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Oregon trail diary (5-11)

Oregon trail diary (5-11)

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Written by Hunter   
Tuesday, 24 March 2009 13:04

oregon trail

Barbara Watson, Skyline High School, Idaho Falls, ID


Appropriate for grades 5-11.

OVERVIEW: As America expanded across the continent, her settlement of the west by the pioneers was one of the major accomplishments of the 19th century. As westerners, my students especially need to appreciate the hardships their ancestors endured as they traveled across the plains to reach their various destinations. This diary simulation provides dual opportunities for students to write their own historical fiction as well as to gain a deeper understanding of the various landmarks and trails of the Oregon Trail.

The students come into come into class the day they begin their western unit, and the day's destination is already on the board; they begin writing as soon as the tardy bell rings. This activity continues throughout the entire western unit so that students may add details from their studies to their own diaries for added realism.

Throughout this unit, the bulletin board should contain a U.S. map with all the various western trails marked on it. Each day a small picture of a Conestoga wagon can be moved to that day's destination along the Oregon Trail. Then around the map, pictures of the different landmarks on the Oregon Trail as well as any other pictures of pioneers moving could be displayed. This all helps the students get a feel for the time and place that they are writing about.

ACTIVITIES: Announce to the students that they are about to move west and will be keeping a diary about their adventures. They must do the following before the next class day:

a) Create a new identity for themselves. This would include an old-fashioned name, age, occupation, spouse, and family (minimum of two children and possibly grandparents, cousins, uncles or aunts living with them). Having a spouse is required because most adults were married then.

b) Find or make some kind of book to write in and some type of ink to write with. One idea is to "age" paper by wadding it up, dipping it in tea or coffee, and once dry, binding it in some manner.


DECISION TO MOVE. Husband decides to move to Oregon (with or without the wife's advice). Wife obeys and pregnancy or illness is no excuse not to go or to postpone the trip.

INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI. Meet at the southeast corner of Courthouse Square and wait until enough wagons show up to form a wagon train. Tell what you brought with you (supplies, heirlooms, animals) as well as what the town looks and feels like.

FIRST NIGHT--CROSSED BLUE RIVER. Describe your first day of travel by wagon plus crossing a river. Camp near the flour mills run by river power, and buy flour from either Blue Mill or Fitzhugh Mill. Someone on your wagon train is bitten by a rattle snake and dies hours later.

CROSSED KANSAS RIVER. Used the Pappan Ferry run by two brothers who used two canoes with poles to carry the wagons over. They coiled a rope around a tree to lower the boat into the water. The river was 200 yards wide, rapid and deep current. Animals swam, and it cost $4/wagon, .25/mule, .10/man. One of your children falls off the wagon and is swept away by the current and drowns.

FORT KEARNY. Mail letters and buy supplies.

ASH HOLLOW. This is the first steep grade you've encountered, and it was so scary that people did not even talk for the last 2 miles. You lost several hours holding the wagons back with ropes (to keep them from racing down the canyon), so you decide to camp in the grove of ash trees at the bottom of the canyon.

COURTHOUSE ROCK. You passed a huge rock that looked like a castle or jail. It was all alone on the prairie and you've been watching it for days. The ground has changed from lush green to browns and tans. In fact, it is so dry that your lips and nose are cracked and parched, but this evening relief came with a thunderstorm which lit up the sky with all the lightning. Your animals became frightened, and you have to calm them down.

CHIMNEY ROCK. You passed a tall rock formation out in the middle of the plains. It is hot and you're bothered by the boils on the back of your unwashed neck.

SCOTT'S BLUFF. On the south bank of the Platte River, you pass a high cliff. There is no wood and you're forced the use buffalo chips to make your fire (it does give a distinctive taste to the food).

FORT LARAMIE. This Mexican-style fort made of adobe seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere. There is water on two sides. You buy supplies.

INDEPENDENCE ROCK. It's the Fourth of July and you spend the next couple of days celebrating around this huge granite rock that is 3-4 acres in size and looks like a giant whale. You celebrate independence with patriotic singing, picnic lunches, and carving your name on the rock.

SWEETWATER RIVER CROSSING. You camp near the river because it is a lush area with good water and grass for the animals. Indians attack this evening, and while your wagon train fought them off, several friends died.

SOUTH PASS. Today you crossed the Continental Divide, although it was so gradual a climb that you were unaware at the time. This pass is only 3/4 of a mile in parts, but it marks the beginning of the Oregon Territory.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS. You passed this natural phenomenon but did not want to camp there. It is an opening in rock where hot mineral water shoots out and emits a noise like a high pressure steamboat whistle (though not very loud). The water is hot, pungent, and had a disagreeable metallic taste to it. One of your children burned his/her tongue trying to drink it.

SODA SPRINGS. You've decided to camp here in a cedar grove where there are round openings several feet in diameter. One hole contains a natural soda water and you baked several batched of bread with the water you don't have the use yeast. The other hole contains water that is like beer. Several men drank too much of it and got giddy.

FORT HALL. Although this isn't the nicest fort you've stopped at, it does sell fresh vegetables, which you've not had since the trip began. You buy supplies, but they're expensive: sugar - .50/pint; coffee - .50/pint; flour - .25/pint; rice - .33/pint.

FORT BOISE. You've been traveling along the Snake River plain and you finally see a lot of trees in this valley where you decide the camp for the night.

VALLEY OF GRANDE RONDE. You're almost there and now you're in a beautifully lush valley with berries everywhere. You spend several days picking fruit and resting.

BARLOW ROAD. You decide to use the toll road rather than raft down the Columbia River. Even the road, though, is dangerous as it plunges down cliffs, so you have to slow your wagon by wrapping rope around trees to gently guide it down the steep incline. You can see Mount Hood in the distance, and some decide to stay here.

WILLAMETTE VALLEY. You've reached your destination and it's as beautiful as you'd heard.

RESOURCES/MATERIALS NEEDED: Any history book about the Oregon Trail.

TYING IT ALL TOGETHER: The overall goal is to get the students to write creatively and gain empathy with the early pioneers.

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