Three Things The Oregon Trail Game Didn’t Teach You about the Pioneers

July 20, 2018  - by 
The Oregon Trail computer game - only 90s kids will remember

The Oregon Trail—fording a river at the age of 10, hunting buffalo to extinction, falling prey to one of five specific diseases, and something “only 90s kids will remember.” Far more than just a remembrance of America’s early pioneers, The Oregon Trail is a computer game that was released by the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium in 1974. Surprisingly, the game had a far wider reach than one generation. In fact, The Oregon Trail is one of the best-known and best-loved video games of all time. Over 10 years, the game sold over 65 million copies, and in 2016, it was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame.

As an educational tool, The Oregon Trail teaches students about the westward journey of pioneers in a lighthearted way. Due to the game’s limitations, however, it leaves a great deal out. Read on to discover three Oregon Trail facts you didn’t learn while playing the video game.

1. Pioneer Companies Usually Consisted of More than One Family

The Oregon Trail video game didn't teach you all the facts!

The Oregon Trail puts you in charge of a family of five and then sends you off to survive the frontier alone. This situation of a single pioneer family would have been rare, with the exception of eventual homesteaders, who still lived in a relative proximity of growing number of neighboring homesteaders. Realizing the many dangers of crossing the plains, most pioneers elected to travel together.

Travelers leaving from Independence, Missouri, on the actual Oregon Trail were typically organized into caravans called “companies” or “wagon trains.” These groups could be over a hundred wagons long, although most of the time they consisted of 20 to 40 wagons, a number that was far more manageable.

2. Fording Rivers Was Tricky on the Oregon Trail

Players of The Oregon Trail will remember that encountering a river was risky. Paying for the ferry was expensive—but trying to ford it yourself could result in the loss of valuable supplies or party members. Still, most players agonized over the choice for less than a minute.

While fording rivers in The Oregon Trail game is a quick decision, that wasn’t the case for the pioneers. They faced the same challenge: pay the toll for a ferry or find another way across—and maybe lose your life, your livelihood, or your family in the process. Pioneers who attempted to cross rivers on their own spent a great deal of time planning and preparing.

The Oregon Trail game missed some of the oregon trail facts.

To cross, some pioneers would caulk their wagons, dismantle them, and use the wagon box as a makeshift boat. Caulking and self-ferrying was not preferred, as it was slow and arduous. Others would lash felled trees together to make a raft, although this was one of the most dangerous options a family could take. These attempts at fording rivers cost the lives of many pioneers and their livestock.

3. From Horses to Pioneer Handcarts

The Oregon Trail video game didn't teach you all the facts!

Players starting their journey in The Oregon Trail know how important it is to purchase multiple yokes of oxen. This importance, on its own, is accurate; oxen were the favored animals for the journey west. They were hardy and strong and could graze along the trail. However, not everyone had a wagon with teams of oxen. As more travelers flocked westward, the demand for pioneer provisions increased; in some cases, oxen became scarce.

Many groups substituted horses, mules, or even cows for the required wagon teams. Pioneers that came from poorer backgrounds, however, could not afford the required animals or wagons. These pioneers used lighter, cheaper handcarts instead of covered wagons. While handcarts were cheaper, they allowed less space for possessions and provisions. This lack of space for provisions added to the already treacherous journey.

Did Your Ancestors Travel the Oregon Trail?

With the great number of pioneers who traveled the Oregon Trail, it is entirely possible your ancestors may have been among them. You can search through pioneer record collections to see where your pioneers may have travelled in the west. Here are some of the collections available on FamilySearch:

There are several other archives with pioneer-related records, though they may not all be free-to-access. Visit the Oregon Trail Settlers and Records wiki page to find even more pioneer records.

Already have a FamilySearch account? Discover your relative’s pioneer stories with the FamilySearch pioneer feature.

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  1. My ancestors were on one of the last of the Oregon Trail wagon trains. They left Iowa in 1869, just before the last of the rails were put into place for the Railroads.

    However, FamilySearch does not have any information on the Oregon Trail companies, but is entirely focused on the Mormon Trail companies. When I saw the title of the article I was hoping that there was actually some material on the Oregon Trail companies, but there is none.

    Why, of all things, do you mislead patrons with Titles that are incorrect and misleading. Where is the answer to the records at FamilySearch under “Did Your Ancestors Travel the Oregon Trail?”

    On top of that, The Oregon Trail paralleled the Mormon Trail and although certain parts were well traveled by both groups, they were certainly not on the same trail from their original starting and ending points (Nauvoo to Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley) (Independence to Oregon City).

    Laurie Bradshaw really needs to read up on more than just Mormon history and the pioneers that traveled across the “Mormon Trail.”

    1. Tom, I’m sorry for the trouble! We chose only record collections that users could access freely, but we are working on finding more records available (but they may not be free through FamilySearch). Are you aware of any record collections we should add to the list?

      1. here are a few that are more likely than others to be around for a while. The National Parks Service one ( refers to the Oregon-California Trails Association’s database of Oregon Trail pioneers, which also includes, very usefully, their database of trail diarists; I believe they’re the pre-eminent trail research folks. The Oregon Genealogical Society correctly notes that there’s no _complete_ database of Oregon Trail pioneers. (The OGS folks, not incidentally, are VERY helpful!)

        finally, this site has lists of Oregon Trail pioneers broken down by year:

        as you can see, there are lots of great resources there for Oregon Trail research.

        my trail ancestors include the Lees and Greens in 1846/1847, and Holcombs 1845, among others. Oregon became a U.S. Territory in 1848 and a state in 1859. Anyone with ancestors who lived in Oregon before 1872 can apply for an Oregon Pioneers Certificate from the Oregon Genealogical Society.

  2. I’m curious to your sources of handcarts being used on the Oregon Trail. According to the primary sources I have studied while searching for handcart use in Westward Expansion, this form of transportation seems to be limited to Mormons going to Utah.

  3. Andrew Jackson Porter and Elizabeth Lee Porter and family traveled the trail. Elizabeth kept a diary and wrote every day. We have a copy of her diary.
    Nancy Porter Childresss

  4. I’m 25 percent Indian Mohawk. I have no connection to the Oregon trail but because I’m part Indian i do have a strong connection to this country

  5. Thank you for this information and for making me aware of my pioneer ancestor, Moroni Osborn Parks.
    Ellen Alexander

  6. I loved that game, and I’m grateful for those who traveled west, so my ancestors could use part of this trail for their journey as well.

  7. Excellent article. However it has an egregious error–westward migrants had little to do with the extinction of the buffalo. Very few wagon train travelers has the wherewithal, or time, to harvest more than one or two buffalo along the trail.