Thursday, March 29, 2012

Following the Oregon Trail

After studying the early explorers in history last year, we are now learning about American history. We spent several months on colonial history and the American Revolution, then read about Lewis and Clark. Peter read and enjoyed the book Seaman's Journal: On the Trail with Lewis and Clark, which is written from the perspective of the Newfoundland dog that accompanied the Corps of Discovery. Next, the boys will watch Ken Burn's documentary on the exploration. Following that we covered the gold rush and Oregon state history. It was kind of fun that on the day we read about the end of the Oregon Trail and the Father of Oregon, Dr. John McLoughlin, we happened to drive to Oregon City (the official end of the Oregon Trail) and drove by his historical home site. (We went to Oregon City to pick up our new dog, Danner.) Unfortunately, because we were in the city in the evening, we couldn't stop and go into any of the pioneer museums there, but because we had just finished our studies of the area the boys' short visit was very much enriched.

Fortuitously, our local home school group planned a field trip to a more local pioneer museum in The Dalles, a place that also claims to be the End of the Oregon Trail. The Discovery Center has exhibits on Native American history, Lewis and Clark, and pioneer history. Lewis and Clark traveled right through this region on the Columbia River. Some day I'll have to take the boys out to Astoria on the coast where the Corps of Discovery stayed for the winter before returning east.

Our visit to this museum was a bit too short to thoroughly absorb all the information on display (don't all museum visits tend to be that way?) but what we did see enhanced our understanding of what we had read.

In our reading, we had learned about mountain men, trappers and rendezvous so this display of their typical gear was interesting.

This was meant to depict the camping spot on the trail for the members of the Corps of Discovery.

The boys ran through the early Oregon state history displays, as boys are wont to do.

The main event for the visit was a planned project for the homeschool group. The museum had a clever way for the students to think through what it was like to be a pioneer on the Oregon Trail. The kids were divided into two groups, each representing a wagon train. Each group was appointed a Trail Master. Peter was head of one train and Sam was the leader of the other. They were given honorary straw hats. Other kids were given jobs for their group such as record keeper, animal herder, etc. Each team was given a set of dice and the rules for rolling them.

By rolling the dice and doing a little math on each question they were to determine the status of their wagon train.

The record keeper wrote down the results of each roll. The two teams compared their answers.

The idea was that the wagon train had just reached The Dalles after being on the Oregon Trail crossing the plains all summer. They still needed to pass the Cascade mountain range to continue west and reach the Willamette Valley, the promised land, where they would buy land and farm. If they arrived in The Dalles in August they would have plenty of time to get across the mountains.

After they determined the status of their wagon train, the number of people and animals, how much money they had, etc., they then had to explore which option would be most feasible for continuing west- rafting everything down the Columbia River or crossing Mount Hood on the Barlow Road, a toll road with many dangers.

More dice rolling determined how successful each option would be for the group.

Each group would decide which route they would take.

I thought this information was particularly interesting, especially considering the disdain some people hold for the county east of us. Wasco county at one time covered all the (original Oregon) territory from the Rocky Mountains to the Cascade Range!

At the end of the project, Sam and Peter, as wagon masters, reported on the success (or lack thereof) of their wagon trains.

I thought this project was well-done and informative. It was a good way for the students to think through some of the details of the dangers of traveling in the nineteenth century. My boys were severely disappointed though, that they were not physically loading a covered wagon and hitching up real live oxen to drive. They fully expected the museum to provide them with that kind of experience.

The museum director reported to us that he was conducting a class for a school in Louisiana via Skype following our project with him. Maybe the Discovery Center would do this for other homeschool groups in the country. If you are interested, it could be worth contacting them to find out.


  1. That looks like so much fun. We studied this earlier in the school year. I am subscribed to Discovery Education and find many helpful links and videos there, but none of it looks as appealing as what you have there at the end of the Oregon Trail. Nothing beats hands-on experience. Our town is rich in American Revolution history and we try to take advantage of every opportunity to enhance our lessons.

  2. We would so love to be able to tour some of those colonial areas. Fascinating, I think! Especially after I've studied it again. I got more out of teaching this year than I got out of my own schooling or previous homeschooling history with the older ones.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.