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Classroom Activities

Classroom Ideas for the Oregon Trail

Dear Teachers,

You may find the information in the End of the Oregon Trail section useful in your classroom, particularly for the following classroom activities. It can be found in the History Library. Feel free to copy any information from the History Library, as long as it is being used for educational purposes.

We'd love to hear from you. Please take a moment and respond to our survey. Also, if you have Oregon Trail related activities that have worked well in your classroom, please email them to the Education Coordinator for possible inclusion in our list. For any other questions or suggestions please EMAIL US and enjoy teaching the Oregon Trail!


Research Activities


•    Have students research jumping-off towns (examples are St. Joseph, Independence, Council Bluffs). What were the benefits to specific towns? What role did they play in westward expansion and why did some towns lose popularity? Many of the towns are discussed in "Did the Oregon Trail Start Here" on our web site.
•    Have students work in pairs or small groups to research different locations along the trail (key landmarks, rock formations, cutoffs, mountain crossings, forts, rivers, etc.) Once the students become experts at their topics, they can create a visual aid that includes their findings which can be shared with the class. Have students share their locations in the order that the pioneers would have seen them. As locations are being researched and presented, the class can create their own Oregon Trail map which shows the specific locations. Students could also consider the time of year the pioneers would have passed the various locations and the weather conditions they might have experienced.
•    Have students research some of the reasons the emigrants had for traveling the trail. Have a class discussion in which students decide whether they would have made the journey.
•    Assign roles of the family to class members and have them research what their role on the trail would have been. Possible roles could be mothers, fathers, eldest sons, eldest daughters, and hired hands. Each member of the family had very specific tasks. Perhaps the students could join together (all the mothers could work together, for example) to research the roles of their particular individual. They could present their findings with a visual aid to the class so that all students would learn from each other. Additionally, students could also have an occupation. A father might also be a doctor or a blacksmith. A mother might be a teacher or midwife. Students could discuss whether their assigned occupation was vital to their wagon train.
•    Students could research how the trail and life in the West altered traditional gender roles. (Consider that western states granted women's suffrage before eastern states).
•    Ask students who had the hardest jobs: Men, women, or children. Have them read journals and diaries to come to their conclusion.
•    Ask students how the Exclusion Laws effected the migration west.
•    During the main migration, many issues were dividing the country (slavery, states' rights, equality for different people groups, temperance movement). Have students consider and discuss the polarized nation and compare it to the cooperative nature of the Oregon Trail. Regardless of political or cultural background, pioneers often depended on the others in their wagon train to help them survive the journey. Sometimes, however, differences were too big to overcome. Frequently wagon trains divided over traveling on the Sabbath.


Primary Source Activities 


•    Have students read and analyze journals, diary entries, reminiscences, and quotes. (There are several on our web site). As they analyze the information, have students look for and write about:

  • Common struggles and challenges faced by pioneers
  • Details noted in the entries/ quotes (weather, road conditions, landmarks, crossing rivers etc.) Compare and contrast the writings- did the pioneers focus on similar or different details in their writings?
  • What types of emotions do the Pioneers describe in their entries?
  • Roles of men and women. How did the daily activities of men and women differ? Compare those roles to the modern day United States.
  • Have students write about the differences between journals, diaries, and reminiscences. How might these differences change the story being told?

Creative Writing Projects


•    Have students read journals/ diaries/ quotes then:

  • Pretend they are pioneers on the trail or in Oregon and writing letters back home to family/ friends who did not make the journey. Challenge them to keep the same tone as the entries they've read. Students could talk about key experiences and imagine how they might describe the journey to those who stayed home.
  • Keep their own journals as if they are travelers on the trail. They could imagine the best and worst experiences on the trail and write about them, or mention their hopes and fears, their reasons for leaving, who they are traveling with, etc.
  • Remember a time when they moved through creating a journal of that time period in which they remember what was difficult, exciting, scary, etc.

Oregon Trail Art


•    The pioneers often used rock formations on the Trail as an opportunity to leave their mark. Have students study some of these rock formations (Register Rock, Chimney Rock, Independence Rock, Register Cliff), then consider what they might carve if they wanted to leave their mark. Give students an opportunity to make their carving- have a class carving or individual student carvings using clay. If the class does just one carving, students could do a rubbing of their section so they have a take home item.
•    Pioneers often used their journals as an opportunity for art. Because cameras on the Trail were scarce, emigrants sketched their impression of rock formations, river crossings etc. If students are creating an Oregon Trail journal, have them include drawings of their choice of locations along the Trail.
•    In the 1840’s photographs were sometimes quite expensive. An alternative many people found was silhouettes. Rather than having a picture taken of themselves or their loved one, people would have a silhouette created. In order to make the silhouette, a shadow of the subject was cast on the wall by a candle. Using an overhead projector, or some other means, create shadows of students and have them work with a partner taking turns to complete their drawings of each other.

Math Related Activities


•    Wagon Wheel Rotation- The Oregon Trail is about 2000 miles long. The circumference of an average rear wagon wheel is 13 feet. Knowing that there are 5280 feet in a mile, how many times would the wagon wheel turn in order for the wagon to travel one mile? How many times would it turn in the 2000 mile journey? How could pioneers use the same knowledge to measure the speed and distance they traveled in one day?
•    Have students research the number of lumens put off by a candle. Then have them compare that to the number of lumens put off by a 25 watt bulb and figure out how many candles are needed for the equivalent light. This should give students a good idea of the limited light most the pioneers dealt with.
•    Using the "Oregon Trail Generation Timeline" from the web site, have students graph the population that came west from 1841-1866. After making their chart (or several charts if they want to practice different types) have them analyze the information using their knowledge of U.S. History. What factors might have influenced the pioneer population? What impact did the Civil War have on westward migration, etc.
•    Elevations of the Trail- Have students chart the elevation changes on the Oregon Trail. To do this, they will need to pick several key points along the Trail, and then research the elevations of those locations. After obtaining the information, they can chart their findings to further illustrate the arduous journey of the Oregon Trail pioneers. An additional research question might be how elevation effected baking and what the pioneers had to sometimes to do adjust their cooking at elevation.

Activities Related to Native American Information


Teachers may find "Disrupting the Natives" on the web site as a useful tool for Native discussion.


•    Have the class make a myth vs. reality chart for Native American involvement with pioneers on the Oregon Trail. Show pioneer perception of Natives vs. what really happened on the Trail.
•    Many Native Americans saw the Oregon Trail as a business opportunity. Have students brainstorm how Natives might have interacted with the pioneers to benefit themselves and their tribes (wagon repair, ferry services, trade etc.)

Hands-On Activities


•    Make buzz-saws (pioneer toys) from large buttons and string.
•    Make hardtack.
You will need 2 cups ground flour, 1 cup water
Combine the flour and water. On a floured surface roll the dough flat until it is ¼ inch thick. Cut out with a can 3-4” in diameter. Poke holes into each piece with a fork. Place on a floured cookie sheet. It should come out hard and dry. Cook in a hot oven 35-40 minutes. Yield: 12-15 pieces.
•    Make butter: To do this you can use small mason jars partially filled with heavy whipping cream. Students can take turns shaking the jars until they have butter. This basically does the same thing as a butter churn without the expense of the churn. Putting a marble in the cream makes the process go faster. Spreading the butter onto soda crackers works well, if your school allows students to eat the butter and crackers. If possible, purchase the soda crackers with the 13-hole pattern. Some original hardtack had 13 holes to represent the 13 original colonies.
•    Use a washboard and a bucket and have students try washing clothes.
•    Use a washboard to remove corn from the cob. Try grinding corn for cornmeal.
•    Make rag dolls or corn husk dolls.
•    In our show we talk about how the emigrants sometimes got their water from buffalo ponds (sometimes called "buffalo wallows"). The water from these ponds had to be strained to remove the "squiggly things." Sometimes, if they didn't strain it well enough, they'd end up straining it with their teeth and then wiping the bugs away. Maybe students could get a sense of this by drinking water with poppy seeds or loose tea.
•    Use crock pots of paraffin wax and buckets of cold water to dip candles. The dipping into each substance alternatively should be somewhat rapid and done at a consistent speed. The cold water between the wax dipping helps to cool the wax so that it can build layer upon layer. Keep the wax warm enough to be in liquid form, but not so warm that it boils. If you have trouble getting candles to form, you may need to turn the temperature down a bit. Wick and paraffin wax can be purchased a craft store.
•    Tape an outline of a wagon box on the floor. (Prairie Schooners or farm wagons were 10-12 feet long, 3-4 feet wide, and 2-3 feet deep.) The outline would give students an idea of how little space the pioneers had to work with. Then have a discussion about what they would need to take and what they would have to leave behind. Use "Provisions for the Trail" and/ or "Outfitting for the Trail" on the CHP website for a suggested list of items that may have been taken. Or, check in Trail Guidebooks for another reference.

  • Ask students what small keepsakes they would have taken? What larger items which would be left behind would they most miss?
  • Students could research what types of items were available in different locations (jumping off towns, forts, settlement areas such as Oregon City). For example, did pioneers need to travel with farming implements or could they be purchased in the West?
  • Students could brainstorm how extra items might have been included through creative packing. Sometimes large pockets were sewn into the inside of the wagon bonnet for storage; china was carried inside containers of cornmeal; one woman layered herself with five dresses so that she would not have to leave any of them behind.