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Digital History ID 3256


During the early 1840s, thousands of pioneers headed westward toward California and Oregon. In 1841, the first party of 69 pioneers left Missouri for California, led by an Ohio schoolteacher named John Bidwell. The members of the party knew little about western travel: "We only knew that California lay to the west." The hardships the party endured were nearly unbearable. They were forced to abandon their wagons and eat their pack animals, "half roasted, dripping with blood."

Who were these pioneers? What forces drove them to push westward?

The rugged pioneer life was not a new experience for most of these early western settlers. Most of the pioneers who migrated to the Far West came from the states that border the Mississippi River: Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Illinois. These states had only recently acquired statehood: Louisiana in 1812; Illinois in 1818; Missouri in 1821; and Arkansas in 1836.

Pioneering was a familiar experience for many of these people. Either they or their parents had already moved several times before reaching the Mississippi Valley. Mark Twain vividly described the kinds of men he had seen while growing up in Hannibal, Missouri: "Rude, uneducated, brave, suffering terrific hardships with sailor-like stoicism; heavy drinkers...heavy fighters, reckless fellows, every one, elephantinely jolly, foul witted, profane; profligal of their money...yet in the main, honest, trustworthy, faithful to promises and duty, and often picaresquely magnanimous."

The Mississippi Valley was filled with restless men and women, thirsty for adventure and eager to better themselves. In 1833, when Iowa was cleared of Indians and opened to settlement, thousands of families pulled up stakes and poured into the area.

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