2.2. MOVING BEYOND ST. LOUIS: THE OREGON TRAIL

Meanwhile, during the intervening period between Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Oregon country in 1803 and the Illinois’ legislature’s charge to Bucklin in February 1831, a clearer understanding of the geography that lay between the Mississippi River and the Columbia River basin in Oregon (remember, Mexico still controlled California) had begun to emerge, Perhaps the most important discovery, especially to the future interests of Chicago, was made in 1812, when a group of seven employees of John Jacob Astor’s ill-fated Pacific Fur Company who were retreating from the highly vulnerable Fort Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean at the start of the War of 1812, discovered the South Pass in the Rockies in what is now southwestern Wyoming, that led to the Platte River, that they then followed to the Missouri River, eventually arriving at St. Louis.  South Pass turned out to be the lowest point of elevation crossing the continental divide, which together with the close proximity of the Sweetwater River (a branch of the N. Platte), made this route the easiest to traverse from the Mississippi Valley through the Rockies.  As far as Chicago’s long-term prospects, the South Pass was located along the 42° parallel, in a straight (railroad) line due west of Chicago, while St. Louis was over 200 miles south of the South Pass. 

The Oregon Trail. Note that South Pass is at the same latitude as is Chicago, whereas St. Louis is some 200 miles to the south. (Online)

The end of the War of 1812 had simply returned the status quo of the stiff competition between British and American fur traders to the upper portions of the Louisiana Purchase, but through the lobbying of Astor, Sec. of War Calhoun had been convinced of the need for another Federal expedition, to erect a series of military “outposts” along the northern reaches of the Missouri River. The Federal government commissioned five more military expeditions into the Spanish Southwest as well as the Northwest, that followed prior to 1820.The largest of these military expeditions occurred in the fall of 1818, when Calhoun had authorized what would be known as the Yellowstone Expedition led by Col. Henry Atkinson to explore the Missouri up to the mouth of the Yellowstone River. 

A scientific contingent that was to parallel Atkinson’s troops was led by military engineer Maj. Stephen H. Long, who had earlier conducted the first survey of the mouth of the Chicago River.  They departed from St. Louis in May 1819 in the first steam-powered riverboats used west of the Mississippi but got no farther than the mouth of the Platte River, known as Council Bluff at the time as Lewis and Clark had used the location to meet with the local natives at the start of their expedition. The winter of 1819/20 was particularly harsh, and then followed by the spring flooding of the Missouri, the troops were forced to build a fort atop Council Bluff, which they named Fort Atkinson, in honor of their colonel.  The primary reason for the failure of this mission was the government’s inability to supply troops for extended periods over such long distances, a problem that would vex such attempts, be they military or civilian, to penetrate the West for the next twenty-five years.

The failure of the mission, nevertheless, did not stop the Federal government from gathering information about the coveted lands west of the Mississippi.  In May 1820, Maj. Long was assigned to lead an expedition to up the Platte River to the Rocky Mountains and then reconnoiter the newly-agreed border with New Spain along the 42° parallel.  Upon his return, Long produced the first accurate map of the region in which he had located what he named “the Great Desert,” that “is frequented by roving bands of Indians who have no fixed places of residence but roam from place to place in quest of game.”  Long had identified the challenge in reaching the Pacific over a land route with limited supplies of water and timber.  Hemmed in by the Spanish to the south and the British in the north, Americans would have to find a route to the Pacific through what would be initially referred to as “The Great American Desert.”  

Map of the Region explored by Maj. Stephen H. Long, 1822. Note the designation, “Great Desert” marked in the lower left corner. (Online)

Thomas Hart Benton in his St. Louis Enquirer had continued during the early 1820s to encourage the efforts of the local fur trappers and traders commonly referred to as “mountainmen,” the most famous of which was Jedediah Smith, to continue to push ever farther up the Missouri and Platte Rivers, to explore the region in search of the most expedient route to the Pacific.  Unfortunately, the Native tribes of the Blackfeet and Arikaras along the upper Missouri route stood their ground, forcing these explorers to try the Platte River valley to the Central Rockies.  In 1823, a St. Louis fur trader, W.H. Ashley, followed the Sweetwater and rediscovered the South Pass, establishing the general route to the Pacific between British Canada (the 49° parallel) in the north and Mexico (the 42° parallel) to the south for what would be known as the Oregon Trail.  Benton’s Enquirer celebrated the discovery of the path to the Pacific: from St. Louis to the “river Platte a short distance above its junction with the Missouri, (it) then pursues the waters of the Platte to their sources, and … crosses the headwaters of what Gen’l Ashley believes to be, the Rio Colorado of the West, and strikes for the first time, a ridge… running from north to south.  This, however, presents no difficulty, as a wide gap [the South Pass] is found.”  Benton’s route to the Pacific was thus discovered, with the first trader wagon train to make this voyage, financed by Astor and under the command of Captain Benjamin Bonneville, had departed in 1832.  The jumping-off point from the Missouri River for the Oregon Trail was the same as that for the Santa Fe Trail, Independence, MO.  Anyone wanting to travel overland to the Pacific would start at St. Louis, and take the Missouri River to Independence, where one would outfit the necessary wagon required for the remainder of the trip overland to either Oregon or Nuevo México:

“On the mighty Mississippi, below the mouth of the vast extended Missouri, draining a country of unrivalled productiveness… capable of sustaining a population as dense as almost any region of the globe… While just above enters the Illinois, draining the very heart of that most productive State – while to the north… the states of Iowa and Wisconsin – the northern part of Illinois and Minnesota, each of them destined to sustain millions… of agriculturalists and mechanics, will always have their natural markets at St. Louis.

The pre-railroad routes to the West. The Oregon and Santa Fe Trails converge at Independence, MO, and then on to St. Louis. Note that Chicago isn’t even on the map. Nauvoo (home of the Mormons) is now the largest city in Illinois, with Galena falling to second, showing the early influence of the Mississippi on Illinois. (Online)

The development of the Oregon Trail, in conjunction with the Santa Fe Trail, therefore, seemed to codify Benton’s vision of St. Louis’ centrality in the American West.  That is, as long as water travel was the only mode of travel from the East, but fortunately for the future prospects of Chicago, the South Pass was located along the 42° parallel, in a straight (railroad) line due west of Chicago, while St. Louis was over 200 miles south of the South Pass.

Further reading:

Primm, James Neal. Lion of the Valley: St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980 (3rd ed.). Missouri Historical Society Press, 1998.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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