Wednesday, May 02, 2007

13 Things Folks Took With Them Along the Oregon Trail

During class change I meet students at the door and asked them to take their seats and read the message on the board. Students enter the room to find the desks arranged in a large square. In the center of the square I have measured off a large rectangle on the floor with masking tape. Mr. Janitor Man doesn’t like for me to place tape on the carpet, but sometimes I’ll sacrifice his ire when I’m trying to make an important point with students.

Students read the following message:

The rectangle I’ve created on the floor measures four by ten feet. Observe the space that has been created by the tape. Imagine for a few minutes your family is in the process of moving out west….to Oregon, Washington, or Idaho. The rectangle on the floor represents the cargo container that your family will have to pack their things. It is obvious everything in your home cannot be moved with you. You can only stack things as tall as the line I’ve drawn on the board (about four to five feet). Take the next ten minutes and create a list of things you think is important for your family to pack. Remember….this is the only container your family has. Everyone’s things will be in the container together.

Students furiously write for the next few minutes creating a list in their notebooks. I finally call time and ask a few students to volunteer items from their list. They volunteer things like their Ipod, their Xbox, Cds, and television. No one includes food, or tools, or any other basic supply.

I ask students to read through their list and take off anything that would not exist in 1843. All of a sudden many lists shorten greatly. Some disappear all together.

Every now and then I think a jolt of reality is important for my students. They get lazy and tend to think of historical events and historical figures in their own frame of reference. While it is beneficial to compare and contrast our way of life to the way of life during a time period being studied it is also important to attempt to look at the time period from the perspective of those living at the time.

So what would you need if you were about to embark on the Oregon Trail as many thousands did between 1843 and 1870?

Many sources indicate a family of four would need at least one thousand pounds of food (and you thought your 10 bags of grocercies was excessive). Here’s a sample grocery and supply list:
1. 200 pounds flour
2. 150 pounds bacon
3. 10 pounds coffee
4. 20 pounds sugar
5. 10 pounds salt
6. 20 pounds corn meal
7. 15 pounds beans
8. 5 pounds rice
9. 2 pounds tea
10. ½ pound baking soda
11. 15 pounds dried fruit
12. rifles, shotguns, pistols, and ammo
13. farm tools, seeds, rope, a piece or two of furniture

You can see a more completed list of supplies with time period prices here.

The wagon space was tightly packed. Most everyone walked the entire trail since every bit of space was needed and folks wanted to spare the oxen as much as possible from the extra weight.

One in every ten people who traveled the trail died. Many died from accidents such as guns accidentally going off and getting crushed by wagons. Others died from disease such as cholera.

An interesting interactive map of places along the Oregon Trail can be found here.


Anonymous said...


I love history, and I'm so glad you're making it real for your students.

Mine's up. On Teachers who made a difference to me. I'm sure in 15 or so years your name will be on some lists too.

Robin said...

What a wonderful way to convey what it meant to travel the Oregon Trail to your students. We'll be heading to Washington ourselves (on vacation) in about two weeks. I think I'll talk to my son about the differences between how we are traveling now and how it was done then.

Happy TT.

Alasandra, The Cats and Dogs said...

I would have to put books in the wagon somehow. I don't think I could live without them.

Cinnamon Girl said...

The funny thing about the trail is that judging by the number of place here in Oregon that say they are part of it, those two must have been pretty drunk :P

Anonymous said...

Very cool idea. But be sure to remind them that they should never shoot more buffalo than they can carry back to the trail, and when they come to a river, ALWAYS caulk the wagon and float.

At least, that was my experience as an elementary school trailblazer.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

I love you! I've been asked (the science teacher who loves history) to put together a Oregon Trail/Pioneer class for the gifted camp I teach at every summer! Your blog is a gold mine (and I love learning from it). BTW, I'm going to be in your beloved Georgia this weekend - Civil War Symposium at Kennesaw State University!

CaliforniaTeacherGuy said...

I read through your list so fast that I thought it said, "5 pounds ice." I'm sure they were wishing for ice--not rice--on some of those torrid summer days!

Taylor said...

This really is a wonderful way to convey what some students may find boring in a truly innovative and different fashion... That map of places along the trail is cool too!

I wanted to ask if I could nominate you for "best education blog" over at the Blogger's Choice Awards I think with your readership and a little self promotion (they have a "vote for me" badge you can put up with a little copying and pasting of some embed code) you would have a good shot at winning. Anyway, I'd love to see you at the top of the list. Thanks for the great blog and keep it coming!

EHT said...

Thanks for all of the great comments.

Alasandra, I believe I would have found some corner of the wagon for a few books. They probably did too.

Matt, I agree...never shoot more buffalo than you can carry.

Mrs. Bluebird, I hope you enjoyed your trip to my fair state.

CTG, a huge majority of my blog reading is skimming and scanning. Sometimes I misread words as well, however, I'm sure ice would have been very welcome on the trail.

taylor a, thanks for the nod. I certainly won't stop you. :)

Rebecca Haden said...

Great post! I do something similar, and I like to bring in The Prairie Traveler by Randolph Marcy (reference by memory, usually a mistake -- I'll check and come back and correct if I've got it wrong), a handbook the U.S. Army produced for the pioneers. A modern edition is in print.

Meredith said...

I always wanted to go on The Oregon Trail. But, I'm sure a large part of that was due to Garth Williams' most excellent illustrations...

HappyChyck said...

That's a fun lesson. I takes me back to when I was kid learning about the Oregon Trail.