The Oregon Trail stretched 2,000 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon City, Oregon. Passing through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon, travelers encountered a wide range of animal life both beautiful and dangerous. Some animals posed a threat to the travelers, but others provided them with food and resources for trade.
Bison, which are also known as the American buffalo, were prevalent along the Oregon Trail. At the time numbering in the millions, bison traveled in huge herds throughout the Great Plains. These herds were so large that travelers sometimes mistook them for a thunderstorm before they came into view. Bison are a relatively docile animal and posed little threat to travelers. Pioneers along the trail hunted them for their meat and furs, which almost caused them to become extinct.
Predators and Other Dangerous Animals
Grizzly bears could be found along the trail, most notably in the Rocky Mountains. Grizzlies tend to keep to themselves, but as the travelers crossed into sparsely settled territory, they would cross paths with these aggressive bears. Pioneers were at greatest risk while on hunting expeditions or when a grizzly would come scavenging after an animal killed by a pioneer.
Venomous snakes were also often spotted along the trail. Rattlesnakes and copperheads were the most common dangerous snakes encountered by the travelers.
Beaver fur was extremely valuable in the 19th century; because of this the animal was widely hunted along the trail. Their numbers had already greatly dwindled by the time most people crossed to Oregon. They were seen throughout the Rocky Mountains and were most often observed near rivers and streams.
Fish were a common food resource, especially toward the end of the journey in areas like Idaho and Columbia River. Salmon were in great abundance and were a great source of both food and trade for the pioneers.
Burrowers and Pack Animals
Rabbits and prairie dogs were abundant in the Great Plains. The pioneers paid little attention to prairie dogs as they were difficult to hunt and offered little meat and no value in trade. Rabbits were a more common hunting target. Coyotes were also found along the trail and were considered relentless scavengers. Coyotes earned a bad reputation with travelers for feasting on fresh kills made by the pioneers and ransacking human graves. They could be heard howling and yelping at night.