Traveling Home with the Great Migration

By Renee Rusler, Park Ranger
February 2011

The trip east was a success. The missions would remain open! It was now time for Dr. Whitman to return to his home in the Oregon Country. His plan was to catch a ride with the emigrant wagon trains heading west. He didn't write much about this journey, but others did.

According to emigrant Jesse Applegate:

The migrating body numbered over one thousand souls, with about one hundred and twenty wagons, drawn by six-ox teams, averaging about six yokes to the team, and several thousand loose horse and cattle.

This was the biggest group going west up to that point. It became known as the "Great Migration of 1843."

The emigrants who were traveling without livestock felt frustrated by the slow pace of the herds. Eventually, the group divided into two "columns:" those with livestock and those without. The two columns would travel at different speeds, but would stay close enough to support each other. Jesse Applegate was chosen to be the captain of the "cow column." He wrote about his experiences in "A Day with the Cow Column." Here is some of what he said:


It is four o'clock A.M.; the sentinels on duty have discharged their rifles-the signal that the hours of sleep are over; and ever wagon and tent is pouring forth its night tenants, and slow-kindling smokes begin largely to rise and float away on the morning air. Sixty men start from the corral, spreading as they make through the vast herd of cattle and horses that form a semi-circle around the encampment, the most distant perhaps two miles away.

In about an hour five thousand animals are close up to the encampment, and the teamsters are busy selecting their teams and driving them inside the "corral" to be yoked. The corral is a circle one hundred yards deep, formed with wagons connected strongly with each other, the wagon in the rear being connected with the wagon in front by its tongue and ox chains. It is a strong barrier that the most vicious ox cannot break,


A little incident breaks the monotony of the march. An emigrant's wife whose state of health has caused Dr. Whitman to travel near the wagon for the day…The doctor has had the wagon driven out of the line, a tent pitched and a fire kindled. Many conjectures are hazarded in regard to this mysterious proceeding, and as to why this lone wagon is to be left behind.


Everyone is busy preparing fires of buffalo chips to cook the evening meal, pitching tents and otherwise preparing for the night. There are anxious watchers for the absent wagon…But as sun goes down, the absent wagon rolls into camp, the…cheery look of the doctor, who rides in advance, declares without words that all is well, and both mother and child are comfortable.

Dr. Whitman realized that this large wagon train was a sign of things to come and he had some ideas on how to make things better for future travelers.

This is part 31 of "A Missionary Saga." More from Season 3

Next: Friendly Forts & Faster Mail



Applegate, Jesse. A Day with the Cow Column in 1843. Originally published for the Caxton Club in 1934. Reprinted by Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington. 1990.

Last updated: March 1, 2015

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