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The Emigrant Trail is the name collectively applied to the network of wagon trails throughout the American West during the middle 19th century, used by emigrants from the eastern United States to settle lands west of Rocky Mountains. The term specifically applies to three interrelated routes: the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trail.
Although it is often stated that certain trails began in certain cities on the Missouri River, in reality, emigrants following all three trails typically left from one of three "jumping off" points on the Missouri: Independence, Missouri, Saint Joseph, Missouri, or Council Bluffs, Iowa (the most common departure point after the early 1850s). The trails from these cities converged in central Nebraska near present-day Kearney, following the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater rivers westward across present-day Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing the continental divide south of the Wind River Range in southwestern Wyoming.
On the western side of the continental divide, the Mormon Trail split off from the Oregon and California Trails, southwestward to the valley of the Great Salt Lake into present-day Utah. The main routes of the Oregon-California Trail went northwest into present-day Idaho, to Fort Hall, a major resupply route along the trail near present-day Pocatello. The main route of the California Trail branched from the Oregon Trail west of Fort Hall, going southwestward into present-day Nevada, then down along the Humboldt River to the Sierra Nevada. The main route of the Oregon Trail crossed the Snake River Plain and the Blue Mountains before reaching the Willamette Valley. Although each trail had a main route, there were many cutoffs and alternative routes, some of them notoriously ill-chosen but others which resulted in a significant savings of time and effort. The Oregon Trail is the oldest component, having been pioneered in the early 1810s and used by the first wagon trail, led by Marcus Whitman, in 1843. Brigham Young led the first Mormons to Utah in 1847. The California Trail came into heavy use after the discovery of gold in 1848. The trail coincides in many places with the route of the Pony Express, which operated between 1860 and 1861.
It is estimated by historians that up to half a million emigrants crossed the West on these trails from the earliest wagon trains in 1843 to the building of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. It was generally accepted that the journey to Oregon or California would take approximately six months in good conditions. Most Oregon and California-bound parties left the Missouri River in the late spring and attempted to reach their destinations by mid October.
Up to a one-tenth of the emigrants who attempted the crossing died during the trip, most from disease such as cholera. Hostile confrontations with Native Americans defending their homelands, although often feared by the emigrants, were actually comparatively rare. Most emigrants traveled in large parties of up to several hundred wagons, usually led by an experienced guide. The most common vehicle for Oregon and California-bound settlers was a crude farm wagon covered with a canopy and led by a team of oxen (which were greatly preferred over horses and mules). In later years, following the advice of Brigham Young, many Mormon emigrants made the crossing to Utah with handcarts. For all emigrants, the scarcity of water and fuel for fires was a common brutal challenge on the trip. In many treeless areas buffalo chips were the most common source of fuel.
The trail network has become embedded in the folklore of the United States as one of the significant influences that have shaped the content and character of the nation. The remains of many trail ruts can be observed in scattered locations throughout arid parts of the American West. It is possible to loosely follow various routes of the trail network on modern highways through the use of byway signs across the western states.