The first major group – large enough to be called a wagon train – of settlers to tackle the Oregon Trail departed Elm Grove, Missouri, on May 16, 1843. Numbering between 700 and 1000 souls (accounts vary), they would not be the last. It would take another year or so for the trail to really become popular, but for more than twenty years, the trail, and its various offshoots, would be one of the most popular routes to the Californian coast. More than 400,000 people would travel it – most of them after the discovery of gold in California in 1848.
That first group took six months to traverse the approximately 2000 miles to the Oregon Territory, but they left behind them a rough yet passable trail that others were quick to follow, and over the next fifty years, enough Americans would go west that the government would eventually declare the frontier closed, so settled had it become.
On May 1, American pilot Gary Powers was shot down while flying a Lockheed U-2 over the USSR on a covert surveillance mission, photographing military and other targets. Four days later, the American government released disinformation stating that Powers had gone missing and was presumed dead while flying over Northern Turkey. On May 7, Khrushchev released information demonstrating that the Americans had lied, causing a massive loss of face to the Eisenhower administration, and heightening Cold War tensions. Not only was Powers still alive, but his plain had been captured mostly intact. Indeed, the Soviets were even able to develop some of the photos Powers had taken.
This was unfortunate timing, to say the least, as the Four Powers summit in Paris was due to begin on May 14. Krushchev demanded an apology from the UNited States, and when Eisenhower proved recalcitrant, he walked out of the summit. Soviet-American relations deteriorated notably as a result of these incidents.
Powers was tried for espionage, pleaded guilty and was convicted on August 19, Although his sentence called for 3 years’ imprisonment and 7 years of hard labor, he served only one and three-quarter years of the sentence before returning to the West in a hostage swap deal.