Read All About It: Exploring the Oregon Trail Through Literature
In May of 1843, one thousand pioneers set off from Elm Grove, Missouri toward the Willamette Valley, marking the first great migration along the route that would become the Oregon Trail. Mark the 175th anniversary of the wagon train that kicked off two decades of westward expansion by learning more about the wagon trail-turned-westward-highway that made their journeys possible.
The 2,000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon, wound along trails through Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho, though not always the same way every time. We tend to think of the Oregon Trail as a set route, but it was more flexible than that — settlers followed the same rough path, but everyone was always looking for a shortcut or a way around some of the trail’s trickier obstacles. It was no easy journey: Just planning it could take as long as a year, and the Oregon-California Trails Association estimates that one-tenth of the people who set off on the trail died along the way, many from disease, others from accidents. Hasty graves lined the trail. Surviving settlers scrawled and carved their names on rocks and into trees they passed, leaving evidence that they had passed that way — their marks are still visible today. Settlers in prairie schooner wagons — so many that the rutted trails they left in their wake are still visible across the prairie today — waited to write their names on Independence Rock, a huge granite boulder that marked the trail’s middle point. Settlers who reached the rock by July 4 knew that they were on schedule to reach Oregon before the snows started.
Read the first-person stories of people who actually made the trek.
Seeing the Elephant: The Many Voices of the Oregon Trail by Joyce Badgley Hunsaker
This book collects the journals of settlers who traveled the Oregon Trail over a 40-year period, offering both the stories of what life on the trail was really like and an opportunity to chart how the travel experience changed over the life of the trail.
Overland in 1846, Volume 1: Diaries and Letters of the California-Oregon Trail edited by Dale L. Morgan
The first book in this two-volume series focuses on the experience of being on the trail, collecting diaries and letters from settlers, including some written by members of the infamous Donner Party, whose delayed trip forced them to weather the winter in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The second volume, which focuses on life after the trail, is a compelling glimpse into the challenges of life on the frontier.
The Prairie Traveler by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy
Think of this 1859 guidebook as the ultimate Oregon Trail travel agent: Marcy, a West Point grad and veteran traveler, compiled the information he thought pioneers needed to safely traverse the country, from how to choose between mules and oxen for your team to tips for finding and purifying water to how to treat a rattlesnake bite when you’re miles away from civilization. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the concerns and challenges of trail life.
Get the lay of the land from these well-researched and informative resources for studying the history of westward expansion.
Don't Know Much About the Pioneers by Kenneth C. Davis
This handy Q&A guide starts with the Louisiana Purchase and continues through the period of western expansion, acknowledging Native American contributions (including the fact that the trail followed Native paths) and the work of non- white-men in pioneer activities. Though it’s not specific to the Oregon Trail, it’s a practical, fast orientation in frontier history.
If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine
Levine’s trademark blend of humor and history enlivens this books about life along the Oregon Trail, which may be difficult for modern-day kids accustomed to GPS directions and ready bridges to fully grasp. Lots of details help kids understand the courage and hard work required to set out on the trail — plus there are plenty of opportunities to see the things that hold true for human experience across the centuries.
In this 2010 documentary, 24 students from across the United States journeyed from Wyoming to Oregon, using the same tools and supplies they would have used in pioneer days. (No cell phones! No cars!) It’s fascinating to see how they adjusted to life on the trail — and to see how small decisions could have a big impact in this kind of travel.
Daily Life in a Covered Wagon by Paul Erickson
The Larkin family sold up in 1853 and left their Indiana farm for Oregon. Erickson uses their story, including letters, diaries, records, and recollections, to describe what life was like for families on the trail. Though there’s no glossing over the hard parts, all the Larkins survived the journey west — partly, perhaps, because when they boiled water for coffee (which they all drank regularly), they also killed off cholera germs without realizing it.
Fiction brings this part of history to life with a vividness that you won’t soon forget.
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell-1847 by Kristina Gregory
This entry in the Dear America series definitely illuminates the dark side of the Oregon Trail experience — including group conflicts, violence, death, and danger — but it also highlights the attitudes and determination of the pioneers.
Westward to Home: Joshua’s Oregon Trail Diary by Patricia Hermes
There’s nothing particularly surprising about this historical fiction novel, but it’s nice to have a pioneer story told from a boy’s perspective — so many seem to be inspired by the experiences of young women instead. Joshua’s family is headed west from Missouri to Oregon, a journey that will require Joshua to face his fears.
OTHER OREGON TRAIL RESOURCES
Get hands-on with these activities designed to help you explore the stories of the Oregon Trail.
The Bureau of Land Management has an elementary/early middle grades unit study pack for the Oregon Trail that includes trail math, creative writing, planning, and more.
Learn the basics of writing historical fiction with the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Go West: Imagining the Oregon Trail curriculum plan. You’ll start with research and big questions before crafting your own story. edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/ go-west-imagining-oregon-trail
Westward Ho!: An Activity Guide to the Wild West by Laurie Carlson includes simple-but-fun activities like cooking flapjacks, sewing sunbonnets, and panning for gold. It’s not all Oregon Trail-specific, but it’s a fun collection of projects.
You’ll find some more complex activities in Pat McCarthy’s Heading West: Life with the Pioneers, 21 Activities, including butter churning, candle dipping, and animal tracking. Again, the activities tend to be more about pioneering in general and less about the Oregon Trail specifically, but most would certainly be relevant for settlers headed west to Oregon.
And, of course, you can’t study the Oregon Trail without playing a few rounds of the classic computer game.