A 2,170 mile journey from the eastern end of the country starting from the Missouri river to the western end of the country in Oregon, the Oregon trail is probably the most arduous journey our forefathers took to seek better livelihood. Originally explored and laid by the fur traders, the trail was soon used by wagons carrying men, women and children who crossed miles of wasteland, wild rivers and difficult mountain terrain to become the first settlers of Oregon valley. The 1926 Oregon trail memorial half dollar was released to honor this vast human exodus!
The Oregon trail
Thousands of people, mostly farmers, left from the east to seek better livelihood in the west. These farmers needed lands to cultivate and grow crops. But land was hard to come by in the overpopulated east. The U.S. government encouraged these pioneers in the name of 'Manifest destiny', a belief that God gave a mandate for Americans to expand westward. The human exodus that started in Missouri snaked over deserts, mountains and rivers and finally reached the Oregon valley tired and worn out, missing one or many family members and most of their friends. These people had seen it all; diseases, starvation, accidents, drowning, poor weather, difficult terrain and then death!
Death was ever present in the trail and a whopping 65,000 people died! Only 51,662 survived to tell the tale! Malaria, Scurvy, and Cholera were the main diseases that most emigrants succumbed to because of the unhygienic conditions that prevailed . While the dangers of getting killed by the natives were largely exaggerated there were some minor skirmishes that resulted in a few deaths. There were also accidental deaths when a rifle misfired, or when a startled wagon mule trampled it's own master. Drowning in the rivers like the Platte river that the emigrants had to cross also contributed to the deaths. It is not an exaggeration when people call the Oregon trail as the longest graveyard in the history of America!
The trail usually started at Independence in Missouri, Kansas and moved on through the prairie of Nebraska where the emigrants had to cross the Platte river, then through Colorado, Wyoming, after which there were branch trails to Utah or to Idaho and then finally to the Oregon valley.
1926 Oregon Trail Memorial Half dollar
Ezra Manning Meeker traveled from Iowa to the Oregon valley in 1852 with his wife and brother, Oliver Meeker, seeking what thousands before him were seeking, a better life. Meeker encountered all the hardships faced by the pioneers before him. After nearly six months, his ox-driven wagon party arrived surprisingly unscathed at Oregon. They moved on and stayed for some time in Portland and later moved to the Puget Sound region. They finally settled in Puyallup in 1862, 10 years after they undertook the journey from the east.
Ezra Meeker went on to become a wealthy man; but he wasn't able to shake off the impact that the Oregon trail had made in his life. He was convinced that people were forgetting the sacrifices made by the pioneers in the Oregon trail. In his late 70's (1906 - 1908) he started retracing his steps taken 50 years earlier in a wagon and reached New York and then Washington, where he met up with President Theodore Roosevelt. He tried marking each of the trail stops with a stone marker. He did some more trips in the coming decade advocating for trail markers; gave lectures and wrote books on the trail.
In order to raise money for these markers, Meeker and few other Idahoans advocated the release of a coin. Meeker at the age of 95 spoke before a Senate Committee for the release of a commemorative coin honoring the Oregon trail. Congress authorized the release of six million half dollars. They were minted in 1926, 1928, 1933, 1934, 1936–1939.
The Oregon trail Half-dollar design has in the 'Indian side' a Native American standing in front of a US map. It was designed by Laura Gardin Fraser. The 'Wagon side' design shows an Ox-drawn covered wagon being led west toward the setting sun and was designed by James Earle Fraser.