Before the construction of the Western railroad in 1869, it took an average of six months for pioneers and immigrants to travel from the American mid-west to California and Oregon. Lured by the promise of a better life (one diarist described California as ‘the land of gold and Italian skies’), there were many who were prepared to invest in the expense, and danger, of travelling by covered wagon across desert, mountains and Indian land. Native Americans, fur trappers, missionaries, traders and military scouts had laid down many of the trails several decades earlier. The Oregon Trail dates to 1811, while the Old Spanish Trail (through waterless canyon country) was first travelled in 1830. After the 1862 Homestead Act allowed settlers to claim 160 acres of free land, migrations westwards accelerated. The death rates were high, with substantial numbers dying of disease, wagon falls and Indian attacks.
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