Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

On the Oregon Trail

Created September 24, 2010


The Lesson


In this lesson, students work with primary documents and latter-day photographs to recapture the experience of traveling on the Oregon Trail.

Guiding Questions

  • What was it like to travel West on the Oregon Trail?

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about the pioneer experience on the Oregon Trail. 
  • To evaluate a historical re-enactment in light of documentary evidence. 
  • To synthesize historical data through creative writing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What was it like to travel West on the Oregon Trail?

Begin by asking students to imagine that they are producing a movie on the Oregon Trail. Working in groups, they will write a scene for the movie that is historically accurate and based on the kinds of experiences emigrants actually encountered on their way West. For background on these experiences, have students read a selection of the following memoirs, available through EDSITEment Websites:

Activity 2. Review pictures on reenactment of the trek West

As a follow up to their reading, give each group a set of pictures showing a reenactment of the trek West on the Oregon Trail. The pictures below are available through EDSITEment at The Digital Classroom website. (Click picture for larger image.)

 Oregon Trail re-enactmentOregon Trail re-enactment
Oregon Trail re-enactmentOregon Trail re-enactment
Activity 3. Describe preparations, hardships and daily life

Ask students to examine the pictures in light of their reading. For additional insight, have students visit The Oregon Trail website on EDSITEment, focusing on the pages listed below. (You can also provide print-outs of these pages in classrooms with limited Internet access.)

  • Jumping Off: describes preparations for the 2,000 mile journey.
  • Power: explains why emigrants chose mules or oxen to pull their wagons.
  • Hardships: describes the physical risks of the journey -- fatigue, accidents, storms, disease, and dangerous river crossings.
  • Camping: documents the daily routine of trail life.
Activity 4. Assume filmaker's role

Invite students to comment on this reenactment in their role as imaginary filmmakers. How does it compare to the scene they have in mind? Have each group suggest additional details that would accurately represent the emigrants' historical experience. Students might note, for example:

  • The emigrants traveled in large caravans that stretched for miles over the plains.
  • Most emigrants walked alongside their wagons, which were so packed with provisions that there was little room left inside.
  • Unlike the 49er's, who were mainly men, the pioneers of the Oregon Trail traveled in family groups, including many women and children.
  • Though many emigrants used mules like those shown in the pictures, records suggest that many more relied on oxen to pull their wagons across the plains.
  • Emigrants typically took along herds of cattle to stock the farms they dreamed of starting in the Oregon Territory.
  • Descriptions of the pioneers suggest that their wagons were practically bulging with provisions for the journey and furnishings for their Oregon homes.
  • Descriptions of the great immigration also suggest that the trail itself was littered with broken equipment, discarded items, and all the other junk that thousands of travelers would typically leave in their wake.
Activity 5. Script a scene depicting an imaginary incident

Encourage students to make imaginative use of this research as they work together in their groups to script a scene depicting an incident that could have occurred on the Oregon Trail. To provide them with a framework for their collaboration, create a worksheet based on the outline headings below. (For more technical filmscripting guidelines, visit the Cinema exhibit at the Learner.Org website on EDSITEment.)

  • Location: Describe where your scene takes place. (Students can view modern-day pictures of "Historic Sites along the Trail" at The Oregon Trail website. For a more historical view, The Digital Classroom provides access to photographs taken by William Henry Jackson in 1870: Heading west from the North Platte River in Wyoming; approaching Independence Rock; and traveling the plains along the Sweetwater River.)
  • Casting: Describe the characters who appear in your scene and the roles they play -- mother, father, children, warrior, caravan leader, etc. -- including "extras" who help provide a backdrop for the action.
  • Props: Describe the wagons, animals, and other items that a filmmaker would need to stage your scene.
  • Action: Describe what happens in your scene, including any "special effects" and dialogue.
Activity 6. Presentation

Conclude the lesson by having each group "pitch" its scene to the class, as at a Hollywood production meeting. This could involve preparing storyboards for the scene's establishing shots and acting out parts of the action. Follow each presentation with a class critique of the scene's historical accuracy focusing both on elements that reflect the real experience of pioneers on the Oregon Trail and elements that take liberties with the historical record.

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

1 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Analysis
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Research
  • Role-playing/Performance
  • Using archival documents
  • Writing