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National Historic Oregon
Trail Interpretive Center

Kids on the Trail

What was life like for pioneer children on the Oregon Trail? Many children made the five month trek west with their families. It's estimated that 40,000 of the emigrants were children.

Many children were sad to leave home, and worried they would never see or hear from their grandparents, cousins, and friends again. They also had to leave behind most of their worldly possessions. Wagons could hold food and supplies for the trip, but there was little space for toys, books, and clothes.

What would you put in your family's wagon?

The trip took about five or six months, and was about 2000 miles long. People only rode in the wagons when they were sick, or tired, or when the weather was bad so most of the kids walked. The wagons bounced and jostled and were not comfortable. Also, the extra weight of people made it hard on the ox teams pulling the heavy wagons.

Trail Kids Image

Pioneers slept outside in the open air when weather was good, or in tents or under wagons when it rained. Dust was also a big problem as the pioneers walked along the trail, it would get in their eyes and make it hard to breathe.

Pioneer kids saw a lot of interesting things: great herds of buffalo, vast open grasslands, landmarks like Chimney Rock and Devil's Gate, and hot springs and waterfalls. For some the trip was a great adventure. Other kids faced great hardships such as sickness or death of parents, starvation, and accidents.

Trail Kids Image

Pioneers took most of their own food and every day the meals were pretty much the same: usually bread, beans, bacon, ham, and dried fruit over and over again. Occasionally they had fresh fish or buffalo or antelope hunted along the way. Many of families took along a milk cow so they were able to have fresh milk.

Children had regular chores while on the trail. Many kids herded the animals, and both boys and girls sometimes drove the ox teams pulling their wagons. Kids also helped with cooking and washing dishes, and watched after younger children. An important job was fetching water, and gathering firewood and "buffalo chips," dried buffalo manure used for campfires when no wood could be found.

Trail Kids Image

Occasionally there was time for playing, exploring, and visiting with friends. At night, there might be singing and dancing around the campfire. They played games such as London Bridge, leap frog, button-button, and other games.

Some children wrote letters and kept diaries, and many read from the family Bible to improve their reading skills. They learned a lot from their adventures on the trail, but formal schooling waited until they were settled in Oregon.

Some kids were afraid of Indians, but fighting was rare between Pioneers and Indians. Most of the time the kids found out the Indians were only interested in trading or visiting, and were very friendly.