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Traveling On The Oregon Trail

Three Island Crossing
Larry E. Heck | Writer
Posted October 1, 2012

Three Island Crossing

The first wagon train to leave Independence, Missouri, and head west by way of the Oregon Trail was in 1836. At that time, the trail had been improved for wagon travel to Fort Hall, Idaho. Anyone wishing to travel beyond that point had to leave their wagons behind. The trail all the way to the Pacific Ocean had been used for many years on foot and on horseback but not in a wagon.

It was four years later before the first three wagons made it through the mountains from Fort Hall to Fort Walla Walla in Washington. They were followed by thousands more. With each new group, the trail was improved or in some cases the route was moved to an easier or shorter crossing.

The Snake River at Three Island Crossing was considered the most dangerous river crossing on the Oregon Trail. In other areas, the river cut through deep canyons but at Three Island Crossing it was easily accessible. The islands split the river flow into three smaller channels that were not as deep and did not flow as swiftly as one huge channel.

On the other hand, this was the largest river crossing on the trail. The water was too deep to drive across so the wagons had to be caulked and floated. They had to battle a swift current that continually pulled at the floating wagons and tried to carry them downstream. Pioneers would swim across with one end of a rope that was tied to the wagon on the other end. Once they were across, the wagon was put into the water and guided by pioneers tugging on the rope. Many of them capsized in the swift current and those who tried to rescue a sinking wagon were in danger of drowning.

Some travelers chose not to cross and stayed on the south side of the river. Doing so meant traveling many additional miles through desert country where feed for the animals was scarce and water was harder to find.

In addition to the threat of the river, pioneers had to contend with the Shoshoni Indians that lived near the crossing. The Indians were not pleased to see them but expected the travelers to trade with them. If animals and supplies were not carefully watched, some might disappear in the night. The best way to make friends with the Indians was to hire them to help with getting the wagons across the river. When animals disappeared, the best way to get them back was to hire the Indians to find them.

Once the wagons were across the river, they had better grass and easier access to good water. They had also cut many days of travel off the time it took to reach their destination in Oregon.

A route called the Main Oregon Trail Byway has been established. It is about 100 miles long depending on the options selected and follows very closely to the original route. The section in the Three Island Crossing area is a loop that provides different angles from which to view the crossing. After leaving the crossing, the trail continues toward Boise, Idaho, along unpaved roads connected together by paved highways. Some parts of it are on public lands. Other parts travel through private farms and ranches. It took us about a day to visit the park and then follow the trail across the rolling hills to Boise. A free downloadable guidebook can be found at


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