The Oregon Trail

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12749

When you travel from city to city, you probably take a highway with a name like, "Route 66." Maybe you pack a lunch if it's a long trip. Pioneers had dirt roads and packed more than lunch! Try it out!


United States

learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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What happens when a group of people outgrows a place? For example, what does a family do when they outgrow their home? Has that happened to your family?

At some point in your life, you may have had to move to a new location because your space was too crowded.

It could have been a big move, such as moving to a new home as your family grew, or it could have been moving to a new space on the playground because the space you were playing in was too crowded. This is what began to happen in the United States in the 1800s. After America gained its independence from Great Britain, more people began moving to the United States. The new nation soon grew from a few small colonies to several states. The East Coast became very crowded as more and more immigrants came from Europe. To solve the problem of overcrowding on the East Coast, people began moving west.

Many people used the Oregon Trail to travel west. The trail was called the Oregon Trail because it ended in the present-day state of Oregon. The Oregon Trail was a dirt road that began in Independence, Missouri, and stretched over 2,000 miles to Oregon City, Oregon. From 1841 to 1869, it is estimated that more than 300,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail to move out west.

Look at the map of the United States below. Find the states of Missouri and Oregon. Find the answers by clicking on the white circles.

  • How far apart are those states?
  • Do you think the journey to move out west would have been easy?

Discuss your responses with your teacher or parent.

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Families would travel the Oregon Trail together. Most families traveled by wagons that were pulled by oxen. It took the average family five to six months to travel the entire Oregon Trail. Oftentimes, families would travel in large groups with other families, called "caravans."

The journey was not an easy one. About 10% of the people who traveled the Oregon Trail did not make it to Oregon City. The biggest threat to travelers was disease. Many died from cholera, small pox, flu, and the measles, which spread quickly across caravans. Other dangers travelers faced included being run over by oxen or a wagon wheel when walking alongside a wagon, and drowning when the wagons attempted to cross a river. When people died, they were buried in the trail. As the wagons and animals ran over the graves, it packed down the dirt. This helped to prevent animals from digging up the graves because it reduced the smell of decaying flesh.

The Oregon Trail remained the most popular method for moving west until 1869 when the Transcontinental Railroad opened. The railroad provided a safer, faster option for families. The image below shows what the Oregon Trail looks like today. You can still the marks from the wagon wheels:

Oregon Trail Lower Snake River District

Image by the US Bureau of Land Management is in the public domain.

The Oregon Trail is an important part of westward expansion in the United States. It enabled the United States to grow by allowing thousands of people to move to the Western Territory, where they established homes, farms, and businesses. The population size of Oregon grew so much that it officially became a state in 1859.

Travel on to the Got It? section to play a game that will teach you more about life on the Oregon Trail.

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