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Visiting the Oregon Rail Ruts

Visiting the Oregon Rail Ruts

The Oregon Trail Ruts just south of Guernsey, Wyoming marked an important site along the overland trails.  The site today offers visitors vivid physical evidence of the tens of thousands of emigrant wagons that traveled the Oregon/California/Mormon trail in the mid-1800s. Those wagons had spoked, wooden wheels and iron tires, and the tires cut deep ruts, a wagon’s width apart, into the solid sandstone.

During the bus ride:

  • Depending upon which direction you’re taking to the site, you may be following the trail. Are you headed east? West? Some other direction?   
  • How many miles are the ruts from Fort Laramie? If wagon trains traveled 12 to 15 miles per day, how long would it take them before they got to the ruts?
  • What will be the next man-made landmark the emigrants would see in the 1840s? The 1850s? The 1860s?  How far away are those places?
  • There are numerous roadside guides for Wyoming – picking one of them up, and sharing what you see as you travel Wyoming’s highways adds interest to the bus ride. The National Park Service has a great one on the Oregon Trail across Wyoming.
  • Make a list of the animals seen along the way, both domestic and wild.  Which ones would benefit the emigrants, and which ones would be a hindrance?
  • Choose a trail diary (or two or three or four) that mentions the North Platte River and the trail west of Fort Laramie.  Read several days prior to the arrival of the fort to give the students an idea of what the country was like, and what the travel routine was like for the travelers.

Arriving at the trail ruts:

  • When did emigrant travel begin on the route we now know as the Oregon Trail?
  • Where were the travelers headed in the 1840s? The 1850s? The 1860s?
  • What Indian people might the travelers have met along the way? How would the emigrants have felt about the Indians in the 1840s? the 1850s? the 1860s?
  • How might the Indian people have felt about the emigrant travelers at those different times?
  • Men, women, and children on the wagon train had different jobs to do every day. What were some of those jobs?  What jobs would you want to take care of if you were traveling with your family?  
  • Which jobs would you try to avoid if you could?
  • Most of the trail travelers traveled with animals. Some were draft animals to pull the wagons. Which animals did that job best? What other animals might the emigrants have been traveling with? Why?
  • Who was most likely in charge of the wagon train? How did the travelers decide who was in charge? Was that an easy choice?
  • What are some weird or interesting facts or stories you learned about the ruts and the trails? 

Back home:

  • Pretend you’re an emigrant on the trail.  Describe how you would feel arriving at the ruts. Tell about the people in your family and the other people on the wagon train. 
  • Pretend you’re a soldier on the trail. Where did you come from? Where are you going? Why?
  • Pretend you are a Lakota Sioux Indian, watching the emigrants in their wagon train from a good spot on a hilltop. How do you feel about the emigrants? What questions come to your mind? Where will you go to find out the answers?
  • Write a letter that you would mail home.  Describe what you’ve seen on the trail so far.  Tell what you think you’ll be seeing next.  How are you feeling at this point in the journey?

Note to teachers:

This lesson addresses a number of the Wyoming State Social Studies Standards detailed in the 2013 draft of Wyoming Social Studies Content and Performance Standards, benchmarked for the ends of grades 2, 5, 8 and 12. All are available at http://edu.wyoming.gov/sf-docs/publications/DRAFT_2013_Social_Studies_Standards.pdf?

More specifically, the lesson addresses Content Standard 4, Time, Continuity and Change, under which students analyze events, people, problems, and ideas within their historical contexts, and Content Standard 5, People, Places and Environments, under which students apply their knowledge of the geographic themes (location, place, movement, region, and human/environment interactions) and skills to demonstrate an understanding of interrelationships among people, places, and environment.

Under Content Standard 4, the lesson addresses standards SS5.4.4. SS8.4.4 and SS12.4.4, which call for students to discuss, identify or describe historical interactions between and among individuals, families, and cultural/ethnic groups, and standards SS5.4.5, SSD8.4.5 and 12.4.5, which call for students to understand the difference between primary and secondary sources, and how to use them in their research.

Under Content Standard 5, this lesson addresses the Human Place and Movement standards SS2.5.3, SS5.5.3 (which specifically mentions American Indians and the Oregon Trail), SS8.5.3 and SS12.5.3, and the Environment and Society standards SS2.5.4, SS5.5.4, SS8.5.4 and SS12.5.4, which call on students to understand how people in Wyoming adjust and have adjusted to their physical and geographical environment.