The Oregon Trail: A Unit Study

The Oregon Trail: A Unit Study
The Oregon Trail: A Unit Study

On July 4, 1805, mountain man, fur trapper, explorer, and trail guide Stephen Meek was born. While he participated in many expeditions into the thus-far unknown reaches of Oregon, he became famous (or infamous) for quite another reason — he wandered into the desert and lost himself, and about 1,000 hapless emigrants with him.

The Meek Cutoff

Yes, experienced mountaineer though he was, Stephen Meek lost his wagon train in the barren, unforgiving central desert region of Oregon. In an attempt to take a shortcut around the final leg of the Oregon Trail, which was rumored to be plagued by Indians, the disastrous detour known as the Meek Cutoff meandered through miles of trackless, waterless wilderness shunned even by the natives. After suffering much from thirst, hunger, and disease, the homesteaders reached the end of the “shortcut” reduced in numbers — and some time later than those who had prudently kept to the beaten path.

The History of the Oregon Trail

First explored by Lewis Clark, this beaten path known as the Oregon Trail had been subsequently worn down in the first few decades of the 19th century by the hooves of the pack horses and mules of roving trappers, such as Robert Stuart, John Day, William Henry Ashley, Jedediah Smith, the Sublette brothers, Thomas Fitzpatrick, Kit Carson, Jim Bridger, Stephen Meek, and his better-known younger brother Joseph. As the fur trade died out, the mountain men became guides for those who were to follow. First came the missionaries and government explorers — the former seeking the eternal welfare of the Indians, the latter pursuing the course marked out for them by the nation’s Manifest Destiny, which urged them onward to carry the flag to all parts of the continent. Written reports from the trappers, the missionaries, and the explorers of the fertility of Oregon conspired to capture the imagination of the restless homesteaders of America, and they, too, flocked to fulfill their Destiny.

It is difficult to point to a precise date when the first settlers began to wend their way across the continent. As early as 1839, eighteen men from Illinois set out for Oregon to drive away the meddlesome British interlopers on the American continent. The Bartleson-Bidwell party of 1841, however, is usually considered the first mass emigration of whole families over the Oregon Trail, although their destination was California. But whatever the date, once the trickle began to flow, it was only a matter of time before a flood broke loose. It has been estimated that between 1834 and 1867 some 400,000 people traveled the trail — emigrants bound for the farm country of Oregon, prospectors seeking the gold fields of California, and Mormons pressing to the promised land of Utah.

Why Go West, Young Man?

In a country still so young and unsettled, why would so many people risk losing everything, even their lives and the lives of their families, for land in one of these raw states? The answers are many and various — patriotic motives, escape from debt, a search for better health, hopes of financial gain, simple craving for greener pastures — but in the end, one is tempted to suggest that there is no rational answer. Young America’s blood was stirring, and it had to satisfy its thirst for adventure somehow.

The End of the Trail

However, once the trail had served its purpose and vented the energies of the country, its days were numbered. The Civil War dealt it a mortal wound, both by diverting the nation’s attention and by reducing the number of people available to travel on it; and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad administered the coup de grâce. With faster, safer railway travel available all the way to the Pacific coast, there was little reason to brave the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon.

There is no question of the importance of the Oregon Trail in American history. Where formerly only Indians dwelt, log cabins sprang up. The woods were cleared and crops planted in short order. Churches, schools, towns, and political parties followed soon after. California became a state in 1850, Oregon in 1859. Thus the flag was planted on the opposite coast, and the nation stretched from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific.

Further Investigation

The Oregon Trail
Excellent background information with photos and maps from the Oregon Historical Society.

King Burial and a Letter
Short description of the fate of those on the Meek Cutoff, along with a letter from one of the party.

The Oregon Trail
Concise background information in an article by Amy Puetz that originally appeared in Home School Enrichment Magazine.

Discoverers & Explorers
Brief details about Lewis and Clark, fur traders, mountain men and others who founded the Oregon Trail.

The Oregon Trail
Interactive map that shows landmarks along the way.

Photo Tour
A tour of the Oregon trail in Central Wyoming via photos.

Trail Kids
What was it like for pioneer children on the trail?

The Covered Wagon
Description with diagrams.

The pros and cons of various choices of animals to pull the wagon.

What Should I Pack?
Food, clothing and other equipment that would fit in the wagon.

Trail Supplies
What you needed, how much, and why.

One of the most important considerations.


Corn Fritters
Enjoy this pioneer recipe at home.

Trading Station Math
“Word problems” with an Oregon Trail theme. Answer Key.

American Expansion Coloring Pages
Suitable for younger students.

The Oregon Trail: A Unit Study

If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine
Part of Scholastic’s “If You” series, tells what it was like to travel to Oregon.

Antoine of Oregon: A Story of the Oregon Trail by James Otis
A public domain selection from a favorite author.  In this title, Antoine, son of Pierre Laclede, leads his own company along the Oregon Trail as guide.  Gives the reader an accurate glimpse of what life on the trail was like. (Please note, as in many of these old books, you will not find the character and deeds of the Indians portrayed in a favorable way.)

The Prairie Traveler by Capt. Randolph B. Marcy
Written in the mid-1800s, this was one of the handbooks the green pioneers used to guide their way.

The Oregon Trail: A Unit Study

Westward Ho!: An Activity Guide to the Wild West by Laurie Carlson
A fun activity guide covering horses, Lewis and Clark, fur traders and mountain men, the gold rush, covered wagons, the prairie and the range.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Explorers of the Pacific Northwest
148-page download covering the Hudson Bay Company, Lewis and Clark, Pacific Fur Company, mountain men, such as Kit Carson, and military men, such as Zebulon Pike. Also includes timeline, very nice maps, and a mini-unit on what it was like to go “forward into the unknown,” among other features. Particularly useful is the orienteering feature on using a map.

Oregon Trail Education Resource Guide
This 158-page free download from the BLM is an excellent Oregon Trail resource! It begins with an excellent summary of the history of the Oregon Trail. Also included are discussions and activities covering the decision to stay or go, journal writing with blank journal pages, museum scavenger hunt that could be completed virtually, bison, wagons, word searches, word scrambles, quilt making, dramatic interpretation, pioneer music, and trail cooking with recipes. Cross-curricular lesson plan ideas, a trail glossary, and reading suggestions are in the back. Many pages could be used for notebooking.

Oregon Trail
282-page lesson plan with 34 lessons and dozens of helpful printables.

Pack Your Wagon
8-pg lesson plan from the BLM covering decision-making and critical thinking. What will you bring?

The Oregon Trail: An Education Resource Guide
Updated 48-page guide also from the BLM that includes maps and charts that will go perfectly in a notebook!

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Coloring Gallery
Very nice set of informational coloring pages that would be perfect for notebook. From BLM.

Journal Paper
Students can summarize their Oregon Trail investigation by writing what they know in journal form — just like the pioneers! Use this Oregon Trail Journal Lesson Plan if your student needs prompts to get started.

Parts of a Prairie Schooner
Labeled diagram great for notebook page. Also see back view.

Oregon Trail Map
Print landscape. Great for notebook! From the Bureau of Land Management.

The Oregon Trail
Outline map.

Oregon Trail Notebooking Pages
Oregon Trail & Stephen Meek notebooking pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

Ready for More?
Go West, Young Man: A Unit Study

Enjoy our other Westward Expansion units!