Lesson Plans: Grades K-2

If You Were a Pioneer on the Oregon Trail

Created October 5, 2010


The Lesson


If You Were a Pioneer on the Oregon Trail: Pioneer Reenactment

Pioneer Reenactment

Credit: Courtesy of The National Archives

A 2,000-mile trek across a continent—with no idea what awaits you on the other side. Tell your students to put on their traveling shoes and prepare for the journey of their lives!

In this lesson, students compare imagined travel experiences of their own with the actual experiences of 19th-century pioneers. After creating, as a class, oral stories about contemporary cross-country journeys, students learn about the experiences of the emigrants who traveled on the Oregon Trail. They then create works of historical fiction in the form of picture books, drawing upon the information they have learned.

Guiding Questions

What was it like to travel west on the Oregon Trail? How has the experience of travel changed over the course of the last 150 years?

Learning Objectives

  • Learn about the pioneer experience on the Oregon Trail.
  • Compared and contrasted modern day travel experiences with those of the 19th century.
  • Synthesized historical data through a creative project.

Preparation Instructions

  • Before the lesson, explore what students already know about pioneers. Who were they? With what period in history are they associated? Where did they come from? Where did they go, and why? For background information, visit the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Oregon Trail.
  • Explain to students that they are now going to imagine themselves as modern-day pioneers. On a map of the United States, show students a state far away from their home state.
  • Tell students to imagine that they are going to move to this distant state one month from now. Have students brainstorm a list of questions about the trip (e.g., How will I get there? With whom will I travel? How long will it take to get there? What can I take with me? How will I feel about going on this trip?). Compile all of their questions in a master list; save the list so students may refer to it later.
  • In round-robin fashion, with each student contributing a sentence, have the class create a story about their imagined cross-country trip. If a student gets stuck for ideas, you may prompt them with a question from the master list of questions for inspiration. Write the story in large print on chart paper so that you can refer to it later.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Setting the Scene

Explain to students that they are now going to learn about the experiences of people who really did move across the country—the pioneers who traveled west on the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. Show them a map of the route the emigrants traveled, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Oregon Trail. Click on Historic Sites on the Trail to view the entire route, then click on each state for a close-up view.

In order to give students a feeling for the period of history that they are about to enter, you may also wish to show them some photographic images. In addition to images included on The Oregon Trail website, you can search for photographs related to the Oregon Trail via the online National Archives Catalog.

If you have limited computer access in your classroom, you may want to print out some photographs to distribute to students. As students view each image, ask them what they notice about details such as people, clothing, transportation and setting. What does each photograph reveal about the experiences of the pioneers who traveled west on the Oregon Trail?

Activity 2. Traveling on the Oregon Trail

Using the students' questions (see "Preparation Instructions") as a starting point, describe the experiences of the 19th-century emigrants who traveled on the Oregon Trail. You can research this information ahead of time using the Oregon Trail website. Click on Jumping Off to access useful and entertaining information about the following topics:

  • "Jumping Off Cities" lists the places where emigrants, many of whom initially traveled the Missouri River by steamship, would "jump off" before the river made a turn to the north.
  • Waiting tells how thousands of pioneers delayed their journeys until the grass (necessary for feeding their animals along the way) had started to grow.
  • Supplies describes the amount of food a family would need in order to survive on the Trail.
  • Wagons offers a detailed description of the farm wagons that most emigrants used for the westward journey.
  • Congestion describes the traffic jams that delayed the start of the pioneers' journeys.
  • Overpacking recounts how emigrants would simply throw things off their wagons when they realized they had brought along too much for their journeys.

"All About the Oregon Trail" also offers detailed information on the following topics:

  • The Route West describes the 2,000-mile journey across the country.
  • Power explains why emigrants chose mules or oxen to pull their wagons.
  • Hardships describes some of the physical risks of the journey, such as fatigue, accidents, storms, disease, and dangerous river crossings.
  • Camping documents the daily routine of trail life.
  • Buffalo describes the emigrants' encounters with herds of buffalo along the Trail.
  • Native Americans recounts both friendly and unfriendly meetings with Native American people.

Finally, "Fantastic Facts about the Oregon Trail" contains a wealth of odd tidbits that are bound to appeal to young imaginations. Each of these sections also includes photographs that can be shared with the class.

For a narrative account, you may wish to read Westward Ho with Ollie Ox!, by Melanie Richardson Dundy (South Beach, OR: MDCT Publishing, 1999), a picture book written for 4-8 year olds.

For first-hand accounts of the experiences of some of the pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail, visit the Trail Archive section of the Oregon Trail website. Here you can access a selection of diaries, letters and memoirs. Excerpts from Harriet Scott Palmer's memoir, Catherine Sager Pringle's diary, or the journals of Narcissa Whitman are likely to be particularly fascinating to young children. As you read the excerpts together, you may ask students to note the similarities and differences in these first-hand accounts.

After students have learned about pioneers' real-life experiences of traveling on the Oregon Trail, have them compare these experiences to those they imagined in the travel story they created as a class (see "Preparing to Teach"). In what ways were their experiences similar? In what ways were they different? Would students have wanted to travel as pioneers on the Oregon Trail? Why or why not?

Activity 3. Putting It All Together

Have older students write a story about the experiences of a 19th century family traveling on the Oregon Trail. Teachers of younger students (K-1) may wish to have the class create one story together, with each student contributing one sentence (as in Step 1). Each student may write a sentence on a sheet of paper and illustrate it; these pages may then be put together to form a complete picture book. Teachers of older students (grade 2) may wish to have students write and illustrate stories individually.

Extending The Lesson

Based on pictures and descriptions available through The Oregon Trail website, have students work in groups to create dioramas depicting events that could have happened along the Oregon Trail. Students may wish to use their own Oregon Trail stories for inspiration.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Analysis
  • Compare and contrast
  • Creative writing
  • Critical thinking
  • Historical analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Visual art analysis
  • Writing