The Real Story That Inspired The Oregon Trail Video Game

Many millennials have a fascination with the Oregon Trail thanks to a game series based on the real-world mass migration of pioneers across 2,170 miles between 1843 to 1860.

The Oregon Trail puts players in command of loading a wagon with supplies, people, and then setting out along the a trail across the midwest. Many schools had this game loaded onto their computers because it was a good history lesson and provided problem solving challenges. Players had to overcome challenges that randomly generate along the journey. This often resulted in a lose of supplies, people, and total failure.

In this regard, the game draws upon the real history of the Oregon Trail.

One out of every ten people died on the Oregon Trail. So the nearly 500,000 people who made the trip over 17 years did not go without great risk. However, playing the game didn’t entirely capture what would motivate people to take such great personal risk.

Here is the story of why they went West and why their stories matter.

Why They Headed West

According to journals written by those who rode the trails, the reason for making such a dangerous journey was to escape the looming conflict that would turn into the Civil War, the cholera epidemic, and poor economic conditions.

There were other reasons, such as the Federal Government passing the Oregon Donation Land Act, which made 2.5 million acres of land in Oregon available to those who could claim it and were willing to provide upkeep to the land. The spoils of these lands would lead many to new prosperity and a better way of life.

Missing Feature: Native People

In many respects, the game glamorized the pioneers who loaded up their gleaming white wagons to head west and explore the unexplored! But there were already people in these lands.

The desire to head west and claim new land came at the cost of the Native Tribes, who believed they held the right to the lands they had maintained for centuries and relied on for survival. 

A great culture clash followed. As non-native people flowed into the area, lands were claimed and developed, and tribes living in many areas were forced out, resulting in conflict, and sometimes death.

However, many pioneers did learn from Native Tribes and there are stories of mutual sharing. Treaties were made and reservations were established, but there remain disagreements about land rights and fights to restore tribal lands.

What The Game Got Wrong

“You died of dysentery” has become a popular meme in popular culture thanks to the Oregon Trail game. However, most people likely died of cholera, although the symptoms and way it spreads are similar – drinking contaminated water.

Accident related deaths were also more common than illness. Falling off the wagon, having clothing catch in wheels and wearers being crushed, and gun accidents were common.

What about the types of people who headed out on trails? In the game, you chose to play as a farmer, lawyer, or shopkeeper. But it were laborers who mostly took the risks of travel. A banker or lawyer would be well-off and wouldn’t see much value in risking their lives to help found a new land.

There is also the myth that the trails were lonely, with days of never seeing another person. This would not have true. Rather, it would have been more likely that travelers would come across another wagon every mile or so

Just Play the Game

The history of the actual Oregon Trail has quite a few unknowns other than the journals and government records that have survived the more than one hundred years since the events took place. 

If you want to learn more about the Oregon Trail, play the game, have a good time, then head over to Goodreads to find out more about what actually took place.