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9 myths you learned from playing Oregon Trail

The beginning of Oregon Trail, before all the death.
The beginning of Oregon Trail, before all the death.
Internet Archive
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

Millions of kids grew up playing Oregon Trail on their computers. They stocked up on oxen, hunted for buffalo, and watched their most beloved family members die of dysentery. It was a joy (and you can play the game online here).

But how much did that game resemble the real-life Oregon Trail, which took as many as 400,000 settlers to the West from the 1830s to late 1860s?

To find out, I called up two historians: Tim McNeese, chair of the history department at York College and author of Oregon Trail: Pathway to the West; and Laura Woodworth-Ney, provost at Idaho State University and author of Women in the American West.

Their verdict? In a lot of ways, the way you played the game was surprisingly accurate. Some of the more popular Oregon Trail strategies we all loved as kids — like starting out as a banker or stocking up on oxen — would have worked out well on the real Oregon Trail. But other strategies — like hunting for thousands of pounds of buffalo — would have been far more dangerous than the game suggested.

Here are nine myths you learned because of the way you played the game:

1) Not everyone used oxen. Some people used handcarts.

Spending time with oxen.

Spending cherished time with an ox. (Internet Archive)

The game: At the start of Oregon Trail (the game), most people stocked up on yokes because traveling with a team of oxen was the only option.

The reality: On the actual Oregon Trail, oxen were the best choice for traveling, and they were quite common in 1848, when the video game was set. "Oxen are more durable and cheaper to purchase than a horse or mule," McNeese says. "Your oxen would eat anything, and nobody was tempted to steal them. You rotated them out."

That said, not everyone took oxen on the trail. There were horses, mules, and sometimes even stranger forms of transport. Woodworth-Ney notes that the Mormon Trail carried the Mormon handcart pioneers of 1856-1860, who lacked the money for traditional wagon teams and used handcarts instead. Hundreds died pulling all of their belongings behind them in handcarts (a harrowing journey that makes it the perfect Oregon Trail sequel).

2) Traveling at a "grueling" pace was less fun than it sounds

Setting the pace in Oregon Trail

Spending time with oxen. (Internet Archive)

The game: In Oregon Trail, you set the pace to "grueling" so that your wagon could finish ahead of your friends. It usually took a toll on your party's health, but it did let you finish the game before lunch.

The reality: Unfortunately, this may be the biggest misconception born from years of playing Oregon Trail. The ride out west wasn't a solitary affair where each family set its own pace, tapping the space bar until they reached their new home. People almost invariably made the trip in wagon trains. While a wagon train leader might make a decision for the group, he'd have to do so with the full party's consent.

And even where there were small wagon trains, they'd usually bump into other travelers quickly. The Oregon Trail was a mass migration that, in its later years, was almost a traffic jam. "The trail is littered with stuff," McNeese says. "You'd have to be a complete moron to lose the trail."

As for the "grueling" pace? Woodworth-Ney notes that the journey was more about following instructions than blazing a trail. "Mostly, you're trying to follow the guidebooks available after the earliest era," she says. "They give some indication of how fast you have to move before dinner. They're trying to do this in an orderly fashion, but it varies by train. The ones that are in a big hurry start to have problems."

Unlike in the game, most wagon train leaders didn't have much control over how fast they went. "Weather, geography, and topography set the pace," McNeese says. "It's pretty easy going in the Midwest, but it gets harder later."

3) You wouldn't have randomly forded a 40 foot deep river

Fording the river.

Fording a river in Oregon Trail. (Internet Archive)

The game: You decided to ford a 52 foot deep river so you could see your wagon tip over. You would caulk your wagon during a hurricane if it meant saving $5 on a ferry ride.

The reality: In real life, settlers were part of a wagon train, and that meant any fording, caulking, or ferrying decisions were made by more than one person. And, unlike in the game, the decision whether to caulk or ford was almost never a guessing game.

"It was usually a group decision," McNeese says. "There's somebody who's leading the wagon train who knows the lay of the land. It gets more rote later, and they know where they're going to cross. It's rarely a situation where complete neophytes are saying 'When do we cross? And where?'"

That said, fording could be dangerous, even if you weren't a kid killing time in computer lab. Water heights affected the safety of a ford, and spring's high water levels made it a particularly delicate time to cross the river.

4) You couldn't kill thousands of pounds of buffalo

Hunting in Oregon Trail

One of your countless hunting trips. (Internet Archive)

The game: If you needed food, you went out and killed thousands upon thousands of pounds of deer, bear, and buffalo. You carried home a tenth of it, and then you went out and did it again.

The reality: "It depends on the era," Woodworth-Ney says. "Early on, there's hunting on the trail, but after the 1850s, there's just not much livestock because they've essentially been hunted out. By the 1860s, the decline of the bison is starting to occur as well."

Hunting was also a lot harder — and more dangerous — than simply pressing a space bar to shoot. "You've got to go off the trail to find wildlife," McNeese says, and that entailed unnecessary risk. "You don't want to get somebody out there who's lost. You get in the middle of the trail to go hunting, it's real easy to get disoriented and not know where you are.

Many of the hunters were more likely to shoot themselves in the foot than take out a black bear. "A lot of people carrying guns didn't normally carry guns," adds McNeese. "A lot of these folks had a gun on a farm to scare game away, but a lot of people didn't even know how to use a gun."

5) Dysentery was much, much worse than a punchline

Dysentery in Oregon Trail

Dysentery: kind of a pain. (Internet Archive)

The game: When you played, somebody in your party always died of dysentery. Always. It was so common it's become a meme.

The reality: Dysentery was a terrible, debilitating disease that usually resulted from bad water. The most common symptom was diarrhea with blood, and that led to severe dehydration and death (but that doesn't fit as well on an ironic t-shirt).

While cholera also ravaged the population, dysentery was a systemic threat. Oregon Trail historian and veteran Francis Parkman even wrote that it was "too serious a thing for a joke."

Woodworth-Ney notes that dysentery fit the medical hazards of the era. It was already a problem in the 19th century, and poor trail conditions only exacerbated the risk.

"Dysentery covers a wide range of health issues that resulted from poor sanitation," she says. "There's a misconception that these people are by themselves, but at the height of the trail, these campsites are very crowded. There aren't a lot of well-watered places to camp. The places that do have water become congested with people, and they were spreading these diseases through the water."

6) No one got a funny headstone with curse words when they died

A grave in Oregon Trail

Dummy: he lived a good life. (Internet Archive)

The game: You wrote headstones for your family members, who always happened to have obscene names. Later, your classmates would see them and giggle. You learned death was a great opportunity to use curse words.

The reality: Death on the trail was common — the Bureau of Land Management says 20,000 to 30,000 people died on the trail. Gravestones, however, were not.

"Traditional gravestones were almost nonexistent," McNeese says. "If someone died of a disease that's communicable, you want to bury them as soon as possible and keep the train moving. You covered over the gravesite with rocks so wolves wouldn't dig up your mom and chew her up." If you did make a grave, a wagon would probably run it over.

Woodworth-Ney says there are some examples of notable graves, but they were the exception rather than the rule: "It was unusual for them to go back and mark it with a stone marker later. They would have been marked with wooden crosses instead."

7) Native Americans didn't really want your sweaters

Trading with Native Americans in Oregon Trail

A Native American guide, ready to trade for your stylish threads. (Internet Archive)

The game: Native Americans helped guide you across the rivers, usually in exchange for some cool clothes.

The reality: Travelers probably traded with Native Americans for ammunition, guns, and alcohol, not sweaters.

During the trail's peak, Woodworth-Ney notes that trade was more common than conflict. Early on, travelers did receive help with water passage, fresh water, and food. "There was lots of trade," she says. "Travelers wanted food and horses, and tribal people were approaching wagon trains for ammunition and guns. This is a heavily armed migration."

As time passed, however, the relationship between Native Americans and travelers frayed. Tribes had fewer resources and the trails were so well-developed and familiar to settlers that native people were of less use. During the cattle drives of the 1860s and 1870s, violence between settlers and Native Americans became the norm.

8) The rafting trip at the end of the game was insane

The game: You usually had an option to travel more boring trails or go on an insane rapid-ride. You always chose the rapids, learning lifelong lessons about vacation planning.

The reality: As is often the case with Oregon Trail, something that was fun in the game would have been incredibly risky in real life. "It's very dangerous," McNeese says. "You wouldn't want to put mom and kids on the raft and make it work. It would be very desperate for that to be the end of your trip — if you capsized, you're cooked."

9) Starting out as a banker was even better than you realized

Visting the General Store in Oregon Trail

The game: Most people chose to be a banker because they were lazy. People who chose to be a farmer wanted to rack up points.

The reality: Being poor was much worse than you realized. It cost a lot to go on the Oregon Trail, and starting out as a banker would have been helpful. If you were too poor to stock up and set up a nest egg, you might not have hit the trail at all.

"It's expensive," McNeese says. "Six months of food, a serviceable durable wagon. A lot of people who failed started with crummy wagons."

Woodworth-Ney says: "It's not the poorest Americans that are taking that journey. The Oregon Trail saw wealthier families, while the California trails see more economically diverse travel." It took a fair amount of money to head west. If you were poorer, you probably would have headed to California instead, if you even made it that far.

Further reading: The history of the Oregon Trail game goes back all the way to 1971, when roommates Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger dreamed up a way to get kids interested in history (the definitive story of the game is a fascinating read). They had a consistent commitment to creating an accurate game — even if kids weren't always committed to playing it that way.

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