Social Education
Volume 62 Number 1
January 1998

The Oregon Trail: Wyoming Students Construct a

Pol William Holt

Four students from Douglas High School rode to the top of a tipi-shaped building on the University of Wyoming campus in Laramie. They had no idea what to expect when they entered the research room on the fourth floor of the American Heritage Center. There were the familiar library rows of oaken tables and straight-backed chairs. The center of the room, however, was anything but traditional. The students looked upward to the fifth floor, where the ceiling pinched to a point. They looked downward several floors to the wide loggia that forms the building’s reception area. It was like being inside a paper cone.
These students were members of a research project on the Oregon Trail that gave them access to 60 boxes of diaries, prints, and artifacts collected by Paul and Helen Henderson. It was their first experience in using primary source documentation to learn history—and only their teachers’ second venture in working with the archivists at the American Heritage Center. Together, the group would build a CD-ROM collection of Oregon Trail documents for use by fourth graders in all Wyoming school districts.1
There is a national trend among archivists to provide schools with more access to their collections through the use of CD-ROMS and Internet technologies. The teachers in this project wanted to learn how documents of varying quality and nature can be used to produce electronic products. Students learned not only about these production techniques, but about the actual work of historians, and what might appeal to 4th graders about the Oregon Trail experience.

Constructing the History of the Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail project used the constructivist learning model that is central to the mathematics and science standards now being employed across the country.2 Using primary documents, students selected and manipulated evidence in a learning environment free from the interpretative weightings of textbook publishers, special interest groups, or power structures. The documents spoke directly to the prior experiences of the students, which is a hallmark of the first stages of constructed knowledge.
Contact with the material at first proved daunting. Both students and teachers quickly realized they must set limits, as 60 boxes of source material were far more than they could process. This imitates the experience of real historians, who may have to cope with too much information when they are not being faced by too little. The adventurous aspects of the Oregon Trail experience proved especially attractive to the boys in our group. What were the possible means of transportation? What geographical obstacles stood in the way? What forms of conflict did the settlers encounter within and without the group? The girls, on the other hand, showed a marked preference for the photographs stored in the collection, including some “favorites” that appear in this article.
These general preferences, however, were too broad to help limit our selection of documents. The group finally determined to narrow its scope to the part of the Oregon Trail that crossed Wyoming—from eastern Ft. Laramie to western Ft. Bridger. The folk wisdom of the Oregon Trail said that travelers should reach Independence Rock (in the center of the Wyoming Territory) by July Fourth if they wished to avoid mountain storms
in California. Since most diaries are dated, students could skim their pages for entries on or near July Fourth and the name of Independence Rock, then moving backward and forward through the accounts. These geographical place names were familiar to our students, and we hoped the connection would serve as a form of time-binding, “a means ...of enabling each new generation to bind into its own time, so to speak, the wisdom of past time.”3
Another choice made by the group was to emphasize documents dating from 1849 to 1860. This decision was based on learning that the traffic flow along the trail increased dramatically after the discovery of gold in California (the Oregon Trail forked at Soda Springs in present-day Idaho, with the southern branch leading to Sacramento). Still another criterion for choosing documents involved what might be most appealing to, or appropriate for, fourth graders.
As students sampled from the boxes, teachers scanned the documents with an eye toward providing a balance between male and female perspectives. They also sought materials that would support hands-on activities for elementary students. For example, many documents recorded the number of wagons traveling the trail. Elementary students could compare these figures with the traffic flow on the modern roads that follow its path.
Another example: a weather diary from 1859 detailed the temperature, barometric pressure, wind speed, and cloud cover during the month of April. Elementary students could likewise monitor the weather during April for purposes of comparison. They might also reflect on what the weather means to them on any particular day, and what it might have meant to nineteenth century pioneers moving through a wilderness.
After two visits to the American Heritage Center, the group settled on the documents shown in the box on this page. They include diary facsimiles, diary transcripts, letters, and remembered stories.
Douglas, the home town of the high school students involved in this project, is located on the North Platte River, along which the Oregon Trail ran through Nebraska and Wyoming. Beginning with familiar place names—such as Laramie Peak—students extended their knowledge through a discovery process exemplified by the following exchange:

“Hey, it says here that they left Ft. Laramie and headed toward the Black Hills. Let me see a map. Isn’t that off the trail?”
The two junior boys found a map in one of the oversized document boxes and unrolled it across the oak tabletop. One student read while the other searched the map.
“The Black Hills are in South Dakota. That’s way off the trail. What are they talking about?”
“Read some more.”
“Oh, I see. It says here that they stopped to gather firewood in the Black Hills near Laramie Peak. So, they must have called the area south of Douglas the Black Hills, too.”

The teachers helped students with the process of “thinking historically” by providing guidelines. Kathryn and Luther Spoehr suggest that projects of this kind should include opportunities for students to:

The Oregon Trail CD-ROM constructed by our group provides students with the opportunity to imagine themselves in an unfamiliar setting full of challenging situations. Suggestions for how students might test hypotheses, give definition to abstractions, and articulate their personal values are included in the lesson plans that accompany the CD-ROM.

Cautions and Concerns
This project raised two areas of concern among members of the research group:

Using Primary Sources
The high school students involved in this project were concerned about the possibility that fourth grade students would react negatively to portions of the documents they selected—namely, Mrs. Matthew Deady’s account of her little sister’s death from a drug overdose, and John Benson’s description of an Indian burial site. This prompted consideration of how to warn users of the CD-ROM.
The introductory comments from The American Frontier: 1785-1861, a series of lessons from Cobblestone Publishers, include some excellent suggestions for teachers using primary sources:

Limitations of Technology
G. Roger Sell of the University of Northern Iowa has identified several hidden assumptions in claims for the learning benefits of technology.6 Foremost is the assumption that information and knowledge are synonymous. Sell argues that, in order for information to become knowledge, it must be invested with meaning through human interaction. Knowledge is constructed as meaning in relationship to an individua#146;s experience and understanding.
The second hidden assumption in using information technologies is that providing information is equal to educating. In Bloom’s Taxonomy, providing information is most closely aligned with recall objectives. Sell wonders how technology can deal with objectives that ask students to apply, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information. He finds the nationwide trend toward getting schools online troubling, guided as it is by the simple equation of information access with education.
The third hidden assumption is that more information results in more learning. For many learners, especially novices, more information has the opposite effect if it produces overload. The expectation is that students provided with richer sources of information will interact in some meaningful way that produces learning. However, interaction itself is not sufficient for student learning; the quality and purpose of the student effort are critical factors.
Listen to this warning from Vannevar Bush—as timely today as it was when published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1945:

Science has provided the swiftest communications between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures . . . .
There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of workers—conclusions which he can not find the time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.7

Dr. Bush called for the collective effort of the scientific community to invent ways to give man access to, and command over, the inherited knowledge of the ages. The irony may be that, while the dream of this post-war scientist is manifest today in the Internet use of CD-ROM technology, it has failed to relieve the distress emanating from the mountain of information we possess.
The truly exciting part of the Oregon Trail project, however, contradicts that conclusion. The four boys who rode to the top of the American Heritage Center were undaunted, and returned time after time to burrow deeper into the mountain knowledge that lay open before them. While we may sometimes feel distressed by the massive quantities of information that confront us, the human spirit revels in it and constantly thirsts for more.

1. Also involved in this project were an instructor from the University of Wyoming/Casper College Center, students from the College of Education at the University of Wisconsin/River Falls, and the Classroom Wyoming Foundation.
2. National Council of Teaches of Mathematics, Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics (Reston, VA: Author, 1989); B. Boyer and P. Semrau, “A Constructivist Approach to Social Studies: Integrating Tehnology,” Social Studies and the Young Learner 7, 1 (1995): 14-16.
3. W. Johnson, People in Quandaries: The Semantics of Personal Adjustment (New York: Harper & Row, 1946).
4. K. Spoehr and L. Spoehr, “Learning to Think Historically,” Educational Psychologist 2, 2 (1994): 71-77.
5. From The American Frontier (1785-1861), Volume 4, page 5 of the Teaching with Primary Sources Series. ©1996, Cobblestone Publishing Company, 7 School Street, Peterborough, NH 03458. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
6. G. R. Sell, “Challenges in Using Technology for Improvement of Undergraduate Education” Teaching Excellence: Toward the Best in the Academy 8, 2 (Laramie: University of Wyoming Center for Teaching Excellence, 1997).
7. V. Bush, “As We May Think,” The Atlantic Monthly (July 1945) reproduced in D. Duchier (1995). HTML version available on the World Wide Web:

Pol William Holt is assistant professor of education at the University of Wyoming-Casper College Center, and formerly taught language arts and humanities in the public schools.

The CD-ROM, titled “Laser Trails: 1845-1859, Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger,” is available for $19.97 plus $5.00 shipping from:
Converse County School District #1
615 Hamilton Street
Douglas, Wyoming 82633
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming
PO Box 3924
Laramie, Wyoming 82071

Documents Chosen for use in the CD-ROM

(Date/Individual/Document Length/Document Type)

1845 Andrew Chambers 3 single-spaced pages Remembered story
Topics: measles, mother with a rifle, buffalo chips for fuel, Jim Bridger

1845 Jacob R. Snyder 6 single-spaced pages Diary transcript
Topics: buffalo hunt, wagon accident, sick soldiers, grass & feed quality, crossing the Green River, Fourth of July celebration

1846 Mrs. Matthew P. Deady 3 single-spaced pages Remembered story
Topics: reasons to go west—loss of farm and debts, laudanum (opium), accidental death of sister, birth on the trail, baked bread to feed cattle, woman’s perspective

1849 John H. Benson 7 double-spaced pages Diary transcript
Topics: Indian grave, Ft. Laramie, sickness, discarding possessions, Mormon Ferry crossing near Casper, hailstorm

1850 James Campbell 1 handwritten notebook page Diary facsimile
Topics: weather on June 20, rates of travel/miles per day, man’s handwriting style, spelling and grammatical errors (scanned as a photograph)

1851 Mrs. Amelia Hadley 5 single-spaced pages Diary transcript
Topics: scenery, weather, Ft. Laramie, river measurements, graves along the way, woman’s perspective

1852 Fargo letters 2 single-spaced pages Letters
Topics: June 5th letter from Edwin Fargo about his feelings in the new country; August 7th letter notifying his family of Edwin Fargo’s death

1852 Susan Angell 2 single-spaced pages Remembered story
Topics: butter churned by motion of travel, illness, foods, young married woman’s perspective

1854 Sarah Sutton 5 single-spaced pages Diary transcript
Topics: cost of ferry crossings, level of traffic flow, snowball fight, religious writing style, woman’s perspective

1859 Weather Diary 3 facsimile pages, 1 key Diary facsimile
Topics: weather for the month of April at South Pass City; temperature; barometric pressure; cloud cover; wind force, speed, and direction recorded at 7 a.m., 2 p.m., and 9 p.m. each day

©1998 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.