Forgotten Stories of the Oregon Trail: Trailblazing Business

Pioneering Businesses

The early- to mid-1800s was a rapidly changing time in US history. By 1860, the population had nearly quadrupled from what it was in 1814, the people had spread across the whole continent, the telegraph connected the entire United States, and businesses shifted from agriculture to machines. Some settlers on the Oregon Trail traveled to start their own businesses in the West. Others set off for different reasons but soon discovered opportunities that led to new business ventures.

William John Livingstone is a great example of a pioneering businessman—in more ways than one! He was born into slavery in Missouri in 1836 but was freed during the Civil War. He made his way to Oregon in 1864 and settled in the Clarkes area, southeast of Oregon City. Livingstone worked at many different jobs. As a hostler (someone who cares for horses), he worked at a stagecoach relay station, caring for the horses as the stagecoaches changed teams. He also worked at a lumber mill and, eventually, saved enough money to start his own successful business .

This tax assessment roll from 1871 shows how much land Livingstone owned at the time (120 acres!) and how financially successful he was. (Photo credit: Clackamas County Assessment Roll, 1871; Oregon State Archives)

Livingstone became a well-respected farmer and landowner and an important member of the Oregon State Grange. When he died in 1912, he left his family 180 acres of land in eastern Oregon as well as an estate valued at over $15,000 (around $388,500 today).

Livingstone was well loved by his community. His 1912 obituary in the Oregon City Enterprise read, “No man in the county was more respected, and no man had a better reputation for honesty.” (Oregon City Enterprise. Oregon City, OR. August 16, 1912)

Create a Business Plan

Teachers for Grades 5–12: Share this blog with your students and then have them create their own business plan. They can focus on industries that were popular during the height of the Oregon Trail or research industries and products they are passionate about today.

Begin by discussing the basic elements of business, including cost, pricing, profits, and marketing. Encourage students to think about these elements in context using local businesses they know. Then students create a plan for their own business, investigating the materials needed, the cost of similar products, and more.

With this activity, students will use math and learn about financial literacy. They can embody William John Livingstone’s hard-working, entrepreneurial spirit and build research, organization, and critical thinking skills as they plan out their new business venture.

Download the teacher guide for tips on how to teach kids about business and financial literacy.

Download the student activity, which helps kids get started on their own business plan.