The Logistics of Supplying Emigrants Along the Oregon Trail

In the modern world, we are dependent on logistics and supply chains that most people rarely think about—how goods get from where they are produced to warehouses where online orders are filled or to retail shelves where we purchase them. I imagine logistics were critical in 1847 also, and I wondered often as I was writing my novels about the late 1840s how distant outposts received their supplies.

Most schoolbook and museum accounts of the migration west describe the provisions the settlers needed to take with them in their wagons when they left the United States. But the initial supplies the emigrants took usually did not last them all the way to Oregon. While there are accounts of the pioneers buying more provisions at forts along the way, there aren’t many sources that tell us about how these forts were stocked and restocked with the merchandise the settlers needed.

In 1847, the year of the Oregon Trail journey in my novels, there weren’t many forts along the route yet. It was still early in the western migration. And only a few of these forts were owned by the U.S. Army. In the 1840s, most so-called “forts” in the West were owned and operated by trading companies, such as the American Fur Company or the British Hudson Bay Company.

Narcissa and Marcus Whitman

Before these forts existed, and in between their rare stops at these outposts, the travelers had to live off the land. When describing her journey in 1836, Narcissa Whitman wrote of the digestive problems caused by eating buffalo meat for every meal for weeks on end.

In 1847, the following were the major stopping points between the Missouri River and Oregon:

  • Fort Leavenworth—a U.S. Army fort established in 1827, but too far north for emigrants trying to avoid crossing the Missouri River, who began their journey in Independence or Westport
  • Fort Kearny—another U.S. Army fort, located in 1847 on the west bank of the Missouri near the Platte River, and later moved up the Platte to near Grand Island
  • Fort Laramie—originally called Fort William, it was a private trading post until the Army bought it in 1849
  • Fort Bridger—privately operated after its establishment in 1842, and too far south for many Oregon emigrants to bother with
  • Fort Hall—originally operated by an American, then sold to Hudson Bay Company
  • Fort Boise—a Hudson Bay Company establishment
  • Whitman Mission—not far east of Fort Walla Walla
  • Fort Walla Walla—known at the time as Fort Nez Perce and operated by the North West Company
  • Fort Vancouver— owned by Hudson Bay Company in 1847

The emigrants of 1847 relied on these outposts to purchase food, ammunition, and other necessities along the route. But I still wondered how these forts got their supplies.

In his book United States Army Logistics: From the American Revolution to 9/11 (2010), Steve R. Waddell (p. 53) wrote about the Army’s role,

“In 1845, the quartermaster supplied fewer than a dozen posts along a relatively limited western frontier that could be supplied by steamboat or off the surrounding economy.”

Fort Leavenworth had large-scale farming on its grounds that produced crops to supply other locations in the West. But most of the locations listed above were not located on navigable rivers and were not the Army’s problem in any event.

The owners of the civilian-owned forts did undertake some farming in their environs, but the amount of food they produced was limited. Much of the land was not suitable for farming, and they didn’t have reliable laborers. The Native American tribes in the region were largely hunter/gatherers and nomads. The Whitman Mission developed extensive farms, though Marcus Whitman also had difficulty hiring Indian labor. So farms at most of the trading outposts produced little more than large gardens and were not sufficient to handle all the wagon travelers.

Freight wagons

Based on my research, it appears most supplies had to be hauled in from either Missouri and Iowa in the East or from Oregon or Santa Fe in the West. Private outfitters contracted to supply the forts and hired teamsters to drive wagons on the same trails the emigrants traveled. Needless to say, these supply treks were lengthy and expensive.

No wonder the settlers thought goods available at the forts were overpriced, compared to the States. Almost every emigrant diary contains entries complaining about the high prices they found at their few opportunities to reprovision.

And no wonder so many emigrants to Oregon arrived at their destination near starvation and in poor health. Their diet for six months had been mostly meat shot along the route or dried and salted provisions they’d started with, supplemented by whatever they could find and afford to buy at the forts.

Are there issues you’ve wondered about when thinking about how our ancestors traveled west?

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