Alta Journal is pleased to present the first installment of a five-part original series by geologist and author Ruby McConnell tracing the creation of the Applegate Trail.
The Applegate Trail extends more than 500 miles, from southern Oregon to Humboldt, Nevada, and connects the Oregon and California emigrant trails. It was a branch of the longest, most heavily traveled route of western migration in American history, and today has largely dropped from public consciousness. The story of how it was charted begins with three brothers who set out from St. Louis to the Oregon territory in 1843. Ruby McConnell brings the story of the Applegates and other tales of the American West to life through her extensive research of archival material and reporting in her forthcoming book, Wilderness and the American Spirit (Overcup Press, 2024).
In 1831, the story goes, a pair of Nez Perce arrived in St. Louis, asking about a book called the Bible and the white man’s “book of heaven.” The news inspired a surge of missionary fervor—particularly in a young Protestant minister named Marcus Whitman, who set out west with his wife, Narcissa, in one of the first settlement groups to travel what would become the Oregon Trail and build a life in the northwestern territory that was not yet part of the United States.
Twenty-eight-year-old Narcissa hated it from the very first moment, complaining in her diary of the hard life on the trail, the dust and heat, the boredom, and the “savage Indians” she clearly disdained despite the couple’s ministerial intentions. “Never was I more keenly sensible to the self-denials of a missionary life,” she wrote. “Even now while I am writing, the drum and the savage yell are sounding in my ears, every sound of which is as far as the east is from the west from vibrating in unison with my feelings.… Dear friends, will you not sometime think of me almost alone in the midst of savage darkness.”
The trip was hard and slow, so hard that until then the mountain men had insisted it was impossible for women to make it successfully. But despite her complaining, Narcissa made it. The group got as far as Walla Walla, near the intersection of what is now Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. There, they joined forces with other missionaries and built a wooden fort along the Columbia River. Then they turned to the business of finding and converting those supposedly Bible-curious Indians.
Unsurprisingly, the Indigenous people did not welcome their arrival and engaged in a series of increasingly violent confrontations with the mission’s inhabitants. The message was clear: Go home. But Whitman, a man of deep faith, was not deterred. In addition to his religious mission, he was an expansionist. In his eyes, the problem was not that he and his companions were unwanted or unneeded but that they were outnumbered. He decided to travel east and find more settlers to the Oregon territory—even if he had to go there and drag them back.
By 1840, it seemed like the whole world was moving to St. Louis. And why not? It had theater, dance halls, a thriving and boisterous waterfront scene, and even, in recent years, a public school system. Positioned on the western edge of the frontier, the disputed territory notwithstanding, it had been a bustling port city and center of trade for as long as anyone could remember.
Before U.S. citizens arrived, Indigenous North Americans had long used St. Louis, just south of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, as a meeting place and cultural center. In the late 1700s and early 1800s, voyageurs—French men who worked the fur trade—and the mountain men of the Hudson’s Bay Company used it as their own trading post. By the mid-1800s, commerce, agriculture, and other industries had arrived, providing plenty of opportunities for new immigrants who were being squeezed out of crowded eastern cities. Many were German and Irish and had fled to America to escape famine and war; most were young men with families looking for honest work. But there were also prospectors of all kinds, drawn by the promises of the opening West.
In the 1840s, St. Louis started to suffer growing pains due to its ballooning population and, increasingly, ideological issues. Missouri was a slave state, but St. Louis was filled with people from all over the country, and not everyone agreed with the practice. Conflict over the issue was becoming inevitable. Among those entangled in the conflict were the Applegate brothers, staunch slavery opponents who hailed from Illinois, where a young politician named Abraham Lincoln was gaining influence. Charles, Lindsay, and Jesse Applegate were three of five brothers born in Kentucky and raised in Illinois farm country. Drawn by the promise of freedom and in need of affordable land to start their own farms and families, they moved to Missouri in the 1820s.
Charles and Lindsay were in agriculture. Jesse, the youngest of the three, had aspirations that leaned toward adventure. It didn’t work out as they hoped. The continued influx of new arrivals brought increased competition and saturated the agricultural markets, collapsing the local economy. The Applegate brothers watched as the value of their commodities plummeted. It got so bad that at one point they had to sell off bacon for less than the price of the salt used to cure it.
Unable to tolerate their neighbors’ exploitation of enslaved people and in search of better economic opportunity, they once again looked to move to more open country. Someplace west, perhaps. Jesse had his eye on the Oregon Country.
St. Louis had been a starting point for travelers setting out for the Oregon territory ever since Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began their Corps of Discovery expedition from the city’s riverbank in 1804. Jesse’s friend Robert Shortess had been in the Oregon Country—a disputed swath of land stretching from today’s western Montana and Wyoming to the Pacific and north from the southern borders of Oregon and Idaho into British Columbia—since 1840 and sent back a steady stream of letters describing the abundant trees, fish-filled waters, and rich soils of the Willamette Valley and promising to include Jesse in the soon-to-be-formed state government. It worked. Jesse determined that his future lay in the Oregon territory.
In the late spring of 1843, the Applegate brothers sold their farms and headed west in search of independence, prosperity, and influence. With the money from the sales, they invested in wagons and provisions and purchased several hundred head of cattle that they would drive along with them to Oregon. Then the brothers and their families, a party of 27, set out. They joined a large train of at least 100 wagons and nearly 1,000 people, whom they had helped rouse by placing an ad about the trip in the Bonneville Herald. It was the first large-scale U.S. emigration wagon train of its kind.
The group was following the lead of Whitman, who by that time had made his way to St. Louis in search of willing emigrants. In his efforts to attract settlers to the Oregon territory, Whitman had kept the violent opposition of the Indigenous people and the hardships of the trail to himself. His route was 2,000 miles of difficult terrain that connected the Missouri River with the Willamette Valley. The trail was hazardous, and death was common, most often as the result of disease, accident, or violence. While no official death count exists, it is estimated that of the more than 400,000 people who attempted the journey, at least 20,000 died along the way. The Applegates would not be spared from these horrors. In the coming years, their experience would compel them to create their own emigrant trail. That trail would become an indelible part of the infrastructure, history, and mythology of the American West, but it would come at a terrible price.•
Note: Due to an editing error, this piece originally suggested that many St. Louis residents agreed with the practice of slavery. It has been changed to reflect the fact that many disagreed with the practice.
PART TWO: TAKEN BY THE RIVER »
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