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A Unit Study on the Oregon Trail

There are so many different possibilities when doing a unit study on the westward movement in the United States. I tried covering it all in one unit and became overwhelmed with information. I then decided to break the subject down into smaller, more manageable units. Yes, studying this period in this way extends this historical era out over a longer period of time. But, I believe that the westward movement is such an important part of our country's heritage, and influenced so many of our ancestors' lives, that I believe it is well worth the extra time spent on it. By narrowing the subject down, it also makes it less stressful on the lesson planning aspect of the study.

This unit will specifically deal with The Oregon Trail. I'll try and be very specific when listing the general resources. My suggestion is that, just like in the game Oregon Trail, you first do activities concerned with the preparation for the trail. Then, use the Oregon Trail itself as a guideline of what you will cover next. Start at the beginning of the trail and follow along its route until the end in The Dalles, Oregon. Daily activities could then be based on the geographic location you "are" that day. There are several forts along the way which you could cover, there is the Whitman Mission, there are rivers to cross, landmarks to visit (such as Chimney Rock), etc.

Another subject, which I have not covered here, that should at least be mentioned in connection to the Oregon Trail are the Native Americans who lived in the areas that surrounded the Oregon Trail. The Trail adversely affected many Native Americans through loss of lands and disease. I plan on a separate unit on Native Americans to be published in the near future.


The Oregon Trail Game

Westward Ho! - An Activity Guide to the Wild West by Laurie Carlson

Pioneer Days - Discover the Past With Fun Projects, Games, Activities, and Recipes by David C. King

Frank Schaffer Publications produced a wonderful bulletin board set that is perfect for this unit study, if you can find it. Its called "Big Covered Wagon" and has 33 pieces to it. I obtained mine from my local teacher supply store for $7.95. The pieces it has includes one 50" x 23" covered wagon with pioneer family, 8 trunk name tags, 8 cowboy hat name tags, 8 sunbonnet name tags, 8 quilt name tags, plus a free resource guide with reproducible activities. Instead of using the name tags as name tags, I used them to write in the names and authors of books as we completed them.

Instructional Faire/TS Denison published a series of activity books called "Crossing America". One of the tiles is The Oregon Trail" (ISBN 1-56822-654-3). While these were written for grades 5-8, they are scaleable to other age/grade levels. (The other three titles in this series are: The Mississippi River, The Hudson River and Erie Canal, and The Sante Fe Trail.)

TS Denison's Time Traveler Series has an activity book entitle "US History: Westward Movement" (ISBN 0-513-02222-8). Originally written for grades 3 through 6, this is scaleable to other ages. However, for very young students, you need to be aware that this series focuses especially on thinking skills and may be beyond their development stages.

One of my favorite sets to use is the Hands-On-Heritage series by Edupress. Their activity book entitled "Frontier American Activity Book" (ISBN 1-56472-017-9) has a wealth of activities that would really brighten up this study. There are cooking activities, arts and crafts, review of historical facts; even directions for making a "fringe shirt" out of paper.

The PuzzleMaker is a great resource to use to generate worksheets for unit studies:

A good site for map outlines (blackline maps) for World and American history:

Teacher Created Materials' thematic unit series has an activity book entitled "Westward Ho" (ISBN 1-55734-282-2). It uses "Little House in the Big Woods" by Laura Ingalls Wilder and "Grasshopper Summer" by Ann Turner as its frame. These activity books are based on "across the curriculum" concepts and are available through most teacher supply stores. (As a side note I'll mention that TCM also has a large literature unit series - you may find many useful to this study.) TCM also offers activity books on Native Americans at both the primary and intermediate levels.

American Heroes (1735-1900) by Morrie Greenberg (ISBN 0-9622652-3-3)

American Adventures: True Stories From America's Past (1770-1870) is another book by Morrie Greenberg. (ISBN 0-9622652-1-7)

Kaleidoscope Kids Books now has another book out in its series entitle "Going West!" I've not seen this one myself except in advertisements. However, the other books that I have in this series have proven very helpful and interesting in other unit studies that I have done.

Unit Study Adventures by Amanda Bennett has a book called "Pioneers: Nature, Life & Times, and American Geography" which would be helpful with this unit. One of the most notable sections of Ms. Bennett's books are her vocabulary lists and her lists of people to do reports on. I've used both in my unit study of the Westward Movement and in a unit I did on explorers.

Dover Coloring Books has several selections that would be useful with this study:
Cowboys of the Old West
Exploration of North America
Favorite Wildflowers
50 Favorite Birds
Historic North American Forts
Indian Tribes of North America
Medicinal Plants
North American Dessert Life
Small Animals of North America
Western Pioneers

I have just two other resources that I would like to mention. One, as in my other units I mention using paper dolls for reenactments and simulations. Check Barnes and Nobles and amazon.com for the following the "American Pioneer Family". Also, there are "Cut and Assemble" kits where you assemble a building or town from punch-out or cut-out patterns in a book. I have the one called "A Western Frontier Town".

PREPARED LESSON PLANS FOR THE OREGON TRAIL (lesson plans, webquests, thinkquests, on-line worksheets, etc.):



A teacher's guide on the PBS website called In Search of the Oregon Trail

This site has enough info on it to create a unit study all by itself

The Oregon California Trails Association site dedicated to the Oregon Trail. This site also has links to trail diaries, other trails west, western history, newspaper articles, trail genealogy, etc.

Connecting Students site for the Oregon Trail

Emigrant Narratives and Biographies for the Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail Map Library

Website for the "End of the Oregon Trail" interpretive center

Teacher's Net resources on the Oregon Trail

Places to visit on the Oregon Trail

This site has multiple links for various areas/places to visit on the Oregon Trail

Details 22 places to visit on the Oregon Trail

Illustrations of the Oregon Trail by Frederick Remington, N.C. Wyeth, and Thomas Hart Benton

The World Wide School's transcription of a book describing a man's 1846 crossing of the Oregon Trail.

The American West: The Oregon Trail

MSN Encarta's entry on the Oregon Trail. There are three pieces of media here to incorporate into a unit study on the Trail.

This site has topographical maps on the Oregon Trail available for purchase.

Kansas on the Oregon Trail

The Applegate trail, the southern route of the Oregon Trail

Fish and wildlife along the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail via Kansas

Oregon Trail Travelers: A Reenactment Company

Pop up books on the Oregon Trail were designed and made by students

The national Oregon/California Trail site

Fantastic Facts about the Oregon Trail including the Wind Driven Wagon and the $100 drink of water

From Chimney Rock to Fort Laramie

Slavery and the Oregon Territory

Discovers and Explorers of the Oregon Trail

Independence Rock

Transcription of the Emigrant's Guide from 1845

Historic Wagon Trails

Donner Online (the Donner party)

Oregonkids.com site on the Oregon Trial

The National Park website for the Whitman Mission

Access Idaho - Just for Kids

Oregon Facts for School Reports


This can be a really fun unit study. To add to the dynamics of this unit, I suggest you set up a corner or space that will be you "wagon" or "campfire". I mentioned in the general resource section a bulletin board set by Frank Schaffer publications. This could add atmosphere... or you could design your own.

Make a pretend campfire out of empty paper towel tubes that have been painted brown or covered with brown construction paper. These are your logs. For the fire, use orange and red crepe paper. Arrange these to look like an authentic campfire.

Storytime/Reading - Sit on the floor around your imaginary campfire to read your stories. You could add pillows covered with an Indian blanket or pretend that they are "saddles".

Even for those of us that don't live near the Oregon Trail or "out west" we can still come up with some good fieldtrip ideas. How about taking a trip to a stable to see how horses are cared for. Another idea would be to visit a cattle farm or dairy to see how cows are cared for - or milked - or butchered.

Hunting: avoid using a real gun and design a sling shot and see how many "antelope" you hunter can bring down by setting up targets for them to knock over. Remind the children that hunting had to be one the main sources of food because there was no way that the pioneers could have carried enough provisions to make it all the way across the trail otherwise. Some of these families had large numbers of children or extended family. Or they were traveling in family groups or with hired hands... all of which had to eat at least two meals a day to stay healthy and try to avoid the diseases that decimated many pioneers.

Try your hand at making jerky or hardtack. The books listing under general resources have modernized recipes for these old-time necessities.

Pioneer Cooking:

Diary/Journal Activity - Pretend you are homesteading land. [See http://www.csusm.edu/nadp/ahomeste.htm for a brief explanation of the Homestead Act.] The writing activities could be daily or based on whatever craft or activity you are doing at the time.

Mapping Activity - Take a map of the US (modern or not) and map the Oregon Trail. You can do this with pins, writing utensils, string, flags, etc. You can do this all in one day, or take time and mark as you go in your study. [Note: a source for map outlines http://www.for.nau.edu/~alew/basemaps.html ]


There are many good books from this era and almost any book on the westward movement will be useful to this unit study. Below are some that I've either used or have on my "want to acquire list". Don't forget to use your Book List notebook to minimize duplication in your library and to remember books that you are looking for. [Note: I gave a full explanation of this tool in my St. Valentine's Day unit study located at:


Also, don't forget to check the new and used bookstores in your area, flea market used book stalls, and of course the local library system.

I've mentioned videos in the past and there are several available specifically on The Oregon Trail and the westward movement in the US. You might also want to look at those old cowboy flicks - some of them are actually quite entertaining and get the kids in the mood.

This site has a list of children's books on Oregon

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple by Karen Cushman
Westward Ho! - The Story of the Pioneers (Landmark Books) by Lucille Recht Penner
Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie - The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell in the Dear America Series
Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen
Daily Life in a Covered Wagon by Paul Erickson
If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon by Ellen Levine
A Frontier Fort on the Oregon Trail by Scott Steedman
How Would You Survive in the American West by Jacqueline Morley
Pioneer Girl - Growing Up on the Prairie by Andrea Warren
The Pioneers Go West (Landmark Books) by George Stewart
Wagons West! By Roy Gerrard


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