Oregon Trail Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Michelle Zimmerman

Michelle has taught 4th and 5th grade and has a Master's Degree in Elementary Education.

Have you ever heard of the Oregon Trail? Back in the 1800s, thousands of brave people followed this route across the country, riding in rickety wagons, in order to own their own land in Oregon. Let's explore the amazing journey taken by these settlers!

Why Move to Oregon?

In the 1830s, Oregon was not part of the United States yet. In fact, England and the United States were having a disagreement about which country was going to control that area. The American government thought that if more Americans lived there, it would be easier to make Oregon part of the United States. So the government decided to give away land for free to convince people to move west.

Many people thought it was a great opportunity, so even though the trip was going to be dangerous, they decided to move to Oregon to become their own boss on their own land. The Oregon Trail started in Missouri and was just about 2,000 miles; for most groups it took around five months to make it the whole way.

Oregon Trail route with modern highways shown
Oregon Trail

Leaving from Missouri

Travelers used a covered wagon pulled by oxen, horses, or mules. Everything they owned would be inside the wagon, and most people walked next to the wagon or rode a horse because the wagon ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. Before leaving on their journey, the settlers would meet up with other travelers in Missouri. They wanted to travel in a group for safety; they were concerned about attacks from Native Americans, accidents, and injuries. The group would also have a guide to show them the way. Together, they formed a wagon train, or line of wagons, when they set out. For safety at night, they would arrange the wagons in a large circle, with the people and animals on the inside.

Traveling on the Plains

The first part of the journey was across the plains, which are huge, flat, grassy places. Sometimes finding fresh water on the plains could be difficult, which was very dangerous for both the people and the animals. It could also be very hot, with few trees to provide any shade. Groups would even have to cross rivers or streams when there was no bridge. They would just have to take the animals and the wagons right through the water.

A wagon struggling to cross the river.
wagon fording a river

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