Oregon Trail Pioneers


The Dalles was the end of the overland Oregon Trail. Pioneers who wished to travel on to the fertile Willamette Valley had to raft the Columbia through treacherous rapids in order to cross the Cascade Mountains. The construction of the Barlow Road allowed travelers to continue overland and bypass Mt. Hood.

Early pioneers couldn’t drive their wagons further west along the river because the steep cliffs fell straight to the water’s edge. Wagons either had to be abandoned or disassembled and loaded onto rafts and floated down to Fort Vancouver or to the Willamette. After 1846, the Barlow Road provided the choice of traveling overland to the Valley.

The migration of pioneers across and into Indian lands threatened native populations in a way that transient explorers, fur traders and missionaries never did. Settlers of the 1840s brought wagons and tools, plows and domestic animals, wives, and children. The disruption of Indians’ lives led to increasing tension. Worst of all were the disease epidemics introduced by whites to Indians with increasing fatalities each year. The 1847 massacre by Cayuse Indians of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and others at the mission was the result of a measles epidemic in which Whitman, a medical doctor as well as a missionary, saved white children but couldn’t cure the Indians, who had no natural immunity. It was easy for the desperate Cayuse to believe rumors that Whitman was poisoning their children so whites could have their land. The attack led to abandonment of Protestant missions east of the Cascades, and to the Cayuse Indian War.