People on the Oregon Trail

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Every two years, students from institutions of higher education around the world have the opportunity to demonstrate their technological innovation by competing in the American Solar Challenge (ASC) solar car race. Competing teams work for over a year to design, build, and test solar cars according to strict regulations. Officials closely inspect every aspect of the cars, and they must qualify in a track race to be eligible for the ASC long-distance road race. Perhaps these students and the men who packed up their families and headed west along the Oregon Trail share a similar pioneering spirit and determination to achieve something impossible.

oval framed painting of African American woman labeled "Clara Brown 1802-1885"
Clara Brown walked almost 700 miles from St. Louis, Missouri to Denver, Colorado. In route she served as a cook and a laundress for the wagon train. Born in 1802 into slavery, she was freed in 1857 and quickly left Kentucky for Denver, where she lived until her death in 1885.

Artwork by Ion Graphic Design Works ©3-Trails West, Inc.

Diverse Travelers

American Solar Challenge teams come from colleges around the world. This year’s competitors represent five different countries. The format of past races led to the cars spreading out with hundreds of miles between them. In recent years, longer stages have allowed the teams to meet up and build camaraderie along the course, which is fitting for a race along the Oregon Trail. Travelers on the historic route were a more diverse group than some might think, as well, and not all of them shared the same motivations for embarking on such a journey.


While men raising a family seized opportunities to build a life on their own land and prove themselves, the women, often with no voice in the matter, made the move with a different perspective. Frequently married at a young age, women would have turned to others in the family and friends for advice on cooking, chores, and child rearing. Their activity was almost exclusively in and around the house. On the trail, women would have to manage domestic duties in an open environment without a support system, possibly while dealing with pregnancy or giving birth during the move, and all with the knowledge that the dangerous journey could leave her widowed and faced with raising a family on her own once they arrived. A woman’s perspective on the trail led her to experience it differently than the rest of her family. For example, while men’s accounts of encounters with American Indians tend to tell of their own bravery and assert their prowess, women’s diaries tend to describe the Indians as helpful more often than as enemies.

solar car driving on paved road in foreground with overland covered wagon and oxen in background
University students from around the world have worked hard for over a year to design and build solar cars that they will drive 1,800 miles along the same corridor used by American Indians, fur trappers, traders, and emigrants.

Ethnic Diversity

Travelers along the Oregon Trail were also ethnically diverse. American Indians had lived and traveled along this natural corridor for thousands of years before it became a superhighway of westward expansion. At that time, Scottish fur traders were all over the West, including Robert Stuart who became the first white man to travel the Oregon Trail. French-Canadian trappers helped set the stage for the Oregon Trail, and later travelers encountered a few who continued to operate trading posts after the demise of the fur trade. Louis Vasquez, whose father was Spanish, helped build Fort Bridger, which served as a supply station for emigrants headed west. Men from Great Britain were very influential at the end of the Oregon Trail, especially through their connections with Hudson’s Bay Company, which functioned as a de facto government and drove economies of the region. Hawaiians, valued for their swimming and canoeing ability, came to work for Hudson’s Bay Company and settled throughout the Northwest. African Americans were also on the trail, both as enslaved people and freemen and women. For black people, both slave and free, the emigrant experience had the added burden of discrimination, extra vulnerability to theft and economic hardship, and legal status. Even for freemen with means or blacks traveling under the protection of whites, jumping-off points along the Missouri River and the trail itself were great risks but ones that they were willing to take to try to escape discrimination. That sentiment, however, made its way west down the trail as well and met them in the form of black exclusion laws such as the “Lash Law” requiring that any blacks slave or free in Oregon be whipped twice a year until they decided to leave the territory. For more about African American experiences on the overland trails, including stories about achievement and grace such as with Hiram Young, Emily Fisher, and George W. Bush, who used their means to help emigrants of any color, read research by Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, PhD.


Last updated: July 17, 2018

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