Overland Migrations

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, The Right Place

In the tradition of Dominguez and Escalante, American clergymen led the migrants to the West. Following the visit of a group of northwestern Indians to St. Louis in 1831, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries left for Oregon beginning in 1834. Catholic missionaries, including the intrepid Jesuit Pierre Jean De Smet, started moving west in 1838 to establish missions in the Coeur d’Alene-Bitter Root region.

Soon settlers followed. Some immigrants, heeding the siren call of Oregon publicist Hall Jackson Kelley, sailed to the Pacific coast. Impressed with the possibilities of the new country, New Englanders organized the Oregon Emigration Society in 1838 to assist in the westward movement.

Following the lead of the missionaries, wagon trains of settlers converged on the Oregon and California Trails. In 1841, some 2,000 people traveled the 1,800 miles to the Willamette Valley and thirty-four went to California. Starting at Independence, Missouri, the immigrants proceeded northwestward to Fort Kearney on the Platte. Following the Platte and North Platte to Fort Laramie, they crossed over South Pass, resupplied at newly established Fort Bridger, and followed the Green and Bear River Valleys to Soda Springs, Idaho, where the routes divided. One trail continued on to Fort Hall and Oregon. The other led southwestward through northwestern Utah to California.

Almost from the beginning, California gained a reputation as America’s answer to the European health spa. Touting the future Golden State as a land of perpetual fitness, Antoine Robidoux said that there was “only one man in California who had the ague” (known today as malaria). That man had come, Robidoux said, “from Missouri and carried the disease in his system.” The man was such an oddity, Robidoux continued, that curious people from Monterey walked “18 miles into the country to see him.”

Following advice like Robidoux’s, two groups that included settlers traveled to California in 1841. Best known is the Bartleson-Bidwell party, but that same year the Workman-Rowland Company also traveled to California. In the succeeding years, immigrants crossed northern Utah on the way to California each year. By 1845, wagons pulled by oxen, mules, or less frequently, horses had become the standard means of transportation, and most parties crossed northern Utah on the California Trail successfully with little difficulty.