The Oregon Trail Game: Fact or Fiction?

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Hannah Shaw, Writer

Imagine, you’re sitting in eighth grade social studies class. You have been trying to win the Oregon Trail game for the past half hour. You’re down two people and the wagon is hanging on by a thread. One sick ox is pulling it along the trail and you’ve been playing long enough that it’s almost winter. Your travelers probably need new clothes but you traded all of your clothes for 100 pounds of meat thirty miles back. That meat has since gone rotten.

If this sends a chill down your spine, then that means you have been lucky enough to experience the joy that is The Oregon Trail. The game first came out in 1971 and was two lovely shades of black and neon green. The main idea was that you were the leader of your group and had to navigate them from Independence, Missouri to Oregon. You were faced with choices regarding which trail you took, how you interacted with strangers, whether to trade or hunt and what to do when your group got sick. Since then many new renditions, including a 2021 mobile game, have been released to the public. The games themselves are addictive, frustrating, and entertaining. Their popularity alone invokes curiosity. Did that many people actually die of cholera? Were rivers really that hard to cross? Why were wagons so flimsy? All narrowing down to one question: How accurate is our retelling of the Oregon Trail really?

Relationships with Native Americans

One thing the 2021 version introduces is a mutually beneficial relationship between settlers and Native Americans. You meet various Natives from different tribes who are all willing to trade for fish, clothes and other things of that nature. The game itself starts off with a message about trying to portray Native Americans in a kinder and more historically accurate light. You now have the option to add Natives to your group of travelers.

This understanding of how settlers would have interacted with Native Americans was not always well incorporated into the game. The original game involved characters dying from
being attacked by Natives on the trail. In reality, being killed by any tribe was highly unlikely. “It seemed
more or less, I don’t want to say friendly, but it wasn’t hostile” said Mrs. Squires.

Despite the not uncommon American fear of being ambushed by the Native Americans, actual attacks were extremely rare. It was far more likely for a tribe to help a group of travelers pull a stuck wheel out of the mud or round up lost animals. They initiated trade with one another, which the 2021 game does a great job of showing. When stopping at river crossings, creeks, and towns you have the ability to trade furs and fish for things like medicine and clothes. As compared to the 1971 version, we have come a long way in accurately telling the story of our relations with Natives on the trails West.

Disease and Medicine

If you have played The Oregon Trail, then you have likely had virtual dysentery. Every now and again you get a little message at the bottom of your screen, kindly informing you that Little Sally Jane has cholera and the priest broke both of his legs trying to fix the wagon. But surely disease wasn’t that bad, right? Wrong.

Disease claimed somewhere around 30,000 people on all of the trail West. “These illnesses were fairly common given the lack of proper sanitation of the era. ‘Back then’ treatments were not available due to the lack of clean water” said Squires. Cholera ran rampant on the trek West because the quality of water was so poor and, due to a lack of virtually any way to quickly filter the water, it was near impossible to avoid. The medicine available was nothing that would be truly able to cure cholera. The same applies to most everything else: dysentery, measles, smallpox and pneumonia. Their poor diet also led to scurvy, although this was not exclusive to the Oregon Trail. Fun fact: even people living in 1800s American
cities fell victim to scurvy because they were not eating enough fruit or vegetables. Medicine wise, the 2021 game consists of herbal medicines and resting. In reality, most medicine was made of what could be found on the trail or very basic cough medicines.

The Travelers

When you first start playing the game you get to customize the group that you are put with. These options range from wealthy bankers to timid priests. This type of variety perfectly encapsulates just how mixed the group traveling west was. Everyone had a different reason to head to the West. This could be the promise of gold, the plethora of farmland or just the idea of adventure.

Traveling along any of these trails was going to be very expensive, hence the upside of having a banker on your team. It is not the land that was expensive but the food, clothes and wagon parts. Although it was highly unlikely that you could customize who you traveled with down to a tee in real life, having the option for all these different occupations and backgrounds is a lovely representation of how almost everyone in America caught the westward expansion bug.

Technology

Unfortunately for the poor souls traveling west, the western land of America was not just flat land for 2,000 miles. The trail itself crossed numerous rivers that you could not go around. The game presents you with three options to combat this obstacle. You can pay for a ferry, caulk your wagon or ford the river. The best bet was almost always paying for the ferry, but that could get expensive quick. On the other hand, fording the rivers put all of the supplies concealed in the wagon at risk. Not that any of these strategies were particularly safe. No matter what way you do it, crossing an unpredictable river in a worn out wooden box is a difficult feat.

The newer game involves telling you the chance of success with each
way of crossing the river. From a gameplay standpoint, this is extremely helpful, but from a historical perspective, it is not very accurate. Nobody could stare into the murky river water, swimming with bacteria waiting to give you cholera, and decide that there was a 45% chance of survival. This was one of the more frightening aspects of the trail that really highlights the bravery of some settlers.

The wagons, while sometimes handy for toting along 300 pounds of meat, were extremely inconvenient in every other aspect. Traveling up and down mountains was near impossible and the wagons were not particularly sturdy. Children often died after falling out of wagons. The game does an amazing job of demonstrating this by frequently annoying the player with broken wheels and wagon axles. What would be a truer representation would be people falling out of wagons.

In Conclusion

So as it turns out, the Oregon Trail is a shockingly accurate depiction of westward expansion in the 1800’s. That being said, everything referenced in this article is coming from the 2021 game which I sat down and played for three hours in preparation to write this. Was it worth it? Maybe not. It would have been much easier to just research the game itself as I am surely not the first person to write about this. However, I choose not to think about the time I lost to pretending I had a group of brave young Americans to lead westwards towards wealth and prosperity. In all honesty, I wish I could sit here and write about how historically inaccurate the game is and how disgraceful it is to American history, but it looks like Gameloft did their research.