The westward movement of Americans in the 19th century was one of the largest and most consequential migrations in history, and for countless people back east, the West represented opportunities for adventure, independence, and fortune. Even in the 21st century, Americans look back on the era fondly, even romantically, and millions are familiar with the popular game that reignited interest in the Oregon Trail.
Of course, it's easy for people with modern transportation to comfortably reminisce about the West, because many pioneers discovered that the traveling was fraught with various kinds of obstacles and danger, including bitter weather, potentially deadly illnesses, and hostile Native Americans, not to mention an unforgiving landscape that famous American explorer Stephen Long deemed "unfit for human habitation." 19th century Americans were all too happy and eager for the transcontinental railroad to help speed their passage west and render overland paths obsolete.
One of the main reasons people yearned for new forms of transportation is because of the most notorious and tragic disasters in the history of westward travel. While people still romanticize the Wild West, many Americans are still all too familiar with the fate of the Donner Party, a group of 87-90 people that met with disaster in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846-1847. The party knew the journey would take months, but early snowfalls in the mountains left dozens of people trapped in snow drifts that measured several feet, stranding them in a manner that made it virtually impossible for them to go any further for several weeks.
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