The Oregon Trail began as a path originally cut by Native Americans, which was later expanded by white fur traders. It later was used during the westward expansion of settlers across North America to the Pacific coast. Here are some interesting kid-friendly facts about the Oregon Trail.

Numbers and Route

Oregon trail in Western Nebraska
Oregon trail in Western Nebraska

The Oregon trail was 2,000 miles long, with branches starting in Iowa and Missouri before they converged in Nebraska and traveled through Wyoming and Idaho. The trail terminated in Oregon's Williamette Valley. The Oregon Trail's "great migration" began in 1843 with a 1,000-pioneer wagon train and would eventually end in 1869 with the completion of the transcontinental railroad, after 500,000 settlers had made the journey.

Dangers Real and Imagined

View of Oregon trail with historical wagon wheel ruts
View of Oregon trail with historical wagon wheel ruts

The Oregon Trail was dangerous and often deadly. Historians estimate that as many as 10 percent of settlers who set out on the trail perished before they reached the Williamette Valley. Hollywood movies and paperback Westerns have popularized the notion that Native Americans were a major threat on the Oregon Trail, but they actually were responsible for fewer than one percent of trail fatalities, and there are records of the natives helping settlers in need. Accidents during river crossings could prove deadly, and lightning and hail were very real hazards. Horse-drawn wagons were designed with minimal consideration for safety, and pioneers were injured and killed under their load-bearing wheels. The biggest threat of all on the Oregon Trail was cholera, a bacterial infection that causes vomiting and diarrhea that could bring about death through dehydration.

Supplies

Pioneers cooked in simple cast-iron skillets.
Pioneers cooked in simple cast-iron skillets.

It would take a four-person family about 1,000 pounds of food to survive the trip to the Williamette Valley. Cooking supplies often included a cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven and tin plates and utensils. Flour, crackers, bacon and coffee were standard staples on the trail, and settlers brought along firearms for protection and to hunt game. Candles, bedding and tents and tools to repair damaged wagons also were standard supplies.

Transportation

Covered wagon
Covered wagon

Pioneers traveled with simple farm wagons with a box about four feet wide, ten feet long and two feet tall. The wagons were made of iron-reinforced hardwoods, such as hickory and oak. The front wheels of the wagons were smaller than the rear wheels, which made turning easier. Cotton coated with waterproofing linseed oil covered the wagons. The wagons were most often pulled by oxen, or castrated steers. Oxen were slow, but supplied tremendous pulling power, were easily trained and could be eaten in an emergency. The oxen were less expensive than horses and also ate less.