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Oregon Trail Unit Study for Middle & High School Homeschoolers

An Oregon Trail Family Style Unit Study for Homeschool Morning Time and Family School

This Oregon Trail unit study is for homeschooling students working at middle to high school levels.

Feel free to mix and match with the Early Learners and Upper Elementary posts to find activities that best suit your children and their learning styles or to add in younger students for a family-style unit study.

This Oregon Trail unit study uses Living Books, and hands-on STEAM activities along with English Language Arts, History, Fine & Gross Motor, Poetry, and Folktales.

In this Oregon Trail Unit Study, your students will learn:

  • Filter water
  • Cook over a campfire
  • Discuss how the Oregon Trail changed both Native American & the United States’ cultures
  • Discuss authors’ bias
  • Learn how to decompose sodium bicarbonate

Some links in this post may be affiliate links. This means that if you click on them, I may make a tiny commission, at no extra cost to you.

Oregon Trail Unit Study English Language Arts

Independent Readers

Francis Parkman, Jr. set out in 1846 to document life experienced along the Oregon Trail by the emigrants and to illustrate the Native American culture that he believed would not exist for much longer. His narrative tale, The Oregon Trail, has become a classic, first-hand account of his adventure.

He spent the next forty years of his gentleman-scholar life, editing and rewriting the story. I recommend reading the first, 1849, edition.

You can also find Francis Parkman, Jr.’s classic book about the Oregon Trail on audio for free. Many libraries have the audiobook available through Hoopla or you can listen for free at Learn Out Loud.

Voices From the Oregon Trail by Kay Winters looks like a picture book at first glance. However, the stories told vividly describe the hardships and tragedies that fell upon the emigrants, as well as the triumphs and happy times. You’ll want to screen this book before handing it to kids under the age of 12 due to the themes of death and decay.

Read Aloud Living Book

In Moccasin Trail by Eloise Jarvis McGraw, Jim has lived with the Crow Indians for six years when he decides to go west with his younger siblings. This is an adventure story that your family will love!


First Nations all have different folktales about how man first obtained fire. Listen to Robert Lewis (a Cherokee storyteller) tell the traditional Cherokee story of The First Fire.

Literary Analysis

Have your student describe the mood and setting of the book that your family used as a readaloud for a literary analysis of that book. Use the Oregon Trail Literary Analysis worksheet for Middle to High School in the Free Resource Library (under Oregon Trail Unit Study).

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    Use the Oregon Trail Critical Thinking and Writing worksheet for Middle to High School from the Free Resource Library (under Oregon Trail Unit Study). Your students will answer one of the two questions posed to demonstrate an understanding of how the “New Frontier” and the Oregon Trail changed the United States and Native American culture.


    This poem was written by an emigrant who traveled the Oregon Trail and gave the poem to his wife as a gift. His journey began on April 11, 1847. Abraham Miller Jr. wrote this c.1849.

    Account of the Journey from Mercer County Illinois to Linn County
    Oregon, via the Oregon Trail, in Prose,
    By Abraham Miller Jr.

    When in my native land I dwelt,
    With friends for whom my Interest felt;
    I burst through ties that bind the strong,
    And turned my face towards Oregon.

    ‘Twas thus I left my native home-
    Through a wild desert land to roam;
    And as my team moved slowly on,
    My thoughts flew swift to Oregon.

    And when we crossed the last state line,
    Of well armed men we numbered nine;
    Numbers increased the way along-
    With young and old five thousand strong.

    Whose snow white sheets all in a row,
    With crooks and straights made quite a show-
    Much like a swan, a passage bird:
    (except the lowing of our herds).

    Pleasant roads make joyful crew,
    Who fancied pleasures always through;
    We ate, and drank, and went our way,
    Slept sound all night, and moved all day-

    Except the sentinel on guard,
    Whose fortune here was rather hard;
    Just half the night one out of three:
    Stand rain or shine was the decree.

    The Buffalo looked with surprise-
    Whose frightened herds outstripped our eyes-
    The Antelope stamped as we gazed;
    At such strange site all stood amazed.

    Too soon, alas, all pleasure fled,
    The wagon was the sick man’s bed,
    The wilderness our only home,
    Where savage men, and wild beasts roam.

    Our screaking wheels moved slowly round-
    Where sedge and sands so much abound.
    The beetle and the gadfly reigns-
    Sole monarchs of the sandy plains.

    But when we left the sand behind,
    Our road with rock or dust was lined;
    O’er rapid streams both deep and clear;
    Our winding course we had to steer.

    Volcanic piles on every hand,
    Oft made me think of Sodom’s land;
    And wonder what unchristian race,
    Had brought this region to disgrace?

    Where none but reptiles dare to live;
    Ad poisoned streams their venom give!
    Of fallen man there was no trace-
    God’s vengeance had removed his race!

    God’s curse on everything we saw;
    Hung like the Mede and Persian law;
    The rain forsook the barren ground;
    The mountains were turned upside-down.

    The boiling springs with curling smoke,
    A deep mysterious volume spoke;
    Convincing all who stood around,
    Of secret mysteries under ground.

    When next we met the human race,
    Adjacent to this dismal place;
    The sight we saw caused all to blush;-
    Their clothing was the willow brush.

    The cascades blocked the road ahead;
    Snow, hail, and rain, with mud to dread:
    Fearing our teams could never pass;
    We turned aside for better grass.

    Columbia’s stream we had in view;
    It seemed only an avenue-
    Through which at last we hoped to gain,
    The Promised Land, the long sought plain.

    It rained and stormed, and tost our boat,
    O’er rocks and sand, and waves afloat:
    At length on shallow sands we found,
    Our floundering bark had run aground.

    The one thing needful now to do:
    Was pack ashore the frightened crew;
    Kernaccas soon brought us ashore;
    And set the boat afloat once more.

    And down the stream our boatmen went,
    In gaining land some time was spent,
    I only thought of saving life;
    My greatest care was a sick wife.

    O’er brush and logs I had to pack,
    Her feeble form upon my back-
    While two sick children grasped my coat,
    T’was thus at length we reached the boat.

    It somewhat calmed and ceased to rain,
    Our sick were fed, and dried again;
    And with a light and buoyant heart;
    All hands got ready for a start.

    Soon down the stream with speed we flew,
    With full spread sail and joyful crew;
    Too soon alas! We danger saw,
    The Cascade fall began to draw!

    Just as we gave up all for lost,
    A mighty wind the current crost,
    And drove us to the destined shore-
    In safety reached the land once more.

    Among the rocks I pitched my tent,
    And wandering up and down I went,
    To seek some passage around the falls,
    Five miles over rock the current rolls.

    Three-quarters of a mile or more,
    I lugged our package down the shore,
    O’er rocky steeps and slippery ground,
    The sick, the weak, I carried down.

    As winds came howling through the rocks,
    The rain increased its heavy drops;
    The drenching torrents overhead,
    Reached all on foot and all in bed.

    Although we’d passed a fearful place,
    Fresh dangers hedged our only pass!
    The balance of the fearful way,
    The angry waves dasht high their spray!

    But when we got our all on board,
    The tumbling waves like thunder roared;
    Three hundred souls witnessed our start:
    Dismay had seized the stoutest heart!

    The old canoe was now to try,
    Whether we live, or whether die!
    Lord, in the storm shall we all lie,
    Or on the waves our fortune try?

    Thou saved us at the rapids head;
    Now at the foot we are afraid:
    To trust our lives to Thy strong hand,
    As safe on water as on land?

    Three daring flatheads seated low,
    One in the stern, and two in the bow;
    With deaf’ning shrieks they snatched the oar-
    They waved farewell to all on shore.

    Two minutes and a half we spent,
    In passing every mile we went;
    With speed and safety did we go,
    And shipped aboard a boat below.

    At length we reached our journey’s end;
    Our days in Oregon to spend;
    With fertile soil and genial clime;
    God grant that we redeem our time.

    But when I ranged the wilds around,
    Few native aborigines I found,
    But ancient marks were everywhere,
    Like Israel’s tribes had once been there.

    Thousands of piles of Moss green rock;
    Still grace the rugged mountain’s top;
    To witness covenants unknown,
    To us; lie these mysterious stone.

    But mouldering bone, sad, sad to tell;
    Where many thousands once did dwell;
    We thoughtless tread their ashes down;
    To cultivate the forest ground.

    Who knows but our enlightened race;
    In time, to others must give place?
    The present age no prophets tell;
    Who next upon this land shall dwell.

    No antiquarian ever traced;
    Mysteries of the ages past-
    Mysterious world where none shall know;
    What hidden mysteries time shall show.

    Oh! slothful muse why fail to tell?
    Of who once was, and yet shall dwell?
    The past to present may give birth;
    And yet, we’re strangers in the earth?

    Henceforth let us contented be;
    With what we learn from what we see,
    If more I learn perhaps I’ll tell;
    But for the present fare you well.

    Abraham Miller Jr. 1849, Public Domain

    Can you tell by his descriptions where they were along the trail? Can you find any bias in his descriptions?

    For another example of bias, watch this old School House Rock video, Elbow Room. Do you know how it’s biased?


    Copywork and narration are a real-life way to work on grammar skills. Use the Oregon Trail Copywork and Narration for Middle to High School page from the Free Resource Library (under Oregon Trail Unit Study).

    After your student has written the sentence from dictation, let her see the original to check it with her work. Have her correct her work, so that she knows how it should look. As an extension of the narration, have him find the preposition phrases in the sentences.


    Use the Oregon Trail Vocabulary for Middle to High School from the Free Resource Library (under Oregon Trail Unit Study) to learn new Oregon Trail words like “leeverites” and “expansion boosters”. You can use the vocabulary words as spelling words, as a matching game, or as flashcards to work on memorizing definitions or just making sure that they understand the concepts.


    Research shows that kids retain information better if they are using it in a meaningful way. Spell out your spelling words with Scrabble tiles and see which word has the most points.

    Get all of the printables for all levels of the Oregon Trail Unit Study in one convenient download!

    Oregon Trail Unit Study STEAM



    The emigrants chose mules or oxen to pull their wagons instead of horses.

    Learn why mules and oxen were a smarter choice for the 2170 mile trip at this page from The National California/Oregon Trail Center.

    Next, learn the difference between mules, donkeys, hinnies, and horses, as well as what Jacks, Jennys, Mollys, and Johns are in this informative article from Lucky Three Ranch.

    Finally, apply what you’ve learned about mules to complete the Equine Family Tree Science Worksheet for Middle to High School in the Free Resource Library (under Oregon Trail Unit Study).

    Not a member of the Whole Child Homeschool Tribe yet? Scroll up to the dark pink box above to sign up and get immediate access to the Free Resource Library.


    Soda Springs, Idaho was considered an oasis along the Oregon Trail by the emigrants. The area was filled with natural geysers, fountains, warm water pools, and mud-pots.

    The emigrants bathed and washed their clothes in the warm water. They loved sampling the different flavored soda waters and used them to leaven their bread dough.

    The Native Americans believed the springs had healing water. Dry lakebeds in the region would be covered with white alkali (baking soda) that the emigrants called saleratus.

    Learn how to decompose sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) with these instructions and a chemistry lab video from Flinn Scientific. Decomposition of baking soda is the chemical reaction that occurs when baking quick breads made with baking soda.


    People traveling by wagon couldn’t carry much water with them each day because water is heavy! They had to rely on finding good water sources each day for their own needs as well as the oxen, mules, and cows with them.

    Many of the emigrant’s journals describe the difficulty of finding clean water and having to drink dirty, gritty water that may or may not have been safe to drink.

    In the United States, we are lucky to have clean, safe water! See what it’s like to filter water with this video from The King of Random.


    The wagons that the emigrants used were very narrow and long, usually 4 feet wide and 10 feet long.

    Using some common household supplies, see if your kids can put together a wagon that will hold a full soda can or a regular-size can of fruit or vegetables.

    Give your kids some cardboard, a handful of pipe cleaners, masking tape, toothpicks, 8 drinking straws, 4 plastic lids for wheels (we used the kind that twists off of pouches of applesauce), paper, and scissors. Let them experiment to see what works and what doesn’t.

    There’s a common misconception that the emigrants used the popular Conestoga wagons for their trip, but they actually preferred the smaller Prairie Schooners.

    First, describe the differences between the two types of wagons. Then, research why the smaller wagons were more often used. Hint: it’s because of engineering.


    Fine Arts

    Albert Bierstadt was born in Prussia in 1830 and moved to the United States with his family when he was one year old. He painted very detailed, romanticized landscapes, mainly of the American West. Bierstadt often used luminism, a glowing lighting appearance, in his work. Unlike many artists, he achieved financial success during his lifetime but was largely forgotten after his death in 1902.

    For art appreciation this week, look at the many details and luminism of his painting, The Oregon Trail. Bierstadt also painted a similarly titled work, Emigrants Crossing the Plains, or Oregon Trail, which is in the Early Learners lessons for this unit.

    oregon trail unit study
    Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail, 1863 Public Domain
    Practical Arts

    The emigrants cooked their meals over campfires each day that they were able. If you have access to a campfire area, try cooking your supper over a fire.

    If you don’t have an outdoor area, or it’s wintertime when you’re studying the Oregon Trail, cook something in a covered pot in your kitchen which is like the Dutch Oven pots that the emigrants used.

    Learn how to build a campfire for cooking at Earth Easy. Watch the Backwoods Gourmet and learn how to cook pinto beans over a campfire.

    Or go modernday and use this recipe for Campfire Nachos from Fresh Off the Grid.

    The book, The Prairie Girl’s Guide to Life: How to Sew a Sampler Quilt & 49 Other Pioneer Projects for the Modern Girl by Jennifer Worick, is chock-full of fabulous practical arts projects from quilting to canning pickles. Select a project or two to complete.


    William Becknell took the first wagon train to Santa Fe in 1822 (leaving from Independence, MO). He took merchandise to sell in Santa Fe. He claimed he sold his $3,000 worth of goods for $60,000. What was the return on his investment? Answer with a percentage. Do you think the return on his investment was worth the risk?

    oregon trail unit study

    Oregon Trail History

    Listen to History Unplugged’s podcast, The Real Oregon Trail: Beyond Dysentry and the Apple II Game.

    Or, learn about Rinker Buck’s very interesting 21st-century recreation of an Oregon Trail journey in episode 77 of Ben Franklin’s World podcast.

    Finally, if your local library has a copy of Oregon Trail: A Photographic Journey by Bill and Jan Moeller, bring it home to peruse. It contains amazing pictures of what the trail looked like while the emigrants passed by along with tidbits of trivia about the area. It’s a fabulous resource for learning about the wide geological variations in the West along with geography!

    Oregon Trail Music

    The younger kids are learning about the Star-Spangled Banner this week in the Early Learner lessons.

    Watch this video from Mona Rose about the history behind the song. Then, just for fun, watch Madison Rising sing their patriotic rock version of our National Anthem. It’s really good!

    Oregon Trail Devotions

    The emigrants had to have an enormous amount of sheer determination to make it to Oregon. They also must have had faith, courage, perseverance, and optimism, all good character qualities to have when you are setting out on a journey and you don’t know what you’ll encounter, or if you’ll even make it there.

    Use the Oregon Trail Character Traits worksheet (available in NIRV and ESV) from the Free Resource Library to match the character trait to the Bible verse.

    Not a member of the Whole Child Homeschool Tribe yet? Scroll up to the dark pink box above to sign up and get immediate access to the Free Resource Library.

    Oregon Trail Physical Education

    Most of the emigrants on the Oregan Trail walked because it was too bumpy to ride in the wagons. That means that they walked around 2000 miles!! They wore out their shoes very quickly! Wear a pedometer for the week and see how many miles you walk.

    More Ideas for Your Oregon Trail Unit Study

    Be sure to follow my Pinterest board US History: Westward Expansion for more great hands-on activities and ideas for your Oregon Trail unit study!

    Don’t forget to pin this post so you can refer back to it during your Oregon Trail unit study.

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