Wednesday, August 20, 2014

3 Steps to Oregon Trail Pioneer Research

Over the Oregon Trail
Over 350,000 pioneers travelled the Oregon Trail, often leaving Independence or St. Joseph, Missouri to arrive at their Oregon City, Oregon destination. The route was not carved in stone, and ancestors may have begun their migration from an eastern state, or even Kansas, Iowa or Nebraska. Read more about common routes at FamilySearch the Oregon Trail.

But, like Kelsey Grammer on Who Do You Think You Are? Season 5, you too may be able to trace your ancestor’s Oregon Trail passage. But how do you find records that detail their cross country passage?  Their method of passage?  Your ancestor's experience?

Step 1: Learn the Trails

It is possible your ancestor traveled overland, by water, or partly by rail.  A good source to understand their choices may be answered in John Unruh, Jr.'s book The Plains Across; The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1860.  It is possible that Great-Grandpa left Illinois with his four (4) brothers, but only two (2) settled in California.  The remainder of the party may have ended their journey in Salt Lake, or may have taken any other fork in the trail.

Many of our pioneers made several trips overland.  We may be able to confirm their one-way trips to California, but how did they return to Missouri?  Did you know that many returned to the Mid-west through Panama - Isthmus!  Be sure to check any ship records going to Louisiana ports from San Francisco or other west coast ports. 

Step 2: Search for Your Ancestors in Writings
What did five (5) month travelers do?  Many recorded their journeys in diaries and letters back home, detailing the trip.  Sometimes the diaries are filled with gruesome details as the writer recalls on paper a companion's demise. Sometimes the accounts are so detailed they read like a novel.  Sometimes they just follow a train of thought, or confirm a reader's suspicion. Be sure to take a look at this bibliography of books and articles.

4 Common Places to Find Diaries?
1) The Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) hosts of Paper Trail, an online database Guide to Overland Pioneer Names and Documents is a great place to begin your diary, manuscript, and written information search.
It is subscription based, but the initial search is free.  This database will GUIDE you to the correct repository. You cannot download the diary from this location, but it leads you to where to go using a surname search.
2) The Merrill J. Mattes Reseearch Library at the National Frontier Trails Museum. I must say, spending a day with this concentrated selection of wagon train resources, makes me smile. 
3) University of Oregon Manuscripts Collections for diaries and pioneer manuscripts.
4) Local Histories and Newspapers detail wagon trains and their departure (it was both exciting and devastating to communities and families).  Small-town newspapers also reprinted letters sent "home" for the community to read; sometimes enticing others to follow, and just as frequently warnings of the danger.

Step 3: Scour Populated Databases and Collections
Besides our favorite websites: Oregon - California Trails Association that names over 48 thousand pioneers in their database, be sure to visit the Oregon Genealogical Society and Idaho Genealogical Society. Their collections hold a listing of names in their Pioneer Certificate programs.
Visit Oregon Pioneer List (OPL) for settlers in Oregon prior to 1900.
The Oregon Archives, Early Oregonian Search is a great place to begin your ancestral search for ancestors who lived in Oregon prior to its 1860 statehood. .

African Americans on the Trails?
Black Pioneers and Settlers
Know that “territorial laws in the 1840s dictated the expulsion of African Americans, and the state constitution similarly prohibited African Americans from residence, a provision not repealed until 1926 and 1927. The laws were a deterrent to black migration” (Oregon Historical Society). However, African Americans did travel on the trail and settle in Oregon . Be sure to review the End of the Oregon Trail: Black Pioneers and Settlers and Salem Oregon Online History, African Americans in Salem.

For more information on tracing your Westward Pioneer, visit Wagon Trail Research, Part 2.
Kathleen Brandt
Accurate, accessible answers
(extracted from a3Genealogy:Wagon Trains 1840-1960, posted 13 May 2011)

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