The Oxen Were the Unheralded Heroes of America’s Overland Trails


Between 1840 and 1869, approximately 300,000 people crossed the United States on their way to settle in Oregon, find gold in California, or practice religion as they desired in Utah. The story of these emigrants, who were soon known as “overlanders,” is well known, taught in every school in the United States. Despite the popularity of Hollywood films on the experience, and even a now-classic 1971 video game, The Oregon Trail, we rarely talk about the animals that took the pioneers west. These draft animals played roles that proved them to be more than simple haulers of goods, as the overlanders and their oxen came to form relationships that the emigrants themselves never anticipated.


History and Political Science


The essay is also published as part of the “What It Means to Be American” project of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Dr. Ahmad, a Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of history and political science, describes in the essay how emigrants trekking the Oregon Trail bonded with their oxen and how essential the animals were to their success crossing the continent.

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Article - Journal

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Publication Date

01 Aug 2019