leveling off the surface of some planet.  have come about 12 miles today and arriv'd at the second crossing of the snake river. it is two weeks to day since we crossed it first and a sorrowful time it has been to us. we have lost 8 head of our work cattle, and one yearling.  it is about 140 miles and we have seen more tgraves and dead cattle along the road, than all the balance of the way and we cannot get along as we are much further. we are working the last old cow to make out & get along at all, but we trust to providence, and hope for his promise." Sarah Sutton; August 3, 1854


Nearly 2,000 miles of prairies, mountains, parched deserts, and swollen rivers separated Missouri and Oregon. Hardship was the common fare and not every emigrant survived. Although accidents were common, disease was a major cause of death especially during peak emigration years when poor sanitation and contaminated water led to epidemics of fever, cholera, and dysentery. Shocked by the sudden demise of Samuel Hammond, Esther Hanna, emigrant of 1852, lamented "Only yesterday he was at our camp, full of life and vigor, with as bright hope of the future as any of us! he was taken ill at dark and now he lies in the cold embrace of death!"

"Have done little today except lounge round have felt more unwell and more discouraged than at any previous time our tent stands in what we should style a barn yard at home and I am sure if  I were there I should as Soon think of setting the table there as in such a place the stench is sometimes unendurable, it arises from a ravine that is resorted to for special purposes by all the Emigration, but such things we must put up with." Charlotte Stearns Pengra; August 14, 1853

Note: There are actually twelve panels here at Ontario. 10 of them are repeated at Memaloose Rest Area , the idea being to tell the overall story at the two gateway rest areas on I-84. To save download time, I have split them up. Tom Laidlaw
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