The West was new in the 19th Century, and hundreds of oxen- and mule-pulled covered wagons headed out there to see it. Families that went west to begin anew came across not only new terrain, but new plants and animals. From bison to threatening rattlesnakes, travelers reported seeing a variety of wildlife along the Oregon Trail.
Oregon Trail pioneers commented more on one animal--the bison, which the pioneers often mistakenly called "buffalo"--above all others, according to the Oregon-California Trails Association. The herds’ stampeding was so loud that, in some cases, travelers mistook the noise for approaching thunderstorms. The beasts not only served as a point of observation, but a source of meat and, eventually, a top target for fur traders who nearly hunted the animal to extinction.
Among the herds of bison were also those of pronghorns--goat relatives mistakenly called "antelope"--on the plains between Missouri and the Rocky Mountains. Pioneers on the Oregon Trail reported seeing the animals wander into camp sites, which on some occasions would lead to a hunt.
Oregon Trail travelers commonly crossed paths with rattlers, copperheads and other snakes. Pioneers took to killing the snakes when they came across them, as much out of sport as protection. Just like today, travelers had to properly treat snake bites or risk death.
Pioneers routinely traveled by villages of prairie dogs on the Oregon Trail. The animals would poke their heads out from their mounds to watch the wagons, but they were so quick to return to their subterranean domain, even the best marksmen had trouble shooting at them.
There were other small, furry animals other than prairie dogs on the Oregon Trail. According to the OCTA, pioneers came across so many rabbits they rarely bothered to comment on them unless they had an unusual experience with one.
Travelers on the Oregon Trail often awoke in the middle of the night to the howl of a coyote. The animal, along with its cousin, the wolf, garnered an unfavorable reputation with many travelers because it was said that they dug up people's graves along the trail. Coyotes would also prowl camps and night and scavenge for meat and startle sleeping travelers.
Pioneers associated beavers with the Rocky Mountains as much as they did with bison on the plains, according to OCTA. However, seeing a beaver wasn’t as common because earlier fur traders had already passed through the area, collecting hides from many of the animals. Travelers most commonly saw them working along rivers through the mountains.
The ample prairie grasses the pioneers traveled through along the Oregon Trail served as a food source for their oxen. The grass was a key reason why the travelers used the animal, because horses could not eat the plant.
When the Oregon Trail pioneers reached the end of their journeys, they would have traveled into evergreen forests, which dominate the Pacific Northwest’s vegetation.
- Oregon-California Trails Association: Wild Trail, Wild Life
- Idaho State University, The Oregon Trail: Power
- “Science”; Evergreen Coniferous Forests of the Pacific Northwest; R.H. Waring and J.F. Franklin; June 29, 1979.