Parting of the Ways
Updated: May 11
Saying Good-Bye to Fellow Travelers: A Heartbreaking Experience for Pioneers
By far the most traveled frontier route West was a common northern trail shared by those bound for Oregon, California and Utah. (The Santa Fe Trail was a southern route.) Oregon- and California-bound settlers most often started their journey in Missouri near Independence and traveled through Kansas, Nebraska, and Wyoming territories to South Pass. Mormon settlers came through Iowa and joined the trail usually near Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where they would continue to South Pass. So, for a significant part of the journey, the Oregon Trail, California Trail, and Mormon Trek Trail followed the same path.
At South Pass, Wyoming, nestled between two peaks in the Rocky Mountains 18 miles past the Continental Divide, travelers parted ways to their final destinations. Most travelers had spent three to four harrowing months together on the trail and had built deep friendships forged in life and death experiences. But, when they parted, they most likely would never see each other again.
South Pass got its name as an alternate route south of the original difficult Lewis and Clark route through the Bitterroot Mountains that nearly cost them their lives. The South Pass route was much flatter and easier through the mountains and had been used for millennia by Native Americans. The first whites to use the path were fur traders in 1812 going east returning to St. Louis, working for the mogul, John Jacob Astor. They became known as the Astorians.
The first wagon trail to take the trail West through South Pass was in 1832, when Captain B. L. E. Bonneville rook 20 wagons of supplies for fur trappers west of the Rocky Mountains. Bonneville’s expedition crossed over a steep ridge, then quickly descended to Lander Creek. The came to a small stream where they caught some trout. Bonneville knew that they had crossed the Continental Divide "for it is only on the western streams of the Rocky Mountains that trout are to be taken," he wrote.
Four years later, in 1836, the first white settlers crossed through South Pass: missionaries Narcissa and Marcus Whitman and Eliza and Henry Spalding. (The Spauldings would later settle among the Nez Perce tribe and baptize the baby of Chief Tuekakas, who would grow up to be the famous Chief Joseph.)
Bonneville’s map of his trail was published the next year, in 1837, by Washington Irving (the writer best known for his stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”), in his Adventures of Captain Bonneville. That book helped to open the trail up further. Soon wagon trains were taking the route regularly and the floodgates opened to the West.
Wagon train masters and scouts began experimenting with alternate routes to the original trail to save time. Westering pioneers had hard decisions to make that could mean the life or death of their family; there was the constant fear of being caught in mountain snows, which could come early. Time was always a pressure, as was running out of supplies and water. A number of “cutoffs” developed that shortened time and miles of the journey, but with varying success. The right fork went toward Fort Hall in present southern Idaho, to Oregon, while the left continued southwest toward California and Utah. The Fort Hall route was a cutoff, opened in 1844. It saved about 46 miles and two and a half days’ travel, but only by crossing a waterless, sagebrush desert.
Pioneer journals often referred to the roads at this junction as the California and Oregon trails. The northerly, straight-west route—the “Oregon” road—was often called Sublette’s Cutoff or Greenwood’s Cutoff. Joel Palmer’s diary entry of July 20, 1845 read: “By taking [the Sublette Cutoff] two and a half days’ travel may be saved; but in the forty miles between Big Sandy and Green River there is no water and little grass.”
Despite its dangers, the cutoff became popular. J. M. Hixson wrote four years later, on June 19, 1849. “Formerly the Oregonian and California emigrants went by Fort Bridger, but the past two years they had mostly taken the righthand road. So, we took that although it was understood there was a forty-five mile desert before we came to Green River.”
By July 1849, an informal message system had sprung up at the junction. Elisha Perkins wrote, “At the forks of the regular road & where Subletts cutoff leaves by[passing] Ft Bridger I saw some 40 or 50 notes stuck up in forked sticks with directions and news & from those in advance to acquaintances behind.
In the spring of 1846, the Donner Party with a caravan of 500 wagons would begin their fateful journey on the Oregon Trail. When they reached Ft. Bridger, only about 135 miles before South Pass, George Donner opted not to continue to South Pass and the established trail, but take the new Hastings Cutoff, a more direct route to California through the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The route was a get-rich-quick scheme of promoter, Lansford Hastings, and had never been traversed successfully by a wagon train. Another excursion leader, James Reed, eventually broke off from the Donner Party and lived to tell the tale. However, most of the Donner Party eventually perished in the Sierra Nevada mountains winter after turning to cannibalism to survive.
In May 1847 James Reed’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Virginia, wrote a long and harrowing account to her cousin Mary back in Illinois of the troubles they had encountered on the way: “O Mary, I have not wrote you half of the truble, but I hav Wrote you anuf to let you [k]now what truble is but thank god [we are] the onely family that did not eat human flesh. We have left everything but I don’t cair for that we have got [through with our lives].” Young Virginia added bravely: “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody.” But, she added a cautionary note: “Never take no cutofs and hurry along as fast as you can.”
PHOTOS: (1) The Parting of the Ways near South Pass, Wyoming, where the Oregon Trail and California Trail split off from each other. After traveling together for more than 1,000 miles and 3-4 months, westering pioneers shared many tearful goodbyes at this point in the trail and exchanged gifts like friendship quilts and hand-carved pipes and other tokens of friendships forged in hardship. (2) One of the most notorious points of all the westbound trails: Ute Pass in Colorado on the southern route of the Santa Fe Trail. The pass was extremely treacherous and very narrow—barely the width of the wagon wheels--and many covered wagons and teams went hurtling down the mountainsides to their deaths. (3) Today, a marker stands at the Parting of the Ways that was erected in 1956 by the Historical Landmark Commission of Wyoming. It reads: “This marks a fork in the trail, right to Oregon, left to Utah and California” and specifies several special dates, including “1852, the peak year, estimated 40,000 emigrants.” (4) An Oregon Trail family poses beside their upset wagon. (Photo: date unknown.) Wagon mishaps were common along the trail. Many lost their lives or their livelihoods through wagon accidents. Most historians put the death rate on the trail at about 20 per mile of the 2,000-mile-long Oregon Trail. Some graves were actually dug under the trail itself, so that teams and wagons could pack it down to prevent predators from digging it up. Very few grave markers have survived today. (5) Crossing the Kansas River near the beginning of the Oregon/California Trail west. The river was very deep especially in May and June and often draft teams had to swim and the wagons floated atop the water. Fording deep or rapid rivers were some of the most dangerous junctures on the trails and sometimes family members, wagon teams and wagons were lost in the current. (6) A map of the Oregon and California Trails, showing where they part at South Pass and Fort Hall. The Mormon Trail also followed much of this trail. South Pass was the first main point when the trails split off. Some westering travelers opted to continue on to Fort Hall, where they could refurbish their supplies, then part ways north to Oregon or south to California. Between South Pass and Fort Hall, there were several forks in the trail where pioneers could start north or south. Each path had advantages and disadvantages. Usually the advantage was saving time, but the disadvantages were traversing particularly hard terrain or very rough passages. Pioneers had to make life-or-death decisions at these points on the trail.
You may enjoy these related posts:
-What Pioneers Packed Going West
-Death on the Trail
-In Praise of Oxen
"Parting of the Ways" originally posted August 2, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com
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