The creators of the Oregon Trail game were obsessed with creating a fun — and surprisingly accurate — experience for players. But there were some things they couldn't share with kids.
To certain generations, the phrase "Oregon Trail" means two different things — the historic migration that occurred from the 1840s through 1869, and the classic video game found in schools from the late '70s onward. But only one of those was uncensored.
The above video shows the gruesome, salacious, and just plain disgusting side of the Oregon Trail. Though the trail did play host to a relatively high number of families, there was a side filled with the seaminess you'd expect from the Old West.
Was the Oregon Trail depicted in the video above typical? It probably depended on your outlook — most bankers with families weren't frequenting the ad hoc wagon brothels or drinking themselves into oblivion. But the threat of death, whether by disease, conflict, or some combination of the two, was universal. So was the deprivation of life in the wagon train.
By combing through histories and firsthand accounts of the trail, we've found some horrifying examples that little eyes should never see. Sub-17-year-olds, please bring along your parent or guardian.
About some of the sources
Want to delve into more trail history? A lot of the resources we used in this video are accessible via the Internet Archive or on Amazon.
The Oregon Trail: An American Saga by David Dary, 2005
In this great readable history of the Oregon Trail, Dary brings cowboy-chronicling credentials to his tour of the Old West. Curious about the ox stomach game? Here's the full quote, which is typical of the nuggets Dary unearths:
The weather being warm, it was swollen to the size of a large barrel. The game . . . was both original and uncanny, and I am sure we never played it afterwards. The sport consisted of running and butting the head against the paunch and being bounced back, the recoil being in pro- portion to the force of contact." Everything was fine until one boy, Andy Baker, lowered his head and charged the swollen stomach. His head went inside, where he was stuck until the other boys pulled him out.
Climatology and Mineral Waters of the United States by A.N. Bell, 1885 (free)
Some people thought traveling the trail was good for them (because of both climate and exercise). This excerpt shows some typical thinking:
While at Fort Crook, California, in 1849, I saw quite a number of persons in the neighboring country who professed to have been cured of phthisis by crossing the plains on horseback; and from a knowledge of their habits and the condition of that journey, I then conceived that the best treatment known for consumption was a year of steady, daily horseback-riding in a mountainous country, and a diet of cornbread and bacon with a moderate quantity of whiskey; and I may say that my experience has taught me nothing better since.
What I Saw in California by Edwin Bryant, 1848 (free)
Edwin Bryant's trip West appears to be a key resource for many Oregon Trail scholars. Bryant's tale of a child with a maggot-infested leg is typical of the heartrending Oregon Trail literature. On the lighter side, here's his tale of a drunk selling off his pantaloons for whiskey:
Many of the trappers and hunters now collected here were lounging about, maldng small trades for sugar, coffee, flour, and whiskey. I heard of an instance of a pint of miserable whiskey being sold for a pair of buckskin pantaloons, valued at ten dollars. I saw two dollars in money paid for half a pint.
Autobiography and Reminiscences of Sarah J. Cummins by Sarah J. Cummins, 1914 (free)
Cummins's memoir has the appeal of historical fiction, but with more accuracy (at least, in theory). She records her buffalo chip ordeal as delicately as possible:
This caused many ladies to act very cross and many were the rude phrases uttered, far more humiliating to refined ears than any mention of the material used for fuel could have been, but fane of surroundings was a great leveler, and, ere long, each member of the various households was busily employed in the search for fuel.
The Oregon Trail by Jonathan Truman Dorris, 1918 (free)
This thesis statement includes a few unique primary sources; it also notes the common use of bones for sending messages between travelers.
President Heber C. Kimball's journal, by Heber C. Kimball, edited by Stanley B. Kimball, 1981 (free)
This journal focuses on the life of Mormon leader Heber C. Kimball, and it's an enjoyable read for anyone interested in that early history. It includes the buffalo chip song, which tries to make collecting buffalo chips feel ... sexy?:
There's a pretty little girl in the outfit ahead
Whoa Haw Buck and Jerry Boy
I wish she were by my side instead
Whoa Haw Buck and Jerry Boy
Look at her now with a pout on her lips
As daintly with her fingertips
She picks for the fire some buffalo chips
Forty Years a Fur Trader on the Upper Missouri by Charles Larpenteur, 1898 (free)
Larpenteur provides the most graphic dog-eating account:
Sure enough, he did look like a mad dog; for there was his head sticking partly out of the kettle, with a fine set of ivories, growling as it were,and the scum was frothing about his teeth.
Crossing the Plains by Audley Maxwell, 1915 (free)
Maxwell's memoir of traveling West is a good read, but it's equally enjoyable for the illustrations. (It was the source for the bone-scrawled messages in the above video.)
Journals, Diaries, and Letters Written by Women on the Oregon Trail, 1836-1865 by Barbara McPherson, 1984 (free)
This thesis is a good way to find women's accounts of their time on the trail. The Oregon Trail was unusual in that it was traveled by families, and travelers encountered everything from controversies over wearing bloomers (pants) to, of course, collecting buffalo dung. For the record, pioneers also used wild sage as fuel, though buffalo chips were known for making a nice hot fire.
Personal Experiences on the Oregon Trail Sixty Years Ago by Ezra Meeker, 1912 (free)
Meeker was the 1900s equivalent of the Oregon Trail game — he is largely responsible for popularizing a historical moment that might have otherwise been forgotten. In addition to this exciting memoir, he toured the country "reliving" the Oregon Trail, and many consider him responsible for the trail's entry into American mythology.
The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life by Francis Parkman, 1849 (free)
This legendary work helped kick off Oregon Trail fever and also serves as a record of its beginnings. It may be a slightly sensationalized record, and the characterizations have been the subject of some dispute from publication onward. But it's undoubtedly a fun read, if you can handle puppy recipes like this one:
Having killed him they threw him into a fire to singe; then chopped him up and put him into two large kettles to boil.
The Overland Stage to California by Frank A. Root, 1901 (free)
This book is a history of the Old West in all its glory. Along with great details about frontier life (people used buffalo to make shoes, coats, and almost everything else), it includes tidbits about the short-lived, but famous, Pony Express.
The March of the Mounted Riflemen by Major Osborne Cross and George Gibbs, edited by Raymond Settle, 1940 (free)
These journals are a great peek at the military's time on the trail. Though not limited to the Oregon Trail, the book provides another view a common theme: People on the trail were serious tyros when it came to travel. The scene of multiple soldiers chasing after a buffalo is classic:
I think I counted sixteen men after this poor animal, who kept up a regular fire with revolvers. All seemed to be eager to have the satisfaction of saying they had shot at a buffalo, [even] if they were not successful enough to kill one. Lieutenant Lindsay 89 at last brought him to the ground and had the credit of being the victor.
Some of these are a little more difficult to access, but some have excerpts from interesting firsthand accounts:
"The Personal Reminiscences of Hugh Cosgrove" in Oregon Historical Quarterly 1.1 (March 1900); free
This article includes the tactic of whiskey on a girl's leg to cure a snakebite. (Spoiler: It worked!)
"The Oregon Trail" by F.G. Young in The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society 1.4 (Dec. 1900); free
It didn't fit within the scope of an R-rated Oregon Trail, but Young's history shows another chilling aspect of life apart from society: frontier justice. The wagon train trial was common on the trail, and execution often followed:
"As they had nothing to make a gallows out of, they took two wagon tongues, put them point to point and set a chair in the middle, and the man stood on the chair till the rope was tied, and then the chair was taken from under him. This is the third we have heard of being hanged."
"The Health Seeker in the Westward Movement, 1830-1900" by John E. Baur in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 46.1 (June 1959): 91-110
"'May Live and Die a Miner': The 1864 Clarksville Diary of James W. Virtue" by Gary Dielman in Oregon Historical Quarterly 105.1 (Spring 2004): 62-95
"Drug Therapy at a Frontier Fort Hospital: Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory, 1870-1889" by Anthony Palmieri III and Daniel J. Hammond in Pharmacy in History 21.1 (1979): 35-44
Opium and even rum were used as medicine on the trail.
"Binding the Elephant: Contracts and Legal Obligations on the Overland Trail" by John Phillip Reid in The American Journal of Legal History 21.4 (Oct. 1977): 285-315
"'Meat's Meat': An Account of the Flesh-Eating Habits of Western Americans" by Martin Schmitt in Western Folklore, 11.3, Oregon Number (July 1952)
If that hasn't sated your hunger for all things trail, you can read my interview with a couple of historians last year. We covered the minutiae of the game (and the way kids played it in historically inaccurate ways).