On the Oregon Trail via computer

By Nina Keenam

In an article titled “The True Story of the Oregon Trail,” Emily Grosvenor wrote, “About one in every 200 travelers kept a journal: young girls, missionaries, pioneer wives, community leaders, adventuring single men. They wrote everything from great, expansive, narrative-rich entries to bare-bones lists of what happened on which day.”

When my husband and I acquired our first RV, a 1964 Airstream trailer, we decided to keep a journal about our travels. During the next 20 years, I sometimes read parts to him from it about previous trips as we drove toward “new adventures.” The journal has become even more special to me since his passing seven years ago. When I take one out to relive some of those days, I realize that I have a treasure in my hands. So many things I recorded in the journal I would have otherwise forgotten. We made many new friends and had such fun attending annual dulcimer festivals.

When I read Ms. Grosvenor’s statements about the diverse accounts of the brave, adventuresome people who made the first large-scale emigration to Oregon Territory along the Oregon Trail, it reminded me of the trips my family made by way of a computer game called “The Oregon Trail.”

Our family set out on our imaginary trips during the 1990s when I received the software from the Broderbund Company for use on my Apple IIC computer. My husband, serving as wagon master, led us and our children and grandchildren on the adventure. The game was designed to teach school children about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. According to the game’s developer, it was an educational and simulation game, set in geographical, historic, managerial, real-time and western themes. One player assumes the role of the wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley via covered wagons in 1848.

The wagon master was required to record the first name of each of the travelers. The amount of money you started out with was based on the occupation of the wagon master. The richer he was the more money the group had for operating expenses. It was needed to supply oxen, food, clothing, ammunition, and spare parts, such as wagon wheels. As the game progressed, a report appeared sizing up the travelers’ situation: weather, amount of food left, how far they had traveled and the mileage to the next landmark. There were many hazards along the way –shortage of food, danger crossing rivers, running out of ammunition needed to kill game, snake bites, sickness, threatening weather and breakdowns that endangered the wagons, losing a wagon wheel, etc.

The first time we played the game, the name of one of our party popped up on a tombstone! Yes, it was just a game, but seeing that name was shocking.

When I reflect on our imaginary covered wagon trip on The Oregon Trail via computer, I regret I didn’t think about taking along a journal.

Nina Keenam may be reached at ninak@andycable.com.