(Illustration: Sally Deng)

‘The Oregon Trail’ Isn’t Just a Game. It’s an American Legacy.

Fifty years after its release, it’s time to unwrap the messages embedded in the game


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Every Wednesday in Mrs. Keller’s fifth-grade classroom at Dunsmuir Elementary in Northern California, my friends and I clamored for a spot at the computer to play The Oregon Trail, a historical game set in the year 1848 that follows the journey of pioneers traveling via wagon train from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. In real life, the 2,170-mile trip took six months. Many of the 400,000 settlers who attempted the trek to the Oregon Territory didn’t make it. Scholars estimate that there were ten graves for every mile of the trail.

Originally called Oregon, the game was first released 50 years ago, in 1971, as an educational text-only game for schoolchildren in Minnesota. In 1985, a group of engineers and designers led by Phillip Bouchard completely reconceived the game and released the version that is widely recognized today. Over the next few decades, that version spawned dozens of iterations and updates, spin-off theater productions, card games, WWE references, and even a parody game called Organ Trail. What began as an interactive history lesson became the one of the most widely distributed educational games of all time.

By the time I moved to far Northern California in 1987 as a kid, the history of the Oregon Trail and its implications were cloaked by an updated image of the West. Not as the site of a land grab, but as a destination to discover yourself. My mother was part of a new generation of seekers who, like the original settlers, left the Midwest to pursue a western utopia.

We landed in Mount Shasta City, a town at the base of Mount Shasta, a dormant volcano considered “cosmic” by my mother and her ilk and sacred by the Wintu, Karuk, Achomawi, Atsugewi, Modoc, and Shasta tribes, as well as other Indigenous groups with ties to the region. Located just south of the Oregon border, the region was an odd mix of don’t-tread-on-me libertarians and 1970s New Age holdovers, some of them even descendants of the white pioneers who’d come west on the Oregon Trail and branched off at Fort Hall for the California Trail. It was a place where gun rights got more airtime than equality but crystal shops outnumbered dry cleaners, where respecting the land meant both maiming and preserving it. The one thing they all had in common was a desire for autonomy. Some from the government, others from the bounds of the material world.

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” an essay that articulated a national fetishization of the frontier. He argued that westward migration was foundational to American identity and laid the framework for the evolution of its society. “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier,” he wrote. “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character. The true point of view in the history of this nation is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West.” After Mexico ceded California to the U.S. in 1848, Turner declared the frontier to be gone—both literally and conceptually.

Frontierism is about space. Not only physical land and the promise of power via its occupation, but psychic space. A frontier supposes that it is possible to become new, somewhere else. That somewhere out there is a place where an individual, a people, even an entire nation might assuage its spiritual gnawing, its hunger for more. The most insidious notion, one that has sustained itself from Manifest Destiny to today, is that if somewhere along the way you’ve lost who you are, it is not only your right but your imperative to go out and find it. Even if that means taking it from someone else.

In fact, there is nothing more American.

In The Oregon Trail, each wagon train was allowed five members. We typed their names onto the screen in arcade classic font, maybe throwing in a family cat or secret crush written in a code decipherable only by friends. We stocked up on supplies at the general store: ammunition for hunting, extra clothes for cold mountain nights, wagon wheels, axles, and tongues in case of an accident. And food. We had $800 to buy everything we might need. It was a gamble. Stockpile too many bullets and you’d be out a spare axle. Spend more on food than clothes and you might freeze to death in a flash blizzard. We also had to choose professions for our new lives in Oregon, assuming we’d make it that far. Carpenter, farmer, or banker. It was hard to imagine what roles would be most valuable in the new world.

Every day on the trail, we made choices. What portions to ration out: Filling, meager, or bare-bones? What pace to keep: Slow, moderate, or grueling? I often chose grueling because I liked the way it sounded. Grueling—like a hot breakfast cereal my wagon-train family might scarf down along a barren rocky hillside. It was fun to push our avatars to the brink. Between Missouri and Oregon City, there were 12 stops, some natural landmarks, others military forts. At each, we could purchase supplies or “talk” to characters. I talked to everyone I could. Some shared practical info (make sure your oxen are in good shape for the mountain pass), some made inane chitchat—the plains are beautiful but so boring. Between landmarks, our digital wagons rolled on unless we entered [8] to stop and hunt, [7] to try and trade, or [2] to rest, which was always a good idea after the text box at the bottom of the screen announced that Secret Crush had cholera or there had been a fire in the wagon, destroying half the ammo and killing Cat.

We rolled through what are now the states of Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Idaho, land that, at the time of the game, was divided into unorganized territory, Oregon Country, and Mexican Territory. When food was running low, we stopped to hunt, always killing more than the 100 pounds we were allowed to carry back to the wagon. Hunting became sport atop sustenance. Bears. Deer. Rabbits. On the plains, bison. It was the only real interactive component after choosing our supplies—the only random moment that we felt we had control over.

In the game, as in life, making it to the West was the baseline. To earn a spot on the leaderboard, you had to score higher than the travelers before you. To win, you had to beat out explorer Stephen Meek, a fur trapper and guide who pioneered an alternative route into Oregon called the Meek Cutoff. Bouchard’s logic for expanding the game’s definition of success was, of course, to keep players playing even after they’d beaten it. But this also, perhaps even unintentionally, acted as a built-in metaphor for the frontier itself. It wasn’t enough to arrive. The real goal was to obtain land, to spread. Even after we’d reached the frontier—as individuals, communities, a nation—there is always more to see or gain.

After the war of 1812, a sense of unification—from sea to shining sea—became imperative in selling the growing American colonial project to the citizens of a newly minted U.S. Now fully emancipated from Britain, East Coast intellectuals strove to cultivate a national cultural identity in a place that was anything but unified. Native American life, particularly its relationship to the land, was romanticized by white authors as part of a true and pure American identity. Meanwhile, state-sanctioned genocide and violent policies like the 1830 Indian Removal Act ravaged the Indigenous population and forced the survivors off of ancestral lands and onto reservations. Historian Reginald Horsman explains that by “carving a nation out of the wilderness,” colonists and settlers were demonstrating “the ardent nationalism common to empire builders.”

Between 1830 and 1840, the U.S. government relocated more than 70,000 Native people from the Southeast to the West to create more land for white settlers. Eventually, those settlers moved west too; the Panic of 1837, which led to an economic depression, combined with flood and disease in the Midwest, gave way to Oregon Fever, a mass migration spurred by a utopian vision of farmland in the West. It was touted as a place ripe for cultivation with few of the problems of the East. By going, they were doing their duty as Americans to expand the frontier—a jingoistic rhetoric with godly Manifest Destiny overtones. As Charles Wilkinson writes in The People Are Dancing Again: The History of the Siletz Tribe in Western Oregon, “Consciously or unconsciously, the settlers operated on what was for them a ‘higher law,’ that unsettled, untilled land was God-given for those who would work it.”

After 1841, settlers flooded in by the thousands, some breaking away at Fort Hall to head south to California, which was still a part of Mexico. Oregon became an official U.S. territory in 1848. Two years later, Congress passed the Oregon Donation Land Claim Act. A precursor to the Homestead Act, it stated that any white man or mixed-race half-white Indigenous man, 18 or over, who’d arrived in Oregon before 1850 and was a citizen (or declared his intention to become one within a year) could claim up to 320 acres of land if he lived and worked on it for four years. His wife could claim another 320 acres. Native Americans weren’t granted U.S. citizenship until 1924.

The Act was the primary vehicle for disposal—transfer to state or private ownership—of what was considered the region’s public lands. It also explicitly barred Native, Black, Hawaiian, or Asian people from becoming landowners in the territory. Native communities, many established there for thousands of years, were pressured to cede the land they inhabited and resettle elsewhere or sign treaties, many of which would eventually be broken. Between 1850 and 1855, more than 7,000 claims were made by settlers on close to three million acres in Oregon.

In his history of Oregon’s General Land Office, Champ Clark Vaughan, a former program manager with the Bureau of Land Management, writes, “The Land Donation Act was a teleological means to eradicate Native Americans from Oregon soil, either by relocation or elimination.”

To Turner, the Western frontier was a solid thing—a line to push forward, an edge. All had been conquered. But those who migrated west later—some of them, like my mother, hippies and freethinkers, meditators and back-to-the-landers—were still seeking a frontier. When they ran out of land, they simply turned to the sky.

Bowling Green State University sociology professor Madeline Duntley studies what she calls frontier esotericism, a theory that links colonizer ideals like the frontier and conquering wilderness to the obscure practice of seeking enlightenment via western geographies, where land becomes a portal for spiritual ascension. In her study of spiritual tourism at Mount Shasta, she recounts the story of a man named Guy Ballard who traveled west from Chicago in the 1930s and started the global religious I AM movement after purportedly encountering a divine being on Mount Shasta “channeling” its messages to willing believers. Over the next several decades, other spiritual movements sprang up in the area, all centered on the land as a portal to divine knowledge, often accessible through human “channels” who encountered some divine entity or message. By deeming themselves channels, these men, always white, became self-appointed conduits for enlightenment.

Ballard and his kind created an entire culture and economy around rendering Mount Shasta a spiritual and religious wellspring. They were, as Duntley puts it, spiritual prospectors who occupied psychic space already home to Native mythologies, such as the Pit River Tribe story of Mis Misa, a spirit that lives within the mountain (which they call Akoo-Yet) and keeps the earth at a proper distance from the sun. Or the Wintu genesis story of emerging from the sacred spring on Mount Shasta’s Panther Meadows, a steep meadow running from 7,500 feet up to timberline. When the Wintu people emerged from the spring, they couldn’t speak or move. The salmon gave them their voices.

In 2019, over 30 Native artists, writers, and designers created a Native-centered version of the game. In When Rivers Were Trails, Native travelers set out for California, but unlike white settlers for whom land was a guaranteed carrot at the end of the trip, their chances to maintain land diminish the farther west they go.

Growing up in Mount Shasta, surrounded by proto-QAnon conspiritualists and constant talk of ascended masters, life often seemed like a game. Playing The Oregon Trail was soothing. It both confirmed that reality was indeed a concrete thing with consequences and laid bare just how absurd and tenuous it all was. I could do everything right—become a banker, shoot all my food, keep my family warm—and still, LucyKat932 would die from dysentery. Whether the destination was Oregon or enlightenment, it remained always out of reach.

Like the original settlers, my mother and her peers journeyed west expecting to find themselves—or at the very least, freedom from the suburban ennui of middle-class Midwestern life. They may seem worlds apart, those toiling through the grit and exhaustion of the Oregon Trail and those who concerned themselves with ethereal endeavors. But they were looking for the same thing. More. As I got older, I harbored a certain cynicism about this—holding their generation uniquely responsible for murky spiritual wrongs that I felt viscerally, long before I had the precise language of appropriation or colonialism or capitalism.

Earlier this year, I tracked down and played through the original version of The Oregon Trail, available through an online simulator. I still died from dysentery just outside Fort Hall, but I noticed things I hadn’t seen back in Mrs. Keller’s classroom, things we didn’t understand as we hunted for more deer than we could carry or hired a Shoshone guide to help us cross the Snake River: the human cost of romanticizing pioneerism. The fallacy of being “the first.” In the West, violence and spirituality—frontierism and godliness—have been inextricable.

In a 2021 update, three Indigenous historians were hired to make the game more historically accurate. In the intro, they wrote, “For Indigenous Peoples, westward expansion was not an adventure but an invasion.”

Now the game is more honest. But the original version of The Oregon Trail, imperfect as it is, is important to revisit. The pixelated avatars we assumed every Wednesday remind us that ideas can be just as ambitious and murderous as individuals. That colonization isn’t a destination, but an appetite. One that, contrary to Turner’s thinking, marches steadily on.

Lead Illustration: Sally Deng