In 1840, California and New Mexico remained basically untouched by American settlers. Only a few hundred Americans lived in either territory, and most were scattered among the Mexican settlers. However, due to the constant stream of favorable reports sent back east, the 1840s saw a dramatic increase in white American settlers in the Far West. Most California settlers headed for the Sacramento Valley, where they lived apart from the Mexicans. Oregon drew many settlers from the Mississippi Valley with the promise of fertile farmland. During the 1830s missionaries had moved into Oregon's Willamette Valley, and by 1840, there were about 500 Americans there. To some, Oregon was even more attractive a destination than California and New Mexico, and the 1840s saw rapid settlement there as well.
Settlers of the Far West faced a four-month journey across little-known territory in harsh conditions. They prepared for the rigors of travel in jump- off towns like St. Joseph and Independence, Missouri, which prospered from the growth of the outfitting industry. There, settlers purchased Conestoga wagons for the journey and stocked up on supplies like food, weapons, and ammunition. Due to fictional stories about the savage Indians that travelers would face along their way, travelers on the overland trails often overstocked guns and ammunition at the expense of other more necessary items. Once they embarked, settlers faced numerous challenges: oxen dying of thirst, overloaded wagons, and dysentery, among others. Trails were poorly marked and hard to follow, and travelers often lost their way. Guidebooks attempted to advise travelers, but they were often unreliable. In 1846, the Donner Party set out from Illinois armed with one such guidebook, which gave them such poor advice that the party found itself snowbound in the High Sierra. The group finally reached its destination in California only after turning to cannibalism in order to survive.
There were many trails leading to the Far West. Southwestern travelers more often than not used the Santa Fe Trail to move westward. Routes to the Northwest varied, but the Oregon Trail became the best known and most often followed pathway to the northwest. Though it was commonly traveled, settlers still faced difficult journeys westward. Travelers along these overland trails survived by cooperating with each other in wagon trains. Though many brought a liberal spirit to the West, firmly entrenched traditions dictated the operations of the wagon trains. Women packed and unpacked the wagons, cooked, milked cows, tended to children, and aided in childbirth. Men were responsible for yoking and unyoking the oxen, driving the wagons, and making up hunting parties. Between 1840 and 1848, an estimated 11,500 followed the overland trails to Oregon, and nearly 3,000 reached California.
Settlers flocked to the Far West for many reasons. They sought adventure, farmland, an escape from the constraints of civilization, and new starts. California was attractive because of its climate and the fact that the Spanish and Mexicans had begun to organize the territory through the mission system. However, Oregon proved far more attractive to many settlers. Discovered and explored by the British, Oregon was jointly occupied by the British and Americans, who, though they had not yet settled the territory, had set the stage for settlement by sending white missionaries and drawing maps. Oregon seemed more likely than California to be annexed by the United States, thus settlers who desired stability and wanted to maintain a close link with their home country chose Oregon over California, leading to its more rapid development. The Willamette Valley offered fertile farmland and the assured company of other American settlers, whereas the Sacramento Valley was less well known and put the white settlers in geographic proximity to the Mexican settlers, who many Americans found distasteful.
It was not purely the uncertain promise of fertile land that provoked Americans to make the long journey from the Midwest across the Rocky Mountains. Constant news sent east fueled the fire of expansion to a great extent. Many of these reports simply stated the facts, that there was a vast amount of unclaimed land in the far west, and that with a lot of hard work and a little luck, an American settler could be successful in farming. However, the effect on the American psyche of elaborate fictions about the West cannot be underestimated. During the 1840s the legend of the West began to unfold itself in earnest. One story told of a 250 year-old man who lived in California who had to leave the bounteous region when he wanted to die. Other stories told of feats of great daring and bravery on the part of western settlers, and advanced notions of geographical wonders and trees that grew higher than the eye could see. These stories produced the desired effect of stimulating interest in the West, and on top of the factual promise of open land and a new beginning, convinced many to undertake the perilous journey. Throughout the long process of settling the American West, the legend of the West would grow and become a symbol of the rugged adventurousness of western settlers.
Despite the many reasons to migrate westward, the numbers that amassed in Oregon and California were modest, and migration was concentrated between 1844 and 1848. Even so, small numbers had a large effect on the Pacific coast. The British were unable to settle Oregon, and thus the concentration of Americans in the Willamette Valley boded well for the prospect of American annexation. In California, the Mexican population was small and scattered. They had gradually lost their allegiance to the Mexican government as it had gradually lost touch with them. This created a situation in which American settlers carried great clout in the development of the settled regions, and in effect the American government many fiercely loyal agents throughout the Southwest.