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Would a Modern American Survive "The Oregon Trail"?

This song from my favorite album by The Who glorifies life on the road. I doubt that pioneers on The Oregon Trail 160 years ago could relate to these lyrics.

In one of my classes, we recently watched a movie and did an assignment about the “Oregon Trail.” Topics such as this always make me realize how much tougher and braver the average person of the past was in comparison to a middle-class American (like me) today. I doubt that I would even last a day on the Oregon Trail. For me, after all, a two-day camping trip is a bit of a grind, and I am usually on a campground with actual toilets and showers! (And I sleep in a tent on a foam mattress.)

It’s hard for me to decide what would suck the most about taking a five-month, two- thousand mile hike to the west coast. First of all, of course, there was the constant knowledge of all of the various ways that one might die on the trail: disease, starvation, prairie fire, injury, Indian attack (which was rare, by the way), nasty weather, getting stuck in the snow, being eaten by a fellow traveler, etc. According to the film that I show to my students, one out of seventeen pioneers on the Oregon Trail died on the trip. How many middle-class Americans today would even consider taking a journey with that kind of a death rate? When we travel by plane, car, boat, or train, we begin with the assumption that we will reach our destination safely. How many of us take off for work or on a vacation crying with our loved ones out of fear that we may never see them again? We live in a world, after all, where people travel great distances for the fun of it. In the time of Columbus, people would have thought you were nuts if you sailed off into the open ocean on a pleasure cruise.

One of the great blessings of the modern world – and some would say curses – is that you never feel like you are isolated and alone. We always have our trusty cell phone at our side. The national weather service can warn travelers of impending trouble. GPS devices can help us to know at every moment our specific location, and if we end up stranded somewhere, all sorts of modern transportation and communication devices can be used to get to us. On the Oregon Trail, of course, travelers were cut off somewhat from civilized society. If you got injured, sick, or struggled to find food and water, there was no way to call for help and no store where you could shop for supplies. You could wait by the trail in hopes that someone might show up, but there was no way to know when or if this might happen. If bad weather lay ahead, there was no warning. And if you ran into some bad guys, you better be able to fight them off. Few people in a modern, industrial society have any concept of what it means to be isolated. For many, the phone is practically implanted to their ear or to their rapidly texting fingers so that they never have to feel anything resembling loneliness and isolation.

I have a feeling, however, that the constant fear of various forms of death would not be the hardest thing about life on the trail. The worst thing, in fact, might be plain old mind- numbing boredom. For a person like me who considers an eight-hour car ride or five-hour flight to be an almost unbearable ordeal, it is impossible to even comprehend what a five-month journey across the plains and through the Rocky Mountain passes would be like. Can you imagine hanging out with the same people, most likely your family members, every day for that length of time? And to make matters worse, you would not have an IPOD, radio, video game device, DVD player or anything else to keep you occupied (and distracted from the annoyances of your siblings.) You would be forced to talk to people, read books, and engage in other non-electronic, archaic activities. Hangman, twenty questions, and the “let’s count the blades of grass game” could only be entertaining for so long.

So why were people of the past able to do this? How did they withstand the physical ordeal, the fears, and the mind-numbing boredom and drudgery of trail life? The simple fact, I would argue, was that trail life was not a huge deviation from their normal, day-to-day lives. In the America of the 1840’s, death could always be around the corner. Before the advent of modern medicine, roughly half of people died by the age of five. If a disease was contracted, doctors could do little to cure you, and some of their misguided practices could play a big part in finishing you off. Many people were still forced to adapt to and deeply respect the whims of nature since they did not have the modern technologies that lead us to believe that we can overcome weather, natural disasters, and time and space itself. Since death was always in their face, their fear of it was probably not as great as modern Americans who often do everything in their power to put their impending mortality out of their minds. It takes so little, after all, to freak us out. Almost every year, we hear the story of some disease that is apparently going to wipe out all of humankind: SARS, West Nile Virus, Mad Cow Disease, Swine Flu, etc. Now while I recognize that these diseases do some real damage, the death rates are microscopic in comparison to the epidemics, plagues, and day-to-day diseases of the past. Would one hundred people dying of West Nile Virus freak people out 160 years ago?

People of the past were also well acquainted with boredom and drudgery. Without modern labor saving devices, they were forced to perform many time consuming, physically demanding tasks that most modern Americans have never had to do. Doing laundry, chopping wood, gathering water, and producing food required both time and hard labor. For me, the ten or fifteen minutes that I must spend on laundry, the half hour at the grocery store, and the twenty minutes spent doing dishes feel like an overwhelming ordeal. I wonder how long I would last on a mid-nineteenth century farm. And when I managed to get some free time, would I know what to do with it? Before Facebook, cell phones, video games, ESPN, and DVD players, what the hell did people do with themselves?

In a sense, people 160 years ago were almost a different species than I. Because their lives were harder, they became tougher. Because they were well acquainted with drudgery, they tolerated boredom more effectively than many of us would, and a good book or conversation was often the ultimate form of entertainment. They were not conditioned to need continuous visual stimulation. And because they knew that death was a possibility no matter how risk-averse one might be, they may have been willing to take more risks. Still, I can’t imagine that the journey on the Oregon Trail was remotely easy. So like the Polynesians who ventured throughout the Pacific, the people who first crossed the Sahara Desert, or the men who were crazy enough to set sail with Columbus, the pioneers on the Oregon Trail deserve the awe and respect of the wimps of modern society. I don’t know if we will ever truly see the likes of them again.


  1. Scouts do this "wilderness survival" thing to some extent, but usually it is only for short periods and they bring their own food along. It is rather a shame that scouts can shoot at targets, but are not allowed to make real hunting a troop activity. At least they can eat the fish they catch!

    You focus on solely the urban middle-class here, but don't you think that the poor and rural populations are a little better equipped to deal with hardship of this sort? Also, what about the relative abundance of natural resources on the Oregon Trail compared to today's brownfields and clear-cut forests? In some ways, it might have been easier to run around and pick berries back then. Today, we need to cultivate everything practically everything. In addition, low population density made infectious diseases less common and there was not as much need for sanitation in the wilderness (a completely different story in the cities). There were certainly plenty of deaths from snake bites and accidents in the wilderness, but there is no telling for sure how the total death rate in the wilderness compared to the death rate in the cities... Of course, I am assuming that the only records we have are of city fatalities and that may be a faulty assumption.

  2. After reading the title of your post, my first instinct was to say, "No!" But really people have survival instinct, no matter what time they live in or how easy their lives have been. Look at soldiers today in Iraq. In the US, they don't have it as hard as people did in previous wars, but conditions in the desert are pretty harsh. They do it. Nobody is reporting that they're shirking their duty.

    That said, I'm very happy to not have to take the Oregon Trail and relieved that we live in an age of antibiotics. And braces. And eyeglasses.

  3. We used to live in Oregon and I learnt a lot about the history of those incredible pioneers. We now live in such comfortable, safe times that just the slightest risk of things going wrong can reduce us to quivering wrecks. Most people in the world today still have to deal with poor health, economic uncertainty and just the sheer drudgery of hard labour on a daily basis - I feel very lucky about my accident of birth yet simultaneously wonder if there is something missing ...... that's a very Western perspective .... and a luxury to even be able to muse upon that!

    This is a great post - very thought provoking :o)

  4. I agree with Theresa and Kari. Certain people would survive, particularly those who have been forced to plan for survival. My husband was a boyscout growing up and a boyscout leader as a teenager and those years made an impression on him. It instilled a resourcefulness that is with him today. I have no doubt he would survive.

    Me, not so much. One night my husband looked at me curiously. He couldn't see how my relatives survived the boat ride to America.


  5. I agree with Theresa about the survival instinct. I can't imagine myself on the Oregon Trail, but was proud when I got lost in Pasadena I managed to walk about 5 to 6 miles on foot in a suit and survived. If the only way for me to live was to go on the Oregon Trail, I believe I could do it. Hopefully, I would not be the 1 out of 17 that die, but if I am I hope somebody makes a good meal out of me.

  6. The husband here. I had the chance to walk from Mexico to just about lake Tahoe one summer along the pacific crest(PCT) for most of the trip.(Just about 800 miles) I met some incredible people along the way but also didn't see anyone for weeks at a time. I would argue that the folks that went on the Oregon trail were the same folks I met on the PCT. (Which is >2600 miles by the way and over MORE difficult terrain) Then as now there is a self selection process, most folks stayed back in Europe, of the ones that came to US, most stayed on the Easy coast. There are still plenty of folks (myself included) who enjoy chopping wood and hauling our water from a stream. (Cut down, limbed and put up on the drying rack a half cord of lumber over Easter so we would have heat this winter) I would not say that boredom was an issue on the 800 mile hike. You are busy enjoying the new vistas that open up for your as you move along. You get into an enforced pattern of hiking 10-12 hours a day, and then you are busy .... hiking. When you are not hiking, you are setting up camp, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes in a stream, pretty much busy during all the daylight hours. I remember that I carried Thus Spoke Zarathustra through the trip and only got about half way through. I don't think folks are fundamentally any different. History preserves the exceptional and forgets what could be statistically considered to be everybody.

  7. Wow! Lots of great comments. Like all History people, I speak in broad generalizations. There are clearly some people (like the anonymous husband) who could hack it. I tend to think however, that this is a small minority in a largely urban, technology dependent, middle class society like the United States. People might be able to physically survive for a while if they had no choice. I'm not sure if many, however, could handle it mentally. I also think that the trip would be much more difficult if it was done with one's family , particularly if small children were involved. As Kari and Cambridge Lady point out, people accustomed to hardship and high death rates could probably handle this better. Most of us modern, middle-class Americans, however, are too spoiled.


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