Like the more famous Oregon Trail, the Overland Trail came into being as a consequence of American westward expansion in the mid 1800's. No one can tell the precise moment that the westward movement began. But, it was probably as early as the late 1700's when veterans who had fought for American Independence came home to New England and found themselves disillusioned with their rocky little farms, and smug, sleepy villages. They were victors in the war, cocky and sure of themselves, and wanted to taste some of the fruits of their victory and improve their lot in life. More often than not, they deserted their worn out acres, packed their families into a wagon and moved west, more often than not following ancient Indian Paths.
West at that time was somewhere beyond the Allegheny mountains, usually anywhere in the rich fertile valley of the Ohio River. With the completion of the War of 1812, the exodus to the West (now with a capital "W") attained such proportions that many mill owners in the Northeast could not find enough workers to keep their plants in operation. Settling new lands had by now become an organized business. Land speculators who had acquired vast areas of unsettled territory, organized parties of families--sometimes as many as a hundred from the same community--and moved them West, leaving small towns beyond economic repair.
When Thomas Jefferson finalized the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he essentially doubled the size of the United States. To many, the price tag of $15,000,000 in hard cash seemed outrageous, and a "wild scheme." The final survey of the land, amounting to about 800,000 square miles, extended to the "western divide of the Mississippi drainage," but it was unclear exactly where that was. Jefferson wasted no time in appointing Merriwether Lewis and William Clark to head up an exploration expedition to fill in the details of the new territory.
The Lewis and Clark explorations showed that the Rocky Mountains were a formidable obstacle for any westward expansion. Routes with water, forage, and gentle terrain that wagons could travel would need to be found. This problem was largely solved by the fur trappers and mountain men, following the ancient Indian routes through the mountains. We are unsure of when the first European settlers came into Northern Colorado and Southeastern Wyoming, but we know that the fur trappers and the mountain men began to encroach on the natives' land in the early 1800’s. By the 1820’s, the entire Rocky Mountain region was well known to fur trappers who, as time went on, ventured further and further into the vast wilderness following the rivers upstream, seeking out the headwaters in search of beaver.
While the fur boom of the 1830's lasted, these pathfinders and trappers came to know every Indian trail and tribe in the Northern Colorado Rockies. They subsequently named many landmarks and rivers in our area, including the Cache la Poudre and the Platte Rivers. In no time at all, it would be these very same rugged, ill-kempt individuals who led the government expeditions to find the best routes to the West Coast.
In 1849 loud shouts of "Gold" were being heard from California. Literally thousands of gold seekers, opportunists, and adventurers from the East Coast to the Mississippi Valley began the long trek west, using the Oregon, and California, Mormon or Santa Fe Trails all in of themselves “overland trails.” However, historians have reserved the capitalized “Overland Trail” to mean that portion of trail which was established in 1862 by the new Overland Mail Route.
Courageous emigrants and fortune seekers on their way out West, tried to find the easiest and safest routes they could. A major concern was the availability of water and grass for their oxen, mules and horses. The Oregon Trail, generally following the North Platte, the Sweetwater, the Snake and finally the Columbia Rivers, became the great highway into the Northwest. It’s estimated that a tide of over half a million people seeking land and opportunity in the western territories, religious freedom in Utah, or fortunes in the promising gold fields of California and Nevada, along with thousands of oxen pulling thousands of wagons, traveled on these great trails until the 1860’s, at the same time by-passing a few settlers, a tiny collection of trappers and traders, at peace in Northern Colorado.
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