Westward Ho! How to Trace the Trails of Your Pioneer Ancestors

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary discusses online resources you can use to explore the history of your pioneer ancestors—and the trails they used to migrate west.

Many of us have pioneer ancestors in our family tree who participated in the westward expansion of the United States. Exploring the trails they crossed and reading their stories in old newspapers is not only a great way to learn more family history—it’s an interesting way to learn about an important period in our nation’s history.

Oregon Trail

While raising our family, we often discussed the Oregon Trail.

photo of the Oregon Trail, original cut and marker post; Scotts Bluff Summit Road, Gering, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska (unknown date)

Photo: Oregon Trail, original cut and marker post; Scotts Bluff Summit Road, Gering, Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska (unknown date). Source: Library of Congress.

Some of our knowledge of the Oregon Trail came from history books—but to be honest, more lore was derived from playing the famous “The Oregon Trail” video game distributed by Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC). We used this game to supplement computer skills for youth who attended our training center’s summer computer camps.

Even the youngest ones joined in the fusion of history and computer skills. They’d start by outfitting wagons in Independence, Missouri, to make the trek of 2,200 treacherous miles to the Oregon Territory. You never knew which group would make it, or what pitfalls would beset them. Sometimes there were skirmishes with Native Americans; other times, the wagon broke down or they ran out of food and starved. All in all, it was a great method to make early American history come alive!

Pioneer Conestoga Wagon Treks West, Notas de Kingsville newspaper article 16 September 1954

Notas de Kingsville (Kingsville, Texas), 16 September 1954, page 4

Pioneer Trail Stories Found in Old Newspapers

Much like curling up with a good juicy novel, you can make your family history come alive by playing your own “trail” game with historical newspapers.

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Amazing stories of pioneer families traveling on various trails during the westward expansion, along with diaries, maps, advertisements and journals, can be researched to document what was happening when.

As noted in this 1846 newspaper article regarding prairie caravans, many pioneers followed one of four great trails that radiated west:

  • Missouri River Trail
  • Oregon Trail
  • Mexican Trail
  • Texas Trail
Prairie Caravans--Trade in the Far West, Alexandria Gazette newspaper article 9 May 1846

Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Virginia), 9 May 1846, page 2

Being able to make a living was essential to our ancestors’ survival, so note that commerce centered around the trading of buffalo robes, pelts, horses, mules, buckskins, moccasins, curiosities and trinkets with American Indians. If traveling to Oregon, one would pick a certain season to travel—if going to Texas, one would pick a different season to begin the journey west.

So how many of us really know what it was like to travel on a wagon train? How large were they? What was the experience really like? Historical newspapers hold many answers to these and other questions about our pioneer ancestors and their experiences pioneering the rugged frontier in America.

map of the Oregon Trail

Map: the Oregon Trail. Source: Wikipedia.

This 1848 newspaper article describes a California-bound encampment consisting of 100 wagons, with an average of five persons per wagon. The next paragraph notes that a great number of Mormons were crossing the Missouri River at St. Joseph.

article about pioneers using the Oregon Trail, Newburyport Herald newspaper article 2 June 1848

Newburyport Herald (Newburyport, Massachusetts), 2 June 1848, page 2

These details from newspaper articles put “meat on the bones” of an ancestral story—you just have to find the articles that tell the stories. Don’t forget to put a face to the occurrences. Even if you don’t have a photo of a direct forebear, you can get a fairly good idea of what people at that time looked like or how they dressed from newspaper articles about other pioneers.

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For example, here’s a picture of Ezra Meeker (born c. 1830) from a 1922 newspaper article that reported he went to Oregon around 1850—not via a wagon train, but in an ox-cart.

article about pioneer Ezra Meeker, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 27 October 1922

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 27 October 1922, page 18

These old newspaper articles about America’s pioneer days report various aspects of U.S. history. For example, this Apache scout—because of his knowledge of Native American trails—was recruited in the hunt for Pancho Villa after he raided New Mexico in 1916.

article about an Apache scout, Patriot newspaper article 12 May 1916

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 12 May 1916, page 2

Pioneer Stories in the U.S. Congressional Serial Set

Don’t forget that one of GenealogyBank’s more compelling resources, the U.S. Congressional Serial Set, is full of firsthand accounts of activities related to American development. This excerpt from 1900 describes, in minute details, several explorations into Alaska via foot and river trails. It’s an amazing account that I hope you’ll take time to explore.

Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska 18 April 1900

Compilation of Narratives of Explorations in Alaska 18 April 1900. Source: U.S. Congressional Serial Set, Vol. 3896.

Source: Serial Set Vol. No.3896; Report: S.Rpt. 1023; Compilation of narratives of explorations in Alaska. April 18, 1900. Reported from the Committee on Military Affairs by Mr. Carter and ordered to be printed.

Origins of “Oregon”

You’ll find lots of stories about your pioneer ancestors in GenealogyBank—as well as interesting tidbits about American history. For example: do you know how Oregon got its name?

This 1826 newspaper article reports that “Oregon” was a Native American word meaning “River that flows to the west.”

article about Oregon, Connecticut Observer newspaper article 26 January 1826

Connecticut Observer (Hartford, Connecticut), 26 January 1826, page 4

More Resources for Trail Genealogy Research

The following is a small sampling of resources to research the thousands of American trails that your pioneer ancestors may have traveled during the westward expansion.

American Trails

article about pioneers and westward expansion in the U.S., Weekly Council Bluffs Bugle newspaper article 13 April 1859

Weekly Council Bluffs Bugle (Council Bluffs, Iowa), 13 April 1859, page 2

Mormon Pioneer Trails

Trail of Tears (Removal of Native Americans from their eastern homelands 1838-1839)

map of the Trail of Tears

Map: Trail of Tears. Source: National Park Service.

With these resources, as well as the material contained in GenealogyBank, you should be able to make many interesting family history discoveries about your pioneer ancestors, weaving together the stories of their westward travels. Good luck with your genealogy research and let us know what you discover about your American ancestry!

Related Pioneer Ancestry Articles:

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The Polygamist’s Wife: The Story of My Favorite Ancestor Mary Ann

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about her favorite ancestor Mary Ann, a Mormon who married a polygamist when she was 15 years old, in 1868.

Do you have a favorite ancestor? Maybe it’s that one ancestor you love to research because of all the great documents you find about his or her life. Or perhaps it’s a more recent ancestor that was alive when you were a child.

old photographs from the author's collection

Old photographs from the author’s collection

When someone asks me about my favorite ancestor it’s hard for me to choose just one. But there is one ancestor that is responsible for me loving family history as a child and my eventual career as a genealogist.

My maternal grandmother’s paternal grandmother, Mary Ann Smith McNeil, has always been important to me. My grandmother told me stories of her grandmother’s life, a life story that rivals any Hollywood movie. Maybe that’s why my grandmother spent time telling me about Mary Ann. Perhaps my grandmother knew that it would ultimately plant a seed that would continue to grow within me and lead me on a genealogical journey.

Let me tell you a little about Mary Ann’s life. She was born on 2 July 1853 in Newton Heath, England, to William Smith and Mary Hibbert Smith. At the age of two years she sailed to America along with her family and other English Mormon converts. When Mary Ann was nine years old they migrated across the United States to Utah. She was married at age 15 years to a polygamist who was 45 years old. At the age of 16 she became a mother.

Polygamy is a controversial subject. My grandmother would tell me about Mary Ann’s life as a polygamist’s wife and suffice it to say it was difficult. The stories of this life (please remember that the Mormon Church ceased practicing polygamy in 1890) captivated me as I thought about what it must have been like to have been so young and married.

But this isn’t a story about polygamy. That’s an article for another time. This is the story of a woman who was just an everyday ancestor. Just like most of your female ancestors, Mary Ann was an everyday person; some would label her “just a housewife.” But she left a great paper trail.

That paper trail starts with the obvious records: marriage records, a death certificate, and birth certificates for children. Like many women, Mary Ann’s work for her church was important, and so her name is found in church histories and records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ female auxiliary, the Relief Society.

But here’s the great thing about living in the modern age of Genealogy 2.0. Digitized genealogy records are always being added online. This means continued, reasonably exhaustive Internet searching is crucial in order to find the latest information available about your ancestor.

One of the family stories I had heard was that during World War II, Mary Ann appeared in newspaper articles touting the large number of descendants she had serving in the war. A biography compiled by her great-grandson Herbert A. Hancock describes newspaper articles that appeared nationwide reporting on her 5 grandsons and 17 great-grandsons serving in the war (later the number of her descendants serving in the military would grow to a total of 25). These newspaper articles about her family’s patriotism started appearing around the celebration of her 90th birthday and were picked up by a number of newspapers nationwide proclaiming her family’s “great contribution to the cause of freedom.”(Legacy of Faith, compiled by Herbert A. Hancock, pg. 364.)

I was always curious about these old newspaper articles. Prior to digitized newspapers being made available online, it was very difficult to find them. However, a search today on GenealogyBank shows some of these articles, one of which appeared in a newspaper not too far from where I, her great-great granddaughter, live.

Nonagenarian 'Ancestor," San Diego Union newspaper article 4 June 1944

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 4 June 1944, page 31

Sometimes it’s the human interest stories that get our seemingly everyday ancestor written up in the newspaper. GenealogyBank’s search engine allows us to search for ancestors whether they are mentioned in a hometown newspaper or in several papers around the country. These articles are something I would miss if I limited my search to where Mary Ann lived in Arizona. Her life is a great reminder that ordinary people, including housewives, had stories written about them and that these stories can provide us wonderfully rich information about our families.

Not too bad for a woman who was “just a housewife.”