The Applegate Trail is an alternate southern route of the Oregon Trail and was blazed from west to east, intersecting the California Trail at the Humboldt River. It is historically linked to the Oregon Trail in that it was developed as an alternative route into Oregon that avoided the obstacles of the Burnt River Canyon, the Blue Mountains, and the Columbia River. After its opening, Oregonians used part of the Applegate Trail to travel back and forth to California’s gold fields. As designated by Congress under the National Trails System Act, the Applegate Trail is a branch of the California National Historic Trail.
In 1843, Jesse and Lindsay Applegate, members of the first wave of Oregon Trail emigrants, watched helplessly as their ten-year-old sons drowned in the Columbia River when a boat overturned in rapids near The Dalles. The Applegates, like so many overland emigrants who lost loved one on the Trail, continued sadly toward the Willamette Valley.
The Applegate brothers vowed to find a better route into the Willamette Valley — one that bypassed the Columbia River altogether. The Provisional Government of Oregon also hoped an alternate route would be opened because the Hudson’s Bay Company essentially controlled the Columbia River corridor, and so controlled a significant segment of the only overland route connecting the American settlements with the United States. By 1846, after settling on Salt Creek (near present-day Dallas), the Applegate brothers felt the time was right to follow through on their commitment to search for a new route.
In mid-June, Jesse and Lindsay Applegate met with other trailblazers at La Creole Creek (today called Rickreall Creek) to prepare for the trip. Eleven of the party had scouted the route earlier in the year as far south as Calapooya Creek in the Umpqua River valley. Jesse Applegate was elected leader of the group which included Lindsay Applegate, Henry Boygus, Benjamin Burch, David Goff, Samuel Goodhue, Moses “Black” Harris, John Jones, Bennett Osborn, John Owens, William Parker, John Scott, Levi Scott, Robert Smith, and William Sportsman.
The fifteen men, each with their own saddle horse, packhorse and supplies, followed Hudson’s Bay Company trappers’ routes, working their way south from the central Willamette Valley to the Bear Creek Valley in southern Oregon. From there, the group knew they would be blazing an entirely new trail. Turning east, their plan was to intersect the Oregon Trail near Soda Springs (in present day Idaho). Instead they intersected the California Trail on the Humboldt River and continued eastward to meet emigrant parties and guide them onto the new route.
The trailblazers crossed the Cascade Mountains approximately where Oregon State Route 66 crosses today and then headed south around lower Klamath Lake. Local Indians led them to a natural crossing of Lost River where the water flowed over a shelf of solid rock, making a substantial natural underwater bridge that wagons could traverse safely. This bridge was the critical key to establishing a wagon road through the Lakes Country. After crossing Lost River, the party rounded the north end of Tule Lake and headed east again, eventually crossing the Black Rock Desert to reach the Humboldt River.
There, the trailblazers decided some of the party should stay behind to rest their stock while others continued on to Fort Hall to replenish supplies and tell Oregon-bound travelers of the new route. Jesse Applegate led the advance group to Fort Hall and persuaded more than 200 men, women, and children — some historians report nearly 100 wagons — to travel over the southern road.
The trailblazers who stayed behind could hardly believe their eyes when they saw the number of people, wagons, and cattle coming down the trail to meet them. There had been no attempt while the supply party was at Fort Hall to clear a road for wagons. The emigrants of the new wagon train would have to do that themselves.
Levi Scott and David Goff agreed to stay behind to guide the wagon train. Meanwhile, equipped with pack horses and a few tools, the trailblazers had about sixty days before winter storms set in to open more than 500 miles of road and to blaze the trail for the wagons. To make matters worse, the winter of 1846-47 was a year of record snowfall, with heavy storms starting early. (These storms were the same ones that trapped the Donner Party heading over the Sierras not far south of where Scott was crossing the mountains with his wagon train.)
The wagon train did not move as fast as Scott would have liked. By the time the wagons reached the Rogue Valley, the winter rains had set in and from then on it rained or snowed most of the way. Supplies were running out and game was scarce. The trail had become harder to clear with brush and trees everywhere. The weather was cold and everything was slippery and muddy. Trying to start a fire to get warm was almost impossible. The emigrants were strung out for miles and Scott tried to persuade those who were stopped to keep moving because things could get worse. When word reached the Willamette settlements, relief parties headed down the trail to rescue those in need.
Although the trailblazers always referred to this route as the “Southern Road,” critics such as J. Quinn Thornton chose to belittle the Applegates’ name by referring to it as the “Applegate Trail.” Thornton blamed Jesse Applegate for hardships members of the first wagon train endured and felt that Applegate should suffer for what the emigrants endured. Thornton began a war of words through the newspaper that nearly led to a duel between him and an Applegate supporter, James Nesmith. Although people such as Levi Scott and David Goff supported the Applegates, remnants of those hard feelings survive to the present day among some of the descendants of survivors of the ’46 wagon train.
Despite its detractors, the Applegates’ alternate route through Oregon contributed substantially to the development of the Northwest. At the urging of the provisional government, Levi Scott agreed to return over the Southern Road to Fort Hall in 1847 to lead additional emigrants back over the new route. In doing this, Scott made noticeable improvements to the route. In 1848 with the discovery of gold in California, Peter Hardeman Burnett led 150 pioneers with fifty heavily laden wagons from Oregon City over the Applegate Trail going south to the gold fields. They were followed a few days later by a smaller group of men and wagons from north of the Columbia River. Intersecting Peter Lassen’s wagon tracks south of Tule Lake, Burnett’s cavalcade helped Lassen blaze a new trail to his rancho in the Sacramento Valley, establishing the first route for wheeled vehicles between the valleys of California and Oregon. This remained a major wagon route for more than a decade. In 1852, a group blazed a trail off the Applegate route south of lower Klamath Lake to the Yreka area; this trail was used for many years to help populate that part of northern California.
Ackerman, Richard W. “Blazing the Applegate Trail.” On to Oregon over the Oregon and Applegate Trails. Medford: Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1993.
Applegate, Lindsay. “Notes and Reminiscences of Laying Out and Establishing the Old Emigrant Road into Southern Oregon in the Year 1846.” Overland Journal, Vol. 11 No. 1 (1993).
Applegate, Shannon. Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1988.
Beckham, Stephen Dow. “Applegate Trail: Experiences of Emigrants and Other Travelers,” a report prepared for the Applegate Trail Coalition, Southern Oregon Historical Society, 1995.
Davis, Charles George. Scott-Applegate Trail. North Plains, OR: Soap Creek Enterprises, 1995.
Helfrich, Devere and Helen. “The Applegate Trail.” The Journal of the Shaw Historical Library, Vol. 10 (1996).
Meacham, Walter. “Applegate Trail.” Brochure booklet published by the State of Oregon, 1947.
Tompkins, James (editor). “Reminiscence of Abraham Henry Garrison: Over the Oregon Trail in 1846.” Overland Journal, Vol. 11 No. 2 (1993).
Government and management documents
Applegate National Historic Trail: High Potential Sites and Segments Inventory, a report prepared for the USDI National Park Service Denver Regional Service Center by Jim Renner, Oregon Trails Coordinating Council, 1997.
California and Pony Express National Historic Trails: Comprehensive Management and Use Plan Environmental Impact Statement, USDI National Park Service, 1998.
California and Pony Express Trails: Eligibility/Feasibility Study Environmental Assessment for National Historic Trail Authorization, USDI National Park Service, 1987.