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
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.
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
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.
3. Describe how ONE
of the following affected the wagon train's trip:
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
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.
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
you know Sacagawea was a Shosone?
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
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
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
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
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.
What I Learned Section 2 -- Define the
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
Bonus Questions (Answer 1 of the
Following Questions for Your FREE
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.
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,
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.
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.
d. Use five of the words
in Section 2 in a sentence.
Answers will vary. Here are sample sentences from our young readers:
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.
e. Have a parent or friend give you
a spelling test with EACH of the words in Section 2.
More Valuable Information about Traveling
West in a Covered Wagon:
National Historic Trail (NPS)
National Historic Site (NPS)
National Historic Site (NPS)
National Historic Site (NPS)
Search of the Oregon Trail (PBS)
of the Oregon Trail
Oregon-Trail (Idaho State University)