Do you want to ford the river or caulk the wagon and float across?

After the lively discussion on my Picture from the Past about Apple releasing its first Mac in 1984, I couldn’t resist doing a post where tech/pop culture history meets the American westward expansion movement, along with a touch of nostalgia for my elementary school years.  I’m talking, of course, about the iconic computer game I could (and did) play for hours:

Oregon Trail

I discovered Oregon Trail when my elementary school set up its first Apple computer lab when I was in third grade.  My best friend (then and now) got me hooked on the game, and together we discovered some tricks for getting from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon Territory in tact.  Always be the banker from Boston (you get the most money), give the five people in your wagon meager rations (not too much, not too little), buy the maximum 2,000 pounds of food at the general store before departing, and leave in April so you’ll get to Oregon before winter.

And never ford a river, unless you want to drown and lose your supplies.

Funny enough, even though I knew the Oregon Trail was a real route that pioneers followed west, I never realized until I moved from Indiana to Seattle in 2006 that the landmarks one passed on the computer game were real places.  The Snake and Columbia Rivers run partly through Washington State.  I’ve crossed the Columbia going to Portland, Oregon, though someone conveniently built a bridge so I no longer have to brave the harrowing float that was one of the choices of ending the game.  I’ve been to the Willamette Valley, the game’s final destination, without even realizing it.  All without contracting cholera or dyptheria when my water supply went bad.

Of course, those were real dangers in 1843, when the first wagon train set out for Oregon following two expeditions led by Nathaniel Wyeth.  Fort Vancouver (now the city of Vancouver, Washington) had already been established along the Columbia River  as a trading post for the Hudson’s Bay Company, and nearby Oregon City became the end of the trail.  A recession in the early 1840s had left many farmers in financial trouble, but by 1843, some had recovered enough to leave their homes in search of new land.  They left in droves: by 1860, more than 300,000 pioneers had traveled the trail.  Some were missionaries, including early Mormons who settled what is now Salt Lake City, while others were single men looking for adventure.  The forts along the way, including Fort Laramie and Fort Hall, provided places to buy supplies along the way.  The average journey took between six and eight months.

The original Oregon Trail game was pretty lame compared to today’s standards: the music was monotonal, the graphics pixelated.  When my parents bought an updated version for our first home PC, though, it mostly sat in the box.  Somehow, it just wasn’t the same.  But fifteen years after leaving elementary school, my wonderful husband made a great discovery.  Children of the nineties everywhere can enjoy this game in its original glory on their PCs (or Macs) just by clicking here.

May your wagon axels hold up, may your party be free of cholera, and may you relish every bit of your trip to Oregon.

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6 Responses to Do you want to ford the river or caulk the wagon and float across?

  1. Jennifer says:

    Ahhh! I was not a book reader when I was little (I’m making up for it now :)) But I remember a few books from my childhood that did stand out and the could grab and hold my attention and one was about the Oregon Trail! I wish I remember the title of it. I find it completely fascinating!

    And what’s even more interesting! How all our history connects. In my research on rural New England I’m studying the time period 1790-1840 and all the research talks about the economic depression that hit in 1837 – The Panic of 1837. All my people from rural New England farms where the ones heading out to your west! Braving the Oregon Trail. Gotta love history!

  2. Audry says:

    I LOVED that game! In fact, that was the game that prompted the first upgrade of our first family computer, from 256 kb of RAM to 640! I’m going to check out the link right now.

  3. QNPoohBear says:

    I loved that game in elementary school! The school computers had “rad” color monitors compared to our home Apple IIE which had green pixel pictures. Whenever I read an Oregon Trail novel I remember the game and am surprised at how accurate it is. Thanks for the blast from the past!

  4. Pambelina says:

    I remember asking my mom what dysentery was and laughing hysterically when I construed her explanation to mean you died from the poops!

  5. Emilie says:

    QNPoohBear, welcome to Damsels! Your own blog looks quite interesting and will go on our to-read list!

    Pam–I don’t think I learned what dysentery was until years after I stopped playing this game. Cholera, either, though I did finally learn it wasn’t pronounced with a “ch” like “church” in, oh, high school or so:) Good times:)

  6. We introduced our kids to that game as part of studying the pioneers this year!! It was great seeing it again and is still fun to play sometimes.

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