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If You Traveled West in a Covered Wagon (If You)

What I Learned Section 1 -- Answer the Following Questions:
1. Which present-day states make up the Oregon Territory?

Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

During the 1840's and 1850's, both the United States and England wanted to control the Oregon Territory. The two countries decided the country having more people living in this area would control this area. So Americans began moving west to the Oregon Territory. In 1859, Oregon was admitted to the United States.

The only way to make the move from the east to the Oregon Territory was to ride on horseback or travel in a covered wagon. Many families who moved west traveled in groups of covered wagons, called a wagon train.

All types of people moved to the Oregon Territory. Farmers moved to find new land. Storekeepers set up new shops. Carpenters, bakers, blacksmiths, missionaries, shoemakers, artists, lawyers, doctors, and teachers also moved west to start a new life.

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2. True or False: A covered wagon's front wheels are smaller than its back wheels.
True. Ordinary wagons had four wheels of similar size. Covered wagons, however, had smaller front wheels to make it easier to make sharp turns. Did you know covered wagons were pulled by oxen, mules, or horses?

A covered wagon was a wagon with a white canvas cloth covering its top. The top was stretched over big wooden hoops to give the wagon a round shape. The canvas top was rubbed with oil to make it waterproof. The canvas could be closed at both ends with drawstrings to keep out the rain or wind, or it could be rolled up to get a breeze.

There was a wooden board in the front of the wagon where people sat. There were hooks inside the wagon to hang milk cans, guns, bonnets, spoons, dolls, jackets, and other items. There was also a hook between the back wheels to carry a bucket of grease used on the wheels for a smoother turn.

Did you know covered wagons were called prairie schooners? A schooner is a boat, and the big white canvas cover over the wagon looked liked a sail. When the prairie grass was very tall, the covered wagons looked like a big boat sailing across the grassy plains.

Did you know a group of wagons traveling together was called a wagon train? The covered wagons traveled single file. Together, the wagons looked like a train moving across the prairie. At night, the wagon train formed a big circle, and the children played inside the circle.

The pioneers elected a leader at the beginning of their trip. The leader was in charge of deciding when to stop at the end of the day, and the leader would wake people up in the morning by blowing a horn or whistle. The leader also rode ahead to scout out the trail. During the trip, there was a council of six to ten people who would meet with the leader to discuss any problems of the wagon train.

Trail guides were very helpful to the wagons trains. They were usually former fur trappers or traders out West who had previously made the trip. Trail guides knew where to cross the river, how far the wagon trains had traveled, and how much more there was to go. This special knowledge was helpful to the pioneers who had not previously made the trip. Some trail guides traveled with the wagon trains, and others wrote books which the wagon trains referred to along the trip. Did you know Dr. Marcus Whitman was one of the most famous trail guides? In 1843, he guided the first big wagon train consisting of 120 wagons to Oregon.

Families packed their wagons with only the items necessary for the five or six month journey. They carried food: flour, yeast, crackers, cornmeal, bacon, eggs, dried meat, dried fruit, potatoes, rice, beans, and water. They might bring a cow for fresh milk and meat. Along the trail, the wagon train would hunt meat and collect berries, honey, and vegetables. They brought items to repair clothes: cloth, needles, thread, pins, scissors, and leather. They packed tools: saws, hammers, axes, nails, string, and knives. They carried items to complete daily chores: soap, wax for making candles, lanterns, and washbowls. They also brought tents, medicines, plates, knives, forks, spoons, cups, pots, and pans.

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3. Describe how ONE of the following affected the wagon train's trip:
Mud: When it rained, the ground turned muddy and everything sank. Eventually, the sun would dry the mud; however, sometimes the wagon wheels would still be stuck. To release the wagon wheels, the pioneers placed long grasses on the ground in front of the wheels. The oxen pulled from the front, and the pioneers pushed from the back. The wheels would turn onto the grass and be released from the mud.

Dust: When the ground was too dry, the wagons would kick up a lot of dust. The dust would then get into the eyes of the pioneers and the oxen. The dust could be so thick, the pioneers were forced to stop because they could not see the trail or even see their hand in front of their face.

Sickness: During the long trip, some people became ill with cholera, malaria, high fevers, aches, and pains. Some people even died and were buried on the trail. It was common to see grave markers during the trip.

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4. Name ONE of the Native American tribes on the Plains.
Blackfoot, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Crow, Sioux, Bannock, and Shoshone.

For most of the trip, pioneers traveled through areas where Native Americans lived. Some Native Americans were friendly and traded with the pioneers. Pioneers wanted moccasins because they were soft and strong shoes. The Native Americans usually wanted cloth, red paint, glass beads, and metal fishing hooks. Some Native Americans were not friendly and tried to steal cattle and horses.

>>Read about the Sioux.
>>Did you know Sacagawea was a Shosone?

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5. Did the children attend formal schools while on the wagon train?
No. Although the children did not attend formal school while on the wagon train, they were constantly learning. If there were many children in the wagon train, an older person would go over lessons with the children during lunch or dinner. Some children were taught by their parents or older siblings.

Many people thought the entire trip was one big lesson because the children were always learning about new flowers and animals, learning how to fix broken items, learning how to cook outdoors, and learning how to properly tie up the animals.

Children had many chores to perform along the trip. They milked cows, fetched water from the rivers, watched the cattle when they walked behind the wagons, helped cook, washed dishes, gathered wood or buffalo chips for the fire, shook out the blankets, hung the beef jerky to dry, and helped skin and prepare the buffalo, deer, or wild turkey.

The children learned many helpful tricks along the trail. They learned an easy way to make butter. They simply hung a milk can from the wagon. As the wagon bounced around, the milk also bounced around. Within a few hours, there were balls of butter in the can -- the butter had made itself!

The children also learned to protect an ox's sore feet by placing a piece of animal skin around the ox's feet. After two days of wearing these "moccasins," the ox's feet felt better.

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6. How was news sent to pioneers on the wagon train?
People could send letters by supply wagons to a fort along the trail, and the pioneers would pick it up.

As you probably could guess, there were no post offices west of the Mississippi River so sending and receiving letters was difficult and slow. Sometimes it took up to two years for a letter to make it out West.

People could send a letter to a fort along the trail. It would be delivered by a supply wagon traveling west. The supply wagon would leave the letter at the fort, and the pioneer would pick it up. The pioneer could also leave a letter for another supply wagon to carry to the East.

Did you know there were no envelopes for letters in the 1840's? Instead the letter was folded and melted wax was dripped on the edge. When the wax cooled and hardened, the letter could only be opened by breaking the wax.

In the 1840's, people also got news by reading newspapers and magazines. These publications were printed in the East and mailed out West. Did you know this process could sometimes take years to complete?

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7. Name ONE of the landmarks along the Oregon Trail.
It was sometimes difficult to know which direction to go while traveling on the Oregon Trail. Early travelers, fur trappers, and traders had named many of the places along the trail. When the pioneers spotted this markers, they knew they were on the right trail.

Chimney Rock: It was a 500 foot column sitting on a bed of rock. Chimney Rock was 550 miles from Independence, Missouri.

Independence Rock: It was shaped like a turtle's back, and it could be seen from far away. Many travelers carved or painted their names into the rock. It may have gotten its name because early travelers reached it on the 4th of July, and they celebrated Independence Day there.

Soda Springs: It was a spring with bubbling water for drinking.

Steamboat Springs: It was a spring where water rushed up from cracks in the rock to the height of two to three feet in the air. The blowing, splashing, spraying, whizzing, and sizzling of the water made it sound like a steamboat.

Devils' Backbone: It was a very narrow passage with steep cliffs on both sides.

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What I Learned Section 2 -- Define the following words:
Prairie Schooner: Covered wagon

Wagon Train: Group of covered wagons traveling together on the long trip west

Trail Guide: A person who previously made the trip west who was hired to guide a wagon train

Pioneers: First group of travelers who moved to the new land and made a new home

Scows: Large flat boats used to take the wagons across the Missouri River

Continental Divide: Imaginary line along the top of the Rocky Mountains from north to south marking the line where the rivers in the United States flow in opposite directions.

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Bonus Questions (Answer 1 of the Following Questions for Your FREE Bookmark):
a. Describe a typical wagon train trip.
A typical wagon train started its trip from Independence, Missouri, in May. It was a five to six month trip, and it covered about 2,000 miles. It was best to leave after the spring rains because of the animals and weather. If they left any earlier, the spring rains would make the ground too muddy to travel over and the grass would not be tall enough to feed all the animals. If they left any later, the snowfall might set in before they could cross the Rocky Mountains.

The crossing of the Missouri River was the first obstacle a covered wagon would face. The pioneers used scows (large flat boats) to take the wagons across the river.

There were several forts along the trail where the pioneers could re-supply, stay for a few days, and allow their oxen, horses, and cows to rest.

The first big fort west of Independence, Missouri, was Fort Laramie. It took about 40 days to reach, and most wagons got there at the end of June. At Fort Laramie, pioneers could fix the wagons and do laundry. They could also trade for new supplies or buy supplies they had run out of, including sugar, flour, coffee, cloth, and leather.

About thirty days after leaving Fort Laramie, the wagon trains would arrive at Fort Bridger. It was named for Jim Bridger, an early fur trader and trapper.

The next fort was Fort Hall. From this fort, Pioneers had the choice of traveling north and west to Oregon, or traveling south and west to California. In either case, they still had two more months of traveling to complete. If the pioneers chose to continue to Oregon, they would next come to Fort Boise.

During the trip, the wagon trains had to cross the steep and rugged Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. The Continental Divide marks the imaginary line where the rivers of North America flow in opposite directions. The rivers on the west side of the Continental Divide flow west toward the Pacific Ocean. The rivers on the east side of the Continental Divide flow east toward the Atlantic Ocean. The wagon trains crossed the Continental Divide at South Pass.

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b. Describe a typical day on a wagon train trip.
A typical day started about four o'clock in the morning when the leader awoke the group with a horn or whistle. The pioneers cooked breakfast, rounded up the cattle, loaded the wagons, and started moving by seven o'clock. They traveled until lunchtime when they ate and took a one to two hour break. Then the wagon train started again, and they continued until four, five, or six o'clock in the evening.

Wagon trains traveled single file over the plains, across the rivers, and up the steep Rocky Mountains. Sometimes the pioneers would ride in the wagon, and sometimes they would walk next to it. It was a very bumpy ride, especially if it was the first wagon to travel over a piece of ground because no ruts were made by other wagon wheels.

A wagon train might travel ten to fifteen miles on a good day. However, if it was muddy or raining, it was possible the wagon train would only cover one mile in the whole day. If a baby was born along the trip, the wagon train stopped for one or two days.

During the day, pioneers might see wild animals, including buffalo, prairie dogs, rattle snakes, owls, wolves, coyotes, jackrabbits, wild turkey, sage hens, lizards, and antelope.

The leader decided when it was time to stop for the night. The wagon train formed a big circle with the front of one wagon facing the back of another wagon. The leader and six to ten other people gathered to discuss the trip and any problems that arose during the day.

At night, pioneers might play a harmonica or fiddle, sing songs, and dance. Or they might tell stories while sitting around the camp fire. On the 4th of July, the pioneers would celebrate Independence Day.

The pioneers had many options for where to sleep. They might sleep in the wagon, under the wagon, in a tent outside the wagon, or sometimes out in the open under the stars. Babies and children usually slept in the wagon.

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c. Describe the clothes of a typical person in a wagon train.
Pioneers made their own clothing. Their clothes were simple because the trail was too dusty to wear fancy clothes. Their clothes were made of strong material because they had to last five to six months. They brought cloth, needles, thread, pins, scissors, and leather to fix worn-out clothes and shoes.

Boys wore cotton or buckskin shirts and pants. Girls wore cotton skirts or dresses. Shoes were very important for everyone because they did so much walking. Also, everyone wore a hat or a bonnet to shade themselves from the bright, hot sun. Boys wore hats with a wide brim, and girls wore bonnets.

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d. Use five of the words in Section 2 in a sentence.
Answers will vary. Here are sample sentences from our young readers:
It would have been a fun and bumpy ride to travel across the prairie in a prairie schooner.

The people on a wagon train slept outside a lot.

I want to be a trail guide so I can show people how to get from one place to another.

My relatives were pioneers when they moved to California.

They used a scow to get the covered wagons across the Missouri River.

The Continental Divide is in the Rocky Mountains.

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e. Have a parent or friend give you a spelling test with EACH of the words in Section 2.

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More Valuable Information about Traveling West in a Covered Wagon:
Oregon National Historic Trail (NPS)
Fort Laramie National Historic Site (NPS)
Chimney Rock National Historic Site (NPS)
Whitman Mission National Historic Site (NPS)
In Search of the Oregon Trail (PBS)
Oregon-California Trails Association
End of the Oregon Trail
The Oregon-Trail (Idaho State University)

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