Western Expansion for Kids - The Oregon Trail, Life on the Wagon Trains Illustration

Western Expansion for Kids - The Oregon Trail

For Kids: Why did Americans want to travel 2,000 miles to settle in the West? Many went to escape the crowding and poverty of the cities of the East. Others went to escape from crimes or creditors. Some wanted land of their own to farm, and the Homestead Act made that possible. Some received letters from friends or family who had moved west, encouraging them to join them on the frontier. Whatever the reason, and in spite of the dangers from illness, exhaustion, bad weather, snake bites, dirt, dust, robbers and rough terrain, many thousands of Americans did go west. Wagons hauled goods, but people had to walk 2,000 miles. Faced with the hardships of the trail, some people gave up and went back home.

The Oregon Trail was an actual path. By 1843, when the first large wagon train was organized, a route existed across the continent from Independence, Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. It was an actual trail, mostly connected, created by Indians and trappers. The period 1843-1855 saw the heaviest traffic on the Oregon Trail. As wagons headed west, this trail became more defined. In places, the path became 6-10 feet deep and 50-100 feet wide.

What was a wagon train? A wagon train was a group of covered wagons that traveled together, headed west, in a straight line. There was a wagon master, called a captain, who was in charge. At night, the captain would direct the wagons to form a circle for protection from bandits and other dangers. The captain decided when the wagon train would break for the night and where the train would cross a river. If disagreements between people broke out, the captain acted as judge. Wagon trains also had scouts who knew the routes and rode ahead on horseback to watch out for dangers. Scouts assisted the captain.

How did you find a wagon train to join?  Most wagon trains left from Missouri or Iowa. Wagon trains were businesses. They took reservations. People booked passage, but had to purchase their own supplies including oxen and wagons. Many pioneers arrived in Missouri or Iowa in the fall, spent the winter preparing for the trip, and left with a wagon train in the spring. Some wagon trains were organized by people from the same town or area.

Wagons:  Most pioneers purchased modified or manufactured wagons designed for the trip. Some had built-in features like sleeping berths and false floors over large storage areas. Some wagons were very simple. Some families had more than one wagon. Travelers were warned not to bring too much. But many people packed so much that oxen died and wagons broke from the weight. Possessions like cooking stoves, pianos, organs, rugs, grandfather clocks, and even tools had to be abandoned on the trail.

What did they take with them?  A wagon held about 2,000 pounds of goods. People were advised to carry enough food to feed their individual families for at least 5 months. Wagons held dried food and staples like flour, sugar, a substance similar to baking soda, coffee, tea, cornmeal, bacon, crackers, dried meats, dried fruits, dried beans, split peas, oatmeal, vinegar, salt port, potatoes, rice, yeast, salt, and a barrel of water. They made their own clothes so they brought needles, thread, pins, scissors, and sometimes even cloth and leather. They had to make their own repairs so they brought saws, nails, knives, hammers, shovels and string. Tools were important but heavy, so they had to be carefully selected.

Food:  The pioneers created recipes to cook over a campfire. Baking bread was a daily activity. Bacon was the second most popular food item on the trail. The most common meat was probably squirrel. Some pioneers took a cow with them, so they would have fresh milk. Coffee cake was invented on the trail. It was made with mostly dried fruit.

Clothes: Clothes had to last. The clothing the pioneers bought with them was all they had to wear, unless they could buy or trade for clothes along the trail. Between dust, dirt, sweat, rips and tears, clothing took quite a beating. As one piece of clothing wore out, it was used to patch other pieces, make quilts, or remake into children's clothing. After traveling 2,000 miles, everyday clothing was typically worn out. On the trail: 

  • The pioneers wore sturdy thick boots, usually make of leather. Towards the end of trail, shoes that were worn out were replaced with rags.
  • Women and girls wore everyday dresses made of calico, a type of cotton print with an allover design. Dresses had narrow collars, fitted bodices that buttoned up the front, with attached full sleeves, and long attached full pleated skirts. Aprons were worn over dresses to protect their dresses and to carry items such as wood or buffalo chips.
  • Men and boys wore pants, vests over calico shirts, and coats of wool or leather.
  • Hats were part of every outfit to protect the pioneers from the weather and the dust. Men's hats were wide-brimmed and made of straw or leather. Women wore cotton sunbonnets.
  • Clothes that started out new or clean soon had ground in dirt and dust. It was hard to clean clothes on the trail.

School & Chores: There was little time for schooling. Everyone helped with chores.

Toys and Games: Kids had to leave their toys and friends behind. But they created new games. One of their favorites was buffalo turd toss. Kids tossed turds (dried buffalo poop) like frisbees. They soon learned that large flat turds broke apart too easily and burned too rapidly. When seeking turds for firewood or for their game, they looked for smaller, thicker, round turds. These turds burned longer, without odor, and were perfect for cooking dinner. Until they reached the Rocky Mountains, buffalo turds were everywhere. 

How far did a wagon train travel in one day? They started before dawn, after breakfast. They stopped for an hour or two at lunchtime. They continued on until late afternoon. If it was muddy, they might spend the entire day to travel one mile. If the ground was dry or solid, they might move forward as many as 5 or 10 miles. (Today, by car, we would travel the same distance in about an hour.)  At night, inside the circle, the women fixed dinner. The men took care of the livestock. Kids got a chance to play. After supper, they might sing songs or dance. It was important to keep their spirits up. But sometimes all they wanted to do was sleep. They slept inside the circle in good weather and under their wagons in bad weather. Some people even slept inside their wagon, especially as food supplies dwindled, leaving more room inside. In the morning, it all started over again. This continued day after day for months.

Stopovers: They did take a break now and then. Wagons trains would stop occasionally by a river or a spring for two days, to give people time to wash clothes and repair wagons, tents, and tools. These were very necessary stops. People needed time to regroup and recover, and to remember why they were risking their lives to head west.

Life on the Oregon Trail (pbs)

Fun with Buffalo dung - it's not just for firewood anymore

Oregon Trail for Kids (wartgames)

For Teachers

Free Lesson Plans, Classroom Activities, Simulations