The Men Who Blazed the Oregon Trail

Strangely; for a nation that prides itself on its pioneer heritage, America has forgotten some of its important pioneers. Three forgotten pioneers are the men who blazed the Oregon Trail; Robert Gray, Wilson Price Hunt, and Robert Stuart.

It was Hunt and Stuart, not Lewis and Clark, who pioneered the route American settlers took the West Coast in the 19th Century. Lewis and Clark, were the first U.S. Citizens to travel overland to the Pacific Coast in 1803; but their route was dangerous and impractical.

Moreover, the first US Citizen to explore the Columbia River was merchant-ship captain Robert Gray in May 1792. In fact, they named the Columbia River for Gray’s ship, the Columbia Rediviva.

Additionally, they bsed the United States claim to the Oregon Country on Gray’s voyage, not Lewis and Clark’s vaunted trip. However, American history glorifies Lewis and Clark and ignores Gray the real explorer of Oregon.

In 1810, America’s first tycoon John Jacob Astor hired Hunt to run his fur-trading settlement on the Columbia River – Astoria. Part of Hunt’s job was to lead an expedition from St. Louis to Astoria by following Lewis and Clark’s route.

Taking a Wrong Turn

Hunt’s party of Pacific Fur Company employees started following Lewis and Clark’s route up the Missouri River.

However, Hunt’s party encountered fur traders who told him of a danger upriver. The Lewis and Clark route along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers ran through the territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsitapi.

Astoria, Oregon today

Lewis and Clark had angered the Niitsitapi by killing one of their people. In retaliation, the Niitsitapi began killing all Americans who entered their territory.

The Niitsitapi’s hostility created a problem for Hunt. The Pacific Fur Company’s party was a commercial venture, not a military expedition.

Instead of going up the Missouri, Hunt bought horses from the Arikara and headed west into Wyoming, seeking another way through the mountains. To explain, Indians or fur traders probably told Hunt of another easier route through the mountains.

Eventually, Hunt’s party found their way over Union Pass. From there they followed the Snake River and crossed the Teton Pass to the Columbia River. Hunt’s trek showed there were easier ways to the West Coast.

An Easier Way to Oregon

Hunt’s colleague, Robert Stuart, discovered an even easier route between the United States and the Oregon country.

Stuart, a Scottish-Canadian, was one of several veteran fur traders Astor hired to run Astoria. In May 1811, Hunt assigned Stuart to lead a small party to take some terrible news back to St. Louis.

The news was the destruction of the American Fur Company trading ship Tonquin in a battle with Tla-o-qui-aht aboriginals off the coast of Vancouver Island. Astoria needed the Tonquin for defense and trade with China, Alaska, and Hawaii.

More importantly; while wandering around in Wyoming, Stuart found the gentle South Pass over the Continental Divide. The South Pass is the easiest route over the Continental Divide.

From the South Pass, Stuart had a simple walk to the North Platte River. He then followed the North Platte to the Missouri and Saint Louis. Stuart blazed the South Pass route across the Rockies.

In coming decades the Oregon Trail, the first Transcontinental Railroad, the Union Pacific, and Interstate 80 all ran through the same part of Wyoming. Note: today’s I-80 and Union Pacific mainline pass to the South of the South Pass Route.

Similarly, the Union Pacific’s Oregon Short Line Railroad and I-84 follow Stuart’s route between Oregon and Idaho. Hence, many American drivers follow Stuart’s route when they travel to or from the West Coast.

The Failure that Brought America to the West Coast

Ironically, the venture Stuart and Hunt trekked to; Astoria, was a failure. Astor’s traders eventually sold Astoria to the British Northwest Company. Astor’s party was afraid the British Royal Navy could seize Astoria during the War of 1812.

Eventually, Stuart’s route became well known. American settlers began following the route to Oregon -the Oregon Trail. Similarly, Mormons used the route to reach Utah, and Fortyniners crossed the South Pass to California during the Gold Rush.

Thus, a pair of fur traders and a ship’s captain made America’s settlement of the West Coast possible.