To get to the rich new lands of the West Coast, there were two options: some sailed around the southern tip of South America during a six-month voyage, but roughly 400,000 others walked there on an overland route of more than 2,000 miles; their wagon trains usually left from Missouri. They moved in large groups under an experienced wagon master, bringing their clothing, farm supplies, weapons, and animals. These wagon trains followed major rivers, crossed prairies and mountains, and typically ended in Oregon and California. Pioneers generally attempted to complete the journey during a single warm season, usually for six months. By 1836, when the first migrant wagon train was organized in Independence, Missouri, a wagon trail had been cleared to Fort Hall, Idaho. Trails were cleared further and further west, eventually reaching to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. This network of wagon trails leading to the Pacific Northwest was later called the Oregon Trail. The eastern half of the route was also used by travellers on the California Trail 43, Mormon Trail 47, and Bozeman Trail 63 before they turned off to their separate destinations.
In the “Wagon Train of 1843”, some 700 to 1,000 emigrants headed for Oregon; missionary Marcus Whitman led the wagons on the last leg. In 1846, the Barlow Road was completed around Mount Hood, providing a rough but passable wagon trail from the Missouri River to the Willamette Valley: about 2,000 miles. Though the main direction of travel on the early wagon trails was westward, people also used the Oregon Trail to travel eastward. Some did so because they were discouraged and defeated. Some returned with bags of gold and silver. Most were returning to pick up their families and move them all back west. These “gobacks” were a major source of information and excitement about the wonders and promises—and dangers and disappointments—of the far West.
Not all emigrants made it to their destination. The dangers of the overland route were numerous: snakebites, wagon accidents, violence from other travellers, suicide, malnutrition, stampedes, Indian attacks, a variety of diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and cholera were among the most common, exposure, avalanches, etc. One particularly well-known example of the treacherous nature of the journey is the story of the ill-fated Donner Party, which became trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846–1847 in which nearly half of the 90 people traveling with the group died from starvation and exposure, and some resorted to cannibalism to survive. Another story of cannibalism featured Alfred Packer and his trek to Colorado in 1874. There were also frequent attacks from bandits and highwaymen, such as the infamous Harpe brothers who patrolled the frontier routes and targeted migrant groups.