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 Story of Pioneer Joseph Babington Found in an Old Obituary

How many stories can a family remember and pass down? Some of the great family stories from the past were not recorded and have been forgotten. Time after time genealogists have found amazing stories in their ancestry research that they never knew about their family.

Look at what we learn from the obituary of Joseph Babington (1837-1922), an early Idaho pioneer.

picture of Joseph Babington from his obituary, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 30 April 1922

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 30 April 1922, page 2

In the spring of 1862 Babington crossed the Great Plains by ox train in a caravan of 80 wagons. The trip included many Indian fights, and he had his horse shot out from under him multiple times. One time the American Indians stole the pioneers’ oxen “and he tracked the animals and while the enemy slept brought them back again.”

Babington’s story reads like so many of my favorite Westerns!

“Crossing the Snake River in Idaho, the wagons had to be taken apart three times and rafted over the treacherous stream.”

Think about that: three times the pioneers had to take apart the wagons just to get them across the river. Now—look at this detail about their journey across America provided in the old newspaper: “Cattle accompanied the train and in the morning after milking a certain quantity was suspended in strong holders over the rear wheels, the jolting of which manufactured all the butter required.”

Funny. What great family stories. We need to find these stories, document them and make sure they get preserved in the family so that they are not lost.

Babington’s obituary has all of the usual genealogical facts—but the details it provides about the tough life of an American pioneer give us the rest of his story, and will be treasured by the family forever. We might think we’re living in tough times today—but look at what our ancestors had to do just to survive!

Joseph Babington, Pioneer, Is Dead, Idaho Statesman newspaper obituary 30 April 1922

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 30 April 1922, page 2

The Old Pioneers …

Our town just celebrated “Old Home Days” – other towns call it Pioneer Day; Settler’s Day – where the old stories are told and lives well lived remembered.

Towns across America will be celebrating their heritage this summer and newspapers will be interviewing the “old timers”.

Newspapers are a good source for finding the interesting stories of what life was like when they settled in the area; their first job; the flood; the war; the successes and all of the other milestones in their lives.

Discover your heritage, preserve it and pass it on!

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