Understanding Primary Source Documents: The Oregon Trail

Welcome to the Oregon Trail, little buddy! Today you leave from Independence, Missouri with four of your closest buddies to claim your land and seek your fortune in the newly acquired Oregon Territory of the United States! Now, you should know, that this journey is absolutely fraught with peril… odds are not all of you will live to see it through to the end.

Now, we are willing to spot you a little bit of money to take this trip… but there is something you need to do for us in return! We are outfitting all kinds of settlers and sending them out on their way out West, but we need you to leave some markers at various points along the journey in order to help the next group pass through safely.


First, you have some choices to make. If you are a banker from Boston, I’ll loan you plenty of money for the trip… I like bankers! if you are a carpenter from Ohio, I’ll give you a bit less… you know how to fix things, but I’m not sure how good a risk you are. Lastly, if you are a farmer from Illinois, I will give you less still, but the less I give you, the more shrouded in glory you are at the end of the road.


What you need to leave behind is as follows:


  1. Leave a copy of your invoice from the General Store. What did you buy to pack along with you on the trail? How much of our money did you spend? Is there anything left over?



2. A description of how to pass the Kansas River Crossing… what was your strategy? Did it work? What happened? Address your letter to “Those who would follow the Oregon Trail.” It should be a good four to six sentences to properly explain what it is that needs to be done.

  1. 3. Talk to the locals at Fort Laramie. Get an idea of the place… talk to three people and leave their remarks in an envelope with the date that you conducted your interviews. This is called an oral history and gives us a very accurate indication of what it is that’s out there.


  1. 4. Get an indication of the wildlife around for those coming by to be able to hunt. On three separate hunts, list the approximate place that you were hunting on the map (say, in between Fort Hall and the Snake River Crossing), what type of wildlife that you saw, and how much of it there was. This will help us assess what types of supplies we need to send y’all with.



5. If anyone should, unfortunately, die on their trip, draw a rendition of their tombstone. Include on the tombstone the date they died, the location, the cause, and an epitaph for their families. Remember, this not only provides the spot that their loved ones can come and find them, but also provides a warning to future travellers about what is out there.

6. Once you get to the end of the Trail, send us a telegram back here in Independence explaining what you needed to do in order to make it. Be thorough… how did you cross the rivers? What kind of pace and rations did you hand out? What would you say your final “score” would be? And hey, if it looks like you are about to die, be a pal and write one last letter for the next guy to find explaining why on earth you didn’t make it.

All the best to you and your company on your journey. Good luck!


M.R. Berrigan

Matt's General Store

Independence, Missouri

Oregon Trail Rubric