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Westward Expansion: The Oregon Trail (Grade 6-10)

By Trey Takahashi


 Westward Expansion can be a fascinating subject for children to learn, but one that presents and equal number of challenges. In presenting the subject matter to children ages 10-12 in Grade 6, I found the most difficult part of the lesson was reliability (something that is hard for most history subjects prior to the post-war era). As with most subject matter for children in schools, anything that is does not relate to the child or is uninteresting to causes them to fall out of the subject and drift off. With such experience and background in teaching the subject, I found a great way to incorporate some very fun and challenging elements into the unit on Westward Expansion that keeps students engaged, and  eager to learn more about the subject matter.

While many people (myself included) have played The Oregon Trail as a child as a lesson on the migration out west, this lesson plan take it a step further and introduces a background to western migration via primary sources, and provides better methods of closure than simply completing the game. In this lesson children will be able to compete for the best voyage out west based on information learned in class, and will be required to use their writing and critical thinking skills to provide background information to the events that occur along the treacherous Oregon Trail by constructing their own mock primary source documents.

Standards, Models, Objectives, & Resources


  • Grade 6-8:

    1. CSS ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

    2. CCSS ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summery of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

    3. CCSS ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.

    4. CCSS ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.7: Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.

  • Grades 9-10:

    1. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1: Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

    2. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2: Determine the central ideas or information of a primary our secondary source; provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

    3. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social studies.

    4. CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.7: Integrate quantitative or technical analysis (e.g., charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text).

Standards to be modified and adjusted for state and county Social Studies standards being used for the appropriate grade levels. Common Core standards provided for reference.

Teaching Models:

Presentation/Lecture (Direct Instruction), Cooperative Learning, Group Presentation

Source: Kelsey, D. M. History of Our Wild West and Stories of Pioneer Life. Chicago: Thomas & Thomas, 1902.


I will be able to express and interpret the hardships faced by migrants moving out West during the Westward Migration by participating in a simulation recreating some of the events encountered along the Oregon Trail, and be able to recount those experiences encountered by characters in the simulation in a 'mock' journal.*

*(Note: some vocabulary words along with the core objective can be modified for grade level depending on a.) standards, and b.) level of students participating in lesson).


  • Projector (with appropriate inputs for computer being used) with screen for projection.
  • Laptop or Desktop PC with Audio/Video connectivity with PowerPoint or equivalent installed.
  • Copy of "The Oregon Trail" by MECC (original 1990 edition preferred).*
  • Textbook, source-book, or alternative secondary source reading material on Westward Migration appropriate for grade level. 
  • Chapter 20 in Mark Twain's Roughing It  (ideal as it is a primary source) or an alternative journal-style reading such as "Oregon Fever" from Junior Scholastic
  • Primary source images for visual reference of text and activities. Sample public domain images can be found from, or from the Library of Congress.
  • Various art supplies (e.g. crayons, colored pencils, markers, &c.) and standard 8.5 x 11 US Paper (can be supplemented with any size that is easily available.

*If available, it is a fun side history lesson to bring in an old vintage computer such as an Apple IIc or Commador 64 to demo the game on. Students love seeing the old machine and will ask questions about the old technology being used. However, the provided link above is the full game, free to the public, so that both the teacher and students can access the game at any time and play it as much as they like.

Instructional Procedures & Methods

Introduction to Materials Pre-Activity and Core Background Knowledge (one 50 minute period):

Establishing Set

Teacher should establish set by introducing the topic of Western Migration and The Oregon Trail with either a direct or indirect opening question (i.e. warm-up, bell-ringer, &c.). Questions can be used to assess prior knowledge to Westward Expansion or introduce the topic as new. Sample questions:

  • How do you think people moved to the western part of the United States? What was their journey like? What might they have encountered?
  • What do you think "Western Migration" means? Use the picture and try to define the term.
  • Look at the picture (on the board or printed out), what does this picture remind you of? What do you think the people are doing in this illustration?

As students write down their answers, be ready to discuss the various different questions. Students may have answers ranging from the correct answer (most children are introduced to the topic in grade 5) to talking about western TV shows and movies. Be sure to direct them to the topic and build connections. 

Transition into Lesson:

After the children are finished providing answers for the questions on the board the teacher should construct a KWL (Know, want to know, learned) chart in order to plot their learning throughout the lesson. As students fill up the chart the teacher will then make the connection from the warm-up activity with the core lesson to make the transition (e.g. "We've had some great observations about how people moved out West. Some of you discussed with us covered wagons, and other talked about dangers along the trail. Let's look into just how people moved to the western parts of the United States, and how they got there").

Activities & Learning Experience: 

The teacher should use a direct instruction model to present the background information to the student (based off assigned curriculum or other secondary source reading of Western Expansion). Students should follow along with key vocabulary words provided on the board or PowerPoint (keynote) presentation. The teacher will walk through the various aspects of Western Migration spending time to answer key questions. 

Recommended topics:

  • The Oregon Trail
  • Wagon Trains
  • Geographical Locations across the United States
  • Native American populations and their relationship with people
  • Types of Migrants/Famous Migrants
  • Reasons for Migration

As students begin to learn the background information, they should be introduced to primary source accounts of moving out West (Suggested reading for upper grade levels: Chapter 20 in Mark Twain's Roughing It). Make sure the text provides key vivid details of the journey out west and how harsh it was for so many people along the trail. Have the students try and imagine the difficulties people faced along the Oregon Trail and ask the students if it was worth the risk traveling to the Western United States.

Monochrome (green) screen shot from the original Oregon Trail for the Apple IIc computer.

Oregon Trail Core Activity and Follow-Up Journal Activity (one to two 50 minute periods):

Establishing Set: 

Warm-Up: Students will enter the classroom with a simple question written on the board or projected onto a screen for their warm-up or bell-ringer activity: "How will you prepare for a journey out west?" Students should be able to use their prior knowledge of what would be faced along the trail from the previous lesson on migration out west. As students are given time to write and think (approx. 5 minutes) the teacher can help guide students by asking thought provoking questions such as "Thinking about what we have read from our sources on Westward Migration (the movement out west), I want you to think about what you would need to survive that hard journey? What other things would you bring." Sometimes it is helpful to remind students that technology would not be available to prevent students from writing those answers; however, some may opt to allow students to write their most honest answers and address this later. Once students have finished writing for a pre-determined period of time, the teacher should ask students to share their answers with the class and use them to drive discussion.

Assigning roles for cooperative learning: The teacher should break from the warm-up activity by changing the direction of the discussion. "Alright folks, now that we have discussed what we would bring individually to survive, we need put our heads together to think about how we could survive the trip together as a team" The teacher should continue, "Today we are going to try our hand on the Oregon Trail and see just how well we can survive along it. Will we make it to Oregon City? Or will we all die on the journey there?" The teacher can then break off students into groups depending on classroom size assigning them various roles. Examples:

  • Quartermaster (manage supplies/trading)
  • Hunters (Manage hunts and food supplies)
  • Guides/Leaders (Manage stops, pace, act as tie breakers)

For larger classroom sizes the teacher may opt out of individual roles, and instead take votes as a class, with the teacher help guiding the lesson. Most of the decisions along the trail, regardless of the roles assigned, should be discussed as a classroom as all students have an invested interest in completing the simulation (this can be driven by a cross-class competition in which the progress of students is displayed on a spreadsheet in the room).

Activities & Learning Experience:

“Alright folks, before we can even get started on our trip, we need to pick out some basics. First off we need to choose who we are going to be on the Oregon Trail, we have a few different types of people to choose from. We have a farmer, a carpenter, and a banker. Each of these will give us different amounts of money. The banker has money coming out of his earholes for example, while the farmer is quite poor. However, when we look at our final scores, the farmer will get bonus points for being a lot more difficult. Remember, this is a competition between classes. That being said, I would like you to raise our hand for which profession you would like to start as.”

The teacher will then ask the students for their choice and then select it based on the classroom choice. “Next we have the season we are leaving from. Leave to early and there will not be very much grass for our oxen to eat, too late and we might not get to Oregon City before winter.” Again, the teacher will show different options to the class and will take a vote for the different seasons.” The teacher will then guide the students throughout the different selections, “Last of all we need to choose our different supplies to take with us, I would like our supply management group to give us advice, but ultimately the decision is up to the class.” The teacher will prompt the group assigned to managing supplies to read the advice from the shop keep and explain to the class what they think they need, then the teacher will guide a classroom vote. Finally, students will have to suggest names for the individuals on the wagon itself. Note, these names and individuals will be used for the journals which students will have to produce later on documenting the journey .Once things are purchased for the group the teacher will then begin the journey off onto the Oregon Trail.

Continuing the lesson the teacher will advance into the next section: On the trail the teacher will guide students through different encounters, drawing different groups to aid in different encounters. As students head out, they will need to watch their supplies which the supply group will have to manage. They will be charged with informing the class if they need to trade for critical supplies or inform the hunters if they need to hunt. They will also have to make the decisions in trades and buying/selling items along the trail. The teacher will guide these students helping them make decisions such as how the costs of items changes depending on the location that students are at. Along the simulation the teacher will also have to guide the group assigned with keeping time the need for taking rests and managing pace throughout the trail. It is important for students to be able to understand how these different factors interplay in the health of their passengers. Finally, those assigned to hunt will be manning the controls at the computer to hunt for game when needed. Since the game goes through a series of random and non-scripted events, the teacher should familiarize themselves with different encounters and scenarios that students may/may not encounter along the way. Teachers should also define key vocabulary and explain them to students (e.g. dysentery, ford (crossing), tongue (wagon), &c.). The teacher will guide the students until they reach Oregon City or their wagon journey ends prematurely as their crew parishes on the trail.


The teacher should immediately start by providing recognition for all the teams and their performance on the trail. Not every group will be successful on their voyage, but it is important that teams feel recognized for their attempts and efforts. This would also be a good time to ask the class how well they believed they performed on the trail, "How well do you think we did together as a team? What are some things that we could have done to better our chances." As students discuss ways that it could be improved, the teacher should transition the lesson to the next step, which is the journal making process.

"What we have just experienced along the trail is very similar to how many real people experienced it over 150 years ago. Next we are going to write our own mock journals retelling the lives of some of the individuals on our successful (or ill-fated) travels to Oregon." For this section the teacher should pass out 8.5 x 11 US standard paper and have students hold it horizontally and fold it vertically. Once folded, students are then to fill the inside with a journal entry of a significant event that happened along the trail. Students should fill in the details based on historical information they have learned from The Oregon TrailRoughin' It by Mark Twain, illustrations provided during instruction, and secondary source materials. 

For example: Along the trail, Sally broke her foot just outside of Soda Springs. What were all the details surrounding the injury? What was she doing?

These should be collected and put into a final volume or travel log of the journey to Oregon. This assignment can be completed with guidance in the classroom or assigned as homework during the conclusion of the activity. 

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