Life on the Oregon Trail?

When I taught fourth grade in Portland Oregon–that was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth–we had a unit on Westward Expansion. A lot of schools teach about pioneers settling the West in fourth, fifth or sixth grade. We used Mary Jane Carr’s Children of the Covered Wagon as a read-aloud. It was a good match for the unit. (If you haven’t read it, you can still find it in some libraries. I recently tracked down an old copy on line.)

Our understanding of the perspective of Native American People has changed since the book was written. But Carr is remarkably free of some of the errors to be found in social studies and history books of a few decades ago.

I thought it would be fun to form an imaginary wagon train going West. We could mark our progress on the Oregon Trail as we read the book. And we could tie our study in with English and language arts by keeping journals where we made up events that happened to us along the way. Everybody had to make up an identity and stick with it for the trip West.

A Thousand Wagon Trains Head West

We had a whole wagon train full of single people. No way anybody was going to admit they’d want to be married, especially with somebody else in the class! Being married and having a family was too great a stretch of the imagination.

A lot of the girls were going West to be school teachers or doctors. Some were adventurers. Boys were going to be doctors, farmers, cowboys, or set up a business.

The journals were hardest. A typical journal entry was, “Not much happened today. Just more grass and hills to look at,” or heroic descriptions of battles with Native Tribes. We had to put a limit to attacks by Native People—especially since huge stretches passed through country that was not well populated.  Even then, we knew that attacks were few and far between. And we had to decide what rivers we were going to cross and when or how many times you could step on a rattlesnake and still live.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have some of the wonderful websites available today to help us understand life on the trail.

It was a lot of fun in spite of all our difficulties. We learned a lot about writing, imagination, plausibility and some of the grimmer realities of life on the trail. As hard as it was making up interesting things to happen along the way, I think we all agreed we got off easy. We didn’t have nearly as much to deal with as those who followed wagon trails to Oregon, Washington, and California!

All this is to say that I was really delighted when Jon Dunlap, fourth-fifth grade teacher at Rivendell School, Arlington, Virginia wanted to read The Alabaster Box to his class this spring. I’ll have more to say about that next post.